Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

I’m the Screen: The Lives of Lee Miller

March 16, 2019

In May 1945, Lee Miller heard the news that Hitler was dead. She heard it from Hitler’s apartment in Munich. Miller and her colleague Dave Scherman had found the place with some US troops, undamaged enough to ride out the remainder of the war. Since 1942 Miller had been the war correspondent for Vogue. Her passion was photography. She took a whole series of shots in Hitler’s flat, but her most famous from that time is the one where she was the model – enjoying a long soak in the Führer’s bathtub. (The Guardian has a good gallery of Miller’s war shots, here.)

Miller hadn’t posed for a long time. She had been one of the most adored models in New York of the late 1920s. After two years, she tired of it and moved to Paris where she reinvented herself as a photographer. This is where Whitney Scharer’s novel of Miller comes in – when she is just another face in the city: ‘When she walks through Montparnasse, her new neighborhood, no one catches her eye, no one turns around to watch her pass. Instead, Lee seems to be just another pretty detail in a city where almost everything is artfully arranged.’

Miller meets the artist Man Ray when she is running out of money and half-crazy from loneliness in Paris. He offers her a job as his assistant. The two have passions in common and inevitably they fall in love, and The Age of Light charts their stormy relationship. There is a new trend in fiction for novels about real people – see Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott‘s stunning Swan Song, which tells the life of Truman Capote through his relationships with his woman friends.

The Age of Light did not work as well for me because Scharer shrinks the viewfinder of Miller’s life into the short years she spent with Man Ray. The problem with writing about relationships is that there’s only a certain number of scenarios that can play out (boy meets girl…) and you don’t have to know anything about Miller or Man Ray to see how the story will go. You know that Miller will begin to outdo Ray as an artist and that Ray won’t like it. You know this’ll end in tears.

Miller lived a long accomplished life after Man Ray. She ran a studio in New York. She saw Dachau. Her wartime experiences led to difficulties in later life with depression and (likely undiagnosed) PTSD. In The Bitter Taste of Victory, Lara Feigel’s history of the immediate aftermath of World War 2 in Europe, Feigel discusses Miller’s bathroom shot at 16 Prinzregentenplatz:

There is no simple message in Miller’s picture but by juxtaposing the clumsy brutality of her muddy boots with the pomp of the military leadership and the classical beauty both of the sculpture and of her own huddled and fragile naked figure, she was asking how these incongruous elements could have come together. The Nazi leadership had been famous for finding a place for art within the torture chamber and the battlefield. Already, there were frequent tales of the concentration camp commandants who went home from a day of gassing Jews to listen to Beethoven… By bringing the statue into the frame with Hitler, Miller was undermining the notion that art could be redemptive simply through its purity or detachment.

Scharer touches on this in her prologue, when Miller is living in the countryside in the 1960s. She loves cooking and hosts frequent dinner parties, but drinks so much in the kitchen that her banquets are often delayed until almost midnight. ‘She cannot stop the thoughts from coming,’ Scharer writes. ‘They lodge like bits of shrapnel in her brain and she never knows when something will bring one to the surface.’ It is a sympathetic portrait of a woman self medicating against mental distress. But this plus snatches of wartime memory is pretty much all we get of Miller after Ray: and I think that’s a shame.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh though. If you want a love story I’d totally recommend The Age of Light, and the scenery and people of Paris are beautifully rendered. There is also an increase in tempo towards the end of the book, and a growing sense of liberty. After completing an artwork, ‘Lee opens another bottle of wine and watches all four films, projected on the back wall of the studio, as she drinks straight from the bottle, the wine going down her throat in what feels like one uninterrupted swallow. When the last film slips loose of the reel at the end, Lee sits in the sudden hot bright light of the projector, listening to the tock tock tock tock as the film goes around the reel, and she feels overwhelmingly, drunkenly proud.’ Scharer’s novel is about sharing a life, but the lesson from it is what the poet Claude tells Miller, very early on: travel only at the prow of yourself.

Guest House Inferno

February 19, 2019

If the world is going to end, the best place to be is in a Swiss hotel. That is the impression you get from Hanna Jameson’s The Last. American historian Jon Keller is staying in L’Hôtel Sixième when nuclear attacks hit Washington, New York, and other cities across the world. Apocalypse novels can be strangely coy about the causes and impact of the apocalypse. Safe in the hotel and surrounded by forests, the world-altering events of the outside world are at first limited to headlines and the strange new shades of the sunsets. It’s a while before anyone thinks to go outside to scout for food, let alone try to locate other survivors.

Which is not to say The Last doesn’t compel. Jon is trapped with a couple of dozen people with whom he has little in common, they are running out of food, and afraid to drink the water. Jameson captures the feeling of claustrophobia and panic. Guests lose themselves in drink and drugs and random hookups. A man takes a deliberate overdose. With only one doctor in the crew and little practical skills, it seems like the Sixième guests won’t last long. And then Jon finds the body of a child – murdered, perhaps before the apocalypse.

Jon is the novel’s big weakness. He comes off as a vacillating milquetoast. He hews to sociological platitudes but his willingness to take part in executions makes you wonder how deep his liberal principles really go. The more we find out about him, the less you like, and the more you wonder what else he’s not telling us. It’s a surprise that Jameson chose to tell her story through such a bore. But his desolation and anguish are very real, as is his fear for his wife and children, way back in the US. And Jameson captures also the feeling that the world is heading somewhere wrong:

Now I felt it, the crushing existential weight of the loss. Commutes, and calling your representatives over something you saw on TV, reading news articles online, all of them getting progressively worse, going to march after march amid the creeping sensation that nothing was changing, that governments weren’t scared and people were nowhere near as scared as it should be, spending day after day at work talking about politicians we hated and battles we were losing, worrying about our future and whether your children would have one, and then it was all gone.

At least Jon gets to meet more interesting people – Peter the dyspeptic German child psychologist, Adam the young boozehound and Tomi, Jon’s on and off girlfriend – Tomi is a fellow American but is everything Jon is not, clear headed, plain spoken and stylish. There’s a bone of contention between the guests as to who voted for the disaster president who began the nuclear war and it makes you think of how much of the nuclear winter will be spent bickering over the ruins.

Jameson deepens the sense of claustrophobic horror by giving the hotel a spooky backstory and the guests elements of dark mysteries in their own lives. The hotel’s mystery builds to an unexpected conclusion but for me it’s the endpapers and the last passage of Jon’s narration that gives this novel its payoff. The Swiss landscape of chalet and forest suddenly feels like an impassible tundra in Jameson’s hands.

Lantern Season

February 16, 2019

This story appears in issue 3 of the very fine Guttural journal.

Also, over at Shiny, I’ve reviewed Sue Prideaux’s phenomenal biography of Friedrich Nietzsche.

A Brush With Evil

February 9, 2019

I never realised ‘Cat Person’ was a story. It went round the internet and I assumed it would be an outtake or gif or a confessional Medium piece. Kristen Roupenian had no previous print publications, just stories published in online zines. In a later New Yorker piece she wrote about her unexpected fame.

I remember the e-mails coming and coming—first, fan letters from people who’d discovered my story and liked it, then anti-fan letters, from people who’d discovered my story and didn’t. I received many in-depth descriptions, from men, of sexual encounters they’d had, because they thought I’d ‘just like to know.’ I got e-mails from people I hadn’t talked to in years who wondered if I’d noticed that my story had gone viral. And, as the days went on, I got e-mails requesting interviews from outlets all over the globe: the U.S., Canada, England, Australia.

The short form is like a half-mythical beast. It lies dormant for years. It sleeps in its cave. People start thinking it’s dead. And then there’s a creak of leathern wings, the cave walls light up, and there’s a dragon arcing across the sky.

You Know You Want This is a collection about dysfunctional relationships. A woman has a compulsion to bite people that dominates her life. A marriage is almost destroyed by a mysterious skin disorder. A single man is taken in by a happy couple who then become obsessed with him. I can’t summarise more than that because I don’t want to spoil the stories. You really just have to sit down and read them. If I went through the collection again no doubt I’ll find things to criticise, but it would take some doing. Roupenian is so good.

There is a tendency in criticism to subgenre authors like Roupenian as millennial romance – the new chick lit, and just as transitory in its success. But I think that You Know You Want This is more in the tradition of American horror. Roupenian’s world is a forest of potential danger. Margot in ‘Cat Person’ might fear misogynists and white-knighters like Robert and Ted, but she faces almost as much threat from her fellow women as portrayed across Roupenian’s stories – they are unruly, cliquish schoolgirls, embittered middle-aged married women and unpredictable selfish singletons. Tilly’s mother, in ‘Sardines’, asks about her birthday wish, and Tilly says: ‘I wished for something mean.’

In the story ‘Look At Your Game, Girl’, twelve year old Jessica is approached by an older boy at the skate park. Not really a boy, to be honest – ‘She thought he was one of the skateboarders. He was about their height, with the same thin, slippery build, but his hair was longer, down past his shoulders, and as he moved to the side, so that he was no longer silhouetted against the late-afternoon sun, she realised that he was in his twenties at least – a young but full-grown man.’ This guy is obsessed with Charlie Manson. He gives Jessica a tape of Manson’s music, and raves about the killer’s legacy – ‘Charlie was a singer and he could have been a star. All the girls worshipped him. They loved him even more than you loved Axl, and he loved them back the same. They followed him everywhere, Mary and Susan and Linda and the rest.’

Again – I don’t want to ruin this. I can say that Jessica survived this encounter with a bad and dangerous man, but she came to see the encounter as a ‘brush with evil… a tiny pinprick of light, nearly imperceptible against a backdrop of whirling constellations made up of other, brighter stars.’ The world is full of violence and evil, Roupenian warns us. Her stories contain some true unearthly monsters as well as the two-legged variety, and there is even a story, ‘The Mirror, The Bucket, And The Old Thigh Bone’ set in a medieval kingdom of a fantasy world. It’s a break from Roupenian’s bleak urban America but feels just as deadly in its way.

It’s a jungle out there. It’s the forest that awaited Young Goodman Brown. Roupenian’s flagship story made an impact because she drills down so deep into the physicality of Margot and Robert as their bad date reaches its messy conclusion. And it is when the characters in her stories confront and fight and fuck each other (as they so frequently do) that she taps into the animality of human interaction. And it’s scary.  You hear the rip of flesh, hair pulled from its roots, and smell the blood. Red in tooth and claw!

And Roupenian drills down into the inner life, as well: the thought processes, the repetition and artifice of thought, awash in cortisol and testosterone. It’s so visceral, this stuff, but there’s not a sense that she’s exaggerating these characters or laughing at them as other writers might do. Think of Ted, dying on a gurney, remembering the mistakes he made in his relationships with women. The story is called ‘The Good Guy’ and the spoiler is, obviously, that Ted isn’t a good guy at all. He conceals his desires, manipulates others, and nurtures bitterness. Because he refuses to admit mistakes, he’s a slave to past selves. The results are awful, for people around him, and for himself as well. Roupenian is expert at nailing down the neuroses of generations of people taught to be passive, yet also that they are entitled to certain things from life, and that it’s important to demonstrate’s one superiority at all times. And what you often get from this is people who lead terrible, wasted lives.

We get other people wrong. We get ourselves wrong. We don’t know what we want, and when we do, we’re often dishonest about it. We lie, lie about the lies, and we repeat the same patterns of behaviour and the same mistakes, over and over. We blunder into things we’re not ready for and keep ourselves away from what we really do need. We’re all heading towards the same place but this truth doesn’t encourage solidarity. There is a line through the forest, but as Paul Scott says in the Raj Quartet, it is not the line, but the forest, that’s our history.

Roupenian chronicles all this with mordant wit but also a depth and humanity. You Know You Want This is a collection for anyone who ever looked at the stars – and wished for something mean.

Northern Noir

December 19, 2018

Amazed and delighted to be among ten winners of Bradford Literature Festival’s crime writing competition. It’s only today been announced I think and I’m looking forward to the judges’ feedback, but it’s a fine thing to win and I am very happy to be honoured.

Acts of Faith: R O Kwon’s ‘The Incendiaries’

December 2, 2018

People are leads in their personal dramas more than they are witnesses to social change. Jane Smiley’s epic Last Hundred Years trilogy is a long story about the lives of Iowa farmers over the last century. Many of her small town characters leave the farm for wider pursuits, but don’t get heavily involved in the seismic cultural changes of the mid 20th century.

Janet Langdon is an exception. She winds up in San Francisco and drifts into the Peoples Temple cult. Her aunt (an ex communist herself) sees the red flags, and persuades her to come back to Iowa instead of leaving for Guyana with other recruits. One day in 1978, Janet sees in the news that something has happened in Guyana.

The front-page article did not say that they were all dead, only three to four hundred. The article did not say that American soldiers had raided the Guyana compound and mowed everyone down with machine guns, which was Janet’s instant thought as her eye raced down the page. When she read it more slowly, she saw that American soldiers were actually nowhere in the vicinity, that everyone was using the words ‘mass suicide,’ and Janet’s next thought was, how did Reverend Jones persuade Lucas to kill himself? Such a thing was not possible.

Janet realises then that she had a lucky escape, that she almost crossed the line between personal drama and world drama. It’s a line that can lead over the cliff’s edge.

R O Kwon’s protagonist, Will Kendall, is very much a witness. He is an ex Christian who transfers out of bible college to the Edwards party school. He falls in love with more confident and relaxed Phoebe Haejin and follows her into a secretive religious cult led by the mysterious John Leal. Phoebe is popular and beautiful, but just as screwed up as her boyfriend Will, blaming herself for her mother’s death in a car accident. Will is very much the callow youth character – a man from a poor background, working at restaurants to pay his tuition, he has the same mix of recklessness and conservatism that characterised Donna Tartt’s male heroes. His problem is that he has lost his faith but found nothing to replace it. Yet it’s Will who escapes the Leal cult while the more capable Phoebe is swallowed whole. The novel is split narration but her sections tail out. She becomes world drama, but loses her authentic voice.

The Incendiaries is a very economic read, clocking in at just 210 pages. Part of this is the MFA-style prose, where the author condenses everything down into as few words as possible, while still feeling pressured to evoke what’s happening (‘She picked me up to drive to John Leal’s house. Paired taillights swept ahead of us, the red lamps slewing here, there’) but mostly it’s because Kwon knows exactly what she’s doing. Her Leal cult is deliberately unoriginal – it features the usual slave labour, marathon hazings and acts of terror.

Fanatical beliefs tend to come in packages. Fanatical thinking tends to manifest itself along the same lines. Leal himself was inspired, like Lev Gumilev, while doing time in a gulag. He worked with a Seoul refugee group and was captured by the North Koreans. Leal is struck by the loyalty his fellow inmates continue to demonstrate for the North Korean despot. ‘Punished for absurdities, they still maintained that the beloved sovereign, a divine being, couldn’t be too blame… Some people needed leading. In or out of the gulag, they craved faith. But think if the tyrant had been as upright as his disciples trusted him to be. The heights he’d have achieved, if he loved them’.

Kwon is more interested in the roots of belief – the idea that ‘some people need leading’. Will feels his change in outlook always as a loss – he is envious of people who can still believe in the Christian god. ‘Instead, Will hustled. He strove. It felt as though, having lost the infinite, he couldn’t waste what little time he had.’ Phoebe wants to annihilate herself in something bigger because of her sense of guilt – she thinks she’s responsible for her mother’s death. In one of her final chapters she lists the names on plague-year tombstones, dozens of them, in capitals, dissolves her voice in an act of remembrance. ‘I thought I’d see the face of God and live,’ she writes to Will. ‘I’ve since learned that it’s possible to love life without loving mine.’

This sentence chills. It comes from a place of belief, in God or perhaps from what psychologists call ‘core beliefs’ that become entrenched quickly through experience. I wonder if the reason these stories keep playing themselves out is that our core beliefs dovetail so easily with religions and cults? Jordan Peterson, explaining his infamous lobster theory, backed up his dog-eat-dog view of life with Matthew 25:29: ‘to those who have everything, more will be given; from those who have nothing, everything will be taken.’ Peterson adds: ‘You truly know you are the Son of God when your dicta apply even to crustaceans.’

I thought of this, in turn, when I was arguing with a Jehovah’s Witness on my doorstep (this was the latest of several visits from the Witnesses and I was trying to persuade them, in the nicest possible way, to cross my house off their list and never come back) and the woman said: ‘It will be okay – when Jesus returns, he will save the good people, and the wicked will be destroyed.’ That is the reason for the persistence of faith – rather than creating an alternative, more spiritual space in the contemporary jungle, religion offers a strong Darwinian survival mechanism. ‘I believed I’d always live,’ says Will, ‘along with the people I loved.’ The wicked and the lost souls go to the wall, and the point is not to be one of them.

So perhaps The Incendiaries is about how faith and ideology can sustain, or destroy, a life – and the lives of others. It isn’t clear from Kwon’s novel how we find better ways of surviving – but the task surely should be attempted.

Now We Are Pink

November 16, 2018

I was delighted and surprised to hear last month that my story above won the Wells Literary Festival short story prize this year. The story is available to download as a pdf, along with the other listed entries, on the link above.

The Promised Land of Low Expectations

November 9, 2018

The narrator of Catherine Lacey’s title story explains what gives her collection its name:

The loneliness of certain American states is enough to kill a person if you look too closely— I think he said that once, Leonard did, while I was thumbing the photo albums again, trying to figure out what happened, how I got here. The loneliness of the trailer park. The loneliness of a warped Polaroid.

That is Certain American States in one para. It’s endless unrolled freeways, the sight of shadows on the ground of sunny day, a series of dispatches from purgatory. Wisdom is a lie. Maturity is an illusion.

The protagonist of the story ‘Learning’ recalls a college roommate who was obsessed with the Grateful Dead. The roommate was a fool who borrowed thousands from the narrator and never paid her back. ‘We did Jägermeister shots, drove drunk, set an old couch on fire—or rather, he did all these things and I warmed my palms in the heat of his wildness. We spent whole weekends smoking terrible pot and listening to worse music.’ Years later it appears that the Grateful Dead guy has cleaned up his act, starting a family and starting a social media platform called ‘The Grateful Dad’. The narrator goes to his book launch. The Grateful Dad says things like ‘since there are exactly three hundred and sixty- five pages in the book, it also works like a yearly devotional. You know— Jesus really said that prayer can happen anytime, in any kind of voice, you know? Like it doesn’t have to be all Thy and Thou and everything. And, you know, this was Jesus saying this.’ Nothing has changed. He is still a dick.

As Lacey writes in another passage, from her flatsitting story ‘Small Differences’:

Never mind, I said, and now I know better—no one should trust the feelings that occur at nineteen or twenty. Everyone should just sit very still until they reach the calmer waters of later- young- adulthood, that promised land of lowered expectations.

At the same time, there is no sense of ennui, no lazy dissatisfaction in these stories. The story ‘ur heck box’ features a woman from a conservative Texas family who relocates to New York. Having escaped her family, she still thinks about them constantly. The daughter’s memories of her family are bracketed, with offshoot thoughts put in secondary brackets, and still further thoughts put in a third set of brackets – everything hedged and qualified, a mind caving in on itself, the ultimate picture of the neurotic Manhatten sensibility. You expect a Sweet Home Alabama ending where the protagonist returns to her uncomplicated southern family where the tensions in her heart softly unroll. Not at all. Instead her mother turns up in New York, and it is obvious that the parent is as confused as the daughter. I read an article about the best cities to get old in and it said New York was a good place. You can walk around. Lots of resources and hospitals, she said. You realise that all these two characters have is each other, and it’s a scary thing. 

The story ‘Family Physics’ was the highlight for me, about a peripatetic woman who from an early age has run away from her family, but cannot seem to get shot of them, no matter how many miles and years she crosses. The collection can be sad, but not depressing – there is no feeling of tiredness or drag to Lacey’s prose, in fact everything seems to sparkle in hard, glittery facets, there is all sorts of unnoticed life here. Certain American States is a short collection that feels long – but it proves that in purgatory the freaks can still dance.

The Old Stone House

November 8, 2018

Everyone says the new House of Cards series is terrible. True, it’s truncated and improbable and has the score of a Wagnerian meltdown. I tuned in anyway out of curiosity for the Claire Underwood/Hale presidency and because, having watched the show from day one, I didn’t feel I could abandon it now.

Where did House of Cards jump the shark? Maybe when Frank hurled his secretary of state down a flight of stairs. Maybe when Frank died, perhaps on the way back to his home planet. But for a long while it was a fine drama about two people who want to rule the world and will do just about anything to get there. Congressman Frank Underwood seems like another political hack on day one, but he has clearly defined goals and even a philosophy of sorts.  To choose wealth over power, he says, is a schoolboy error. ‘Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years,’ he says. ‘Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.’

Seasons one and two featured Frank fighting it out in the congressional trenches as House Majority Whip. By season three, he has achieved his ambition of becoming president, and that’s where the pace began to slow. I recall Jonny Geller wrote on Twitter that ‘House of Cards s3 takes a long time to say – that having power is not as much fun as getting it.’ But I liked the more low key and reflective style. Having Frank get exactly what he wants exposes his limitations. Critics complained that the Underwoods’ enemies were vanquished too easily. The point was that the halls of Congress were Frank’s natural home. He’s a hustler and a plotter, not a leader. In the glare of the Oval Office he can’t fake it so easily. Frank would have thrived as a lord or baron in feudal England but is completely unsuited to the 21st century, 24-hour cycle political America. And it shows.

A key theme in the third season is symbolised by the monks who work in the background of the White House to create a sand mandala. Claire is transfixed by their work. The sand mandala puzzled me for a long time until I read this quora thread – I take my hat off to the quora commenters, they worked this out long before I ever could:

Starting from the creation of the mandala (beginning of show, for Frank and Claire) and ending with its completion (them as President, First Lady): they (both the monks and the Underwoods) had to make a lot of frustratingly small, painstaking, tedious, yet well-planned moves to get where they are now.   These monks may not know each other well initially, but they’ve come together under a common goal to create something worthwhile; Frank & Claire have as well- nothing explicit has been stated but during the Season 2 interview it was alluded to that they could have at least started off as a marriage of political convenience.  When they’re finished, they’ve each created something remarkable- their work has paid off as we see the results of it.

However, despite these similarities, striking differences are apparent- the monks work knowing full well that when they are finished, their work will be destroyed; contrast this with Frank, who constantly speaks of ‘power being the stone building that lasts centuries’ and what it means to leave a legacy.  Ironically, the knowledge that the mandala will be destroyed is exactly what allows the monks to work in peace.  Even in terms of how this episode was shot, we see multiple scenes of Frank and Claire juxtaposed with the Tibetans, frantically scrambling past the monks, who work in harmonic peace, to maintain their power. Frank and Claire have finished their mandala, but, different from the monks, they’re trying to preserve theirs.

This is it. Frank is obsessed with legacy and empire building. He doesn’t understand that the McMansion and the old stone building will both be so much sand, in time. Political thinkers dislike this line of argument, because it diminishes the importance of political achievements, and careers. And of course we must all make something of our brief lives. But it is surely helpful and natural to have a wider perspective. Claire realises this at several points during series three, and gradually understands that – for all her high poll ratings as First Lady, and appearances on the world stage – it’s all so transient, except perhaps her moment of connection with the American prisoner in Petrov’s dungeons. Even Frank, when he opens the Underwood Library at his old college in season one, has a moment of transcendence while drinking with his old friends. ‘The library doesn’t matter,’ he says, ‘but I want to think this place did.’ All too soon though Frank comes back to earth, and gets back into the grind.

Another illustration of this is Frank’s lieutenant Doug Stamper. Doug is Frank’s faithful Smithers, devoted to his boss even after death. He becomes obsessed with a sex worker named Rachel Posner, who Frank and Doug use to bring down a congressional rival. Inevitably Rachel outlives her usefulness, and Doug is dispatched to track her down in New Mexico. Posner argues for her life, and is so convincing that Doug lets her go. But a moment later he changes his mind, and runs her down on a desert road. Doug is a recovering alcoholic, who has just fought off a messy relapse. He goes on in the AA way about how much he has changed, but all he’s really done is quit drinking. It would be the act of mercy, of letting Posner live, that would signify the deep, lasting change.

In All the Kremlin’s Men, his taxonomy of Vladimir Putin’s court, Mikhail Zygar writes that Putin advised a colleague ‘to watch two American TV series: Boss and House of Cards. ‘You’ll find them useful,’ the president recommended.’ Zygar adds that the shows ‘affirmed his belief that Western politicians are all cynical scoundrels whose words about values and human rights are pure hot air and simply a tool to attack enemies.’ The show therefore feeds into a Putinesque troll-state authoritarian view of the world – that life is the struggle for land and resources, and every civilised law and democratic precept is just this struggle by other means. But I wonder what Putin and his advisers thought of the sand mandalas, or the Pussy Riot episode, or Tom Hammerschmidt’s tenacious pursuit for the truth, or Claire’s presidency.

There are worse political dramas you could be watching.

The Beautiful Acausal

October 28, 2018

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy takes place in a near future where the red planet has been colonised. It is a multicultural democracy full of cities and commerce. The Mars project is led by John Boone and Frank Chalmers, two powerful personalities as different as darkness and noon. John is the brave handsome space pioneer who is always trying to do the right thing. Frank is a volatile intellectual brimming with repressed passions. Inevitably, they begin as friends but end as rivals. The prologue of Red Mars begins with John making a speech on a planetwide party night. ‘We were on our own; and so we became fundamentally different beings,’ John says. ‘All lies,’ Frank thinks. Using the cover of the festival, he arranges a hit on his old colleague. John is set upon and beaten to death. Doctors labour for his life, but to no avail. Frank hangs around at the hospital, says all the right things, and then walks out into the night thinking: Now we’ll see what I can do with this planet. 

Among other things, Kate Mascarenhas’s novel develops the same theme – that technology can’t fix human nature. She begins with the invention of the time machine. Time travel is a very broad and elastic theme and SF writers learn to set rules. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife dismissed the idea of changing casuality very early on, instead focusing on the love affair between her two leads. Mascarenhas’s rules are a little more liberal. You can’t time travel before 1967 (which is when the protagonists, four women in a remote Cumbrian lab, first perfect the technology) and you cannot travel beyond a few hundred years in the future. There seems little opportunity to alter the course of events.

Another departure is the social aspect of Mascarenhas’s vision. Time travel, invented in the UK, quickly becomes the preserve of a technocratic elite. The technology is based in the Conclave, a gated community outside the law – like the City of London with space rays. As with all the top professions, entry into this world is extremely difficult. Seasoned time travellers sleep around, play pranks and games, and look down on the ’emus’ – the mass of unenlightened civilians, who plod through life one moment at a time. New people entering the Conclave are subject to nasty hazings: they have to tell children when exactly their parents will die, or fire bullets into a time-travel box that can ricochet to wound the initiate, or some hapless passerby in another time. And like so many English institutions the Conclave is aggressive in its secrecy. Anyone who leaks secrets is dealt with by the Conclave’s internal justice system, and its penalties include execution. An emu reporter, trying to investigate the organisation, receives future photographs of his dead family through the mail.

Mascarenhas builds her world in deft comprehensive steps. You buy it, and then start focusing on the characters. The Psychology of Time Travel is about the impact on human beings of chaos and disorder. When the four pioneers invent time travel, the impact drives one of them crazy. Barbara Hereford takes a short journey through time – a mere hour into the future. But the cost is substantial. When the pioneers appear on TV that evening, Barbara becomes agitated and starts babbling nonsense. She is sectioned that night. Her colleague Margaret (very much the Frank Chalmers of this story) is enraged that Barbara’s mental breakdown has made the time travel project seem eccentric. She takes control of the project and screens future applicants carefully for any sign of mental disorder (a table of psychometric tests is included in the novel’s appendices). But Margaret builds the Conclave along the lines of her own toxic personality, so mental distress still proliferates. Time travellers drink hard, and dream scary dreams. Finally one of the book’s protagonists is brave enough to denounce Margaret to her face:

You think you’re entitled to people’s compliance. You try to enliven your loveless world by inflicting pain on others and sensation-seeking with games like Candybox roulette. The Conclave is dysfunctional because anyone who doesn’t fulfil your narcissistic needs is eliminated, or self-selects out. You’ve made the whole organisation narcissistic. Convinced of its specialness or distinction from everyday people, obsessed with novel and high risk activities, and blunting its members’ empathy from the first day of their employment.

Mascarenhas leaves an open question whether the Conclave can redeem itself. Is its evil simply a failure of empathy and organisation? Or is there something about time travel that disassociates people from the world and time, killing their fellow feelings and undermining their sense of reality? We don’t know. But The Psychology of Time Travel is a bold and marvellous read. It gives you an appreciation for all things mortal and unknowing and brief.

(Mascarenhas has some amazing diorama art from the novel on her own site, and the Zeus website)