Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

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.

The Women of Hyde Park

June 6, 2017

Delighted to have this new story published on the outstanding Cold Coffee Stand magazine.

Ghosted

May 2, 2017

My story of this name is now up at the fabulous LossLit magazine. The whole issue – and the critique gallery about novels of loss – is well worth a read.

A Monster’s Ball

April 21, 2017

When Martin Amis came to write The Pregnant Widow, his novel of lost youth, he chose for his epigrams the story of Echo and Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Over an Italian summer of the 1970s he assembles his student characters – ‘all of them in the cusp of Narcissus. They would not be like their elders and they would not be like their youngers… Down by the grotto, down by the bower, they lay there near-naked, in their instruments of yearning. They were the Eyes, they were the Is, they were reflections, they were fireflies with their luminescent organs.’

The Pregnant Widow is problematic and flawed in many ways but I think Amis still captures something of the energy and solipsism and narcissism of being young. Sophie Hannah says that we live in a very psychologically unaware society – however I think we are becoming more aware of psychological forces over the individual, thanks of course to recent world events and personalities. ‘Find a mirror you like and trust, and stick to it,’ says Amis. ‘Stand by this mirror, and be true to it. Never so much as glance at another.’

Lena Dunham’s Girls is perhaps the most deconstructed TV show since Breaking Bad. There’s an enormous amount of analysis and critique that I can’t even pretend to follow. Dunham herself attracts a great deal of criticism, furious and somehow diffuse, so that you get the feeling that her real crime was to do liberalism in a commercially successful way. I’ve watched the show from beginning to end and loved it, not despite its narcissistic characters but because of them. Hannah Horvath’s crew of entitled millennials exhibit the kind of unconscious selfishness that we’ve seen in The Sopranos. There’s no cruelty in it, just a casual faith that the world revolves around them. A scene from season five sums this up. Hannah and her boyfriend are travelling out of town. She makes him stop at a petrol station, runs to the urinals, and dumps him by text. When the boyfriend drives off in disgust, Hannah summons her friend Ray to drive by in his coffee shop truck to pick her up. In the cabin she performs a sexual act upon him, from impulsive gratitude, with the result that the truck falls over onto its side. Hannah then hitches a lift back to New York in the next passing car, leaving Ray fuming in the wreck of his coffee truck.

‘I’m a starving artist in the garrett,’ Hannah declares, rolling about on the floor as she implores her parents for cash. ‘I’m a famous liberal,’ she boasts in a city bar. Laugh-out-loud portrayals of narcissistic personality – but Dunham does not simply leave it at that. She treats her characters with a warmth and sympathy they rarely deserve. Hannah’s circle are full of dreams and schemes but they don’t leave the city or their dysfunctional circle for long. Hannah is accepted on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop but she barely lasts half a term. Iowa has everything she’s always wanted but she can’t get over that stage when you move to a new place and feel lost and sad for no good reason. She returns to New York to find that her ex has moved his new girlfriend into their flat and put Hannah’s possessions in storage. She locates the storage bunker, somewhere in the underlay of the city, and sleeps in it.

The best writing in Girls is where Dunham shrinks the canvas. ‘One Man’s Trash’ begins at Ray’s coffee shop where Hannah is working. Handsome local doctor Josh comes in and starts an argument with Ray, accusing him of putting commercial waste in the doctor’s bins. After the discussion ends in acrimony, Hannah follows the doctor to his house and apologises – it was her that misplaced the trash. They end up having a passionate love affair. Josh is everything Hannah and her friends are not – middle aged, professional, solvent and straightforward. It’s like you’ve suddenly walked into an entirely different show. She tells him: ‘You know what I think I didn’t know until I met you was that I was, like, lonely, in such a deep, deep way.’ Then it ends and they both go on with their entirely separate lives. (My theory for a long time was that the whole thing was a fantasy of either partner constructed around a chance meeting, but then Josh comes back in the last series and it’s obvious that they both remember their time together. Still, I think my fantasy theory is better and will be sticking to it, against the evidence.)

If the show has a hero it’s Ray of course, the weary and put-upon Brooklyn barista. While everyone else is obsessed with their own bands, videos and relationships, Ray operates on a universal principle of some kind. Furious at the haphazard rat run outside his bedroom window, he starts arguments with several different motorists in the same traffic jam – he’s like a modern Herzog, driven to perpetual distraction by the selfishness and irrationality he sees everywhere in the world around him. When mortality enters the Girls universe, it’s because of Ray. He’s devastated by the death of his friend and mentor. ‘It’s right there, right in front of us, just patiently waiting to take us all.’ His ex Shoshana replies: ‘No. Not me… It’s super random, but I’m just not gonna die, like, ever.’ Ray’s inheritance includes a cache of cassette tapes from lost gigs, which inspires him to go out talking to the people of old Brooklyn that he wouldn’t normally notice. It’s worth comparing Ray’s final creative project to the film that Adam and Jessa make around the same time. While Adam’s movie is centred on himself and just reminds him of his own failures, Ray falls in love during his history mission. He has discovered that happiness comes from without.

What’s it like to drown in your own reflection? I think that’s the question Girls wanted to ask. The characters may be monsters – but Dunham loves her monsters. There’s never a sense that we’re laughing at them – or that we are just laughing at them. We’ve all been this silly and screwed up once, Dunham says – and we may be again. She invites you to the monster’s ball.

The Open Mic

April 1, 2017

Delighted to have this story in the new issue of Under the Fable – starts on page 26, but the whole magazine is well worth your time.

An Unfound Door

March 18, 2017

Magic persists even in the most evil situations. This, I think, is the message of Mohsin Hamid’s startling new novel Exit West. Consider Hamid on the smartphone. A humble and ubiquitous gadget these days, Hamid makes us see the device as a new thing again:

Nadia and Saeed were, back then, always in possession of their phones. In their phones were antennas, and these antennas sniffed out an invisible world, as if by magic, a world that was all around them, and also nowhere transporting them to places distant and near, and to places that had never been and never would be. For many decades after independence a telephone line in their city had remained a rare thing, the waiting list for a connection long, the teams that installed the copper wires and delivered the heavy handsets greeted and revered and bribed like heroes. But now wands waved in the city’s air, untethered and free, phones in the millions, and a number could be obtained in minutes, for a pittance.

And there’s a later passage, when Nadia and Saeed find themselves in a polished London home:

They lay still, hoping not to be discovered, but it was quiet, so quiet they imagined they must be in the countryside – for they had no experience of acoustically insulating glazing – and everyone in the hotel must be asleep.

In both these extracts Hamid makes us see the known magic we take for granted, and brings visibility to the unobtrusive. Skype and soundproofed walls would have seemed like fiction, at one time – technology from pulp fables about space adventures and genetic mutants and variants of the apocalypse. In the twenty first century the technology is real, and the apocalypse is real, too – it’s just not happening in our country, at least not yet. Civilisations fracture into violence and chaos, and they don’t need an alien invasion or super plague to achieve it: in most cases, religion and politics and barrel bombs will get the job done well enough.

As Saeed and Nadia meet, fall in love, and build a relationship, the city where they live collapses around them. And again Hamid is brilliant on the little signs of end times, that jerk us out of our personal dramas and make us see the world around us for a moment. Checkpoints are thrown up, and curfews imposed. The internet goes down, then the water, and electricity. People stop paying in notes and coins and start bartering in food and cigarettes. Entire neighbourhoods are claimed for this or that sectarian militia, and gallows start appearing in the public parks. Hamid writes: ‘A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come. Windows could not stop even the most flagging round of ammunition: any spot indoors with the view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire. Moreover the pane of a window could itself become shrapnel so easily, shattered by a nearby blast, and everyone had heard of someone or other who had bled out after being lacerated by shards of flying glass.’

Here Hamid introduces his central conceit. Just as Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad brought actual secret railways into the antebellum south, so Hamid builds magic doors into his failed states. You can walk through and end up in Colchester or San Andreas or Paraguay. Although the revolutionary guards try to block as many of the exit doors as they can (for authoritarians build walls just as much to keep their subjects inside as to keep migrants away) Saeed and Nadia are still able to bribe their way through a portal. The idea of teleporting immigrants is a border force’s nightmare, and just as every world at Whitehead’s station stops is defined, in some way, by racism and slavery – so every journey Hamid’s lovers make is to somewhere shaped by migration control. Governments endeavour to keep the more desirable doors – those leading to the rich nations – under armed guard, and encourage migrants to return home or elsewhere through another ‘poor door’. Mansions of Kensington and Chelsea are squatted en masse by refugees, and the state meets them with drones and riot police.

But the doors keep popping up. Hamid includes several unrelated vignettes of men and women in random countries discovering doors in their homes, in their apartment buildings, in cellars and attics. Exit West is a story about place, but it’s also a story about time. Saeed and Nadia are constantly stargazing at planets from light years away, and in one settlement they have to pay a ‘time tax’ – a tax on new arrivals, which over time becomes a subsidy for natives and more settled migrants. ‘We are all migrants through time,’ Hamid writes.

Exit West is a short, lovely, meandering novel, compassionate but never handwringing, a tribute to multiculturalism without multicultural pieties, a story of mass migration that never forgets about the practicalities. ‘Geography is destiny,’ Hamid says near the beginning of the novel. The rest of his story shows that this need not always be so.

Young Capability Brown

February 20, 2017

My short story of this name is now published at fabulous new journal 50GS.