Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

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.

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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)

Great Unwritten Books

October 27, 2018

I am always trying to break new ground as a book blogger, but all the titles I write about are commercially available. Today I thought we’d do something a little different, and discuss books that were only ever published in fictional worlds or alternate universes. This is the list I have come up with – I hope you enjoy it – MD

Night Journey, Hugo Driver 

Never published in the real world, Driver’s novel was a cult success within the narrative of Peter Straub’s The Hellfire Club. Driver’s book emerged from the legendary Shorelands writer’s retreat in the late 1930s. It was the kind of novel that obsesses people, and defines lives. There are even ‘Driver houses’ where people live as Night Journey characters for months on end. The action of The Hellfire Club begins when protagonist Nora Chancel investigates the Driver mythos and finds that Driver – not a pleasant fellow by all accounts: fellow author Creeley Monk described him as a ‘nasty sneak’ – may have plagiarised his great work from somebody else. Nora plays a dangerous game because her entire family’s reputation is built on Night Journey‘s success.

Driver’s story itself is a mystical adventure story featuring a child who is rescued from death and taken to a fantasy world by the mysterious ‘Green Knight’. Parts of it are excerpted throughout The Hellfire Club. I’ve read some of Straub’s early stuff and I suspect that Night Journey was the epic book Straub had tried and failed (particularly in Shadowland) to write – the book that takes us to ‘the heart’s glade, where the great secret lay buried’. But The Hellfire Club is an underrated classic, a novel about literary rivalry which is genuinely thrilling, scary and compulsive.

The Runner trilogy/cycle, John Rothstein

I’ve touched on this briefly before, but Rothstein is the most interesting of Stephen King’s many invented novelists. He wrote an Augie March style trilogy about young iconoclast Jimmy Gold and the Runner books follow Gold’s journey from wild child to suburban complacency. Following the trilogy’s success, Rothstein retired to live a recluse’s life in New Hampshire, where he wrote two more Jimmy Gold books – available in a very limited edition of a few dozen Moleskine notebooks buried under a tree somewhere near Massachusetts. King might have created Rothstein as a composite or satire but he can’t help his natural talent and affection seep into the glimpses we get of Rothstein’s prose. The lost Runner manuscripts would tempt any serious reader, though mostly not to the extent of shooting the author dead.

Untitled, Richard Tull

Tull’s early novels fell off the radar as they were too considered too ‘difficult’ for average readers to cope with. Instead of caving in to market pressure, Tull doubled down with this modernist classic. Untitled features ‘an octuple time scheme’ with a ‘rotating crew of sixteen unreliable narrators’ – the prose is so complex that it proves literally unreadable: early readers succumbed to migraine headaches, vasomotor rhinitis, and organic lesions. (James Diedrich, in Understanding Martin Amis, says this is autobiographical – apparently friends of Amis felt sick and headachy after reading his drafts. It seems likely because so much of The Information is autobiographical and lines from it keep coming up in Amis’s personal reflections elsewhere.) Tull comes to believe that Untitled is ‘clearly and entirely hopeless as a novel’ but I feel he was too hard on himself and the book could easily find a home perhaps at an indie press or very highbrow commercial publisher. There could even be an element of masculine competition as critics risk their health to plough through the book. Can you get past page nine?

Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland, Adrian Mole

The trunk novel to beat all trunk novels, Lo! explores ‘late twentieth-century man and his dilemma, focusing on a ‘New Man’ living in a provincial city in England’. Originally written without vowels, Lo! was described by a Faber reader as ‘a most amusing parody of the English naïf school of fiction.’ Mole believed it was more than that and while I don’t think Lo! would ever be a GCSE set text as Mole would have liked, chances are that the daring title and deliberate provincialism would find his novel a home at an indie press, probably even a couple of prize shortlists. All together now: ‘Put your foot down! Take me to the nearest urban conurbation!’

History of Leith, Daniel ‘Spud’ Murphy

Coming down from a heroin addiction and looking for a project to keep the jitters away, Murphy wrote a history of Leith at some point around the turn of the century. Covering incorporation into Edinburgh in 1920 right up until the HIV epidemic of the 1980s, Murphy’s book is a fascinating history of this distinctive port town, albeit that it’s handwritten and full of grammatical and syntactical errors. A local publisher described the History as ‘a badly written celebration of yob culture and of people who haven’t achieved anything noteworthy in the local community’ – what critics said about Irvine Welsh’s novels so many, many times. Spud is humiliated by this rejection and burns the manuscript, illustrating a Welsh theme that it’s the winners who write history. All this happens in the novel Porno – in this year’s Trainspotting book, Dead Men’s Trousers, there’s a possibility that Spud might find literary success after all. But will he be around to enjoy it?

America Works, Tom Yates

The Underwood administration is known for its secrecy, but in some ways it was surprisingly open. There have been great American writers who were close to power – Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal – but none of these legends got to live in Pennsylvania Avenue full time, or have an affair with the First Lady. Yates was originally commissioned to write a book about Frank Underwood’s flagship employment programme, but outlived his usefulness when he began to explore Underwood’s biography and motivations. On his death, Claire Underwood told the American Observer that ‘What happened to Mr. Yates is a tragedy. Not only was he a talented writer and a valued member of our staff, but he was also a friend. Sadly, he was a man of vices. Men, women, drink and drug. I only wish I could have gotten him the help he needed in time.’ As the House of Cards series has got so messy, the fate of Yates’s manuscript is unknown.

Sterling’s Gold, Roger Sterling

Every Mad Men fan remembers the episode ‘The Suitcase’ for its emotional punch. But it’s also notable because we get a glimpse of Roger Sterling’s memoirs. Late at night, a drunken and giggling Don Draper listens to tape recordings for the autobiography, including highlights of Miss Blankenship’s ‘flapper years’ and how Bertram Cooper lost his balls to an incompetent surgeon, who performed an ‘unnecessary orchiectomy’ (‘I think he had him killed’).

A Psychology of the Bridge

September 29, 2018

Spoiler alert for everything

One of the strengths of scandinoir show The Bridge is the depth and layering of the story. I watched the final series when it aired earlier this year, and then I went back and watched the entire run, finding a warmth and mystery to it that I had never realised. From episode one, we are introduced to a line-up of disparate characters that have only a tangential relationship with the case. They pursue their personal dramas independently of the murder investigation launched by detectives Saga and Martin. Writers of mysteries often use ‘red herring’ characters to keep the audience guessing and mask the identity of the true killer long enough for the big reveal. Most of the time, though, we can see the join. The characters look and act like red herrings.

Not in The Bridge. Everyone in this series matters. Sometimes that’s to illustrate the caprice of life (and the cruel fatalism of the show’s writers). A teenage girl argues with her mother and runs away from home. She approaches her father, but he’s separated and busy with an occasion for his new family and can’t help. Eventually the teenager is taken in by a paranoid schizophrenic. The madman is pleasant and harmless, no threat to the girl. But he has fallen under the thrall of the ‘Truth Terrorist’, a multiple murderer who kills people in baroque ways to draw attention to social problems in Denmark and Sweden. The schizophrenic is one of several mentally disordered people the TT has groomed for samurai suicide missions to kill psychiatrists around the city. ‘When I’m gone, you can keep the flat,’ this delusional man tells the adolescent. In the confrontation that ensues, the teenage girl becomes a witness, and the callous TT kills her too.

Sometimes these sub plots reveal the mystery of human motivation. In the opening scene Saga and Martin close the Øresund Bridge because there is a body on it – two bodies, in fact, top and tailed together exactly over the national line. No traffic is allowed through, but Martin waves past an ambulance on a life saving mission – a new heart for Göran Söringer, property developer. His wife Charlotte pulls every possible string to save him. Sadly Göran dies anyway – leaving evidence that he had a long term affair. Charlotte contacts the detectives again when the Truth Terrorist has pulled another stunt. The TT has kidnapped a homeless man and will bleed the indigent to death unless a ransom of millions is paid by the city’s property tycoons. Charlotte Söringer pays the full ransom, for her daughter, she says – who knew, and said nothing, and will now inherit millions less.

The story, and the Øresund Bridge, have a lot in common – full of bewildering switchbacks and facets, but all of it serving a solid purpose. Everything goes back to the beginning. 

The show never officially diagnosed Saga Norén and that was a wise decision. The detective is striking for her strict fidelity to truth and procedure. She files a complaint against colleague Martin for letting the ambulance through. She files another against a shopkeeper who has illegal CCTV, even though his footage becomes vital evidence in the TT case. Outside the investigation room, every scene is an opportunity to demonstrate Saga’s profound lack of social skills. Eating with Martin’s family, she says casually that the cooking doesn’t appeal. An assistant’s young daughter, come to see her dad at the office, shows Saga a picture she’s drawn of the detectives. ‘You can’t tell,’ Saga replies, and moves on to the next order of business. Open up to Saga about your relationship troubles, and she’ll quote you statistics on divorces and the declining libido.

Saga was paired with Martin because the Danish cop is her opposite in personality – Martin is warm, sociable, emotional and sensual. Sometimes her frankness makes Martin laugh (‘What did you do last night, Saga?’ ‘I had casual sex’) and sometimes it enrages him. ‘Do you hear what you say to people?’ he yells at her in a lift. The obvious comic contrast between the two obscured Saga’s real problem, and it had nothing to do with autistic spectrum disorder.

Watch how she acts with the boss Hans. She replays confrontations repeatedly with him, asking Hans for reassurance that she made the right decisions. Saga is constantly asking: Have I done everything correctly? Hans is happy to give the reassurance, Saga gets results and he wants her happy and productive. A change of management in series three throws Saga into a tailspin. Kindly old Hans is replaced by seasoned public sector game player Linn Björkman. Björkman questions Saga’s decisions and gives her no benefit of the doubt. Saga’s thought processes go from ‘Have I done everything correctly?’ to ‘I’ve done something wrong’ and it contributes significantly to her meltdown in that series.

Every maverick cop has a secret back story and Saga explains hers with characteristic economy. Saga’s mother had Munchhausen’s syndrome and tortured her little sister Jennifer. The teenage Saga knew she would never be able to prove such a bizarre motive and instead framed both parents for child abuse. With her mother and father in prison, Saga was awarded custody of her sister – however the little girl, unable to live with her trauma, threw herself in front of a train. Around the time of series three, Saga’s mother Marie-Louise reaches out to her older daughter, then a Malmo detective struggling under Björkman’s management. Marie-Louise has a different take on the events of Saga’s childhood, and believes that Jennifer killed herself because she couldn’t feel loved under Saga’s emotionless guardianship. An appalled Saga declines all contact and Marie-Louise kills herself, but frames her suicide as a murder and sets Saga up for the crime. Saga is then packed off to prison herself, eventually released on appeal after a year behind bars.

‘We’ve got a bit to work with,’ Saga’s therapist says.

Law enforcement tends to attract people who have a sense of obligation. People want to ask ‘Have I done everything correctly?’ and be told: ‘Yes – you’re doing the right thing.’ It would certainly attract someone like Saga who is haunted by a sense of obligation unfulfilled. ‘Are you a police officer twenty-four seven?’ her therapist asks.

Obligation is not a good thing. It closes doors. It constrains our thinking. It inhibits our freedoms. It kills the spark in us. It murders our sleep. But obligation is of course a necessary thing because we obviously all have obligations – to our families, our loved ones, our employers, our friends, our countries, society in general, what academics call the social contract. It is how the world works.

But people suffer when obligations are imposed upon them (rather than being entered into with informed choice).

The poet Wendell Berry writes:

You will be walking some night

in the comfortable dark of your yard

and suddenly a great light will shine

round about you, and behind you

will be a wall you never saw before.

It will be clear to you suddenly

that you were about to escape,

and that you are guilty: you misread

the complex instructions, you are not

a member, you lost your card

or never had one. And you will know

that they have been there all along,

their eyes on your letters and books,

their hands in your pockets,

their ears wired to your bed.

For obligation has an evil twin, and its name is entitlement.

As we saw at the Kavanaugh hearings (and other recent times) entitlement is an ugly thing – particularly when it’s challenged. Worse is the sense of entitlement tied to a sense of obligation discharged.  ‘I am entitled to hit a nurse because I’ve paid taxes and the nurse still won’t give me a script.’ ‘I am entitled to kill you because I work hard all day to put food on the table and you still won’t respect me.’ The villain, it’s said, doesn’t think of himself as the bad guy. He thinks of himself as the hero in a different movie.

A sense of entitlement can justify most crimes. The Truth Terrorist turns out to be an ex cop called Jens Hansen. He frames his murders as a political campaign on behalf of the dispossessed, but the crime scenes are carefully crafted ‘front stories’ to mask the real motive of personal grievance. ‘His wife and son died in a car accident. He feels that mistakes were made by the authorities,’ Saga explains to August, Martin’s son. ‘So all that stuff about raising awareness was… just talk?’ ‘Just talk,’ Saga confirms. Like Marie-Louise, Jens crafts narratives for strategic ends. Stories within stories. Crimes beyond crimes.

But The Bridge has a happy ending – Saga finally manages to work through her crushing weight of obligation and, her duty discharged, quits the police force. She tosses her police ID off the side of the Øresund Bridge and drives off in her classic vintage Jäger Grön Porsche to begin the rest of her life. She has understood the truth Wendell Berry expressed in his poem ‘Do Not Be Ashamed’:

You will pursue them, begging forgiveness.

They will not forgive you.

There is no power against them.

It is only candor that is aloof from them,

only an inward clarity, unashamed,

that they cannot reach. Be ready.

When their light has picked you out

and their questions are asked, say to them:

‘I am not ashamed.’ A sure horizon

will come around you. The heron will begin

his evening flight from the hilltop.

A Woke Dating Guide

September 17, 2018

This is a long story of mine published at Fearless Femme. I had been thinking for a long time about writing a caper story that was just based around friendships and happiness, and this piece is the result. It’s messy and meandering but I’m proud of it still. The editors at Fearless Femme have done a fantastic job of illustrating the story with photography that captures – probably more than my actual words – what I was trying to do. The zine itself has tons of superb new writers and artists working on a range of subjects but with a mental health focus. It’s an outstanding publication and well worth your time. And I’m appreciative that they published my story.

This Undone England

August 4, 2018

I kind of gave up on Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time when I read this long essay by Christopher Hitchens, a fan of the conservative novelist. Hitchens had recently seen a TV adaptation of the grandee author’s twentieth century epic and found it wanting – in all respects but one:

It inserted only one incident that occurs nowhere in the work. As Jenkins watches a Socialist/Communist parade of unemployed ‘Hunger Marchers’ into Hyde Park, and notes with amused contempt the number of modish and fashionable dons and scribblers who have attached themselves to the procession, a gang of Blackshirts rushes forward with knuckle-dusters and truncheons and falls upon the subversives. It isn’t simply that the Mosley element makes no appearance at this point in Dance. It is more that the Fascist and crypto-Fascist element in upper-class British society makes no appearance at all. The only actual Blackshirt who is mentioned even en passant is the unnamed daughter of a Soho Italian restaurateur.

No disrespect to the fellow, but doesn’t that omission make it harder to take Powell’s work seriously? For a great social writer of the war and interwar years, the absence of ‘a Unity Mitford or a ‘Chips’ Channon or a Lord Halifax’ would be gaping. It’s like – even Wodehouse had Roderick Spode!

Now of course this kind of thing is historical fiction. There is a certain kind of historical novel that really sells. A country house between the wars. Gorgeous views of the fens and valleys. Families, friends, their own idiosyncrasies and secrets, a whisper of murders and infidelities.

This sort of thing sells for the same reason that crime fiction and Downton Abbey sells: we like the idea of sliding into some long, winter country night – and we like the assurance that everything turned out all right in the end. Okay, a lot of people in the BUF and the Peace Pledge Union were jolly bad eggs, but at the end of the day we did the right thing, won the war and banked our peace dividend on a liberalish society that has worked reasonably well to this day. I am thinking of D J Taylor’s The Windsor Faction – such a well realised novel that explores British sympathy for appeasement, but if you’ve read it, you’ll know that everything is resolved rather too easily. It feels rather pat.

After the Party brings a chill wind through this kind of complacent summer afternoon. True, Cressida Connolly uses many elements of the country-house novel. There are balls. There are lovely descriptions of the Sussex countryside, pre motorways and housing estates. There are married couples who sleep around.

A big departure is in the prose. After the Party clocks in at 260 pages and change – and when you consider the acute sympathy and observation of her characters, her uncanny sense of time and place, and the ton of historical research she must have got through, the fierce economy of Connolly’s book is all the more remarkable. In an age of literary maximalism it’s quite something – it doesn’t feel like a fingernail-clipping, it could be as long as Powell’s Dance and you would still polish the thing off in a day and a half.

The book begins in the late 1930s. Phyllis Forrester returns from many years living abroad with her naval commander husband. She buys a house in the country where her two sisters have already established themselves, one a high society hostess, the other a hard-headed community organiser who ropes Phyllis into the summer camps and village-hall talks. Except this isn’t just any community. This is from Phyllis’s first meeting:

Gradually the room filled. Phyllis had expected that most of the audience would be working men and was surprised to find that this was not the case, for none of the audience appeared to conform to any particular type. There was a group of young women who arrived all at once, chattering like starlings: clerks, perhaps, or shop girls. Three rather distinguished-looking women came in, two of them wearing fox-tippets despite the summery weather. With pronounced hauteur they made their way straight to the front row of seats and installed themselves, each with one ankle tucked politely behind the other, just as Phyllis and her sisters had been told a lady must always sit.

The speaker turns up. He talks passionately about the livelihood of small shopkeepers. He laments the British high street, squeezed out by retail giants. You agree with him. Fascism doesn’t come to the ball as fascism. It doesn’t come to the ball saying ‘Heil Hitler’. It comes to the ball saying ‘Straight talking, honest politics,’ or ‘Take back control’.

Seamlessly Phyllis and her friends are sucked into an authoritarian if not totalitarian enterprise. Phyllis’s daughter paints ‘PJ’ (or ‘Perish Judah’) on a community hall: it is youthful high spirits. The Leader himself, Sir Oswald, favours the community with frequent visits – more than one person comments that the Sussex village always gets fair weather when Mosley comes to town, reminding you of Unity Mitford’s impression that sitting beside Adolf Hitler was like sitting beside the sun.

Yet it somehow doesn’t feel that way. Connolly’s characters are so likeable and real that their descent into fanaticism takes the reader as much by surprise as it does Phyllis Forrester. She is a kind, smart woman who loves her family. When she is finally interned, you feel the wrench, and her solidarity with other inmates in Holloway. You feel the shame, when she is released, and the old certainties fall away from her in a drift of social shame.

It’s only decades later, when Phyllis looks back on her life, that you hear the thunder of jackboots:

I don’t regret my politics, I don’t see why I should. I think history has proved us right. Look at the state of the country, now! Endless power cuts, grave-diggers on strike so that bodies lie unburied, no one collecting the rubbish so there are rats in the streets… it’s a disgrace. People freezing to death in their own homes because the electric’s been switched off. Socialist infiltrators picketing outside our hospitals and fire stations. All these foreigners taking over our little shops and whatnot… We used to be a great nation, a great Empire, and now look at us. Sir Oswald would never have let things come to this.

But this variant of pathology always comes to this – always ends in bitterness and nostalgia. But the strength of this wonderful book is that we realise that your situation is not necessarily all you are, your ideology is not all you are, and that at some point we were better, and free, even if we didn’t realise this. Politics makes us into strange shapes. The world turns us into other people – rich and strange.

Connolly has an amazing few lines from something called the ‘General Confession’:

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us. There is no health in us.

Phyllis’s main regret is for her enigmatic friend Sarita. Who was that strange man she met in Paris: was she just a morphine junkie or some kind of Allied spy? Read this awesome book and decide for yourself.

Like Doctors From House to House

June 15, 2018

How Eros must have wept, Martin Amis wrote, at the milkman’s disappearance from our streets. In contemporary fiction the milkman has not so much disappeared as curdled. Stephen King wrote a pair of very creepy stories about a rogue milkman, collected in Skeleton Crew, and it’s a milkman who brings the underworld to Billy’s door in Joseph Connor’s The Salesman – Nap, ‘the milkman of fuckin’ human kindness’. And let’s not forget Pat Mustard of Craggy Island, who turns murderous once his morning trysts are exposed.

The milkman in Anna Burns’s novel isn’t really a milkman. He’s a connected man in the novel’s small community, who takes a creepy interest in Burns’s nameless narrator. A nameless eighteen year old woman known only as ‘middle sister’, the narrator has no interest in the milkman – in fact, she’s repelled and shaken by his attentions. But the protagonist’s family, and the village gossips, assume that she is in a relationship with this older connected married man. Complications follow.

I think what with the #MeToo movement a lot more of us have become familiar with what feminists call ‘the male gaze’ and how it can make women feel. Helen Lewis wrote: ‘I think of sexism as a Bullshit Tax. On top of doing my job, I have to: smile weakly at weird men who shout at me in the street, in case they get offended and try to kill me’. Milkman gives you some idea of being on the wrong end of that gaze.

This had been a movement unnatural, an omen of warning, originating in the coccyx, with its vibration then setting off ripples – ugly, rapid, threatening ripples – travelling into my buttocks, gathering speed into my hamstrings of where, inside a moment, they sped to the dark recesses behind my knees and disappeared. This took one second, just one second, and my first thought – unbidden, unchecked – was that this was the underside of an orgasm, how one might imagine some creepy, back-of-body, partially convulsive shadow of an orgasm – an anti-orgasm. 

It’s not just the milkman who gives middle sister this feeling. The milkman is not just a creep and a predator, he’s a signifier of a creepy and broken community. Burns is hazy on time and place, but the world of the milkman is some kind of Irish border town in the 1970s, the sort of place where the local provisionals held mock trials in public, and everyone knew more than was healthy about everyone else. Expectations are ground to nothing. Bitterness and disappointments are borne stoically, almost with a perverse pride. Most people in your family seem to have either joined the provisionals or been disappeared by them. If you’re a woman, your role is to marry young, and raise children to participate in the same toxic ecosystem.

We’ve been here before, but Burns’s prose makes it seem so much more real. In long sentences that spool into pages, she details the hierarchies and assumptions that entrench in poor communities. Middle sister is already something of an eccentric (or a ‘character’ as the provincial phrase goes) and her worries about the milkman, her family and village perceptions – they go on and on into the narrative like the fretful spiral of an anxious thought. Milkman is a modernist panic attack of a novel. The effect is stressful but also compelling – Burns invests you too much in the reading experience to abandon it for long. There is also a startling relief when perceptions shift and we realise that other, better things can be perceived of as possibles:

So I nodded at the sunset, at this horizon, which made no sense […] and it was at that moment, just as I was thinking, what the fuck are they – that something out there – or something in me – then changed. It fell into place because now, instead of blue, blue and more blue – the official blue everyone understood and thought was up there – the truth hit my senses. It became clear as I gazed that there was no blue out there at all. For the first time I saw colours, just as a week later in this French class also was I seeing colours. On both occasions, these colours were blending and mixing, sliding and extending, new colours combining, colours going on forever, except one which was missing, which was blue […] Question was, was it a safe something or a threatening something? What was it, really, I was responding to here?

So Milkman is not a miserabilist novel – there are dreams, moments of hope, signs of gradual and incremental change. It’s just a very self contained novel. I recommend it absolutely – but only readers with strong stomachs and iron nerves should apply.