Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

A Postmodern Prometheus

March 17, 2018

You may have seen in the grown-up arts pages articles about the recent anniversary of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. Except perhaps it’s not such a classic: like many Regency novels Shelley’s book was far too long and suffered from many silly interludes where Victor Frankenstein pursued his wayward monster across the Arctic Circle. Only Shelley’s idea was good.

Ahmed Saadawi’s reimagining puts Frankenstein’s monster in Iraq a couple of years after the invasion. Hadi is a junk dealer and compulsive storyteller, who fools Western journalists by telling them extravagant lies about his life in the wartorn country. His other hobby is collecting body parts from various bomb sites, which he uses to construct a complete corpse: ‘I made it complete so it wouldn’t be treated as rubbish, so it would be respected like other dead people and given a proper burial’. And one day he finds that the corpse has gone missing.

Postwar Baghdad is so chaotic and corrupt that at first the appearance of a murderous monster – the Whatitsname, or the Criminal Who Has No Name – at first causes little comment in the city. Saadawi captures it all so well, the generals, journalists, lawyers and mystics fighting it out for influence in the post Baathist landscape. And just the people trying to get on with their lives: the journalist Mahmoud, lusting after the beautiful film director Nawal al-Wazir, who is going out with Mahmoud’s slippery boss, Ali al-Saidi. The elderly widow Elishva lives alone with her cat: across the street is the barbershop of Abu Zaidoun, who Elishva despises as she holds him responsible for sending her son to die in Saddam’s wars. Frankenstein in Baghdad is lively and fun, but there’s always the threat of violence in Saadawi’s world, and the tight knots of complicity and grief. Saadawi has a great para on the difficulties of truth and reconciliation:

So had the old woman really been telling the truth? Had her son really survived the slaughter of the 1980s? Over the last three years the local people had heard many stories that were no more believable. Dead people had emerged from the dungeons of the security services and non-existent people emerged from nowhere outside the doors of their relatives’ humble houses. There were people who had returned from long journeys with new names and new identities, women who had spent their childhoods in prison cells and had learned, before anything else in life, the rules and conventions for dealing with the warders. There were people who had survived many deaths in the time of the dictatorship only to find themselves face to face with a pointless death in the age of ‘democracy’.

The Criminal Who Has No Name causes increasing carnage and comes to the attention of the hack generals and administrators running the city. It kills suicide bombers, terrorists and mercenaries (‘I killed the al-Qaeda leader who lived in Abu Ghraib and was responsible for the massive truck bomb in Tayaran Square that killed many people, including the person whose nose Hadi picked up off the pavement and used to fix my face’) amasses followers and acolytes – the Sophist, the Magician, the Enemy – and even gives interviews to local media. Against the disaster backdrop though there is a hopeful, kind and uplifting element to the story, acts of kindness and companionship which take over the plot and add a poignancy to this splintered narrative. The monster remains at large – and it’s pleasant to think that the Frankenstein of Baghdad is still out there somewhere.


Depth Change

February 27, 2018

This story of mine is now up at the fabulous Your One Phone Call zine.

And over at Shiny, I review Imogen Hermes Gowar’s startling Regency tale.

The Magic Mountain

January 28, 2018

Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s novel is set in the disputed lands somewhere around the Frontex borders where Europe meets Africa. Hundreds of migrants from Africa’s cities and villages live in the mountain’s footholds, crevices and caves, where they sleep, eat, play football, barter with the local villages, and talk – endlessly, it seems: the majority of The Gurugu Pledge is dialogue.

Well over half the book feels like a symposium. The migrants talk of imperialism, corruption, religion, dictatorship, language, work, culture, love, sex – anything and everything, often interrupting and talking over one another in a lively testament to the oral tradition. Imaginary persons are brought onto the mountain, philosophers and academics conjured out of thin air to test ideas. It’s in one of these interludes that a character makes one of the eloquent defence of football that I’ve ever come across: ‘You can’t expect a child, no matter how humble, to say when I grow up I want to be an agency cleaner at Charles de Gaulle airport. Or when I grow up I want to be a fake-handbag salesman, never mind a razor-wire acrobat or a shipwreck rescuee. These aren’t professions. It’s football that teaches children that black people get to go on TV, get to be admired and applauded. Perhaps they don’t all grow up saying they want to be footballers, but they see a brother up there on the screen, someone from their tribe who has triumphed, and he speaks for them all. I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that football is the key to survival for countless black boys.’

In the novel’s second half the story gets underway and Ávila Laurel reminds us that for all the happy chatter this book takes place in dark times. The migrants have to scrape and negotiate for food, and the Moroccan forestry police are always waiting for a reason to sweep them off the mountain. It would feel like a betrayal to reveal what happens, except that it begins with a man named Omar who every day swims naked in an African river, wearing only a pair of army boots. But despite the dark and troubled ending to Ávila Laurel’s brief novel, his Gurugu mountain is a mountain of light.

So, Er, ‘Whither the Novel’?

January 27, 2018

I could see why people were annoyed by Tim Lott’s new year article in the Guardian on the lost art of storytelling. He’s a bit of an old curmudgeon and the examples he picks out of bad storyless writing are mainly by women writers (I thought Lott was unfair to Eimear McBride, though I never read her debut, just The Lesser Bohemians, a work of modernist brilliance). Women writers are selling more these days and any complaint about the state of publishing has to acknowledge that very obvious positive trend.

But the general thrust of the piece I nodded along to – I too read mostly Stateside writers these days and I love the narrative drive of long form television. Like Lott I find British fiction a bit samey and predictable these days with too many overresearched historical novels and gleanings from nature and prolier-than-thou social history. It seems uncontroversial to say so but Lott’s point provoked a minor backlash and a difficult new circling of that old question: so, er, Whither the Novel?

It’s interesting that Lott mentions UEA in his piece. He should have known before he started teaching there that UEA embodies the self-conscious tradition in English literature, the world of McEwan, Bradbury, Barnes – it has never pretended to be anything else, it’s certainly not the place for the more instinctive story and character based writers. But I think that Lott’s detractors are missing the point as well. Arguments like Lott’s are often dismissed as ‘appealing to the market’, ‘appealing to the lowest common denominator’ – which, I think, is misguided. The market in literary fiction is just not an issue any more. Tom Gatti writes:

In today’s market, selling 3,000 copies of your novel is not unrespectable – but factor in the average hardback price of £10.12 and the retailer’s 50 per cent cut, and just £15,000 remains to share between publisher, agent and author. No wonder that the percentage of authors earning a full-time living solely from writing dropped from 40 per cent in 2005 to 11.5 per cent in 2013. To avoid novel-writing becoming a pursuit reserved for those with independent means, ACE suggests emergency intervention: direct grants for authors and better funding for independent publishers and other organisations.

These are grim stats – game changing ones. If you have almost no chance of making a living as a full time writer through commercial publication then the motivation is not ‘appealing to the market’, it becomes ‘appealing to a few key people’ who are into self conscious storyless fiction. Write a book, preferably set in the past (a respectable part of the past featuring interesting old buildings and intricate little contraptions made of pewter to marvel over) and you could, potentially, augment those 3000 sales with a good teaching job and prize payouts. Awards seem to have become more significant for authors as day to day sales fall. Much has been made of the recent successes indie publishers have had in winning literature awards. People say this is a testament to the innovative work coming out of indie presses. That’s one way of looking at it. Another is that indie publishers have looked at the kind of fiction that wins the big prizes and are pitching and commissioning appropriately.

Of course the ‘death of the novel’ is something of a perennial with critics – we’ve been having these conversations for decades. So I don’t think we are losing the novel – but I think we are losing the power to speak frankly about art.

Look at the reaction to Rebecca Watts’s recent article in PN Review. Again, you can pick holes in her critique of Instagram poetry and Hollie McNish’s scansion. But, more than Lott’s piece, Watts’s critique is arresting, strongly written, powerfully argued – and a rare thing in UK criticism today. In the American press you can read reviews of such quality on a daily basis – in England most people are too afraid to write like this because they fear being ‘cut out’ of the pie. It is a bit like political writing where everyone’s afraid of stepping on each other’s toes and the space for frank expression is filled by a few professional contrarians who make it their UPS to ‘annoy the liberals’ and be as obnoxious as possible.

Look at Watts’s Twitter mentions. They are predictable – ivory tower, academic snobbery, bad feminist etc, and this from the same reactive mob that slammed Lott for ‘appealing to the lowest common denominator’. (They also said that Rebecca Watts was ‘jealous’ of McNish. Of course! That’s got to be it.) But there was a kind of unity in the strain to the denunciations, as well as the appeal to a key approving audience – or some idea of authenticity that may, after all, be an illusion.

Should we support an ’emergency intervention’ by the Arts Council to support writers? I really don’t know. I like the idea of giving grants for authors to get autonomy and writing time, I wouldn’t mind paying taxes to support such a scheme, arts policy in many countries operates in exactly this way. But (as someone with experience of writing bids for grants) I fear that such a scheme would devolve into a box ticking and form filling exercise, and result in novels edited and approved by committee. In a country with millions of readers is that really the way we want to go? God, I hope not.

London Magazine Essay

December 10, 2017

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

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

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

The River and the Sea

December 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weather With You

November 26, 2017

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

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

Let The Art Monsters Play

November 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Dederer turns her focus inward:

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

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

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

She goes on to say this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 22, 2017

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

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

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

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


October 21, 2017

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