Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Half A World

August 10, 2019

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora is a space odyssey with a difference. Generations of people live in a craft the size of a city. As the founding pioneers die out and the ship moves through deep space without finding anything of interest, the younger spacefarers become disillusioned with this whole exercise and turn the craft around for home. On return to terra firma, the cosmonauts find themselves denounced by the scientific establishment – to them they are quitters and cowards. But the idealism and wisdom is with the ones who quit. Why build spaceships instead of cleaning up the environmental mess of our home planet? If we find another habitable planet wouldn’t we just ruin that one like we ruined Earth? Robinson quotes the poet Constantin P Cavafy:

New lands you will not find, you will not find other seas.

The city will follow you. You will roam the same

streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;

in these same houses you will grow gray.

Always you will arrive in this city. To another land – do not hope –

there is no ship for you, there is no road.

As you have ruined your life here

in this little corner, you have destroyed it in the whole world.

Or as Freya puts it in the novel: Wherever you go, there you are.

Iris Cohen is exhausted and sad and bored. She works in a digital marketing job she doesn’t understand, drinks too much, falls in and out of meaningless relationships and struggles with a traumatic past. Salvation appears in a reality TV show set on the planet Nyx, recently discovered through a wormhole in the Pacific Ocean. Nyx offers a new life – a chance, its founder says ‘to leave all that behind: the emails, the messages, the notifications, the constant communication with people you hardly know. Instead, you’re going to enjoy a closer connection with the people and the world around you.’ Millions apply for Life on Nyx: Iris works her way through AI conducted interviews to the final few thousand, who live in a self sustaining biome on the new planet, farming, exercise, talking and procreating. Someone asks what Iris did for a living back on earth.

‘I was a digital innovation architect.’ She covered her face, laughing with delight at how far away she was from her old life.

‘What does that even mean?’ said Hans.

‘Honestly, I don’t know.’

‘It doesn’t mean anything,’ said Elizabeth. ‘None of it did.’

There’s one catch – the door is one way and there’s no coming back. Iris makes her decision subconsciously and by increments. There’s a wonderful scene where Iris wanders through London at night:

Iris carried on walking down a residential road, where a fox casually crossed her path, then past Hackney Downs. She crossed through Dalston, where the shops were shut, though some still shone their neon lights. The sound of cars kept her company. Usually, whenever she walked alone, she would listen to music or a podcast, but now she just listened to the world. Each bird sang in its own particular pattern. It was amazing that they chose to live there, in the city, and not in a nice green field. They were used to it, like Iris.

She is saying goodbye to the city. Everyone knows it. Everyone in Iris’s life tells her not to leave. Even the Nyx panels give her every chance to pull out. They even track down the love of Iris’s youth – but Iris again is disillusioned with the present self of the woman she fell for. ‘On another planet, in another universe, we’re still kids and it’s summer, and it always will be. That was the planet she wanted to go to.’

It’s hard to write about Everything You Ever Wanted without spoilers, but to convey a sense of this remarkable novel I must at least hint at them. Nyx in itself doesn’t seem lethal. Outside the biomes there are birds, insects, even a great lake. One lesson of the novel is that no one can guarantee that you will always be looked after. Seven years in, the colony starts running out of food and resources. Despite this scarcity, the Nyxians do not turn on each other. Relations remain friendly and supportive. One aspect of the utopia holds.

Still, the last hundred pages are not an easy read. There is an enduring and spooky sadness almost unbearable in its intensity, that leaves the reader waiting on a deus es machina that – spoiler alert – never comes. Everyone on Nyx ends up missing aspects of their home planet – Iris has several chapters devoted to lists of commonplace delights, to cheeseburgers, painkillers, bacon and eggs, chocolate, pigeons, foxes, makeup, the tubes, even work and ‘the moment on Friday evening when she would turn off her computer and already feel the glow of alcohol in her chest.’

I could mention – with my political head on – that the worst ideological movements then and now are the ones that think of humanity or nations as having some authentic self that civilisation just gets in the way of. Rivers Solomon‘s novel An Unkindness of Ghosts takes this on with her story of a spaceship run by white supremacists heading for some mythical Aryan paradise. The Nyxians don’t go anywhere near that far and the lessons are not for Iris alone.

What Iris discovers is that the clutter of modern life isn’t some white noise that gets in the way of the true essence of humanity – the clutter is the humanity. Luiza Sauma has written a profound and beautiful novel about our irrational desire for a meaningful existence. Wherever you go, there you are.

And yet there’s no sense that Sauma is lecturing us. Humans are risk takers and it’s our nature to go on mad quests, whatever the cost. To quote Kim Stanley Robinson again: ‘a consciousness that cannot discern a meaning in existence is in trouble, very deep trouble, for at that point there is no organizing principle, no end to the halting problems, no reason to live, no love to be found. No: meaning is the hard problem.’ It certainly is and Sauma makes an attempt at solving it as brave and stylish as anything you’re likely to read in fiction.

Captive States

August 3, 2019

(Spoilers for everything)

On a corrections bus travelling to begin her double-life sentence, Rachel Kushner’s protagonist Romy Hall reflects on her fate. ‘I was assigned a public defender. We were all hopeful things would go differently. They did not go differently. They went this way.’ Kushner’s novel The Mars Room follows Hall into a Central Valley woman’s correctional where guards and bureaucrats constantly reinforce the fact things went this way: ‘your situation is due one hundred per cent to choices you made and actions you took.’ Later, she considers this: ‘The lie of regret and of life gone off the rails. What rails. The life is the rails. It is its own rails and it goes where it goes.’

The Mars Room is about bleak situations, but it’s not a bleak novel. It’s not a grind.

I watched the final of Orange is the New Black this week. ONTB shares with Kushner’s novel the trick of compelling but not miserabilist drama in reduced circumstances. It’s from Jenji Kohan who created Weeds, a comic drama about a suburban widow who sells dope to support her family – a lighter Breaking Bad, may it do ya. Weeds started off really well but later became too silly and surreal even for me.

ONTB has plenty of Kohan’s trademark quirkiness. There are big musical cues, weird sexual hijinks and absurd set pieces. It was also pretty baggy, with very long episodes that didn’t go anywhere. If you’re on series one or two, stick with it though, because there is plotting, you just don’t see it until much later. Myles McNutt at the AV club complains about the wonky timeline but for me Kohan does a masterful job of conveying six years of gradual change in what’s supposed to be an eighteen-month period.

ONTB is about the minimum security Litchfield federal prison that’s run reasonably well but not perfectly. The authorities sell out to a corporation, which brings in a new head guard: the foul Desi Piscatella. He has been kicked out of the male system for burning an inmate to death and brings his ironfist ethos to Litchfield – notwithstanding that the prisoners there are mostly harmless kooks and drug dealers. Piscatella’s bullying leads to the death of the well liked inmate Poussey Washington, which in turn provokes a riot, after which the prisoners are relocated to the maximum security facility down the road. The old Litchfield is turned into an ICE detention centre.

‘This isn’t Oz,’ a guard tells Piper Chapman on her first day in. And it’s not. There are few murders or violent episodes. Up until end series four, you’re basically watching a gentle comedy set behind bars. (An interesting comparison with Tom Fontana’s show is how they establish what each character’s in for: while the crime flashbacks in Oz last seconds – men who blow their lives away in one impulsive moment – ONTB spreads a single inmate’s memories over whole episodes, illustrating that fate can be one decisive act or more usually a series of slips and bad decisions.)

It is once the inmates transfer to max, that things get serious. Facing far longer sentences for their participation in the riot, the prisoners cave. Nicky sells out her mentor. Daya turns drug baron. Even tough old Frieda Berlin crumbles. There’s a grim scene where senior prison officers and politicians plan their riot response, focused on a whiteboard with boxes labelled ‘LIFE’, ‘LIFE’, ’10 YEARS’ – they already know the punishments, they just need to find individuals to fit them. It is up to inmates to deal themselves out.

The barter of intel and sentence time is the contradiction in Western justice. Commit a crime and you will be punished – unless you have something to sell. UCL professor Alexandra Natapoff‘s exceptional book Snitching details the absurdity of a deal system that lets serious criminals loose to kill, sell drugs and god knows what else, because they have been basically been put on state payroll. She quotes one court: ‘[n]ever has it been more true that it is now that a criminal charged with a serious crime understands that a fast and easy way out of trouble with the law is… to cut a deal at someone else’s expense.’ Note the cheers from the public gallery when Tasha (‘Taystee’) Jefferson pleads not guilty to killing Piscatella, rather than admitting to a crime she didn’t do which would draw a lighter sentence.

There is a dark, hilarious scene in series four where warden Caputo’s girlfriend, corporate exec Linda, takes him to a prison convention called ‘Correcticon’. As Kathryn Van Arendonk wrote in her recap at the time:

It’s hard to resist the urge to just list every little detail of CorrectiCon. It’s shiveringly well-tuned, hitting notes that rest on the delicate edge between humor and outrage. On one side of the aisle, a booth sells menstrual cups for women’s prisons. It’s a product that might be seriously useful for Litchfield, which has such a dramatic tampon shortage that one inmate tries to use a disposable plastic cup meant for dispensing medicine. On the other side of the exhibit hall, a vendor dressed as an inmate distributes ‘prison slop — fully prepared,’ and Caputo is appalled. ‘Ugh, I have enough of that in my life,’ he tells Linda. ‘It’s just for fun, silly!’ she replies. ‘I think it’s ice cream.’

In one scene the nature of the prison industrial complex is exposed. Prisons are big business and also big job creation – jobs for wardens, guards and clerks, and a big economic lift for the communities where the prison industry chooses to build. The boom in migration detention centres and the atrocities along the Amexican border are just an extension of this Keynesian pump-priming. If we do a deal with Trump’s America, the fate of the NHS may be the least of our worries. Communitarianism defines itself by who is excluded or detained, and there is jobs and money in exclusion and detention.

OTNB critiques tend to focus on privilege and intersectionality. That’s part of it of course: in the last episode of season four we learn that the guard who kills Poussey was as a young man let off for the same possession charge that got Poussey six years – and that, during a night out in New York, Poussey encountered her killer in passing. (There is also another subtle, telling scene when Suzanne Warren, deprived of medication, has a psychotic freakout in a guard’s office with a ‘NO STIGMA’ mental health poster on the wall.)

Piper Chapman, by contrast, benefits from white privilege and class privilege. Like Tobias Beecher in Oz, she represents the viewer and her character is a hook for the show to introduce less privileged characters and tell their stories. But while Beecher learned both compassion and self reliance in Oz, Piper takes her sense of entitlement into the prison and leaves with it intact. She is released at the end of series six, while Taystee faces life without in total innocence. But the social justice warrior critique only goes so far. Piper is human, we recognise her mistakes and feel for her when she is released only to be shunned by her family and friends: the virtue-signalling liberals of her peer group see her as a novelty at best and inconvenience at worst.

What the show does more than this is bring home the arbitrary and transitory nature of prison experience. Much loved characters are transferred, ghosted out or disappear for no clear reason. It is the blur of boundaries between free and not, citizen and not, American and not. Blanca and Maritza have every right to citizenship but are ‘unAmericanised’ by the border state. There is a very moving scene in the final series where deportees on a plane literally fade away, one by one – as Pennsatucky does outside the prison gates. The communitarian ideology depends on disappearing people, and that’s put in contrast with the genuine connections made by people on the inmates – broken people who connect, and in connecting manage to make each other a little less broken. That’s something real, and it’s freedom, of a kind.

Great Expectation

July 24, 2019

Looking back at her hard living past, singer Florence Welch writes in Vogue:

I wonder if my young self would be horrified at my Friday nights now: eating pasta and watching TV with someone who is nice to me. Would she think me mundane? I have certainly had journalists bemoan to me ‘the lack of rock stars behaving like rock stars’, but hedonism never gave me the freedom I desired. And I’m no longer sure about the rock’n’roll behaviour often expected of artists. Too many talented people have died, and the world feels too fragile to be swigging champagne and flicking the finger at it.

Most of the friends that I drank with have had to stop. They wash up one by one like driftwood, and we stand together on the shore in shocked relief. We cook, we talk, we work. People have started having children and going to bed early. And all the boring ‘grown-upness’ that we rejected then now seems somehow rebellious.

The characters in Anna Hope’s Expectation might identify. While none of Hope’s three woman protagonists have the eventful past of Florence Welch, they face a similar dilemma. The book opens on an urban pastoral of the three close friends living out the tail end of their youth in London Fields. When we then fast forward to 2010, there’s a definite contracting of freedom and possibility. Life has become smaller, and dominated by young dreams that have turned into obsessions. Lissa aspires to Hollywood but makes do with commercials and community theatre, Hannah wants a child but can’t conceive, Cate has been priced out of London and is living a dull suburban life in the Home Counties.

It all sounds banal when I write it down but Hope writes so well that it works. You feel Hannah’s despair as she focuses every detail of her routine around the elusive miracle of childbirth: she measures out her life in ovulation circles instead of coffee spoons. She is the most well realised character, but all three convey something in common – the fraught feeling of life slipping away from you, taking you away with it to a place you’re not comfortable with. Your old houseshare has been flipped and carved and rented out at unimaginable prices, the legends of your youth grown old and driven out to the exurbs, the world changing in ways you don’t understand. To go back to Florence Welch one last time, it’s hard to get through the sea storm, but sometimes it’s harder once you’ve actually reached the shore – if you get a stretch that’s bare and rocky, with gulls wheeling through an overcast sky.

Not much happens for long reams of the book, but there’s no tiredness or ennui to Hope’s prose, it all feels terribly important while you’re reading it. Hope has an understated style that somehow carries and captures the moment. There is no false sentiment or artifice in Expectation. It feels real. It even sometimes feels numinous:

The woman speaks about the tomb, about how it was found on her father’s land, a mile or so from where she and her family live today. About the human remains that were found there – no skeletons, only jumbled bones, thousands upon thousands of them. About the eagle talons found in amongst them. About the theory that the bodies were left out to be eaten by the birds. Like the sky burials of Tibet. How only the clean bones were saved.

‘Excarnation,’ the woman says in her soft voice.

‘Excarnation,’ says Hannah, tasting it. A new word.

The action speeds up once you get to the last third of the book, but in its way it’s a supremely contemplative novel – the brisk progression of events seems to give you a faith in the natural processes of time and age and youth and death. Lissa and Hannah have a phrase that’s almost an injoke – this shit are what life withstands’. Expectation is a kind of Zen novel – one that goes about its work so subtly and well that you don’t realise you’re being entranced.

Also: Susan Osborne’s review available here

The Love Song of Lina Wolff

July 6, 2019

The Polyglot Lovers is a hard novel to write about. Reviewers tend to be impressed but bemused, and for a hook they focused on Max Lamas, the narcissistic novelist who narrates the middle third of the story. In a book full of strange people who act in unnatural ways for unknown reasons, Max is a recognisable type – the egomaniac writer who thinks he’s god’s gift. He is tired, ageing and in a permanent state of refined ennui. ‘The pain I’m enduring is like dirty water. All that muck swirling around,’ Max tells us. ‘It’s like a herd of donkeys is galloping back and forth across my heart. Back and forth, back and forth. Muddy hooves and common braying.’ He is in an unhappy marriage – ‘My wife’s back was, on certain nights at the start of this story, an unvoiced rejection made of skin and vertebrae’ – and the only thing he lives for is sex. To the psychic in this story, he is empty – ‘you can keep your money, because I can’t see anything at all.’

Translator Saskia Vogel does a marvellous job of conveying the three dramatically different registers of Wolff’s novel. There is Max and his galloping pretension – ‘But the tristesse, oh, the tristesse! No one can be saved from it!’ Ellinor is a martial arts ace and looking for love online. She is subdued, but relentlessly curious about the world. And the final part of the book is told by Lucrezia who is the last of an ancient and distinguished Roman family. Her voice is intelligent, assured and steeped in history. Phrases jump out you as you read The Polyglot Lovers, like chapter headings or greeting cards written by someone damaged and wise:

You lose the intimacy, and intimacy is the stream leading to the spring of life.

… the long and arduous journey into another person.

Everything is going to work out, but in a way that’s unimaginable to you right now.

You find the best stories where no one is thinking about stories, where no one is aware that stories even exist.

The big plot strand is the fate of Max’s manuscript, written in Mogliano, stolen, pissed upon, transported to Stockholm and finally burned to ashes. Other texts abound: Max and his acolyte Ruben both adore Houellebecq, and Stephen King is mentioned as well – not often those two are linked (though King wrote an introduction to Houellebecq’s early study of H P Lovecraft). The narrative makes little sense, but it holds you – one event sashays into the next with the improbable grace of a fairytale.

In her review, Joanna Kavenna writes that: ‘One final irony is that Max, genius/pig depending on your perspective, is a character in a novel by Lina Wolff, and so is the insane reviewer Ruben, and so, in the end, is a fictional version of Houellebecq. They are all trapped in Wolff’s merciless novel, and are ritually tormented until she has had enough.’

But isn’t the prominence of Max’s voice its own irony? T S Eliot in his classic poem ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ imagined a man like Max – bored, humble and yearning, but with his own resilient kind of egotism. Prufrock thinks he has ‘known them all already, known them all: Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons’ but there is something he’s missing. Eliot highlights the famous line, dismissing the women and also separating them from Prufrock’s narration:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The Polyglot Lovers abounds with fascinating women – Mildred the blind psychic, the suicidal receptionist Max seduces, Max’s own brilliant philosophical wife, the generations of women still around and vocal in the ruins of Lucrezia’s family. Wolff is laughing at Max, but she puts him in the foreground. Max wants a polyglot lover but doesn’t hear women’s voices in any language. Max takes no more notice of them then Prufrock did the women who talk of Michelangelo: like Prufrock, Max is lost in his solipsistic vision and doesn’t hear ‘the music from a farther room.’

Wolff is looking hard at her own monsters, but she is also looking hard at you – the reader – and asking: what are you focusing on? Is it you that’s missing something?

Bad Guy In Your MFA

June 16, 2019

The campus novel isn’t an easy thing to write, particularly a campus crime novel, and I think only Donna Tartt, in The Secret History, has really ever pulled it off. Elif Batuman’s last book was a little too diffuse for me, John Niven’s Straight White Male is more about fame and success, although I can recommend Julie Schumacher‘s profound epistolary comedy, Dear Committee Members. Apart from that, I don’t know why, the citadel of ideas doesn’t lend itself well at all to the literary novel, let alone genre fiction. (‘The Research Excellence Framework Murders’, anyone?) Until now. Jo Baker’s The Body Lies is a fantastic noir mystery of modern academia.

Part of her success is in the realism. A young novelist lands a job teaching creative writing at a university in North Lancs. The new start isn’t. The narrator ends up overloaded with work due to staffing gaps. Everyone in the department is rushed off their feet and close to burnout. What’s inside the academy’s gates isn’t so lustrous. Baker draws a compelling picture of higher education taken over by the HR industry and turned into yet another process driven target culture environment. If you wondered why lecturers and support staff walked out last year, The Body Lies will enlighten you.

Baker’s skill extends to her deft pen-portraits of the students, even gives you a sense of their work as individuals. There are the careerists and the hobbyists and the half-crazy (‘Around forty per cent of our creative writing students have declared mental health issues, and those are just the ones that choose to let us know’, an admin officer says) there’s glimpses of wonder and talent.

Here Baker digs out another level to her story. Her student Steven is writing a police procedural that begins with the discovery of a dead woman – ‘Posters of her smiling face were on every parish notice board and stuck in every shop window’ – and another student objects. Nicholas is a more experimental writer and complains that ‘I don’t know this woman. She could be anybody. Literally, Any Body. Sure, Girl Guides and yeah whatever the background bullshit we’re given, but she has no agency, she’s not a character, she’s a device.’ Part of the complexity of this book is that Baker uses exactly the same thing in her brief prologue – ‘the young woman curled there, her skin blue-white, dark hair tumbled over her face.’

Nicholas says what many readers think about police procedurals – why do we never get a chance to know the victims before they die? But his own writing isn’t much better, a plotless rush of self absorbed non sequiturs. Nicholas – never Nick – is recovering from a bereavement, comes from a dysfunctional family and seems vulnerable. He is admired and well liked. Is he just another lost soul who thinks creative writing will fix whatever is wrong with him? Or is there something creepier there? Our narrator fears the latter – particularly when she starts turning up in his excerpts. ‘I’ll only write what happened,’ Nicholas says in class. ‘I’ll only write the truth.’

The atmospherics of this novel are something else. The narrator’s problems don’t end at work. She has a marriage that’s falling apart, a young son to take care of and she fled London following a nasty street assault. I’ve not named her as I think the late reveal of her name is significant, but the protagonist is so sympathetic, you have never wanted so much for things to work out for someone. You feel the paradox of being busy and surrounded by people and still lonely, and as the story darkens, feel her sense of danger and being watched: the enemy seems to inhabit the sky. And Baker has the compulsive readability of Fiona Barton or Sarah Pinborough or Robert Galbraith.

It’s also one hell of a book about narration itself. I forget who said that ‘The villain never thinks of himself as the villain, he thinks of himself as the hero of another movie’ but it remains true. There are potential friends in the protagonist’s new Lancashire town. But there are no heroes in The Body Lies because the narrator has to learn to be her own hero and write her own story – all the men in her life have an agenda of some kind, and consider her potential grist to feed their own personal narratives. The problem of entitlement shades into the process of creation.

The protagonist reflects on Nicholas’s ‘innocent arrogance; he was shooting for immortal transcendence, with no idea of how difficult it is to achieve even mediocrity.’ I don’t know if Jo Baker will be immortal, but in The Body Lies she has shot a long way past the mediocre.

Song of the Outpost

June 3, 2019

The classic recent TV series are Western genre shows. Breaking Bad, The Wire, Sons of Anarchy are basically Westerns. (Vince Gilligan drew on the same Sergio Leone movies as did Stephen King for his Dark Tower epic.) And the classic show that’s actually a Western isn’t a Western. Deadwood is not about Western type themes – confrontation, masculinity, pride, solitude and anger (although it is about these things too) it’s about relationships between people and how societies grow.

Take the gold in the black hills that brought everybody to Deadwood. People get killed over claims and counter claims. Fortune seekers rushed to the Dakotas in 1876, just as they rushed to California in ’49, and later to the Klondike in 1890. History is full of these periodic migrations and stampedes. They continue today. In the 2010s, people returned to the Dakotas for the oil and the fracking boom. I can’t recommend enough journalist Maya Rao’s Great American Outposts, in which she chronicles the searchers and drifters who gravitated to North Dakota for oil money driving rigs and hauling water. People from all over America rushed for black gold, many leaving behind criminal records, bad credit histories and child-support claims. Rao’s subjects are not all dissimilar to the ‘hoopleheads’ Al Swearengen used to serve in his Gem Saloon.

The gold itself is valueless. As the Patrician says in The Colour of Magic, if you gave everyone a bag of gold the result would not be that ‘we’d all be rich’. The gold would depreciate in value, because its value rests on scarcity. Smart operators like Al Swearengen and Cy Tolliver, the second wave of Deadwood settlers, they know that you can make a better living selling booze and sex to prospectors, than from spending hours in a creek panning for precious metals. It is not the metal but the perception of the metal and how perception itself can be mined for coin. In his book of the series, showrunner David Milch says that ‘Something in us that is specifically human has the capacity to endow a symbol with a special meaning.’

Swearengen is the lynchpin of the show – the camp evolves under his wary gaze from the balcony of the Gem. Al is a brutal cutthroat, and an exploiter of women, but he faces outwards and cares about the future of the camp. He takes an active part in the bewildering politics of accession and annexation that characterised the US in the 1870s. He hosts town meetings at the Gem, at which he serves cans of peaches, just as Gustavo Fring offered platters of sandwiches in sitdowns with cartel bosses he despised. (Milch writes: ‘And in the electrical force field created within that meeting, the presence of the peaches has significance as a gesture.’) With his fierce intelligence and grandiloquent, corrosive speech, Al runs rings around commissioners and politicians, dodging murder warrants and turning potential enemies.

But things are changing. Retired sheriff Seth Bullock goes back to the badge, and his duties go from cleaning up murders to sorting out the kind of petty property disputes that neighbourhood policing teams would recognise today. The lovable A. W. Merrick sets up his newspaper. Alma Garrett quits laudanum and founds a local bank. There are weddings, and funerals. Taboos are created and enforced. The brothel becomes a schoolhouse, and then a theatre. Telegraphs go up (and in the movie, railroads and telephone lines). There are elections locally, then regionally. And as the camp develops into a town, Swearengen faces more formidable enemies as well as his own weakness and mortality.

Milch also writes of ‘complicated manipulations and distortions of money produced by people who understood there were realities at the level of the symbol that you could fuck with.’ In season two geologist Francis Wolcott arrives and begins spreading rumours, depreciating the value of the claims so that he can buy up the claims at cost price on behalf of his employer: gold tycoon George Hearst, the boy the earth spoke to. There is a fine scene where Wolcott writes to Hearst about the growing operation, and his narration of the letter is spoken over a montage of workers driven hard at the goldmine, then stripped and frisked for stolen metals. Wolcott is a wretch and a killer, but he is just a harbinger of his even more sinister boss. When Hearst sacks Wolcott over his murders of several sex workers, Wolcott hangs himself; without Hearst he is nothing, a weak degenerate who even old man Charlie Utter can take in a fight.

David Milch describes Hearst as ‘the monstrous abstraction of the symbol made flesh.’ Hearst tells us frequently how much he hates the camp, and is obviously happiest prospecting alone in the field. In Milch’s world that’s not meant to say anything good about his character. Hearst represents the third wave of corporatism and commodity fetishism. He kills miners who try to unionise. While Al consults, Hearst only gives orders. Elections ‘ratify my will, or I neuter them,’ he says. Season three becomes a lengthy Mexican standoff between Hearst and the rest of the town. Deadwood’s resistance fears attacking him because to do so might destroy the camp. As Al says: ‘And as to us and him, if blood’s what it finally comes to, one hundred years from now the forest is what they’ll find here. Dewy morning’s lost its appeal for me. I prefer to wake indoors.’

Wake indoors, and face outwards. Milch has said in interviews that a lot of the thinking on Deadwood came from his time in AA where survival meant giving up the I for the we, and in going through the motions until they became natural. That becomes the show’s story – a lie, or illusion, agreed upon. People have to compromise their personal selves to get along, and the we isn’t always kind. Seth Bullock is in an arranged marriage to his late brother’s wife: he begins an affair with Alma Garrett, a New Yorker widowed between the murder of her husband Brom Garrett and her later platonic marriage to the noble old prospector William Ellsworth. She and Bullock are soulmates, but must sacrifice their love to the greater stability of the town. Alma says of Ellsworth, in one of the show’s more heartbreaking lines: ‘He is a good man. And he whom I love is here as well.’

It’s about the making of a community, and not the nostalgia authoritarian state of which today’s communitarians dream. It’s a we made up of hundreds, thousands of dancing Is, hoopleheads, prospectors and fools. When Bullock first stands for election, he is overwhelmed by the hustings and forgets whatever rhetoric of justice he had planned and instead simply says: ‘I’m glad we’re in the camp, even on the sorriest of days.’ And I think, watching the show and the movie, that this is how we all felt – it was over too soon, but all the same, we were glad to be in the camp. The Deadwood movie is as good as the series and gives us one last look at the legendary outpost, I recommend watching it with a bottle of rotgut to hand – and perhaps a can of peaches.

Tomorrow Belongs To Me

May 19, 2019

A couple of new things, on a similar theme: first off is a new story called ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’ published today by fascinating new online journal Clover & White. I’ve also written about Philip Kerr (no longer with us, o discordia) and his last novel Metropolis, at Shiny – and if you haven’t read any of his Bernie Gunther books, don’t worry, Metropolis is a good one to start off with, and you have a lot of fine reading in front of you. Enjoy!

The Vast and Wicked Stage

May 14, 2019

An instance into Nicole Flattery’s first and title story, ‘Show Them A Good Time’ you realise she has a prose that is becoming a type. The narrator has moved back to her parents’ house after years in the big city. She gets a job in some kind of millennial work farm based at a motorway service. The job is dull and cruel, but the narrator doesn’t respond to the dullness or the cruelty. But she doesn’t miss the city either. ‘I said that I had to leave to discover things about myself. Just ordinary surface and, beneath that, more desperate surface.’

Think about the short fiction of Joanna Walsh, the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the insouciance of Ann-Marie from Zoe Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out, even the later passages from American Psycho where Bateman goes crazy and just wanders around Manhattan listing various 1980s reference points in his mind. There is a certain listlessness to it, what the cliche calls ennui, like the suburban 1990s novels of Nigel Williams – a prose that has given up on life.

I am currently reading a sociology book about machine gambling. The sociologist interviewed a problem gambler who drew a map of her world – the casino where she worked, the free clinic where she picked up her meds, the place she slept, and at the centre is a self portrait of a woman gazing into a slot machine. This is a good approximation of where Flattery’s characters are. Angela in ‘Not the End Yet’ goes to the same falling-apart restaurant night afte night, bringing a more ridiculous and sleazy date each time. Natasha in ‘Abortion: A Love Story’ goes to an elite college and knows that it will only lead to the ‘unemployment building’. Lost in the machine zone.

Not quite though. For all Flattery’s desire to throw a crazy or disgusting visual image in your face (‘It was as if the chairs could sense the unreasonable expectations being placed upon them; they vomited their stuffing, revealed dangerous wooden splinters, and discoloured horribly in the daylight’) or to jar you with her appositions, and the performative despair she puts her characters through, there is something here that makes the giddy sense of very good experimental theatre. The story ‘Track’ is a big highlight, one woman’s struggle through a relationship with a narcissistic comedian, the ‘king of a small and ineffectual country’. The track in question is a recorded studio laughter tape, which the boyfriend carries for reassurance wherever he goes.

That is the strength of ‘Abortion: A Love Story’. Two students are having an affair with a professor, they meet by chance, both dump the professor and they write, and perform, the title play. More than playfulness, this long story is a marvellous comedy of female friendship and representation. Flattery soars when she lets her characters surface onto the vast and wicked stage – the epigram to this collection, from Lorrie Moore. ‘Only someone so gifted would do so little to announce themselves,’ the narrator muses in ‘Track’. It seems a good summation of this collection as well.

A Fugitive Canvas

April 9, 2019

We think of the Weimar Republic as the calm before the storm. Its histories are near drowned out by an ominous descending note in the reader’s imagination. Clare Clark’s stunning novel reminds us that the Republic had a great autonomous life of its own – and that things did not have to go the way they went.

Clark’s acknowledgements testify to the thoroughness of her scholarship, but she avoids the obvious trap for the historical novelist, that of throwing her research around. She wears her learning lightly, and as a result her setting is recognisably Berlin, the city of Victor Klemperer and Alfred Döblin, not to mention Bernie Gunther. It is arts and cabaret and tenements and noise and life, a city where the National Socialist movement is just one of many political annoyances Berliners shrug off from the day to day. On the beach one summer young artist Emmeline is propositioned by a group of young thugs, who call her a ‘dirty little Jewess’. Emmeline insults them back in both German and Russian. It’s a fine scene but also the only point at which Clark’s world feels artificial in the knowing historian’s sense. It feels too much like a foreboding.

The plot itself involves a complex art fraud involving fake van Goghs. We begin with the elderly art critic, Julius Köhler-Schultz, embroiled in a bitter divorce from a much younger woman. (Clark handles the dying echoes of their relationship with deft irony: Julius tells us in narration that his ex Luisa is a mindless dilettante but her voice that cuts into his thoughts is always bright and perceptive.) A young man named Matthias Rachmann seeks him out for advice on his fledgling career as an art dealer. Matthias has a Russian friend who smuggles numerous great works out of post-revolution Moscow. The novice is flattering and deferential, and soon Julius trusts him more than any living soul. Later, the young man is convicted of selling forged paintings and his disgrace threatens to ruin Berlin’s galleries, its valuation experts, anyone who was ever gulled by Rachmann’s ingenue charm.

Who cares when most of these paintings will end up on the pyres of degenerate art anyway? But Clark’s strong narrative carries you along, the pull and tug of a complex story well told, and you don’t have to know anything about art (I certainly don’t) to be absorbed in her world. (Emmeline’s chapters have some marvellous vignettes on arts in advertising and commerce.) But it is the final sequence, the diaries of Frank Berszacki, that really resonate. By this point it is 1933 and the net is tightening. Frank is a burned out lawyer, who defended Rachmann unsuccessfully. As a Jew he is vulnerable, and his passages are full of disappearances and deportations and insults and abuse.

Mourning a lost country and a lost child, Frank’s diaries are deeply sad. Yet they are also inspiring as Clark captures the forbearance and dignity in Frank’s love for his wife and their determination to keep their family together whatever the odds. You finish In The Full Light of the Sun with the sense that there will be another morning someday.

The Drama of Reassurance

April 1, 2019

I never got into Line of Duty. It’s generally on in our house and I did try at some point to watch series two in sequence but it just didn’t take. Sure, I love the BBC, but it’s rare I can enjoy its dramas. Their last great show was Happy Valley, a hardboiled crime series set in Calderdale. It ran for two seasons before the execs, presumably realising that a frisky beast had escaped the killing-pen, cancelled it for good. Since then I’ve not been able to watch flagship BBC drama.

Long before Line of Duty Jed Mercurio wrote a novel called Bodies, about a junior hospital doctor. The doctor begins with good intentions but soon becomes burned out and disillusioned with the sclerotic and unaccountable hospital trust. Eventually the doctor is himself investigated for negligence and, on suspension, he watches TV at his parents’ house:

Our public services are failing while television plays hour after hour of incorruptible policemen catching criminals, of crusading lawyers keeping the innocent out of prison, of streetwise social workers rescuing children from abuse, of heroic doctors sticking needles in tension pneumos… I’m flicking between the real world and the drama of reassurance and I feel like I’m the only person watching who recognises the mendacity, sees it clear enough to want to kick in the TV screen.

Line of Duty is about police corruption, but to me it seems also a drama of reassurance. It is an Aaron Sorkin show transferred to London – a world of impeccable people saying the right things in firm RP accents, a world of pristine uniforms and tidy, unhurried offices, of gleaming official cars and hushed corridors and an authority that listens. It is television that takes itself very very seriously. And it communicates, I think, a love of power and process.

While Line of Duty is sort of believable, Mercurio absolutely let his imagination run away from him in his stand alone series Bodyguard. Richard Madden plays a ex-soldier straight out of the metropolitan cliched image of what ex soldiers are like. He is assigned to protect Keeley Hawes, playing a Home Secretary whose policies Madden despises. Naturally, the gruff ex-squaddie and the high-class politician become lovers, before Mercurio has her character killed, and sends Madden off on a mercy mission to capture Hawes’s Deep State killers. Bitch, please. 

Clearly I’m in a minority in my views. Everyone else I know is obsessed with Line of Duty, it’s all over my social media, spilling into the news pages, and there is even a Line of Duty podcast. (What can they find to talk about?) I am the Line of Duty Grinch. But still, I’m not alone. The fabulous Danuta Kean picked up on the show’s cavalier approach to procedural details:

With the subtlety of a size nine boot, each episode has been riddled with inconsistencies that would never pass muster in a novel. From the fact that women being brutally killed seems to be less of a priority than nailing dodgy DCI Roz Huntley, through to a rookie member of the AC-12 anti-corruption team blithely scribbling his password onto a Post-it note. Or the inability of Huntley’s colleagues to notice her suppurating wound, or that all the CPS needs to prosecute is a copper with a hunch, as happens with hapless Polish cleaner Hana Reznikova.

Novelist Kate London also queried the show’s realism while recognising that its problems run deeper than fidelity to force policies.

I don’t even think that any appearance of reality is important in making us consider bigger questions. It all depends on what kind of story you are telling. In Breaking Bad, Walter White, a former chemistry teacher, runs a million-dollar methamphetamine business in Albuquerque. It’s clearly fiction but somehow the complexity of White – his relationship with his family, his young business partner and with money itself – contains something truthful that convinces us. The challenge seems to be to write a gripping plot that also makes us consider our own lives, societies and beliefs. We know TV can do this.

This is it for me. To vary an old saw, it is not the tale but how you tell it. You can start with a ridiculous premise but you can sell it if you trust the audience and tell them something they might not already know. The converse applies: you can have a very well researched and realistic story but it won’t work if you don’t recognise the intelligence of your audience or do the hard work involved in building your world.

It is a subjective thing of course but for me Line of Duty doesn’t do this so that’s why it doesn’t work. It is to the crime drama what Jeffrey Archer is to the novel.