Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Bret Easton Ellis and the Hangover

June 9, 2018

Last month there was an interview with Bret Easton Ellis in the TLS that I’ve been thinking about, by the novelist Natalie Olah. I’ve read it again and these for me are the standout passages:

Nathalie Olah: There’s a sense of culture really becoming strangled recently by this pervasive tone or moralizing and preaching, helped along by social media and the consensus culture of likes and retweets.

Bret Easton Ellis: It’s terrible. And it’s a terrible way to live as an artist. You see it affecting the arts on a vague, vague but vast scale – where is the taboo? Where is the Other? So what if it’s offensive? Good! Where is this bizarre idea of art created by committee, by a democracy, coming from? Art isn’t created by a democracy! And there seems to be this thing, especially on social media, of group-approved art, that’s chilling.

I don’t believe utopia is in our DNA. I think we’re deeply flawed animals with a sort of sexual lawlessness, that we are violent, that we want to be on top, that we want to be in control of things. We obviously don’t want to be killing each other in the streets, but we’ve got to get realistic about who we really are and what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a gay man.

I wouldn’t have been the writer I am if I’d been raised in a very safe, no-bully environment with a nice mom and dad who looked after me and made sure everything was ok. I was talking to Laura Jane Grace, who’s a transgender singer from a band called Against Me!. She’s a powerful songwriter. When she finally became Laura Jane Grace the songwriting jumped up a hundred notches. She made three great records with the band. But she said there is no way she would have ever done any of it had she had a normal childhood with parental love and acceptance from her friends. I think your experiences of pain and alienation and people marginalizing you is what forces out this expressiveness. I think we’re becoming a society that wants to erase all of that. Put everyone into this safe group that is all taken care of and everyone’s the same and no one’s different and we all love each other and we’re eradicating all pain and it’s all very nice and it’s all very utopian; I just don’t think that’s who we really are and I don’t know what the end game of that is.

How much there is to unravel here! I love Ellis, but there’s a familiar tone in his remarks, that of the older maverick intellectual who no longer really understands how the world is changing and retreats into defensive cynicism and outrage seeking. It’s far more common in England where we have a very strong tradition of anti-modern disillusionment (beginning with Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, maybe even before them). With contemporary shock columnists like Rod Liddle and James Delingpole, there’s a sense they are trying to tap into this High Church aesthetic. There’s the US counterpart as well – the Grand Old Man of the counterculture, obsessed with ethnic struggle and complaining about the crazy students at Harvard these days.

Ellis’s points about virtue culture are obviously well founded but what Ellis (and many other adversarial commentators) never take into account is the backlash to that kind of culture. For every woke left virtue signalling tweet there’s a very clever man online who will spend hours deconstructing it. There’s a cottage industry now of ‘lol SJWs’. This industry has its own vanity (‘look how clever, and rational, and unemotional I am!’) and its own sensitivities. The latest thing is the phrase ‘gammon’ to describe a certain kind of reactionary, middle aged fellow. No sooner had this term entered usage then the other side of the culture war mounted its high horse, and damned the term as offensive towards white working class people – or people with hypertension, I can’t keep up.

My point is that virtue culture and SJWs used to dominate discourse but it’s darker and more complicated than that now. I am convinced that more and more people are getting turned away from political discourse because it is so toxic and full of this kind of self aggrandisement. Perhaps that is the point. But writers don’t often say so, because the poetry of fighting SJWs has a strong simple lure of its own.

What does all that say about social justice? Like Ellis, I don’t think utopia is in our DNA. We’re wired up for survival rather than happiness and the realisation of this is a huge psychological boost, it has been for me anyway. Where this feeds into Ellis’s points about generational cultures is, again, where it gets more complicated. Millennials tend, in my experience, to be more hardy and practical than older people – they have learned to manage without the welfare state and full employment that older generations took for granted.

Does that explain ‘why there isn’t a Great Millennial Novel. Or The Great Millennial Novelist’ as Ellis asks? Who knows, I can’t name an epic Augie March style defining book for millennials, although there have been fine books by millennials and perhaps that epic definitive work will come. It is – contra the envy trope that writers have to be hot, young and marketable – not easy for young people to get stuff published.

Utopia is not in our DNA. What is there is a striving for positive change and positivity, and it comes, incrementally and gradually. Bad experiences may make you stronger, or more creative, but more often that not they leave nothing but bad memories. Like Ellis says, who knows what the end game will be or what tomorrow will bring? Perhaps safety and happiness is an illusion – but it’s worth looking for, all the same. And the search may be our one reliable instinct.

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Diary of a Hard Woman: Louise O’Neill’s ‘Almost Love’

May 20, 2018

What a perfect novel this must have been to pitch. All you had to say was ‘It’s a story of a woman who lets down everyone in her life, including herself.’ Or: ‘This book is about a ghastly person who you would cross a five-lane highway to avoid.’ As my colleague Annabel says: ‘Sarah is selfish, and thus a hard character to love. It’s a brave author that bases a novel around someone so unsympathetic’. God but Sarah Fitzpatrick is awful.

An artist and schoolteacher from rural Ireland, Sarah struggles in liberal Dublin. She has talent as an artist but not quite enough to propel her into the big time. She is a good teacher but can’t be bothered with the hours of donkey work teachers need to do to stay ahead. Her life is a bottleneck, a familiar one. At a parents’ evening she meets Matthew Brennan, a wealthy property developer twenty years older, who has just got out of a messy divorce. They develop a relationship based around rough casual sex in hotels. Sarah wants something more from Matthew – but she can’t say what. She obsesses over him, wants to possess him, and it overwhelms her life.

In another kind of novel Sarah would be really bad. She would stalk Matthew, kidnap his children, frame him for murder. But Sarah does not do the extravagant evil of a Judith Rashleigh or Amy Elliott Dunne: instead she operates on a low-level social nastiness that is much more familiar. She gets drunk and hijacks special occasions. She turns friends and housemates against each other. She comes off as being embarrassed and irritated by her loving monogamous partners. She uses and abuses those who love her to impress those who don’t.

O’Neill loves the monster she’s created. She invests enough in Sarah’s unhappy backstory to make us care a little, too. The novel really captures the rhythms of life – births, deaths, marriages, breakups – in the close social circle where Sarah finally exhausts everyone’s sympathy. But close relationships can be suffocating and the lectures from friends and family, while well founded, are clearly hard for Sarah to take. Being constantly told what to do and how to live is part of how so many young people get screwed up.

There’s a telling scene where Matthew takes Sarah to his gated mansion just to talk. This huge palatial residence only reveals the smallness of the man who lives there. Matthew has always presented himself as an alpha male but at this point the mask slips and it’s obvious that he’s just a lonely broken man who has fucked up his marriage and will never get over it. Sarah, true to form, feels only contempt for the pathetic loser behind the winner and walks out on him.

This is about as intimate as this couple gets, and the relationship tails out not long after that. The rest of the story is a fast road into the darkness. It becomes compelling as the reader races through each chapter of Sarah’s disasters and betrayals, looking for a redemption that doesn’t happen. Yet it’s not dreary or depressing at all. The ending resonates and you do hope that Sarah manages to get her head together and make something of herself. Life is a test, but not always a test that’s fair or simple. Hemingway said that the world breaks everyone and some grow strong at the broken places. God, I hope so.

The Runner Slows Down

May 13, 2018

This is no easy post to write. It may well be the most contentious thing I’ve written. It’s personal to me because many of my friends, colleagues, close acquaintances, people I admire, people I respect, are marathon runners. I’m in a long term relationship with someone who has run half marathons. So here’s the problem: I think marathons are boring.

Don’t worry – this isn’t going to be a Spiked Online style rant about the evils of ‘charity muggers’. I think charities are a massively important part of civil society, I have worked for charities, I think on the whole they do an enormous amount of good. I know the argument that some people only give to charity so that they can feel good about themselves – but so what. The drug of sanctimony is harmless in small doses.

So whenever anyone passes the tin around for a charity marathon, I always give. But part of me sighs inside. Why?

It’s not like I don’t care for exercise. I have worked out on and off for almost twenty years, I use a home cycle, I even box occasionally, I walk most everywhere (and not just because automotive travel gives me panic attacks). When I was younger I used to get up at 6am and sprint up and down the Transpennine or around Woodhouse Park, and then go to work. I’m no alpha male, I’m another middle aged suburban guy with a beer gut, but I do understand the benefits and pleasure of exercise. People say: ‘Running is very good not just for physical health but for your mental health.’ I get that.

So why am I bored of marathons? I think it is just one of those minor irritations that we all have towards people who do other things that are positive but for some reason we find annoying and objectionable, in a way that is hard to define. If blogging has a purpose in this day and age, it is a space for refining one’s irrational prejudices.

Part of my feeling is that a marathon seems like such a waste of time. Sign up for a marathon and you are committing yourself to months of preparation for a single event. And it doesn’t seem like a fun event – you are not going to be tearing around green spaces but logjammed in a city centre with hundreds of other sweating, red-faced competitors, which for me would take all the pleasure and freedom out of running. It’s a subjective thing, but by the same token I don’t go to the gym because I don’t want to be surrounded by other customers and landfill chart house when I can work out in my house with Netflix and my own superior music.

Marathon runners raise sponsorship money – again, I think that’s great, no problems there – but then, it would be less time consuming if you just sold your car and gave that money to charity. Okay, that means you don’t have a car, but on the other hand you have just saved yourself months of free time, a net gain. Living without a car will give you an exercise benefit from having to walk places instead. You might say it’s not practical to give up the car, but neither really is running 13-26 miles in one day.

Which brings me to my next point: marathon running is very compartmentalised. Journalist Nick Cohen – a late, unlikely and enthusiastic marathon runner – tried to imagine what a truly health based society would look like. He concluded that it would not be enough to crack down on booze, tobacco and junk food.

Pedestrians and cyclists would have priority on the roads. If the roads are too narrow to take cars, cycle lanes and a pavement wide enough to allow pedestrians to walk or run in comfort, then cars will have to go. School runs will become history as heads refuse to admit any able-bodied child who arrives at school in a car.

It will not necessarily be illegal to drive in towns and cities, just pointless. Motorists would inch along because cycle and bus lanes would take up road space and pelican crossings would be reset so pedestrians never had to wait more than a minute to cross a road. Even when they reached their destinations, drivers would search forever for a space because car parks would have been demolished and replaced with public parks.

My point is that rather than close the city centre road network for one day to have a marathon we should be encouraging people to avoid car travel where possible. That means restructuring cities so that they are easier to walk and run in.

Probably the main issue for me is the commitment thing. It just seems overly stressful to commit yourself to a long term training regime. It fits neatly, though, with the way our society is going. It’s like for capitalism to be viable people have to commit to more and more – the mortgage, the family, the career, the schools – until it overwhelms their lives and finally burns them out.

Let me end the rambling and contentious post by saying again that no disrespect to you if you are into marathon culture and the mass charity running. I’ll be on Woodhouse Moor.

(Image: Wikipedia)

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.

On Sin, Passivity, Aggression

November 4, 2017

A few years ago a local ideas festival in my city held a panel debate called ‘Has lad culture gone too far?’ This innocuous title turned out to be misleading – I suspect that the event had been organised by a fringe libertarian group to publicise its own agenda and that most of the audience (and the festival organisers) weren’t aware of that. I wandered down out of curiosity. True to form, there was a local councillor and a sexual violence support worker for balance, but the panel was dominated by a couple of men who pushed heavy politicised grievances against the feminist movement – portrayed as a network of hysterics trying to police free speech and behaviour. As the evening dragged on, the atmosphere inside the community hall grew pricklier. I heckled. Other people heckled. Women walked out of the hall, visibly shaken with anger.

That night came back to me as I followed the sexual assault and harassment scandal of the past few weeks. It feels like a turning point, but then Savile and the celeb scandals felt like a turning point and I still remember people at the time, with the reflexive bitterness that passes for cynicism in this country, saying that it was all a ‘witchhunt’, a ‘bandwagon’, that accusers were ‘attention seeking’ and all of this. What I learned though, was that the real personal liberty at the core of it all is physical autonomy. You have nothing without it. The struggle for physical autonomy was a significant part of anti slavery and torture movements, it has been written into international law and is the reason we have courts and prisons. Argue against feminism all you want, but if you think women should just put up with being groped, hassled and followed around, as a matter of course, then you are no kind of liberal or libertarian. Don’t pretend you are talking out of good faith.

I also wonder about the proposed safeguards to this kind of thing. Political correspondents cry ‘If only Parliament had a proper HR department’ without considering that, outside the Westminster village, HR is very much part of the problem. Things get covered up, because ‘he’s a good manager, he’s been with us 37 years, he will be unioned up, the papers might get involved and it’s all too difficult.’ Lashing together some kind of regulatory body for the HoC won’t change anything. There’s a reason these things happen to large sclerotic semi accountable organisations, it is because people like their pay scales, their flexi and their little games – any serious reform that threatens this will be quietly tabled forever. Harvey Weinstein is Harvey Weinstein, Jimmy Savile is Jimmy Savile, he’s been with us Xlight years… papers might get involved… too difficult…

I can, off the top of my head, think of reasonable safeguards that could minimise sexual harassment in workplaces. My ideas may well have all kinds of flaws and complications, they may have already been implemented with problems arising, but I use this blog to blue sky. Don’t worry, I don’t want segregated spaces or speech codes – these are just simple proposals which would in my view be good for workers’ rights anyway.

1) Ensure a reasonable gender ratio in offices or on projects – because, obviously, men are unlikely to harass women if there are other women around

2) Introduce entry-level representation at strategy/board level and ensure that a reasonable proportion of reps are women. A senior exec is less likely to harass a woman employee if he knows he’ll be facing that employee at a strategy meeting the next day.

3) Build protections into employment law that allow employees to discuss workplace experiences outside the workplace – including on social media. As long as data protection is not breached, there’s no reason people should not be able to discuss work matters on Facebook or in the pub. The workplace omerta must be broken.

Of course these would only be structural changes and would not address social misogyny and the established level of entitlement that an alarming number of men seem to have. But, if a sense of entitlement can lead to evils, so can humility. Part of the reason that predatory men get away with what they do, is because we are all conditioned to an extent into passivity – to accept what is, manage your expectations, keep your head down and say nothing. This stuff is drummed into you at a young age and reinforced in adulthood by workplace conditionality, class etiquette, credit and debt, libel courts and half a hundred other things. Even the advice we give to prevent sexual assaults – plan your night, don’t walk home alone, stick to main roads – is commonsensical but reinforces that sense of passivity.

The problem is us, Jonathan Freedland writes today, and also says that ‘I suspect most of us have been interrogating our own past or present conduct in the workplace, wondering if we’ve been getting it wrong. We all need to make that effort, and to make it in good faith.’ And I agree – a moral inventory of this kind is useful, and necessary. But we can all try in our lives to be more proactive, when it counts, and less passive. It won’t be easy, but it can be done. The courageous stories and reportage on this subject over the last few weeks is hopefully just the beginning of how.

Harder Than Heaven

July 23, 2017

I don’t know who it was that called Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness ‘the longest short novel’ but, in terms of long short novels, Boualem Sansal’s 2084 gives it a run for its money. He writes his religious dystopia in short, elegant, powerful sentences and paragraphs, which (thanks also to his translator, Alison Anderson) convey all too well the cruelty and struggle of his fictional Abistan.

The enemy in Orwell’s 1984 is ‘called by a Chinese name normally translated as Death-Worship, but perhaps better rendered as Obliteration of the Self.’ That seems to sum up Sansal’s Abistan quite well. In Abistan life is lived out according to a single holy book, with a prophet figurehead as god’s representative on earth. People are allocated housing, employment and other privileges according to a rigorous examination of personal morality in which the citizen must recite psalms and scripture and stanzas: everyone wears robes, embroidered according to status, caste and said moral score. Technology is almost non-existent, food bitter and scarce, no one ever leaves their designated district and crossing the country itself takes years. Economy is reliant upon an endless war without, and within on public executions, the mechanics of torture, the bureaucracy of power, and on long, hazardous pilgrimages all meant to ‘transform useless, wretched believers into glorious, lucrative martyrs.’

Sansal’s novel is blurbed as a tribute to George Orwell’s classic, and indeed it sometimes surpasses the original in its prose. True, there is little dialogue or dramatisation – Sansal breaks the rule of the finger-wagging creative writing hack, that you should always show rather than tell. His writing is elegant and demonstrates obvious empathy as well as the continual apprehension of fresh hells.

The story itself is no great shakes. Protagonist Ati returns to his home town after spending a year in the mountain sanatorium where a superstitious regime sends its sick. Surviving such perilous convalescence in itself grants Ati a higher revised status, and he is given more relative autonomy within the province. A good believer all his life, Ati becomes more curious about the society he lives in. He teams up with the wealthy scholar Koa and the two men try to infiltrate the heart of government to find out Abistan’s secret origins.

Fans of dystopian fiction will smile in recognition at the 1984 references that Sansal weaves into his text – you will recognise the enormous woman in the courtyard, singing as she hangs her line out, an Abistani analogue of the ‘red-armed woman’ from 1984, who sings ‘They sye that time heals all things,/They sye you can always forget’… inspired in turn by Orwell’s early mornings at the BBC, when the cleaning women would sing as they went about their work.

Orwell developed this into the only element of hope in his novel: ‘The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing… everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing.’ In 2084 it is the song of fellow feeling that resonates. During their difficult journey into the heart of Abistan, Ati and Koa are helped at every turn by the common people, who show them the shortcuts and safe passages. Human nature, Sansal says, is basically good – however ‘in the presence of the forces of law and order, whether it was a war tactic or simple human weakness, they set aside their kindly disposition and heaped abuse on strangers.’

So 2084 is a more hopeful book than 1984. Orwell imagined Ingsoc going on more or less forever, while Abistan by the end becomes vulnerable from infighting. (I note here Margaret Atwood’s more optimistic theory that the Party had to have fallen at some point because of the novel’s appendix, which talks about Ingsoc retrospectively.) Perhaps Sansal’s novel in that sense reflects better the world of its time – the recent defeats of ISIS, by Iraqi and Kurdish forces as well as western air strikes, testifies to Stephen King’s line that evil is fragile as well as stupid. And what resonates from Sansal’s 2084 is the reverence for life, the sanctity of life, which in the face of terror and oppression, so often manages to find an honourable way through the dark.

Update: this fine archive piece from Leyla Sanai gives more background to Sansal and his work.

The Grave and the Proximate

July 15, 2017

In History on Trial, her account of being sued by the Holocaust denier and quack historian David Irving, one of the points that Deborah Lipstadt got across very well was that in history, there is no ‘smoking gun’. We don’t have a written order saying ‘Kill 6 million Jews. Signed, A. Hitler’. What we have is photographs, testimonies, ruins, letters, journals, fragments – that, put together, make something horrifying.

Perhaps the legal version of this historiography is the example of proximate cause that Alexandria Marzono-Lesnevich gives at the beginning of her riveting memoir. A young man, a package wedged under one arm, sprints along a crowded platform to catch a departing train. He has to jump to make it. A conductor pulls him onto the train from the carriage: a porter shoves him onto the train from the platform. But here’s the thing – the young man was carrying fireworks. The package hits the platform and explodes. Who bears responsibility for the mess – the young man, the porter, the conductor, the railroad, the firework manufacturer? It is the classic tort problem, Marzano-Lesnevich says.

The case she writes about in The Fact of a Body is not as complex. In fact the crime appears depressingly simple. One day in rural Louisiana in 1992, a little boy named Jeremy Guillory visits the house of two childhood friends. No one is at home but the lodger, a gas station worker named Ricky Langley. Langley is also a parolee who has done four years for child molestation: he has a thing for kids as young as six. Langley lures Jeremy into the house, strangles the child to death and then simply wedges the boy’s body into a closet, where it stays for three days. A police-led search of the nearby forests widens out until it occurs to somebody that they should really check out the local man with the history of predatory sex offences. When questioned, Langley admits his guilt and is sentenced to death… then to life.

Langley’s life was the sad, sordid tale of many violent convicts. He was conceived after a car crash that killed his brother and left his mother in a body cast. Doctors couldn’t understand how Bessie Langley could have fallen pregnant, on a panoply of hardcore hospital drugs and in such intensive care. Bessie insisted she wanted to keep the child, and Ricky Langley was raised in the make-do-and-mend style of poor towns and large families. His short years of adulthood out in the world were marked by suicide attempts, social isolation, and, Marzano-Lesnevich says, struggles with his attraction to small children.

As well as piecing together Langley’s backtrail, Marzano-Lesnevich draws heavily on her own past – in its way, just as fraught and troubled as that of the killer. She grew up in a family of lawyers. Her parents had a mom-and-pop practice in town, and money was tight. The father is particularly well-realised in this book, a reasonable and loving man who at the same time was impulsive and hard to live with. Frequently he’d go on drinking jags and threaten to kill himself, or to leave the family for parts unknown. Marzano comes across as a man trying for contentment, but perpetually haunted by lost possibility.

The Marzano-Lesneviches were a close family. Alexandria had a sister and a brother. The grandfather came round often, and regularly molested both young girls. Before doing this, he would take out his teeth and warn: ‘I’m a witch. Don’t forget. If you tell I’ll always come find you. Always. Even after I’m dead.’ Years of this elapsed before Alexandria felt able to report the abuse (and what a coy, euphemistic word ‘abuse’ is, when you think of what actually happens in such cases!) When she told her parents, the molesting stopped – but the grandfather’s visits continued. In college Marzano-Lesnevich suffered eating disorders, and difficulties with intimacy. As an adult, she confronted her grandfather directly about the crimes. The grandfather dismisses her. ‘Besides, what happened to you is not such a big thing,’ the old man says. ‘When I was a child, it happened to me.’

The Fact of a Body is written careful and measured, like a very highbrow psychological thriller. While reading the book I had to keep reminding myself that Marzano-Lesnevich is a writer and a lawyer and not a federal agent or behavioural scientist. She comes across as a character from Harlot’s Ghost – the FBI gothic. She worked on the appeal against Langley’s death penalty conviction, a case that seems to have permanently scarred everyone who came into contact with it. The mother of Jeremy Guillory – a fascinating person, who we don’t see enough of in the book – pleads that Langley should be spared execution. The judge involved repeatedly broke off proceedings to testify to the effect that this difficult and distressing case had on his state of mind. One detail that stayed with me is that the jurors at Langley’s original trial took a Bible into their decision room and actually prayed before deciding for execution.

There is an appearance from the British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith. Stafford Smith is an admirable figure in the text. He has spent his adult life defending convicts from the death penalty, winning the majority of his cases. During Langley’s trial Stafford Smith chose to stay in New Orleans’s dangerous urban Ninth Ward rather than the city suburbs. Yet he strikes the only dead note here. He argues not just that Langley should be saved from the needle, but that the killer should be let off entirely, due to mental illness. Stafford Smith’s father suffered from mental health problems and it seems to have made an impression. ‘Ricky is not plain mean, Ricky is mentally ill, like my dad. Far worse than my dad.’ The theory in the book is that Ricky was haunted by the ghost of his dead baby brother, Oscar – that Oscar, somehow, made him do it.

But the deeper truth of Marzano-Lesnevich’s compelling story is that there are some things the law can’t go into… and that we all have our own ghosts.

A Summer of Apprehension

July 3, 2017

‘Time had turned it into a historical novel,’ Elif Batuman writes of her debut, The Idiot, in the acknowledgements to it. She began the draft in 2000-2001, but more recently came back to her story of a shy Turkish-American student finding herself in Europe and America. But on close reading this odd, quirky campus novel seems well ahead of its time.

Protagonist Selin turns up at Harvard and finds herself lost in the 1990s academic scene as much as inside her own head. She gravitates towards teaching ESL, at first teaching classes in the Boston projects, then over the summer in Hungarian towns. She also falls in love with a Hungarian student named Ivan, an older man, a mathematician and an intellectual. The romance between two chronically awkward, introspective and self absorbed people works about as well as you’d expect. Mainly they send each other long, intense emails.

I came of age before the digital era and there’s a pleasant nostalgia in Batuman’s early electronic touches – co-op internet cafes, Ethernet cables and the clatter and zing of dial-up connections. There is a deeper recognition also in Selin’s way of looking at the world. Selin is part Turkish but barely knows Turkey, she doesn’t really understand Boston either: she travels widely but is a stranger everywhere she goes. She doesn’t do booze or sex or nightclubs, not from puritanism but because she just doesn’t see the point in such things. Critics might call Selin’s narration ‘affectless’ but this isn’t Less Than Zero, there’s no nihilism or ennui in Batuman’s novel. Selin is the opposite of bored: her narrative is a constant apprehension of new stimulus.

The story is set in the Long Calm of the 1990s but the constant references to Soviet-era literature, Europe under the commissars and medieval and Islamic history bring to the novel the constant presence of the authoritarianism of the past… and of that still to come. In an engaging interview with the Guardian Review, Batuman says: ‘ I thought: racism is over, sexism is over, bigotry is over. I was in for a rude awakening.’ Selin is surrounded by the knights of summer, but knows winter is coming.

Although Batuman takes a pride in the messiness of her structure (‘Write long novels, pointless novels. Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things’) there is a momentum to The Idiot. In it there is the gradual accumulation of references, points of friendship and in-jokes (in the second half you won’t be able to read the word ‘antlers’ without giggling) that bind Selin to her experiences, her fellow students and the wider world. Yet that wider apprehension of experience isn’t necessarily incompatible with solitude and the reading life. There is a lot to said for the simplistic and instinctual view that books get in the way of life, I personally have a respect for that position, but at the same time, can it be life if it doesn’t have reading and stories and ideas and other worlds? I doubt it.

The Trouble with Goat’s Milk

May 7, 2017

The worst individual memories often rest on something trivial. In the space sitcom Red Dwarf, neurotic technician Arnold Rimmer’s darkest secret centres around soup. Eventually he gets drunk and confesses that as an up and coming Space Corps man he was invited to the Captain’s table – a sure sign of promise. During the meal Rimmer orders a waiter to reheat his soup course – not realising it’s gazpacho, which is meant to be served cold. He blames his failures in life on this one misstep, and when he dies, these are his last words – ‘Gazpacho soup!’

Cat Marnell’s drug memoir isn’t like most drug memoirs. The tone is brisk confidential. She takes you through her childhood in Cheever country (‘The houses on my street, Kachina Lane, were so far apart that no one ever had any trick-or-treaters on Halloween’) her prep school, and first jobs in New York fashion magazines. There’s no melodrama or self-pity, but when something irritates or frightens Marnell, there are a lot of exclamations – ‘RAARRRRRR!’ ‘AAAUUUUGH!’ It’s like reading something from a feminist zine fair. The Bell Jar rewritten by Shoshanna Shapiro.

Then Marnell is assigned her first byline: a one-para analysis of goat’s milk in beauty products. Dropping prescription meds and grinding her teeth to the nerves, Marnell reworks her sentences over and over again, all through the working day and into the night. By nine thirty she is weeping at her desk in despair and frustration. Her boss takes her into a private office, gathers up what Marnell has done, and assembles a reasonable, readable para, which Marnell includes in the book – ‘This is the paragraph I’d lost my mind writing.’

How does a person reach such a state – to detonate one’s brain over 120 words on a dairy-based exfoliant? How to Murder Your Life is preoccupied with pop culture and fashion, bristling with neologisms and listicles and odd little fragments of advice – ‘When writing, never refer to your own body parts – toes, stomach, bikini area – or prisoners will use the imagery you’ve created for their masturbatory fantasies, and you will get letters from them.’ The fashion world as Marnell writes it seems dysfunctional, but not toxic or cutthroat. People collect obsessively, but don’t seem to judge by looks. This is not The Devil Wears Prada. Marnell’s employers seem like decent people, and support her through her periodic crises and rehabilitations.

Marnell’s book traces the industry from its print based boom period, through the 2008 crash and towards a more online based and body positive form of glamour. Marnell has to hide her addictions at Condé Nast, but ends up as a kind of gonzo drug correspondent for internet startups: sample articles include ‘I Spent Two Weeks in a Mental Institution, but I Left with Better Hair’ and ‘The Art of Crack-Tractiveness: How to Look and Feel Hot on No Sleep’. It’s interesting that part of Marnell misses the more prescriptive and airbrushed Manhattan scene. ‘I particular hated the gross-out stories and embarrassing bodily function-centric ‘It Happened to Me’ essays. ‘Why don’t you just hire a full time yeast infection editor, Jane?’ I’d bitch’.

Sometimes Marnell’s conversational tone clashes with the darkness of what’s happening in the narrative – in the second half of the book a lot of it is sleeplessness, penury, hallucinations, destructive narcissistic friendships and suicide attempts. But that’s also where How To Murder Your Life becomes a more muscular and involving piece of work. The life lessons aren’t obvious, but they are there, and owe more to the honest emotive grunge aesthetic of Marnell’s youth than to any twelve-step programme.

Her unconventional ending reminded me of an Atlantic piece I recently read that critiqued abstinence based addiction therapy. Reporter Gabrielle Glaser asked why alcohol and drug therapies are practically the only branch of medicine that hasn’t moved since the 1930s. She interrogates AA and NA’s low success rate, and points to more effective but barely known treatments. Cat Marnell’s cycle of binge and patchup is the norm for most addicts. But her writing is heading towards something new. A different form of struggle and desire.

Luxemburg’s Cat

April 16, 2017

Professional book reviewers, particularly recently, often attempt to bring a current affairs element into whatever new title they’re reviewing. You see phrases like ‘a disturbing portrait of a world that seems not entirely confined to the realm of fiction,’ ‘dramatic scenes that would not look out of place in the pages of today’s newspapers,’ ‘a warning of a nightmarish scenario that today seems all too possible’ – try looking for this yourself, you’ll see that I’m right as often as I’m wrong. Frequently these stabs at universalism seem inane and half hearted. But the general effect is achieved – the title under review now looks ‘timely’ and ‘relevant’.

I’ve used this rhetoric myself of course, and reading the correspondence of Rosa Luxemburg I cannot escape the cliché. There is something about Luxemburg that always feels here, that feels now, and it’s not entirely because of the politics – violent and confused as they were in Luxemburg’s time. I should say I only have a very broad understanding of events in Europe between 1891-1919, and came to Luxemburg’s letters expecting to lose myself in the activist forest of revolution, denunciations, theory and composite resolutions.

But the letters turned out to be a striking and addictive read. Great political thinkers are not always great writers (try Gramsci’s stuff if you don’t believe me) but reading Luxemburg is to be consistently blown away by her forensic intelligence and her clarity of expression and thought. She was tough, and faced with equanimity her frequent prison sentences for political non-offences. She had no time for ideological fools in the male dominated activist left (‘And with such people we’re supposed to turn the world upside down?’) and was not afraid to speak up. Enduring a Social Democratic meeting in an ‘obscure tavern on the corner of Menzel and Becker Streets’ she reports that ‘Karolus cleared his throat and began to lecture on the subject of value and exchange value… in such a unpopularised way that I was absolutely amazed. And so it went for about an hour. The poor things struggled desperately against yawning and falling asleep. Then a discussion began, I intervened, and immediately everything became quite lively.’

Not that there’s nothing to argue with here. Time and again Luxemburg affirms her faith in ‘the objective logic of history, which tirelessly carries out its work of clarification and differentiation.’ This leads her into lapses of ‘don’t rock the boat’ revolutionary conformism: during the early Leninist terror of 1918 she admits that ‘One would like to give the Bolsheviks a terrible tongue-lashing, but of course considerations do not allow that.’ Luxemburg implores a friend in April 1917 that ‘Don’t you realise it’s our own cause that is winning out triumphantly there, that World History in person is fighting her battles there and dancing the carmagnole, drunk with joy?’ As it turned out, History was dancing the mortata.

Is it an insult to dwell on Luxemburg the person? I don’t think so. A huge part of the correspondence is by nature on her relationships with others – her friendships and love affairs are at least as complicated as was the political situation at that time. She was clearly the kind of woman it’s easy to fall in love with – and she wrote the best ‘btw you’re dumped’ signoff ever, dismissing one crestfallen fellow with ‘Now you are free as a bird, and may you be happy. Principaccia no longer stands in your way. Fare thee well, and may the nightingales of the Appenine Hills sing to you and the wide-horned oxen of the Caucasus greet you.’

We see so much of Luxemberg domestically: arranging flowers, painting, playing with her cat (an intermittent delight in the letters: ‘Mimi is a scoundrel. She leaped at me from the floor and tried to bite me’) and complaining about the laxity of her domestic servants (perhaps forgetting on such occasions the role service workers had to play in the Women’s Question and the struggle of the proletariat). Even in prison she keeps herself occupied by making friends with the birds and wasps that fly in and out of the exercise yard, and cultivates little gardens on whatever patches of green space are available to her. Had she been born in 1971 instead of 1871, she’d likely be organising book groups, writing NS columns, instagramming the Trump demos and bitching about Waitrose substitutions.

Luxemburg can make you laugh at such moments. She travelled widely, and saw with fresh eyes the little quirks and discordancies of an unfamiliar landscape. She enjoys visiting the Italian Riviera, but its soundscape drives her crazy: ‘Frogs – I can put up with them. But such frogs, such a far-reaching, self-satisfied, blown-up croaking, as if the frog was the number one and absolutely most important being!… Second: the bells. I appreciate and love church bells. But this ringing every quarter of an hour, and such a light-minded, silly, childish ding-dong-ding – ding-ding-dong, which can make a person quite idiotic.’ When Lenin visits her in 1911, her cat attacks him: ‘when he tried to approach her she whacked him with a paw and snarled like a tiger.’ (Go, Mimi!)

What comes through the most, though, is Luxemburg’s force of life and joy at being alive, and this is what makes her timely and relevant, over the distance of a century or so. From a letter in 1916:

To be a human being is the main thing, above all else. And that means: to be firm and clear and cheerful, yes, cheerful in spite of everything and anything, because howling is the business of the weak. To be a human being means to joyfully toss your entire life ‘on the great scales of fate’ if it must be so, and at the same time to rejoice in the brightness of every day and the beauty of every cloud. Oh, I don’t know any recipe that can be written down on how to make a human being, I only know that a person is one, and you too always used to know when we walked together through the fields of Südende for hours at a time and the red glow of evening lay upon the stalks of grain. The world is so beautiful, with all its horrors […]