Archive for the ‘Northern Hinterlands’ Category

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.

Lantern Season

February 16, 2019

This story appears in issue 3 of the very fine Guttural journal.

Also, over at Shiny, I’ve reviewed Sue Prideaux’s phenomenal biography of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Let’s Talk About SSRIs

February 3, 2019

‘Let’s address the elephant in the room,’ the neuroscientist Dean Burnett wrote last year, reviewing Lost Connections.

Johann Hari does not have a flawless reputation. He has been absent from the spotlight for many years following a plagiarism scandal, compounded by less-than-dignified behaviour towards his critics. Admittedly, he has since shown remorse and contrition over the whole affair, but even a cursory glance online reveals he’s a long way from universal forgiveness. Logically, someone with a reputation for making false claims should be the last person making high-profile, controversial, sweeping statements about something as sensitive as mental health. And yet, here we are.

I was astounded by the scandal. I didn’t see it coming. I loved Hari’s writing. You will find pages in this blog where I quote him approvingly and rave about his work. I met him once at a panel event in Manchester. I shook his hand and gushed like a helpless fanboy.

These days I’m older and more cynical, I was certainly sceptical about Lost Connections when it was first published last year. The book was an international bestseller. The paperback edition has four pages of praise, including from Emma Thompson, Brian Eno and Alastair Campbell. I was sceptical about the marketing and extracts from the book. People have gone through Lost Connections and stress tested Hari’s claims. I am not going to drill down here, you can follow the links in Burnett’s article for that kind of critique. Nor do I want to go over Hari’s past misbehaviour, this is well documented, some people have forgiven and forgotten, others have not, I respect their feelings in both cases. I think that whatever else he lied about, Hari told the truth about his own clinical depression. The demons that haunt him are real. So when I saw the paperback edition of Lost Connections on the supermarket rack I picked it up, out of curiosity, and from a desire to give him a fair hearing, as a brother in recovery.

Lost Connections is a book about mental health. In it Hari makes several carefully crafted assertions.

  1. Too many people are taking antidepressants. These are the only real option in mental health treatment.
  2. This is because the medical establishment thinks of depression as purely a neurological problem. In fact depression has mostly social and environmental causes. The biochemical causes for mental illness are hugely exaggerated. They might not even exist.
  3. Antidepressants provide some temporary relief for a minority of users. But they carry side effects and are likely to give only superficial benefits. They may even make you worse.
  4. Doctors only prescribe antidepressants because the medical establishment has been irredeemably compromised by big pharma. Big pharma companies set the terms of the debate and game chemical trails to make their products look more effective than they really are.
  5. A lot of anxiety and depression is caused by the impact of living in an urbanised neoliberal society where we are bombarded with advertisements that raise unrealistic expectations of how we should be living. People are conditioned to want more and more stuff and to look totally perfect and get rich and it’s the difficulty of living up to these expectations that makes us sick.
  6. The neoliberal model compounds this because it takes the meaning out of our work and makes us feel like we have no control over our own lives. Social media makes us more isolated because we are stuck behind screens rather than being part of real life, meaningful communities.
  7. There are loads of different treatments and ways of living that can cure anxiety and depression but the medical establishment won’t explore these because there’s not the money in these alternative treatments as there is in big pharma.

There is truth in some of these assertions. But in Hari’s book there is always the sense that you are not being told the whole truth. Disingenuousness sparkles across his pages like mica.

There are problems with prescribing. There is no doubt that drug companies have ruined lives. In America entire communities have been destroyed by overprescribing of opioid medications, that have been pushed onto clinics by aggressive marketing strategies. Opioids kill more people than AIDS in the 1980s. Thousands and thousands of people have died of overdose – mainly the young, and the white working class. It is a modern Vietnam. There are parts of Appalachia where people will cash in Gramps’s life insurance and the kids’ college fund to buy pills. There were clinics where the doctors carry guns. The problem is way beyond the scope of this blogpost. I would recommend Beth Macy‘s Dopesick and Chris McGreal‘s American Overdose, both outstanding works of longform journalism. Can’t happen here, right? Don’t be so sure. McGreal says that opioid related deaths have more than doubled in England and Wales since 2012.

But fine, let’s talk about SSRIs.

There are problems with treatment. The number one cause of death for working age people in the UK is suicide. Many sufferers in the UK have no access to effective mental health care at all. They will also be discriminated against in other areas of life – try getting insurance with a known mental health problem, for example. It is difficult to get in front of a psychiatrist in the UK because the state has little interest in training skilled professionals or supporting them on the frontline. It’s also hard to get inpatient treatment unless you’re completely off the reservation and even if you are admitted you might not be safe. That’s not anyone’s fault in particular, clinicians in the NHS work incredibly hard under very difficult conditions, but talented people can only do so much.

If you seek help the first thing that happens is triage. MH professionals will ask you to fill in the PHQ9 with priority being the question that asks how likely you are to kill yourself. If you’re particularly high risk the MH professional will then go through your protective factors. What is it keeping you alive? You say something like ‘I have these thoughts of ending my life but I would never go through with it because my wife and kids would be devastated.’ I understand why professionals focus on protective factors but I think this approach compounds the problem in many people because it adds a sense of guilt and obligation to what is already going to be a volatile mix of emotions. Throw too much into that mix in someone’s head and sooner or later the tornado’s going to descend. Some people don’t come out of the tornado.

But fine, let’s talk about SSRIs. This is where Hari’s assumptions begin to fall apart. Hari took antidepressants since his teenage years. He writes several times that he researched this book with a mindset that SSRIs work and that he only reluctantly changed his mind after talking to sceptical practitioners and people from different walks of life. I’m afraid I personally don’t believe him on that point, I think he wrote Lost Connections based on the assumptions I listed at the beginning of this post.

Here is Hari’s problem. Practitioners already know that a lot of people are anxious and depressed because they lead sad and difficult lives. A couple of months before his book came out, Financial Times reporter, Sarah O’Connor, visited Blackpool in the UK. Blackpool has some of the highest prescription rates in the country. O’Connor spoke to local GPs about the problem.

Doctors in places such as this have a private diagnosis for what ails some of their patients: ‘Shit Life Syndrome’. [Dr] Rajpura laughs when I mention it. ‘Yeah, I’ve heard that from GPs in Blackpool.’ The term isn’t meant to sound dismissive. People with SLS really do have mental or physical health problems, doctors say. But they believe the causes are a tangled mix of economic, social and emotional problems that they — with 10- to 15-minute slots per patient — feel powerless to fix.

As Burnett says:

Personally, I’d always assumed the role of life events was widely accepted, and has been for decades. In psychiatry/medicine/psychology, this is often known as the Biopsychosocial model, and any decent professional will be very aware of it. Far from being a revelation of Hari’s, it was mooted back in the 70s, and has been part of standard teaching for at least 20 years.

Hari even visits a GP practice in his part of London that has pioneered a ‘social prescribing’ approach where long term patients get together, get to know each other and work to improve the local environment. This stuff works, and Hari could have visited a dozen other GP practices with in house social prescribers who offer 60-minute appointments and can help with housing and financial issues. There is loads that can be done even in hard times but often you’re back to the ten minute triage consult with the GP trying to figure out – is this person going to kill himself and can I stop him? Medicine’s job is to keep you alive and functional. It’s not to unravel the trauma in your soul or give you the secret to eternal happiness – which doesn’t exist, for we’re wired for survival rather than contentment. The NHS struggles even to keep elderly people alive through a hard winter. Medicine’s job is to keep you upright and breathing air. Nothing loftier should be demanded of it.

When I was last in therapy in 2016 my psychologist told me that there are two ways to undergo psychotherapy. You can take a quick fix, fine-tune your mind a little bit and then leave. Or you can deep dive into yourself and find out what it is that’s at the heart of your sickness. There is absolutely no shame, the psychologist told me, in taking option one. Bear in mind that if you’re in front of a therapist you will likely have been triaged and you’re likely at absolute rock bottom. It might have been an epic struggle just to leave the house to get to the appointment. There is no disgrace in taking the easy option of a few sessions to get you functional and working again. It’s okay not to open some doors.

What I want to say is that there are limits to the social model as well as the biochemical model. Imagine you go to the doctor’s again, except instead of GPs, the practice is run by a team of social scientists. If you’re poor and unemployed the social scientist might say: ‘Oh dear, it looks like you have mental illness caused by being a victim of capitalist individualism. Nothing to be done, I’m afraid, we’re stuck with it.’ If you’re an investment banker, the social scientist might say: ‘Oh dear, it looks like you have mental illness caused by becoming too successful in our neoliberal world and therefore you’ve cut yourself off from meaningful experience. No amount of worldly riches will heal your compromised soul. Try zumba classes or something.’

I’m simplifying, but I do feel there are limitations to exploring the social and environmental model of mental distress. It can make you feel helpless, and there is a darker current to thinking of problems in terms of entrenched and powerful systems, as the Trump and Brexit movements have proved. Hari concentrates on diseases of affluence such as obesity and social media burnout but I think in the near future these will give way to the more traditional diseases of want. I think the overavailability of SSRIs is going to be the least of our worries. If you liked neoliberalism, you’ll love nativism.

The very heavy focus on social issues leads Hari into some strange places. He interviews a woman in Arizona who lost her baby during labour. Hari says that the DSM has something called a ‘grief exception’ in which patients can show all the symptoms of depression but not be diagnosed. Then he says the grief exception was dropped in the DSM 2015 version. ‘So now if your baby dies and you go to the doctor the next day and you’re in extreme distress, ‘you can be diagnosed immediately,’ Joanne explained to me.’

Er, I’m not sure. There is always a sense in this book that Hari has not really thought through what he’s saying or really challenged himself with it. He discusses a study at the University of Essex that ‘tracked the mental health of people of more than five thousand households over three years. They wanted to look at two types of household in particular – people who moved from a leafy green rural area to a city, and people who moved from a city to a leafy green rural area.’ And, quelle surprise: ‘the people who moved to green areas saw a big reduction in depression, and the people who moved away from green areas saw a big increase in depression.’ We get depressed when we are cut off from nature.

No doubt that’s true, and well worth mentioning. But you can look at it from another angle. Young people who grow up in the rural leafy green area may be depressed because they don’t fit in to what could be a conservative small community. They will only get better if they move to a cosmopolitan city or somewhere where they feel they can be themselves. Lost Connections has loads of things like this. A month after publication of Hari’s book, the Lancet released a study that claimed that antidepressants were effective in treating major disorders. I don’t know if Hari discussed this on his website or social media at the time but a paperback afterword would have been the ideal opportunity to hit back against his critics and catch up with his interviewees. There’s no afterword. It is a curious omission.

I should declare an interest in all this. I have no clinical or scientific background. I have been fighting mental illness for fifteen years and been on SSRIs for at least ten of those. I’ve been in the tornado. I’ve been sectioned. I am technically disabled under the Equality Act (at least according to an occupational health report I once had). I get anxiety attacks that place significant limitations on what I can do. I can’t get in a moving vehicle. I can’t travel. I walk down to my local cafe bar, a place I’ve been a thousand times, and I’m sitting there with a pot of tea and the newspapers and suddenly I can’t breathe. Why?

I can’t complain though, I do not have ‘shit life syndrome’, I am privileged really, but I’m still getting these attacks. One of the reasons I was curious about Hari’s book was that I’m of the same generation as him and it was interesting to compare our different journeys through life and how we dealt with these significant problems. Hari’s book contains many inspiring moments and genuine psychological insight, and I’ve often thought that despite everything he would have made a good therapist. His chapters on the Berlin rent strike and the Baltimore bike co op are worth reading. So despite everything, I would recommend Lost Connections – with caution, and due diligence, and a small bucket of salt – but first I would recommend other mental health writers, like Emily Reynolds, and Bryony Gordon, and Sara Benincasa, and Elizabeth Wurtzel, and William Styron. I would also strongly advise to think long and hard, and consult a doctor, if you are thinking about stopping your meds.

One thing my therapist suggested to me was to imagine myself with a team of bodyguards who could talk me down from panic attacks. She advised me to make a list of five or six people. They could be people from real life, or fictional characters, or celebrities. The first bodyguard I thought of was Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. It sounds ridiculous when I write it down, but often now when I’m crossing a busy road and feel an attack coming on, I imagine Mike Ehrmantraut standing next to me, and he says: ‘Relax, kid. You’re on the home stretch.’

Books Do Furnish A Room

January 19, 2019

Marie Kondo says you should only have 30 books at home. I literally have no idea who Marie Kondo is. I know Marie Kondo’s name because she has been quoted all over social media, often by people who don’t understand the full context of her words, saying that you should only have 30 books at home. I can’t really be bothered to watch the Marie Kondo show or read whatever interview where she says you should only have 30 books at home, and I understand that this makes me one of the people who bang on (without understanding the context) about Marie Kondo saying you should only have 30 books at home.

My friend Scout had the best take on this. Scout mocked the sometimes hysterical reactions to Marie Kondo’s point: how can Marie Kondo have only 30 books? Who is this unlettered philistine Marie Kondo? I should simply die if I did not have a house stacked on every available surface with books: Marie Kondo makes me want to drown in a bathtub of books! Scout’s point made me laugh because it touched on the odd fetishism that British intelligentsia has for the physical book.

I remember in the early 2010s people flapped about the impact of e books, and worried that kindles would kill the physical book. That didn’t happen because readers love the physical book. Publishers often (quite reasonably) market books as physical artefacts rather than stories and ideas. In Lena Dunham’s Girls Hannah Horvath is on contract to write an e book. Another publisher offers her a deal to write a physical book. Hannah is a product of the digital age. Yet she accepts the second offer with much more enthusiasm. Why? Because the physical book has authority.

So I can’t really laugh at the twee bourgeois lit world, its cooing and fluttering over the physical book, because I share that fetishism for books as objects and artefacts. My home is full of books. It just happened. My gf says, in jest of course: ‘You have filled our home with books! I feel like they’re closing in on me.’

‘Books do furnish a room,’ I’d say back.

On occasion, when I’m at work, and my gf working from home, she will send me a text with a picture of a box or package that has come in the mail, and ask: ‘Max! Have you been buying BOOKS!?!’

‘Books do furnish a room,’ I text back.

I do try. Sometimes – given energy enough and time – I’ll rearrange the books. I’ll even give books away. I can be stern with myself. I’ll happily give away duplicates, or books that have been discredited, or books that are just plain bad. But then it’s like: if I’ve got two or three of the same book, which edition do I give away? I have a copy of John Cheever’s Falconer which I accidentally ordered in French. I can’t read French so that one should probably go. Still, it’s not a bad looking edition. Also, some books can’t be donated (ask your local charity bookseller how much worthless crap his shop gets in every day). Also, a bad book is as special as a good book. I may need to refer to the bad book in passing at some point, in some customary throwaway witticism. You can see the bind I’m in.

Christopher Hitchens wrote about this, of course much more elegantly than I can, in his short piece ‘Prisoner of Shelves’. He found that despite living ‘in a fairly spacious apartment in Washington, D.C…. for some reason, the available shelf space, which is considerable, continues to be outrun by the appearance of new books. It used to be such a pleasure to get one of those padded envelopes in the mail, containing a brand-new book with the publisher’s compliments. Now, as I collect my daily heap of these packages from my building’s concierge, I receive a pitying look.’

It wasn’t always like this. I’ve lived in my current home longer than I ever lived anywhere since I left my mother’s house (which is, since I come from a family of readers, filled with books). As an adult I mainly lived in rented accommodation, sometimes moving several times a year. I didn’t care much about the physical book then. I remembered Robert Heinlein’s maxim – that you only truly own what you can carry on your back when you’re running from an angry mob. That was my credo then. Still is now to some extent. There’s a feeling when life is well that you’re gonna be hit by catastrophe at any moment. The sound of a plane somewhere, on a summer’s day. You prepare yourself mentally for homelessness and disaster. You’re packing the go-bag in your mind. Or is that just me?

You only own what you can carry on your back, running. You never really own anything. You can’t take it with you, and the world’s a volatile place: for all of us, sooner or later, the great comedy of ownership will end. So it’s kind of ridiculous to fill your house with books. But I don’t care. Why? Because life is impermanent, but clutter is human.

Northern Noir

December 19, 2018

Amazed and delighted to be among ten winners of Bradford Literature Festival’s crime writing competition. It’s only today been announced I think and I’m looking forward to the judges’ feedback, but it’s a fine thing to win and I am very happy to be honoured.

Acts of Faith: R O Kwon’s ‘The Incendiaries’

December 2, 2018

People are leads in their personal dramas more than they are witnesses to social change. Jane Smiley’s epic Last Hundred Years trilogy is a long story about the lives of Iowa farmers over the last century. Many of her small town characters leave the farm for wider pursuits, but don’t get heavily involved in the seismic cultural changes of the mid 20th century.

Janet Langdon is an exception. She winds up in San Francisco and drifts into the Peoples Temple cult. Her aunt (an ex communist herself) sees the red flags, and persuades her to come back to Iowa instead of leaving for Guyana with other recruits. One day in 1978, Janet sees in the news that something has happened in Guyana.

The front-page article did not say that they were all dead, only three to four hundred. The article did not say that American soldiers had raided the Guyana compound and mowed everyone down with machine guns, which was Janet’s instant thought as her eye raced down the page. When she read it more slowly, she saw that American soldiers were actually nowhere in the vicinity, that everyone was using the words ‘mass suicide,’ and Janet’s next thought was, how did Reverend Jones persuade Lucas to kill himself? Such a thing was not possible.

Janet realises then that she had a lucky escape, that she almost crossed the line between personal drama and world drama. It’s a line that can lead over the cliff’s edge.

R O Kwon’s protagonist, Will Kendall, is very much a witness. He is an ex Christian who transfers out of bible college to the Edwards party school. He falls in love with more confident and relaxed Phoebe Haejin and follows her into a secretive religious cult led by the mysterious John Leal. Phoebe is popular and beautiful, but just as screwed up as her boyfriend Will, blaming herself for her mother’s death in a car accident. Will is very much the callow youth character – a man from a poor background, working at restaurants to pay his tuition, he has the same mix of recklessness and conservatism that characterised Donna Tartt’s male heroes. His problem is that he has lost his faith but found nothing to replace it. Yet it’s Will who escapes the Leal cult while the more capable Phoebe is swallowed whole. The novel is split narration but her sections tail out. She becomes world drama, but loses her authentic voice.

The Incendiaries is a very economic read, clocking in at just 210 pages. Part of this is the MFA-style prose, where the author condenses everything down into as few words as possible, while still feeling pressured to evoke what’s happening (‘She picked me up to drive to John Leal’s house. Paired taillights swept ahead of us, the red lamps slewing here, there’) but mostly it’s because Kwon knows exactly what she’s doing. Her Leal cult is deliberately unoriginal – it features the usual slave labour, marathon hazings and acts of terror.

Fanatical beliefs tend to come in packages. Fanatical thinking tends to manifest itself along the same lines. Leal himself was inspired, like Lev Gumilev, while doing time in a gulag. He worked with a Seoul refugee group and was captured by the North Koreans. Leal is struck by the loyalty his fellow inmates continue to demonstrate for the North Korean despot. ‘Punished for absurdities, they still maintained that the beloved sovereign, a divine being, couldn’t be too blame… Some people needed leading. In or out of the gulag, they craved faith. But think if the tyrant had been as upright as his disciples trusted him to be. The heights he’d have achieved, if he loved them’.

Kwon is more interested in the roots of belief – the idea that ‘some people need leading’. Will feels his change in outlook always as a loss – he is envious of people who can still believe in the Christian god. ‘Instead, Will hustled. He strove. It felt as though, having lost the infinite, he couldn’t waste what little time he had.’ Phoebe wants to annihilate herself in something bigger because of her sense of guilt – she thinks she’s responsible for her mother’s death. In one of her final chapters she lists the names on plague-year tombstones, dozens of them, in capitals, dissolves her voice in an act of remembrance. ‘I thought I’d see the face of God and live,’ she writes to Will. ‘I’ve since learned that it’s possible to love life without loving mine.’

This sentence chills. It comes from a place of belief, in God or perhaps from what psychologists call ‘core beliefs’ that become entrenched quickly through experience. I wonder if the reason these stories keep playing themselves out is that our core beliefs dovetail so easily with religions and cults? Jordan Peterson, explaining his infamous lobster theory, backed up his dog-eat-dog view of life with Matthew 25:29: ‘to those who have everything, more will be given; from those who have nothing, everything will be taken.’ Peterson adds: ‘You truly know you are the Son of God when your dicta apply even to crustaceans.’

I thought of this, in turn, when I was arguing with a Jehovah’s Witness on my doorstep (this was the latest of several visits from the Witnesses and I was trying to persuade them, in the nicest possible way, to cross my house off their list and never come back) and the woman said: ‘It will be okay – when Jesus returns, he will save the good people, and the wicked will be destroyed.’ That is the reason for the persistence of faith – rather than creating an alternative, more spiritual space in the contemporary jungle, religion offers a strong Darwinian survival mechanism. ‘I believed I’d always live,’ says Will, ‘along with the people I loved.’ The wicked and the lost souls go to the wall, and the point is not to be one of them.

So perhaps The Incendiaries is about how faith and ideology can sustain, or destroy, a life – and the lives of others. It isn’t clear from Kwon’s novel how we find better ways of surviving – but the task surely should be attempted.

Now We Are Pink

November 16, 2018

I was delighted and surprised to hear last month that my story above won the Wells Literary Festival short story prize this year. The story is available to download as a pdf, along with the other listed entries, on the link above.

The Promised Land of Low Expectations

November 9, 2018

The narrator of Catherine Lacey’s title story explains what gives her collection its name:

The loneliness of certain American states is enough to kill a person if you look too closely— I think he said that once, Leonard did, while I was thumbing the photo albums again, trying to figure out what happened, how I got here. The loneliness of the trailer park. The loneliness of a warped Polaroid.

That is Certain American States in one para. It’s endless unrolled freeways, the sight of shadows on the ground of sunny day, a series of dispatches from purgatory. Wisdom is a lie. Maturity is an illusion.

The protagonist of the story ‘Learning’ recalls a college roommate who was obsessed with the Grateful Dead. The roommate was a fool who borrowed thousands from the narrator and never paid her back. ‘We did Jägermeister shots, drove drunk, set an old couch on fire—or rather, he did all these things and I warmed my palms in the heat of his wildness. We spent whole weekends smoking terrible pot and listening to worse music.’ Years later it appears that the Grateful Dead guy has cleaned up his act, starting a family and starting a social media platform called ‘The Grateful Dad’. The narrator goes to his book launch. The Grateful Dad says things like ‘since there are exactly three hundred and sixty- five pages in the book, it also works like a yearly devotional. You know— Jesus really said that prayer can happen anytime, in any kind of voice, you know? Like it doesn’t have to be all Thy and Thou and everything. And, you know, this was Jesus saying this.’ Nothing has changed. He is still a dick.

As Lacey writes in another passage, from her flatsitting story ‘Small Differences’:

Never mind, I said, and now I know better—no one should trust the feelings that occur at nineteen or twenty. Everyone should just sit very still until they reach the calmer waters of later- young- adulthood, that promised land of lowered expectations.

At the same time, there is no sense of ennui, no lazy dissatisfaction in these stories. The story ‘ur heck box’ features a woman from a conservative Texas family who relocates to New York. Having escaped her family, she still thinks about them constantly. The daughter’s memories of her family are bracketed, with offshoot thoughts put in secondary brackets, and still further thoughts put in a third set of brackets – everything hedged and qualified, a mind caving in on itself, the ultimate picture of the neurotic Manhatten sensibility. You expect a Sweet Home Alabama ending where the protagonist returns to her uncomplicated southern family where the tensions in her heart softly unroll. Not at all. Instead her mother turns up in New York, and it is obvious that the parent is as confused as the daughter. I read an article about the best cities to get old in and it said New York was a good place. You can walk around. Lots of resources and hospitals, she said. You realise that all these two characters have is each other, and it’s a scary thing. 

The story ‘Family Physics’ was the highlight for me, about a peripatetic woman who from an early age has run away from her family, but cannot seem to get shot of them, no matter how many miles and years she crosses. The collection can be sad, but not depressing – there is no feeling of tiredness or drag to Lacey’s prose, in fact everything seems to sparkle in hard, glittery facets, there is all sorts of unnoticed life here. Certain American States is a short collection that feels long – but it proves that in purgatory the freaks can still dance.

The Beautiful Acausal

October 28, 2018

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy takes place in a near future where the red planet has been colonised. It is a multicultural democracy full of cities and commerce. The Mars project is led by John Boone and Frank Chalmers, two powerful personalities as different as darkness and noon. John is the brave handsome space pioneer who is always trying to do the right thing. Frank is a volatile intellectual brimming with repressed passions. Inevitably, they begin as friends but end as rivals. The prologue of Red Mars begins with John making a speech on a planetwide party night. ‘We were on our own; and so we became fundamentally different beings,’ John says. ‘All lies,’ Frank thinks. Using the cover of the festival, he arranges a hit on his old colleague. John is set upon and beaten to death. Doctors labour for his life, but to no avail. Frank hangs around at the hospital, says all the right things, and then walks out into the night thinking: Now we’ll see what I can do with this planet. 

Among other things, Kate Mascarenhas’s novel develops the same theme – that technology can’t fix human nature. She begins with the invention of the time machine. Time travel is a very broad and elastic theme and SF writers learn to set rules. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife dismissed the idea of changing casuality very early on, instead focusing on the love affair between her two leads. Mascarenhas’s rules are a little more liberal. You can’t time travel before 1967 (which is when the protagonists, four women in a remote Cumbrian lab, first perfect the technology) and you cannot travel beyond a few hundred years in the future. There seems little opportunity to alter the course of events.

Another departure is the social aspect of Mascarenhas’s vision. Time travel, invented in the UK, quickly becomes the preserve of a technocratic elite. The technology is based in the Conclave, a gated community outside the law – like the City of London with space rays. As with all the top professions, entry into this world is extremely difficult. Seasoned time travellers sleep around, play pranks and games, and look down on the ’emus’ – the mass of unenlightened civilians, who plod through life one moment at a time. New people entering the Conclave are subject to nasty hazings: they have to tell children when exactly their parents will die, or fire bullets into a time-travel box that can ricochet to wound the initiate, or some hapless passerby in another time. And like so many English institutions the Conclave is aggressive in its secrecy. Anyone who leaks secrets is dealt with by the Conclave’s internal justice system, and its penalties include execution. An emu reporter, trying to investigate the organisation, receives future photographs of his dead family through the mail.

Mascarenhas builds her world in deft comprehensive steps. You buy it, and then start focusing on the characters. The Psychology of Time Travel is about the impact on human beings of chaos and disorder. When the four pioneers invent time travel, the impact drives one of them crazy. Barbara Hereford takes a short journey through time – a mere hour into the future. But the cost is substantial. When the pioneers appear on TV that evening, Barbara becomes agitated and starts babbling nonsense. She is sectioned that night. Her colleague Margaret (very much the Frank Chalmers of this story) is enraged that Barbara’s mental breakdown has made the time travel project seem eccentric. She takes control of the project and screens future applicants carefully for any sign of mental disorder (a table of psychometric tests is included in the novel’s appendices). But Margaret builds the Conclave along the lines of her own toxic personality, so mental distress still proliferates. Time travellers drink hard, and dream scary dreams. Finally one of the book’s protagonists is brave enough to denounce Margaret to her face:

You think you’re entitled to people’s compliance. You try to enliven your loveless world by inflicting pain on others and sensation-seeking with games like Candybox roulette. The Conclave is dysfunctional because anyone who doesn’t fulfil your narcissistic needs is eliminated, or self-selects out. You’ve made the whole organisation narcissistic. Convinced of its specialness or distinction from everyday people, obsessed with novel and high risk activities, and blunting its members’ empathy from the first day of their employment.

Mascarenhas leaves an open question whether the Conclave can redeem itself. Is its evil simply a failure of empathy and organisation? Or is there something about time travel that disassociates people from the world and time, killing their fellow feelings and undermining their sense of reality? We don’t know. But The Psychology of Time Travel is a bold and marvellous read. It gives you an appreciation for all things mortal and unknowing and brief.

(Mascarenhas has some amazing diorama art from the novel on her own site, and the Zeus website)