Archive for the ‘Relationships’ Category

All About Edelstein

October 20, 2018

There’s a common British anecdote that goes: ‘We had some American friends here on holiday, and on the third day they drove to Stonehenge!’ The idea behind it is that because the UK is a small island, even driving to the next village seems like an epic poem. But Americans grow up on an enormous continental landmass, so travelling long distances comes naturally. If they come to England, they want to see Stonehenge.

Is there truth in the joke? Writer Jean Hannah Edelstein lived in Paris as a young woman, fell in love, followed the man to London, and begins her memoir when she is moving to New York via Berlin. Edelstein’s story is full of odd switchbacks and doublings. Her mother grew up in Scotland, married an American, moved to the US, took citizenship after twenty years, but returned to Glasgow after her husband died. Edelstein grew up with dual citizenship and only returned to the States when her father developed terminal cancer. Her father had something called ‘Lynch syndrome’, which is hereditary – and soon after his death Edelstein discovered she had it too. This Really Isn’t About You is a book about separation. And how love and family thrive despite separation. Maybe even because of it.

Edelstein sees things with the seasoned traveller’s clear eyes, and writes with crisp brevity about people and places. Moving to New York in her early thirties feels like going to some legendary houseparty that is just beginning to hinge:

Behind the people at the door of the party, behind the people who are getting their coats, are the people who are determined to stay until the bitter end. Some of them are the life of the thing, absolutely. You can tell by the way they’re dressed that they have money. The party has gone well for them so far. They’re sticking around to enjoy what else it has to offer. But some of the people who are still at the party are unravelling around the edges. They’ve overdone the drugs and booze, or they’re feeling pretty bad because at their age it is no longer fun or interesting to be the footloose and fancy-free life of the party.

It’s always interesting to read foreign writers talk about your own country. Edelstein’s London chapters are a delight of observational humour. I never lived in London and the difficulty of living full time in that city still shocks me. ‘By now the water pressure in the flat on Cephas Street was so bad that in the colder months there were many hours a day when we had no water at all… my friends expressed regret but never suggested that we move.’ Edelstein lived on two bowls of oatmeal a day, and worked for a literary agent well known in the business for her overbearing attitude towards staff. ‘Here are some things that my boss shouted at me about in her distinctive voice:’ begins one passage. Edelstein was clearly going through a nightmare at this company, but no one did anything to help: ‘For the most part the extent of the powerful people’s acknowledgement of my existence was to leave Jewish-themed books and magazines on my desk’.

And this was in the mid 2000s: god knows what the housing and job market is like now, and worse for young women, I think, because on top of everything else they have to fend off battalions of gropey middle aged married guys. Edelstein never complains. Again, she’s the seasoned traveller who takes nothing for granted. Her epigraph is from Nora Ephron: ‘Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.’

She only tires of London when watching the royal flotilla in 2012, and has coalesced her disillusionment into one elegiac para:

Inside the living room, there was indeed little enthusiasm. There were sandwiches and Victoria sponge and several of the cheeriest people I knew, but there was also a devastating spectacle, the pride of a nation represented by a joyless and troubling procession of boats listing to and fro in the storm. I was transfixed: the sheets of rain were coating the television cameras just as they had my glasses, making it difficult to see. The boats drifted down the river, manned by soaked skippers. On a special barge, the Royal Family watched with gritted teeth.

It’s when Edelstein returns to her family, and comes to terms with her father’s death and her own diagnosis, that the prose gains a new burnish and intensity. It’s the simplicity of these lines that hits you:

My father was not crying, but I looked at him and he looked at me and at that moment I felt that I knew very clearly that even if your parents are very old and have had rich and well-loved life, if you love them there is never a time in your life when you will feel that you don’t want them any more. It was not something that I had ever considered, but at that moment I looked at my father and he looked at me and I knew that there would never be a time in my life when I would regard my parents and think: Yes, I’m ready.

It’s amazing to think that no matter how well equipped you are and how much you’ve endured, there are some life experiences that you just won’t be prepared for. In Edelstein’s book there’s none of the tweeness and sentimentality that makes many family memoirs unreadable, just a subtle and economic demonstration of family love – that most subtle and undemonstrative kind of love, that you take for granted because it always seems to be in the background, like the brisk hum of air conditioning: until, finally, that too flickers out.

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A Psychology of the Bridge

September 29, 2018

Spoiler alert for everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The poet Wendell Berry writes:

You will be walking some night

in the comfortable dark of your yard

and suddenly a great light will shine

round about you, and behind you

will be a wall you never saw before.

It will be clear to you suddenly

that you were about to escape,

and that you are guilty: you misread

the complex instructions, you are not

a member, you lost your card

or never had one. And you will know

that they have been there all along,

their eyes on your letters and books,

their hands in your pockets,

their ears wired to your bed.

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

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

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

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

You will pursue them, begging forgiveness.

They will not forgive you.

There is no power against them.

It is only candor that is aloof from them,

only an inward clarity, unashamed,

that they cannot reach. Be ready.

When their light has picked you out

and their questions are asked, say to them:

‘I am not ashamed.’ A sure horizon

will come around you. The heron will begin

his evening flight from the hilltop.

A Woke Dating Guide

September 17, 2018

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

This Undone England

August 4, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Wilderness Years

May 4, 2018

There’s a thing in modern publishing that goes by ‘new folk lit’, or maybe ‘nature lit’. It’s a general term to cover novels and memoirs set in rural and remote places where the feel and texture of the countryside figures prominently. H is for Hawk, the indie novels of Ben Myers, Amy Liptrot’s recovery memoir, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpentthe Herdwick Shepherd books, Abi Andrews’s The Word for Woman is Wilderness – the genre is huge. Any books page on a given week is apt to feature a history of a particular wood or livestock animal, or a journey of personal rediscovery on a distant windy island. Henry Miller wrote that ‘I have nothing to do with the creaking machinery of humanity – I belong to the earth! I say that lying on my pillow and I can feel the horns sprouting from my temples.’ Yet the nature lit genre doesn’t always appeal to me because 1) so much of it feels like ‘Nature is all about me’ and 2) so many of these books are set in the past – I’ve only come across Amanda Craig’s exceptional The Lie of the Land, plus parts of Sarah Hall’s short stories, that give a sense of the countryside as a real, present environment in which people live their lives.

Zoe Gilbert’s Folk is an ideal of the genre. Her debut is a collection of integrated short stories set in the fishing community of Neverness on a mythical and yet entirely familiar island. It opens with a strange ritual: teenage girls fire ribbons with bow-and-arrow into an enormous gorse maze, and the village boys then have to run around the maze, chewing ribbons out of the gorse, in the hope of kisses when they eventually escape this labyrinth. But a boy named Crab Skerry wants more than kisses – he wants the Gorse Mother – ‘she puts it on you and it’s like ten mouths all at once. You go in the gorse and if she gets you, you come out a man.’

A man has a wing for an arm, a woman falls in love with a minotaur that lives in the sea. As Ben Myers writes in his review: ‘Superstition often proves to be prophecy rather than hokum, and human and animal kingdoms merge into areas of confused identity, a beautiful blurring of fur, feather and fin. Hares, kites and bees play vital roles. Dark magic exists.’ But as Myers also understands, the village also lives by ritual, custom and rules so strong that they are almost physical laws. It’s no surprise that bold young Crab’s search for the Gorse Mother ends in tragedy. And human nature is still the same: a couple of kids delight in hiding in a haunted cave, pretending to be an oracle and telling evil fortunes to whichever unwary villagers come to look for them.

Gilbert’s flaw is to argue all this too forcefully. Folk is beautifully written, boldly imagined, and at times (as in ‘Verlyn’s Blessings’) almost heartbreaking. The village is completely self contained: however much some of the islanders might yearn for escape, there’s no sense of another world beyond the ocean – and for me that makes it all a bit depressing. Myers says that ‘her island village could be almost any remote community from the past several thousand years’ – and that to me is the problem: the mundanity and the mirroring of our own world is excessive. Maybe that’s just me. The nature world is a nice place to visit, but like Al Swearengen, I prefer to sleep indoors.

The Shock of the Moment

April 2, 2018

It takes a transcript of Desert Island Discs, right at the story’s coda, before the disparate aspects of Lisa Halliday’s baffling novel fall into place with an almost palpable click. Until then, the reader of Asymmetry exists in a kind of rapt confusion. The beginning is ordinary enough – an editorial assistant, young and earnest, begins an affair with a much older man, a prizewinning novelist, a man a little like… Philip Roth. Reviewers tended to look from that angle, and indeed the story gives us a well-drawn, affectionate portrait of the Roth we imagine when we read his own books. Ezra Blazer is a charming, ironic and kind soul, though very much shacked to a dying animal. Walking in the town near the author’s country residence, they pass a pub where a party is going on: the novelist wants to give this scene a miss, and ‘then the tribal rat-a-rat of ‘Sing Sing Sing’ started up and a moment later he was percussing the air as if possessed by Lionel Hampton.’

There are obvious literary and power relations here. Fans approach the couple in restaurants, praise Blazer for his genius, the quality of his prose, his narrative drive… and then, as an afterthought, tell Alice the dutiful partner how nice she looks today. Alice wants to love Ezra, and look after him, but she also wants to outpace him (and she just might). This wonderful para at a concert expresses her dilemma:

To submit to the loving of someone so deeply and well that there could be no question as to whether she were squandering her life, for what could be nobler than dedicating it to the happiness and fulfilment of another? A a certain point the pianist was leaning back slightly, hands working opposite ends of the keyboard as though one had to be kept from popping up while the other was held down, and here Alice turned to look at Ezra, who was watching with his mouth open; beyond him the fermata girls sat frozen in their own poses of wonder and humility: whatever they could do, it wasn’t this, would never be this, or would only become this once a great many more hours had been sacrificed to the ambition. Meanwhile, their hourglasses were running down. Everyone’s hourglasses were running down. Everyone’s but Beethoven’s. As soon as you are born the sand starts falling and only by demanding to be remembered do you stand a chance of it being upturned again and again.

As well as the superb back-and-forth dialogue (dialogue between happy people in love is one of the hardest things for a writer to do) you’re struck by the twentieth-century objects of popular art, the fine wash of peace and prosperity. Ezra gives Alice ‘a burgundy wallet with a coin purse and clutch clasp’, ‘thirty-two-cent stamps from the Legends of American Music series, commemorating Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields, and Hoagy Carmichael’, ‘a bag of Honeycrisp apples’, ‘tofu-scallion cream cheese’, ‘two pieces of geflite fish’, ‘Bulgarian caviar from Murray’s’, ‘a box of jelly doughnuts from the Shelter Island Bake Shop’, ‘an eight-box CD of Great Romantic Standards entitled They’re Playing Our Song’, plus, of course, lots of twentieth-century books. And he sends her out on errands, for more gifts: ‘Little Scarlet Tiptree preserves’, ‘one loaf of Russian pumpernickel, unsliced’, ‘Häagen-Dazs bars’ – Asymmetry is a treasure-house of such things. It’s almost so Manhattan cliche it makes your head spin. As Ezra says on Desert Island Discs:

Lulled by years of relative peace and prosperity we settle into micromanaging our lives with our fancy technologies and custom interest rates and eleven different kinds of milk, and this leads to a certain inwardness, an unchecked narrowing of perspective, the vague expectation that even if we don’t earn them and nurture them the truly essential amenities will endure forever as they are.

The second half of the novel is told by Dr Amar Ala Jaafari, a physician turned economist, travelling from America to Iraq. Amar’s problem is peace of mind – ‘my mind is always turning over this question of how I’m going to feel later, based on what I’m doing now. Later in the day. Later in the week. Later in a life starting to look like a series of activities designed to make me feel good later, but not now.’ Amar would be happier, his mother says, if he could live in the moment, like his brother, a drifter (and another pianist): ‘Sami lives in the moment, like a dog.’

It’s a commonplace of contemporary self-care that we should try and open our eyes to the moment we’re in – witness the mindfulness craze in 2010s psychology – but Amar persists in thinking about tomorrow even though his life is so contingent: he and his family divide their time between Baghdad and the Upper West Side, they strive for professional status and success, and Sami is mostly disapproved of because he chose to marry in Iraq and stay in Iraq. Even travelling back to the old country, Amar is detained by London border control and interrogated on his journey plans. Where he comes from, Amar reflects, ‘the future has long been viewed as a much more nebulous eventuality, if indeed one expects to be around for its eventuality at all.’ Or as his parents put it in their long distance phone calls: ‘Before Iran, before Saddam, before sanctions and Operation Iraqi Freedom and now this, theirs too had been a country of culture, or education and commerce and beauty, and people came from all over to see it and be a part of it. And now? Do you see, Amar, this chaos outside our doors, this madness?’

Halliday’s talent is that she widens this moment for all of us.

Stories All Along the Line: The Inspector Chen Mysteries

March 25, 2018

I have just finished Shanghai Redemption, the latest book in Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen mysteries. The Chen books were a revelation to me, knowing nothing about China, but Xialong’s style, accessible and elegant, taught me a little about the country and its history and what it might feel like to live in one of its cities. True, the novels aren’t like most police procedurals. Chen Cao comes from an academic family, his father was a Confucian scholar who was persecuted in the Cultural Revolution. As a young man, Chen dreamed of becoming a poet or a scholar himself, but was allocated a career in the Shanghai police bureau in the arbitrary system used by the communist regime at the time. In part he still pursues the aspiration, publishing poetry in newspapers and journals, and supplementing his meagre police income by translating Western crime novels. The detective as artist shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Chen punctuates his conversation with obscure dynastic poetry, and you completely buy it. As well as Chinese classics like Dream of a Red Chamber, Chen also has Western influences. Lines from Eliot recur throughout the books – culminating in a bizarre scene where Chen is lured to a fake T S Eliot themed book launch in a nightclub-cum-brothel and has to make a quick escape when the venue is raided by vice police.

Xiaolong began his mystery series at a time when China had moved beyond Maoism and started to become a world market power. This gives the books a weird and contingent atmosphere. Everyone is on the take because most professionals are paid at a derisory flat rate which has to be augmented with bribes. Generations of families are crowded into communal shikumen tenements with their washing hung out over rows of creaking shared ovens. Chen himself is seen as a high flyer because, unlike most single men, he actually has his own apartment. Shanghai is full of the great signifiers of late capitalism – Wi-fi, nightclubs, gigantic advertising hoardings, glossy housing developments – but we know that behind all this modernising glamour the strong, coercive state is still there. Even the literary world is fraught with furtive politics: when an American poet tells Chen that ‘I wish there was an institution here like your Writers’ Association. A sort of government salary for your writing. It’s fantastic. In the States, most of us can’t make a living on writing… We all envy you. I would love to go to Beijing and become a professional writer too’ Chen thinks – but naturally is too polite to say – that ‘The American poet would have to live in China for years… before learning what a ‘professional writer’ was like.’

Trying to keep ahead of the political games as well as work complex murder cases takes its toll on the detective, who is plagued by frequent headaches, and in one of the books has a quiet, caffeine-induced nervous breakdown. Chen is always trying to do the right thing – in a postmodern tip, he’s compared by friends to the classic archetypal hero cop in a Moaist serial. But Xialong plays the toll on Chen’s physical and mental health with subtle brilliance. Intellectually he can rationalise his complicity in a foul system, which life and fate give him no choice but to accept. But his body understands better. In a late book, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake, Chen is rewarded – or possibly sidelined – with a vacation at a gated Party luxury resort. Temporarily free from the commitments to the police bureau and Chinese socialism, the bold and rejuvenated Chen pursues a young woman who works at the local chemical plant. But it’s just a holiday and a reprieve: the book ends with the inspector heading back to the Shanghai grind. ‘He wondered whether he would be able to take a nap on the train, feeling the onslaught of a splitting headache.’ Chen is admired as a successful and connected cadre, who makes the Party happy by solving many difficult political cases. But his success is a house of cards. Xialong uses the Dream of a Red Chamber quotation to illustrate the transitory nature of fortune as well as the illusions of states and politics: Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true; Real becomes not-real when the unreal’s real.

This is what Xialong does so well – the impact of history upon the individual. The caprice of destiny and states. All the characters are casualties of the Cultural Revolution: Detective Yu, Chen’s sidekick, was sent at a young age hundreds of miles away to rural China as part of the ‘down to the countryside’ movement, where ‘educated youth’ of the cities were exiled to the back of beyond in the hope that they would absorb the spirit of agricultural socialism. Yu met his wife, fellow exile Peiqin in the shitshack farm village to which they’d been assigned. Much of the Yu and Peiqin chapters – their struggles with the housing bureau, and getting their son into college – is a testament of how people can establish happiness and solidarity despite having their lives disrupted by governmental fiat. This sense of warmth and community pervades the series: no matter what’s going on, there always seems to be time to share a drink or a fine meal with company and conversation. The people of Shanghai, Xialong tells us, will outlive their authoritarian rulers.

And through it all, the mystery remains. This is a poem Xialong includes as an epigram to A Case of Two Cities:

 

Out of the train window,

the gaping windows of the buildings

are telling stories all along the line,

about the past, the present and the future.

I am not the teller of the stories,

nor the audience,

simply passing through there,

then, full of ignorance,

so full of imagination.

 

The high tension cables

outline the score of the evening.

 

Simply passing there,

then – ‘Next stop is Halle.’

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.

Remember When: John Darnielle’s ‘Universal Harvester’

August 21, 2017

In Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen – probably the standout novel of 2016 – the narrator is trapped in a town she calls ‘X-ville’, where ‘the streets in my neighborhood were all tree lined and orderly, houses loved and tended to with pride and affection and a sense of civic order that made me ashamed to be so messy, so broken, so bland. I didn’t know that there were others like me in the world, those who didn’t ‘fit in,’ as people like to put it. Furthermore, as is typical for any isolated, intelligent young person, I thought I was the only one with any consciousness, any awareness of how odd it was to be alive, to be a creature on this strange planet Earth. I’ve seen episodes of The Twilight Zone which illustrate the kind of straight-faced derangement I felt in X-ville. It was very lonely.’

Small towns are also the subject for John Darnielle in his short and curious novel Universal Harvester. The setting is Iowa rather than New England, and jumps about through time rather than sticking to the mid 1960s. There is quietness, routine, comfort, and a loneliness that feels almost solid, that raises your awareness to the point of high altitude.

While Moshfegh’s protagonist wants to escape places like this, Darnielle’s seek to understand them. He starts with the connections between people. For Jeremy Heldt, a video store clerk living with his widowed father, ‘conversations tended towards simple genealogy and geography: who was related to whom, who lived where now, where they’d lived in the first place… These conversations, endlessly repeatable at any family gathering, were a zero-stakes game. Is Pete still in Tama? No, he got a job over in Marshalltown working in sales for Lennox. Is that the air-conditioning people?…’ But at some point, always, ‘the trail went cold’ and it’s the same small town silence again. ‘The lowest form of conversation,’ Tony Soprano complains in the HBO show, is ‘Remember when’.

The first chapters, which take place in the late nineties, constitute a quietly brilliant depiction of father and son relationships. Jeremy is a college graduate, his father is a low level white collar worker, both are still shaken by the death of Jeremy’s mother. They enjoy a beer and a movie together, but conversation isn’t easy, even though there is no hostility between them – both men are just constantly, acutely aware of each other’s presence. Darnielle is a subtle master of relationships between basically good men.

He picks up this theme of connection later on in the story, and later on in time, when ‘people see more of their high school classmates on Facebook every day than they previously would have in their entire lives after graduation.’ The undergraduates of the 2010s, visiting retired parents in present-day Iowa are investigating a string of missing persons, perhaps connected to a religious cult. The families of the missing put up an appeal website that ‘boasted all the trappings of the initial expansion of the Internet from college campuses and computer laboratories to the wider world: site design from a template supplied by the host, clip art, and several uncorrected spelling errors in the single paragraph atop the frame.’

From the mid twentieth century, something has invaded this quiet world: the strange church, the disappearances connected to it, and something else as well. Jeremy’s video store customers begin to return their tapes early, complaining that the movies on them have been spliced with other movies – odd, furtive handheld clips, called things like ‘Shed #4’, that give disquieting impressions of captivity and restraint.

Universal Harvester is a brief book, in which not much happens, but it could have been twice as long and still not lost the reader’s attention. I suspect it will baffle readers for generations to come. Darnielle writes about a region that is ‘quiet, unremarkable, well ordered and well lit, just exactly enough of everything for the people within its boundaries. A little drab from the outside, maybe: slow, or plain. But who, outside, will ever see it, or learn the subtleties of its textures, the specific tensions of its warp and weft?’ In his remarkable novel Darnielle comes closest to the mystery behind these tensions.