Archive for the ‘Relationships’ Category

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.

A Summer of Apprehension

July 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

The Women of Hyde Park

June 6, 2017

Delighted to have this new story published on the outstanding Cold Coffee Stand magazine.

A Monster’s Ball

April 21, 2017

When Martin Amis came to write The Pregnant Widow, his novel of lost youth, he chose for his epigrams the story of Echo and Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Over an Italian summer of the 1970s he assembles his student characters – ‘all of them in the cusp of Narcissus. They would not be like their elders and they would not be like their youngers… Down by the grotto, down by the bower, they lay there near-naked, in their instruments of yearning. They were the Eyes, they were the Is, they were reflections, they were fireflies with their luminescent organs.’

The Pregnant Widow is problematic and flawed in many ways but I think Amis still captures something of the energy and solipsism and narcissism of being young. Sophie Hannah says that we live in a very psychologically unaware society – however I think we are becoming more aware of psychological forces over the individual, thanks of course to recent world events and personalities. ‘Find a mirror you like and trust, and stick to it,’ says Amis. ‘Stand by this mirror, and be true to it. Never so much as glance at another.’

Lena Dunham’s Girls is perhaps the most deconstructed TV show since Breaking Bad. There’s an enormous amount of analysis and critique that I can’t even pretend to follow. Dunham herself attracts a great deal of criticism, furious and somehow diffuse, so that you get the feeling that her real crime was to do liberalism in a commercially successful way. I’ve watched the show from beginning to end and loved it, not despite its narcissistic characters but because of them. Hannah Horvath’s crew of entitled millennials exhibit the kind of unconscious selfishness that we’ve seen in The Sopranos. There’s no cruelty in it, just a casual faith that the world revolves around them. A scene from season five sums this up. Hannah and her boyfriend are travelling out of town. She makes him stop at a petrol station, runs to the urinals, and dumps him by text. When the boyfriend drives off in disgust, Hannah summons her friend Ray to drive by in his coffee shop truck to pick her up. In the cabin she performs a sexual act upon him, from impulsive gratitude, with the result that the truck falls over onto its side. Hannah then hitches a lift back to New York in the next passing car, leaving Ray fuming in the wreck of his coffee truck.

‘I’m a starving artist in the garrett,’ Hannah declares, rolling about on the floor as she implores her parents for cash. ‘I’m a famous liberal,’ she boasts in a city bar. Laugh-out-loud portrayals of narcissistic personality – but Dunham does not simply leave it at that. She treats her characters with a warmth and sympathy they rarely deserve. Hannah’s circle are full of dreams and schemes but they don’t leave the city or their dysfunctional circle for long. Hannah is accepted on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop but she barely lasts half a term. Iowa has everything she’s always wanted but she can’t get over that stage when you move to a new place and feel lost and sad for no good reason. She returns to New York to find that her ex has moved his new girlfriend into their flat and put Hannah’s possessions in storage. She locates the storage bunker, somewhere in the underlay of the city, and sleeps in it.

The best writing in Girls is where Dunham shrinks the canvas. ‘One Man’s Trash’ begins at Ray’s coffee shop where Hannah is working. Handsome local doctor Josh comes in and starts an argument with Ray, accusing him of putting commercial waste in the doctor’s bins. After the discussion ends in acrimony, Hannah follows the doctor to his house and apologises – it was her that misplaced the trash. They end up having a passionate love affair. Josh is everything Hannah and her friends are not – middle aged, professional, solvent and straightforward. It’s like you’ve suddenly walked into an entirely different show. She tells him: ‘You know what I think I didn’t know until I met you was that I was, like, lonely, in such a deep, deep way.’ Then it ends and they both go on with their entirely separate lives. (My theory for a long time was that the whole thing was a fantasy of either partner constructed around a chance meeting, but then Josh comes back in the last series and it’s obvious that they both remember their time together. Still, I think my fantasy theory is better and will be sticking to it, against the evidence.)

If the show has a hero it’s Ray of course, the weary and put-upon Brooklyn barista. While everyone else is obsessed with their own bands, videos and relationships, Ray operates on a universal principle of some kind. Furious at the haphazard rat run outside his bedroom window, he starts arguments with several different motorists in the same traffic jam – he’s like a modern Herzog, driven to perpetual distraction by the selfishness and irrationality he sees everywhere in the world around him. When mortality enters the Girls universe, it’s because of Ray. He’s devastated by the death of his friend and mentor. ‘It’s right there, right in front of us, just patiently waiting to take us all.’ His ex Shoshana replies: ‘No. Not me… It’s super random, but I’m just not gonna die, like, ever.’ Ray’s inheritance includes a cache of cassette tapes from lost gigs, which inspires him to go out talking to the people of old Brooklyn that he wouldn’t normally notice. It’s worth comparing Ray’s final creative project to the film that Adam and Jessa make around the same time. While Adam’s movie is centred on himself and just reminds him of his own failures, Ray falls in love during his history mission. He has discovered that happiness comes from without.

What’s it like to drown in your own reflection? I think that’s the question Girls wanted to ask. The characters may be monsters – but Dunham loves her monsters. There’s never a sense that we’re laughing at them – or that we are just laughing at them. We’ve all been this silly and screwed up once, Dunham says – and we may be again. She invites you to the monster’s ball.

Luxemburg’s Cat

April 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Political Marriage

January 19, 2017

thegoodwifeThere’s a moment in the documentary film Weiner, which accompanies hapless politician Anthony Weiner as he runs for mayor of New York. Weiner had to resign from Congress in 2011 after he had been caught sending intimate photographs of himself to a Twitter follower. At first the 2013 mayoral race feels like a fresh start. Weiner has restored his marriage, he has a new baby, and recent good press, he is a smart man, a good communicator: he develops rapport with the electorate easily, and New Yorkers seem to forgive his old indiscretions. But his campaign falters when it is revealed that Weiner has sent similar explicit messages to another woman (using the alias ‘Carlos Danger’) as late as April 2013. The candidate battles on despite mounting derision, hostility, disastrous public appearances and even Weiner’s internet flirt contact trying to ambush him at the count. At one point Weiner is filming a campaign promo in their apartment, while his wife, the political strategist Huma Abedin, sits on the balcony, in casual clothes, munching on a pizza slice. Off screen, someone asks if she’s appearing in the promo. Abedin barks: ‘Do I look camera ready?’

For all the talk of post feminism, it can feel like a woman’s most important function in politics is to stand by. Hillary Clinton – a woman who came within inches of leading the free world – famously ‘stood by’ her husband, during the Lewinsky scandal and subsequent attempt impeachment. It used to be, in this country, after some dope was caught rifling his parliamentary researcher, there would be a very awkward photoshoot featuring the politician in question surrounded by his nervous, edgy-looking wife and children, in a display of choreographed fealty. The parodist Craig Brown, in his brilliant epistolary comedy The Hounding of John Thomas, features a gentleman’s club made up exclusively of former parliamentarians, disgraced by offences public and private – and the club has its own spin-off, the ‘Standing-Bys’ which consists of wives who have agreed to stand by their men. If the wife of a serving politician seeks a divorce – it still feels like a shock. What the makers of Weiner had captured, in that shot of Abedin, was a real human moment – when the façade slips for just a moment, and you can see the exhaustion and the exasperation and the fury.

Set against real life scandals, the premise of The Good Wife seems rather tame. We first meet Alicia Florrick at a press conference, ‘standing by’ her husband Peter, the Chicago State’s Attorney. Peter has had to resign after a tape surfaces of him banging a callgirl: serious corruption charges follow. With Peter stuck in prison on a ten year sentence, Alicia must re enter the world of work after thirteen years as a full time suburban housewife and mother. She joins a city law firm and is soon sucked into the cutthroat world of Illinois politics, crime and law. Meanwhile, Peter gets his conviction overturned and is soon back in the political game, rising to become state governor. Alicia has to balance her own ambitions, desires and selfhood against Peter’s career and her teenage children.

It sounds tepid when I write it down, but the show is addictive, not least because of how deftly Alicia’s character is written and acted. Alicia agonises over the moral course of action in a compromised world, but never comes off as a prig or a goody goody. She’s someone who naturally plays by the rules, but she demonstrates wit, desire, independence, a fierce intelligence, eloquence and – particularly when her children are threatened – a cold and penetrating fury. Her marriage never really recovers from Peter’s infidelities, but because it’s a political marriage, she must continue to stand by her husband, in public at least – while in private, Alicia pursues her own affairs and independence: her true relationship with Peter encompasses affection, contempt, separation, shared memories and a terse détente.

Two amazing Alicia moments come to mind. At one point, she is at an official dinner with her husband, and a camera crew. The discussion turns to religion. After Peter spiels out the expected platitudes, Alicia is asked her opinion. She turns to the camera, gives a delicious smile, and says sweetly: ‘I’m an atheist.’

Later, she’s on a campaign bus during Peter’s doomed presidential bid. Leaning on a village shopfront, dog-tired and in wraparound sunglasses, she confesses to the campaign manager a moment of regret:

I think if I could go back to Georgetown right now, back in Law 101, seat 35L – that was my seat – I would have said yes… there was a young man in love with me.

These are off script moments in a partnership that is, in significant part, carefully spun. The Good Wife avoids the cliché of the evil spin doctor and instead gives us Eli Gold, a master political PR man who nevertheless has a great deal of warmth, humour and morality (and is consistently outfoxed by his millennial hipster daughter). Yet even Eli – played by the marvellous Alan Cumming – ends up trying to use his skills in places they don’t quite belong. Alicia’s adolescent children handle the public eye with more fortitude. But again there’s a sense that women are there only to stand by in the public eye – even in Obama’s America. Liberal grandee Diane Lockhart is constantly let down by the blueblood Democratic establishment: first, she loses a potential judgeship, then a Supreme Court nomination. Alicia’s own bid for political office is shot down after the Democratic machine realises that Alicia means it when she says she will speak truth to power.

The Good Wife is a crime show in its way and it strikes me that even in the best crime shows women tend to be somewhat sidelined – Carmela Soprano stood by Tony despite his crimes, and Skyler White became a hate figure for Breaking Bad fans precisely because she could see through Walt and challenge him, and because she insisted on taking an active role in his business. Political marriages in real life seem ultimately linked to criminal justice. Bill Clinton ran on a tough-on-crime programme, expanded the prison estate, ramped up the drug war, endorsed three-strike laws and created new capital offences. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s study of mass incarceration – particularly of African-Americans – Alexander writes that ‘Clinton – more than any other president – created the current racial undercaste.’ It’s all too possible that some of the people locked up under the Bill Clinton administration would have voted for Hillary in 2016, had they not been executed, incarcerated or otherwise deprived of their ballot rights under felony voting laws.

As Padraig Reidy points out, 2016 has been a year not for partnerships or marriage but for a certain kind of aggressive toxic masculinity. The winners at the end of history turn out to be Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Nigel Farage – ‘the movement of the golf-club revolutionary, the simultaneously triumphant and self-pitying, the irrational and trite dressed up as ‘common sense’.’ 1970s feminists said that the personal was political. In the future the political may well become personal – more personal than any of us would like.

We Go Around in the Night And Are Consumed by Fire

July 7, 2016

wegoaroundinthenightJules Grant’s debut is possibly the best title of the year. Well – best title of the year. It’s narrated by a lesbian drug dealer out for revenge after her best friend is gunned down in a Manchester nightclub. Gangster vengeance isn’t the most original plotline and as sometimes happens in multinarration vernacular, peoples and times sometimes merge into one another in a way that perhaps wasn’t intended.

Still, it’s such fun to read, and the detail is bang on. As Irvine Welsh’s Leith hustlers hated authority in all manifestations (‘On the issue of drugs, we wir classical liberals, vehemently opposed tae state intervention in any form) so does Grant’s protagonist Donna tells us with pride that her father never paid a penny in tax nor claimed a state benefit in his life. Donna’s crew is also way more organised than Mark Renton’s band of brothers: she changes her sim card daily, and thinks of ever ingenious ways to smuggle drugs past nightclub security (including synthesising MDMA into aerosol hairsprays and charging pillheads a fiver per blast). Her eventual escape is genuinely thrilling.

It’s refreshing to read a Manchester crime novel that’s not stuck in the Gooch-Doddington wars of the 2000s, and Grant writes with a ferocious love of the city that wins her story a place in great northern fiction. That title doesn’t make sense as related to the story – except it reads like a snatch of graffito you might see on a flyover or tunnel or highway or byway on a city evening, something you might remember.

Young People With Weird Ideas: Emma Cline’s The Girls

June 25, 2016

emmaclineIn his biography of Charles Manson, Texan historian Jeff Guinn has a fascinating chapter on the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco that became a giant green beacon for outsider youth across America. By 1967 the area got three hundred new arrivals a day, from across the United States: ‘more runaways than any major city could have comfortably absorbed, let alone a relatively small neighbourhood… misfit kids, the ones with no social skills who had trouble making friends or fitting in back in their hometowns, or else were at critical odds with their parents and wanted someone more understanding to take them in and tell them what to do. The ones least able to fend for themselves were the most likely to stay.’

Emma Cline’s debut novel revisits the Manson cult from the twenty first century. Cleverly, her fictional narrative of 1969’s fractured summer does not dwell on the guru. Cline’s villain Russell is a bland opportunist just as Manson was. Instead she focuses on the stories of people far more interesting than he – the young people from good homes who embrace fanatical groups, the Manson followers who stole credit cards and dumpster-dived and allowed themselves to be pimped out for him. The young who kill and die for worthless leaders. Why?

For her narrator Evie Boyd the why is easy. She comes from a wealthy, lethargic Californian family directly out of Mad Men. Her idiotic philandering father leaves, and her mother disgusts Evie by simpering over a parade of sleazy unsuitable men. Evie’s life is a constant negotiation with the male gaze, from the potential stepfather who remarks ‘Fourteen years old, huh?… Bet you have a ton of boyfriends’ to ‘the older man who would later place his hand on my dick while he drove me home.’ Evie is attracted to the cult because – paradoxically, and ironically – it’s the nearest thing she has to a community of female solidarity. ‘Though I should have known,’ she reflects, ‘that when men warn you to be careful, often they are warning you of the dark movie playing across their own brains.’

Reviewing the book, Sarah Ditum identified ‘the specific indignities of girlhood – the dehumanising demands of men, the casual violence with which those demands are enforced, the constant ‘campaign for her own existence’ that every girl will eventually be defeated in.’ The fearful exasperation all women face at some point when dealing with stares and comments and gropes for Evie Boyd turns into a rebellious rage. And there is a deeper existential sense of being lost that is part of the human condition. There is no closure to Evie’s confusion: she’s just as disorientated as an adult, and barely even perceives that this experience is universal – she watches her apparently self assured younger relative Sasha with envy, imagining that ‘there were only one way things could go, the years leading you down a corridor to the room where your inevitable self waited – embryonic, ready to be revealed. How sad it was to realise that sometimes you never got there.’ Does anyone.

In her front story Cline has fun dealing with the ideological debris of the love generation. ‘People were falling into that kind of thing all the time,’ she explains to Sasha, ‘Scientology, the Process people. Empty-chair work. Is that still a thing?’ Later, drinking in a bar, they are approached by ‘another sixties ghost’ who ‘was convinced that world events were orchestrated by complicated and persistent conspiracies. He took out a dollar bill to show us how the Illuminati communicated with each other.’ When Evie asks ‘Why would a secret society lay out their plans on common currency?’ the sixties ghost can’t give a convincing answer. A distinct feature of twenty first century discourse is the progression of crazed ideology from the internet into mainstream conversation – venomous binaries about the Rothschilds, 9/11, chemtrails and voting pencils. ‘That the world had a visible order,’ Evie says, ‘and all we had to do was look for the symbols – as if evil was a code that could be cracked.’

The fractured summer of 1969 is today treated as a cautionary tale – what can happen when young people with weird ideas get out of control. Perhaps 2016 will be a testament to the crazy ideas of the old, which played a decisive hand in everything from the housing crisis to the Lehmans crash to Brexit. Maybe I’m reading too much into Cline’s novel, but The Girls made me think of something Christopher Hitchens wrote, towards the end of his life, that ‘when I check the thermometer I find that it is the fucking old fools who get me down the worst, and the attainment of that level of idiocy can often require a lifetime.’

Celebration of the Lizard: Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent

June 5, 2016

Cora Seaborne is bereaved but not unhappy. Her husband was a petty tyrant, and when the old fool finally checks out, she’s not exactly like the widow in The Importance of Being Earnest (whose hair, Algernon remarks, has turned ‘quite gold from grief’) but she does acquire a certain presence. Brilliant young surgeon Luke Garrett practically jumps through hoops of fire to get to her. Her arrival in the croft and coastal village of Aldwinter causes more comment and stir than the appearance of a newcomer from London normally would: even the parish vicar Will Ransome finds the widow Seaborne as attractive as she is infuriating. The Reverend is a late Victorian intellectual who tries to reconcile his faith with the nineteenth century’s escalating revelations of science. Cora is a passionate naturalist who rejects religion out of hand. In this passage of dialogue she illustrates both her philosophy and her recent liberation:

You wonder why I grub about in the mud – it’s what I remember from childhood. Barely ever wearing shoes – picking gorse for cordial, watching the ponds boiling with frogs. And then there was Michael, and he was – civilised. He would pave over every bit of woodland, have every sparrow mounted on a plinth. And he had me mounted on a plinth. My waist pinched, my hair burned into curls, the colour on my face painted out, then painted in again. And now I’m free to sink back into the earth if I like – to let myself grow over with moss and lichen.

This last line almost pre-empts Henry Miller, who declared in Tropic of Cancer 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.’ Aldwinter is convulsed by rumours of a giant snake-beast that is set to slither from the ocean and eat the townspeople in their beds. Farmers hang skinned moles by the coast to keep this monster away; there are episodes of mass hysteria; every relic deposited from sea to shore is a potential threat. The suspense is dimmed by our realisation that if the Essex Serpent does really exist, it is Cora herself, sea born and reborn. ‘I’ve freed myself from the obligation to try and be beautiful,’ she says. ‘And I was never more happy.’

As Naomi Frisby says, The Essex Serpent is a book that is not so much read but inhabited. The period detail is exact and discreet, the atmosphere like coiled smoke, the writing (‘Time was being served behind the walls of Newgate jail and wasted by philosophers in cafes on the Strand’) almost rivals Shirley Jackson. The book is clearly written as one of those historical novels that are a beguiling mist you can lose yourself in. Reviewers have responded in near-Victorian raptures.

Happy as we are wandering in the lovely fog of Sarah Perry‘s prose, it doesn’t cover the book’s flaws. The inner city London scenes are very well done, and inspire some of Perry’s best writing (‘Rooms were sublet, and sublet again, so that what constituted a family had long been forgotten, and strangers bickered over cups and plates and their few square feet of space’) but these passages don’t seem to fit with the story because the story is driven by Cora and Cora has decamped to Aldwinter’s gothic seaside. The housing crisis is meant to chime with modern times, and Perry reminds us in an afterword of contemporaneous ‘accounts of housing crises, venal landlords, intolerable rests and political chicanery; they would not look out of place in tomorrow’s newspapers’ (oh, you don’t say?) Cora and Will are compelling but not enough attention is paid to the supporting cast. Aldwinter eccentric Cracknell is a blathering sibyl straight out of Lovecraft, and with equally silly dialogue (‘Though of what I might be scaring off there mightn’t be knowing now nor later I daresay, when a voice is heard of weeping and lamentation for our children’ etc) Cora’s son Francis is a strange and distant child, but we know this because the other characters keep telling us, not because Perry shows us.

Cora’s friend Martha seems to have no purpose other than to exemplify the Victorian female activist – oh, and she deus es machinas the rent crisis of Perry’s London chapters to a respectable conclusion. At times The Essex Serpent almost reads like a rehabilitation of the Victorian era. Perry recommends in her afterword Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians, which ‘challenges notions of a prudish era enslaved by religion and incomprehensible manners; rather, he shows us a nineteenth century of department stores, big brands, sexual appetites and a fascination for the strange.’ All very jolly I can imagine, but let’s not forget that such fascinations were largely frowned upon: Georgina Howell in her biography of Gertrude Bell reports that even at Oxford women had to seek special permissions to attend lectures and sit exams as late as 1886, for fear that ‘overtaxing’ of the female brain would lead to ‘the deficiency of reproductive power’.

I read Perry’s debut After Me Comes the Flood last year and fell in love with it: it’s the kind of mystery story, at once traditional and new form, that you can spend your life rereading and puzzling over. With The Essex Serpent Perry has gone for something rather more conventional: she has discovered the power of the Victorian novel – and its limitations.

theessexserpent

All Tomorrow’s Aurora Parties

May 17, 2016

sunlightpilgrimsLet’s face it, there’s something liberating about the apocalypse – that’s why end-times literature sells so well. Imagine being able to walk around a near-deserted shopping precinct and loot all the latest electricals. Imagine singing bad karaoke to an empty O2 Arena. Imagine the peace and speed of the morning commute. With no work at the end of it. There is something endearing about the apocalypse – and perhaps no more so than in Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims.

In Fagan’s end-times book the catastrophe is caused not by plague or zombies but plain old cold. Fagan has the rare gift of being able to write about climate change in a way that is realistic but not didactic. The radio says: The entire planet is being impacted upon by the collapse of intricate weather systems that are vital to survival… As of today, the Prime Minister has released a statement saying people must stop panicking, but it seems the public do not agree. It sounds like exposition, but it doesn’t read that way. Fagan’s story is set in the remote Scottish town of Clachan Falls. The local Ikea becomes a food depot, news crews show up in town, a man freezes to death, the sun goes down at four, then three, then half two, darkness swallows the earth. There is panic on the radio but not in the story. Although there is the familiar argument that every now and again the planet needs a break from humanity – Fagan’s theory is that the ice age is a kind of insurance against our troublesome genus – people don’t stand around asking why such terrible things are happening and what does it all mean. Winter isn’t just coming, it’s right here, and the people of Clachan Falls bear it philosophically. The Sunlight Pilgrims has the tone of a very cold, dark January evening spent indoors with a bottle of wine and Beth Orton on the stereo.

The main focus is on the characters. Dylan is an arthouse picture house owner fleeing creditors in Soho, who reaches the Clachan trailer park because his mother had strange roots there. Stella is a teenage kid looking to transition (the topic of male-to-female gender reassignment is handled with great sympathy and style) Constance, her mother, who never married but had alternate relationships with two other trailer park men who are still very much part of the equation. It’s a fascinating landscape, but Fagan is at her best when she just lets her characters talk. ‘We know that dark matter is all around us in the universe, if we can even feel it out there,’ Stella says, ‘and as we all know, goths have a direct line to any source of authentic darkness’. So does Jenni Fagan.