Archive for the ‘Relationships’ Category

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.

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

May 20, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.

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.