Archive for the ‘Relationships’ Category

Captive States

August 3, 2019

(Spoilers for everything)

On a corrections bus travelling to begin her double-life sentence, Rachel Kushner’s protagonist Romy Hall reflects on her fate. ‘I was assigned a public defender. We were all hopeful things would go differently. They did not go differently. They went this way.’ Kushner’s novel The Mars Room follows Hall into a Central Valley woman’s correctional where guards and bureaucrats constantly reinforce the fact things went this way: ‘your situation is due one hundred per cent to choices you made and actions you took.’ Later, she considers this: ‘The lie of regret and of life gone off the rails. What rails. The life is the rails. It is its own rails and it goes where it goes.’

The Mars Room is about bleak situations, but it’s not a bleak novel. It’s not a grind.

I watched the final of Orange is the New Black this week. ONTB shares with Kushner’s novel the trick of compelling but not miserabilist drama in reduced circumstances. It’s from Jenji Kohan who created Weeds, a comic drama about a suburban widow who sells dope to support her family – a lighter Breaking Bad, may it do ya. Weeds started off really well but later became too silly and surreal even for me.

ONTB has plenty of Kohan’s trademark quirkiness. There are big musical cues, weird sexual hijinks and absurd set pieces. It was also pretty baggy, with very long episodes that didn’t go anywhere. If you’re on series one or two, stick with it though, because there is plotting, you just don’t see it until much later. Myles McNutt at the AV club complains about the wonky timeline but for me Kohan does a masterful job of conveying six years of gradual change in what’s supposed to be an eighteen-month period.

ONTB is about the minimum security Litchfield federal prison that’s run reasonably well but not perfectly. The authorities sell out to a corporation, which brings in a new head guard: the foul Desi Piscatella. He has been kicked out of the male system for burning an inmate to death and brings his ironfist ethos to Litchfield – notwithstanding that the prisoners there are mostly harmless kooks and drug dealers. Piscatella’s bullying leads to the death of the well liked inmate Poussey Washington, which in turn provokes a riot, after which the prisoners are relocated to the maximum security facility down the road. The old Litchfield is turned into an ICE detention centre.

‘This isn’t Oz,’ a guard tells Piper Chapman on her first day in. And it’s not. There are few murders or violent episodes. Up until end series four, you’re basically watching a gentle comedy set behind bars. (An interesting comparison with Tom Fontana’s show is how they establish what each character’s in for: while the crime flashbacks in Oz last seconds – men who blow their lives away in one impulsive moment – ONTB spreads a single inmate’s memories over whole episodes, illustrating that fate can be one decisive act or more usually a series of slips and bad decisions.)

It is once the inmates transfer to max, that things get serious. Facing far longer sentences for their participation in the riot, the prisoners cave. Nicky sells out her mentor. Daya turns drug baron. Even tough old Frieda Berlin crumbles. There’s a grim scene where senior prison officers and politicians plan their riot response, focused on a whiteboard with boxes labelled ‘LIFE’, ‘LIFE’, ’10 YEARS’ – they already know the punishments, they just need to find individuals to fit them. It is up to inmates to deal themselves out.

The barter of intel and sentence time is the contradiction in Western justice. Commit a crime and you will be punished – unless you have something to sell. UCL professor Alexandra Natapoff‘s exceptional book Snitching details the absurdity of a deal system that lets serious criminals loose to kill, sell drugs and god knows what else, because they have been basically been put on state payroll. She quotes one court: ‘[n]ever has it been more true that it is now that a criminal charged with a serious crime understands that a fast and easy way out of trouble with the law is… to cut a deal at someone else’s expense.’ Note the cheers from the public gallery when Tasha (‘Taystee’) Jefferson pleads not guilty to killing Piscatella, rather than admitting to a crime she didn’t do which would draw a lighter sentence.

There is a dark, hilarious scene in series four where warden Caputo’s girlfriend, corporate exec Linda, takes him to a prison convention called ‘Correcticon’. As Kathryn Van Arendonk wrote in her recap at the time:

It’s hard to resist the urge to just list every little detail of CorrectiCon. It’s shiveringly well-tuned, hitting notes that rest on the delicate edge between humor and outrage. On one side of the aisle, a booth sells menstrual cups for women’s prisons. It’s a product that might be seriously useful for Litchfield, which has such a dramatic tampon shortage that one inmate tries to use a disposable plastic cup meant for dispensing medicine. On the other side of the exhibit hall, a vendor dressed as an inmate distributes ‘prison slop — fully prepared,’ and Caputo is appalled. ‘Ugh, I have enough of that in my life,’ he tells Linda. ‘It’s just for fun, silly!’ she replies. ‘I think it’s ice cream.’

In one scene the nature of the prison industrial complex is exposed. Prisons are big business and also big job creation – jobs for wardens, guards and clerks, and a big economic lift for the communities where the prison industry chooses to build. The boom in migration detention centres and the atrocities along the Amexican border are just an extension of this Keynesian pump-priming. If we do a deal with Trump’s America, the fate of the NHS may be the least of our worries. Communitarianism defines itself by who is excluded or detained, and there is jobs and money in exclusion and detention.

OTNB critiques tend to focus on privilege and intersectionality. That’s part of it of course: in the last episode of season four we learn that the guard who kills Poussey was as a young man let off for the same possession charge that got Poussey six years – and that, during a night out in New York, Poussey encountered her killer in passing. (There is also another subtle, telling scene when Suzanne Warren, deprived of medication, has a psychotic freakout in a guard’s office with a ‘NO STIGMA’ mental health poster on the wall.)

Piper Chapman, by contrast, benefits from white privilege and class privilege. Like Tobias Beecher in Oz, she represents the viewer and her character is a hook for the show to introduce less privileged characters and tell their stories. But while Beecher learned both compassion and self reliance in Oz, Piper takes her sense of entitlement into the prison and leaves with it intact. She is released at the end of series six, while Taystee faces life without in total innocence. But the social justice warrior critique only goes so far. Piper is human, we recognise her mistakes and feel for her when she is released only to be shunned by her family and friends: the virtue-signalling liberals of her peer group see her as a novelty at best and inconvenience at worst.

What the show does more than this is bring home the arbitrary and transitory nature of prison experience. Much loved characters are transferred, ghosted out or disappear for no clear reason. It is the blur of boundaries between free and not, citizen and not, American and not. Blanca and Maritza have every right to citizenship but are ‘unAmericanised’ by the border state. There is a very moving scene in the final series where deportees on a plane literally fade away, one by one – as Pennsatucky does outside the prison gates. The communitarian ideology depends on disappearing people, and that’s put in contrast with the genuine connections made by people on the inmates – broken people who connect, and in connecting manage to make each other a little less broken. That’s something real, and it’s freedom, of a kind.

Great Expectation

July 24, 2019

Looking back at her hard living past, singer Florence Welch writes in Vogue:

I wonder if my young self would be horrified at my Friday nights now: eating pasta and watching TV with someone who is nice to me. Would she think me mundane? I have certainly had journalists bemoan to me ‘the lack of rock stars behaving like rock stars’, but hedonism never gave me the freedom I desired. And I’m no longer sure about the rock’n’roll behaviour often expected of artists. Too many talented people have died, and the world feels too fragile to be swigging champagne and flicking the finger at it.

Most of the friends that I drank with have had to stop. They wash up one by one like driftwood, and we stand together on the shore in shocked relief. We cook, we talk, we work. People have started having children and going to bed early. And all the boring ‘grown-upness’ that we rejected then now seems somehow rebellious.

The characters in Anna Hope’s Expectation might identify. While none of Hope’s three woman protagonists have the eventful past of Florence Welch, they face a similar dilemma. The book opens on an urban pastoral of the three close friends living out the tail end of their youth in London Fields. When we then fast forward to 2010, there’s a definite contracting of freedom and possibility. Life has become smaller, and dominated by young dreams that have turned into obsessions. Lissa aspires to Hollywood but makes do with commercials and community theatre, Hannah wants a child but can’t conceive, Cate has been priced out of London and is living a dull suburban life in the Home Counties.

It all sounds banal when I write it down but Hope writes so well that it works. You feel Hannah’s despair as she focuses every detail of her routine around the elusive miracle of childbirth: she measures out her life in ovulation circles instead of coffee spoons. She is the most well realised character, but all three convey something in common – the fraught feeling of life slipping away from you, taking you away with it to a place you’re not comfortable with. Your old houseshare has been flipped and carved and rented out at unimaginable prices, the legends of your youth grown old and driven out to the exurbs, the world changing in ways you don’t understand. To go back to Florence Welch one last time, it’s hard to get through the sea storm, but sometimes it’s harder once you’ve actually reached the shore – if you get a stretch that’s bare and rocky, with gulls wheeling through an overcast sky.

Not much happens for long reams of the book, but there’s no tiredness or ennui to Hope’s prose, it all feels terribly important while you’re reading it. Hope has an understated style that somehow carries and captures the moment. There is no false sentiment or artifice in Expectation. It feels real. It even sometimes feels numinous:

The woman speaks about the tomb, about how it was found on her father’s land, a mile or so from where she and her family live today. About the human remains that were found there – no skeletons, only jumbled bones, thousands upon thousands of them. About the eagle talons found in amongst them. About the theory that the bodies were left out to be eaten by the birds. Like the sky burials of Tibet. How only the clean bones were saved.

‘Excarnation,’ the woman says in her soft voice.

‘Excarnation,’ says Hannah, tasting it. A new word.

The action speeds up once you get to the last third of the book, but in its way it’s a supremely contemplative novel – the brisk progression of events seems to give you a faith in the natural processes of time and age and youth and death. Lissa and Hannah have a phrase that’s almost an injoke – this shit are what life withstands’. Expectation is a kind of Zen novel – one that goes about its work so subtly and well that you don’t realise you’re being entranced.

Also: Susan Osborne’s review available here

The Love Song of Lina Wolff

July 6, 2019

The Polyglot Lovers is a hard novel to write about. Reviewers tend to be impressed but bemused, and for a hook they focused on Max Lamas, the narcissistic novelist who narrates the middle third of the story. In a book full of strange people who act in unnatural ways for unknown reasons, Max is a recognisable type – the egomaniac writer who thinks he’s god’s gift. He is tired, ageing and in a permanent state of refined ennui. ‘The pain I’m enduring is like dirty water. All that muck swirling around,’ Max tells us. ‘It’s like a herd of donkeys is galloping back and forth across my heart. Back and forth, back and forth. Muddy hooves and common braying.’ He is in an unhappy marriage – ‘My wife’s back was, on certain nights at the start of this story, an unvoiced rejection made of skin and vertebrae’ – and the only thing he lives for is sex. To the psychic in this story, he is empty – ‘you can keep your money, because I can’t see anything at all.’

Translator Saskia Vogel does a marvellous job of conveying the three dramatically different registers of Wolff’s novel. There is Max and his galloping pretension – ‘But the tristesse, oh, the tristesse! No one can be saved from it!’ Ellinor is a martial arts ace and looking for love online. She is subdued, but relentlessly curious about the world. And the final part of the book is told by Lucrezia who is the last of an ancient and distinguished Roman family. Her voice is intelligent, assured and steeped in history. Phrases jump out you as you read The Polyglot Lovers, like chapter headings or greeting cards written by someone damaged and wise:

You lose the intimacy, and intimacy is the stream leading to the spring of life.

… the long and arduous journey into another person.

Everything is going to work out, but in a way that’s unimaginable to you right now.

You find the best stories where no one is thinking about stories, where no one is aware that stories even exist.

The big plot strand is the fate of Max’s manuscript, written in Mogliano, stolen, pissed upon, transported to Stockholm and finally burned to ashes. Other texts abound: Max and his acolyte Ruben both adore Houellebecq, and Stephen King is mentioned as well – not often those two are linked (though King wrote an introduction to Houellebecq’s early study of H P Lovecraft). The narrative makes little sense, but it holds you – one event sashays into the next with the improbable grace of a fairytale.

In her review, Joanna Kavenna writes that: ‘One final irony is that Max, genius/pig depending on your perspective, is a character in a novel by Lina Wolff, and so is the insane reviewer Ruben, and so, in the end, is a fictional version of Houellebecq. They are all trapped in Wolff’s merciless novel, and are ritually tormented until she has had enough.’

But isn’t the prominence of Max’s voice its own irony? T S Eliot in his classic poem ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ imagined a man like Max – bored, humble and yearning, but with his own resilient kind of egotism. Prufrock thinks he has ‘known them all already, known them all: Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons’ but there is something he’s missing. Eliot highlights the famous line, dismissing the women and also separating them from Prufrock’s narration:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The Polyglot Lovers abounds with fascinating women – Mildred the blind psychic, the suicidal receptionist Max seduces, Max’s own brilliant philosophical wife, the generations of women still around and vocal in the ruins of Lucrezia’s family. Wolff is laughing at Max, but she puts him in the foreground. Max wants a polyglot lover but doesn’t hear women’s voices in any language. Max takes no more notice of them then Prufrock did the women who talk of Michelangelo: like Prufrock, Max is lost in his solipsistic vision and doesn’t hear ‘the music from a farther room.’

Wolff is looking hard at her own monsters, but she is also looking hard at you – the reader – and asking: what are you focusing on? Is it you that’s missing something?

Song of the Outpost

June 3, 2019

The classic recent TV series are Western genre shows. Breaking Bad, The Wire, Sons of Anarchy are basically Westerns. (Vince Gilligan drew on the same Sergio Leone movies as did Stephen King for his Dark Tower epic.) And the classic show that’s actually a Western isn’t a Western. Deadwood is not about Western type themes – confrontation, masculinity, pride, solitude and anger (although it is about these things too) it’s about relationships between people and how societies grow.

Take the gold in the black hills that brought everybody to Deadwood. People get killed over claims and counter claims. Fortune seekers rushed to the Dakotas in 1876, just as they rushed to California in ’49, and later to the Klondike in 1890. History is full of these periodic migrations and stampedes. They continue today. In the 2010s, people returned to the Dakotas for the oil and the fracking boom. I can’t recommend enough journalist Maya Rao’s Great American Outposts, in which she chronicles the searchers and drifters who gravitated to North Dakota for oil money driving rigs and hauling water. People from all over America rushed for black gold, many leaving behind criminal records, bad credit histories and child-support claims. Rao’s subjects are not all dissimilar to the ‘hoopleheads’ Al Swearengen used to serve in his Gem Saloon.

The gold itself is valueless. As the Patrician says in The Colour of Magic, if you gave everyone a bag of gold the result would not be that ‘we’d all be rich’. The gold would depreciate in value, because its value rests on scarcity. Smart operators like Al Swearengen and Cy Tolliver, the second wave of Deadwood settlers, they know that you can make a better living selling booze and sex to prospectors, than from spending hours in a creek panning for precious metals. It is not the metal but the perception of the metal and how perception itself can be mined for coin. In his book of the series, showrunner David Milch says that ‘Something in us that is specifically human has the capacity to endow a symbol with a special meaning.’

Swearengen is the lynchpin of the show – the camp evolves under his wary gaze from the balcony of the Gem. Al is a brutal cutthroat, and an exploiter of women, but he faces outwards and cares about the future of the camp. He takes an active part in the bewildering politics of accession and annexation that characterised the US in the 1870s. He hosts town meetings at the Gem, at which he serves cans of peaches, just as Gustavo Fring offered platters of sandwiches in sitdowns with cartel bosses he despised. (Milch writes: ‘And in the electrical force field created within that meeting, the presence of the peaches has significance as a gesture.’) With his fierce intelligence and grandiloquent, corrosive speech, Al runs rings around commissioners and politicians, dodging murder warrants and turning potential enemies.

But things are changing. Retired sheriff Seth Bullock goes back to the badge, and his duties go from cleaning up murders to sorting out the kind of petty property disputes that neighbourhood policing teams would recognise today. The lovable A. W. Merrick sets up his newspaper. Alma Garrett quits laudanum and founds a local bank. There are weddings, and funerals. Taboos are created and enforced. The brothel becomes a schoolhouse, and then a theatre. Telegraphs go up (and in the movie, railroads and telephone lines). There are elections locally, then regionally. And as the camp develops into a town, Swearengen faces more formidable enemies as well as his own weakness and mortality.

Milch also writes of ‘complicated manipulations and distortions of money produced by people who understood there were realities at the level of the symbol that you could fuck with.’ In season two geologist Francis Wolcott arrives and begins spreading rumours, depreciating the value of the claims so that he can buy up the claims at cost price on behalf of his employer: gold tycoon George Hearst, the boy the earth spoke to. There is a fine scene where Wolcott writes to Hearst about the growing operation, and his narration of the letter is spoken over a montage of workers driven hard at the goldmine, then stripped and frisked for stolen metals. Wolcott is a wretch and a killer, but he is just a harbinger of his even more sinister boss. When Hearst sacks Wolcott over his murders of several sex workers, Wolcott hangs himself; without Hearst he is nothing, a weak degenerate who even old man Charlie Utter can take in a fight.

David Milch describes Hearst as ‘the monstrous abstraction of the symbol made flesh.’ Hearst tells us frequently how much he hates the camp, and is obviously happiest prospecting alone in the field. In Milch’s world that’s not meant to say anything good about his character. Hearst represents the third wave of corporatism and commodity fetishism. He kills miners who try to unionise. While Al consults, Hearst only gives orders. Elections ‘ratify my will, or I neuter them,’ he says. Season three becomes a lengthy Mexican standoff between Hearst and the rest of the town. Deadwood’s resistance fears attacking him because to do so might destroy the camp. As Al says: ‘And as to us and him, if blood’s what it finally comes to, one hundred years from now the forest is what they’ll find here. Dewy morning’s lost its appeal for me. I prefer to wake indoors.’

Wake indoors, and face outwards. Milch has said in interviews that a lot of the thinking on Deadwood came from his time in AA where survival meant giving up the I for the we, and in going through the motions until they became natural. That becomes the show’s story – a lie, or illusion, agreed upon. People have to compromise their personal selves to get along, and the we isn’t always kind. Seth Bullock is in an arranged marriage to his late brother’s wife: he begins an affair with Alma Garrett, a New Yorker widowed between the murder of her husband Brom Garrett and her later platonic marriage to the noble old prospector William Ellsworth. She and Bullock are soulmates, but must sacrifice their love to the greater stability of the town. Alma says of Ellsworth, in one of the show’s more heartbreaking lines: ‘He is a good man. And he whom I love is here as well.’

It’s about the making of a community, and not the nostalgia authoritarian state of which today’s communitarians dream. It’s a we made up of hundreds, thousands of dancing Is, hoopleheads, prospectors and fools. When Bullock first stands for election, he is overwhelmed by the hustings and forgets whatever rhetoric of justice he had planned and instead simply says: ‘I’m glad we’re in the camp, even on the sorriest of days.’ And I think, watching the show and the movie, that this is how we all felt – it was over too soon, but all the same, we were glad to be in the camp. The Deadwood movie is as good as the series and gives us one last look at the legendary outpost, I recommend watching it with a bottle of rotgut to hand – and perhaps a can of peaches.

The Vast and Wicked Stage

May 14, 2019

An instance into Nicole Flattery’s first and title story, ‘Show Them A Good Time’ you realise she has a prose that is becoming a type. The narrator has moved back to her parents’ house after years in the big city. She gets a job in some kind of millennial work farm based at a motorway service. The job is dull and cruel, but the narrator doesn’t respond to the dullness or the cruelty. But she doesn’t miss the city either. ‘I said that I had to leave to discover things about myself. Just ordinary surface and, beneath that, more desperate surface.’

Think about the short fiction of Joanna Walsh, the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the insouciance of Ann-Marie from Zoe Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out, even the later passages from American Psycho where Bateman goes crazy and just wanders around Manhattan listing various 1980s reference points in his mind. There is a certain listlessness to it, what the cliche calls ennui, like the suburban 1990s novels of Nigel Williams – a prose that has given up on life.

I am currently reading a sociology book about machine gambling. The sociologist interviewed a problem gambler who drew a map of her world – the casino where she worked, the free clinic where she picked up her meds, the place she slept, and at the centre is a self portrait of a woman gazing into a slot machine. This is a good approximation of where Flattery’s characters are. Angela in ‘Not the End Yet’ goes to the same falling-apart restaurant night afte night, bringing a more ridiculous and sleazy date each time. Natasha in ‘Abortion: A Love Story’ goes to an elite college and knows that it will only lead to the ‘unemployment building’. Lost in the machine zone.

Not quite though. For all Flattery’s desire to throw a crazy or disgusting visual image in your face (‘It was as if the chairs could sense the unreasonable expectations being placed upon them; they vomited their stuffing, revealed dangerous wooden splinters, and discoloured horribly in the daylight’) or to jar you with her appositions, and the performative despair she puts her characters through, there is something here that makes the giddy sense of very good experimental theatre. The story ‘Track’ is a big highlight, one woman’s struggle through a relationship with a narcissistic comedian, the ‘king of a small and ineffectual country’. The track in question is a recorded studio laughter tape, which the boyfriend carries for reassurance wherever he goes.

That is the strength of ‘Abortion: A Love Story’. Two students are having an affair with a professor, they meet by chance, both dump the professor and they write, and perform, the title play. More than playfulness, this long story is a marvellous comedy of female friendship and representation. Flattery soars when she lets her characters surface onto the vast and wicked stage – the epigram to this collection, from Lorrie Moore. ‘Only someone so gifted would do so little to announce themselves,’ the narrator muses in ‘Track’. It seems a good summation of this collection as well.

I’m the Screen: The Lives of Lee Miller

March 16, 2019

In May 1945, Lee Miller heard the news that Hitler was dead. She heard it from Hitler’s apartment in Munich. Miller and her colleague Dave Scherman had found the place with some US troops, undamaged enough to ride out the remainder of the war. Since 1942 Miller had been the war correspondent for Vogue. Her passion was photography. She took a whole series of shots in Hitler’s flat, but her most famous from that time is the one where she was the model – enjoying a long soak in the Führer’s bathtub. (The Guardian has a good gallery of Miller’s war shots, here.)

Miller hadn’t posed for a long time. She had been one of the most adored models in New York of the late 1920s. After two years, she tired of it and moved to Paris where she reinvented herself as a photographer. This is where Whitney Scharer’s novel of Miller comes in – when she is just another face in the city: ‘When she walks through Montparnasse, her new neighborhood, no one catches her eye, no one turns around to watch her pass. Instead, Lee seems to be just another pretty detail in a city where almost everything is artfully arranged.’

Miller meets the artist Man Ray when she is running out of money and half-crazy from loneliness in Paris. He offers her a job as his assistant. The two have passions in common and inevitably they fall in love, and The Age of Light charts their stormy relationship. There is a new trend in fiction for novels about real people – see Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott‘s stunning Swan Song, which tells the life of Truman Capote through his relationships with his woman friends.

The Age of Light did not work as well for me because Scharer shrinks the viewfinder of Miller’s life into the short years she spent with Man Ray. The problem with writing about relationships is that there’s only a certain number of scenarios that can play out (boy meets girl…) and you don’t have to know anything about Miller or Man Ray to see how the story will go. You know that Miller will begin to outdo Ray as an artist and that Ray won’t like it. You know this’ll end in tears.

Miller lived a long accomplished life after Man Ray. She ran a studio in New York. She saw Dachau. Her wartime experiences led to difficulties in later life with depression and (likely undiagnosed) PTSD. In The Bitter Taste of Victory, Lara Feigel’s history of the immediate aftermath of World War 2 in Europe, Feigel discusses Miller’s bathroom shot at 16 Prinzregentenplatz:

There is no simple message in Miller’s picture but by juxtaposing the clumsy brutality of her muddy boots with the pomp of the military leadership and the classical beauty both of the sculpture and of her own huddled and fragile naked figure, she was asking how these incongruous elements could have come together. The Nazi leadership had been famous for finding a place for art within the torture chamber and the battlefield. Already, there were frequent tales of the concentration camp commandants who went home from a day of gassing Jews to listen to Beethoven… By bringing the statue into the frame with Hitler, Miller was undermining the notion that art could be redemptive simply through its purity or detachment.

Scharer touches on this in her prologue, when Miller is living in the countryside in the 1960s. She loves cooking and hosts frequent dinner parties, but drinks so much in the kitchen that her banquets are often delayed until almost midnight. ‘She cannot stop the thoughts from coming,’ Scharer writes. ‘They lodge like bits of shrapnel in her brain and she never knows when something will bring one to the surface.’ It is a sympathetic portrait of a woman self medicating against mental distress. But this plus snatches of wartime memory is pretty much all we get of Miller after Ray: and I think that’s a shame.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh though. If you want a love story I’d totally recommend The Age of Light, and the scenery and people of Paris are beautifully rendered. There is also an increase in tempo towards the end of the book, and a growing sense of liberty. After completing an artwork, ‘Lee opens another bottle of wine and watches all four films, projected on the back wall of the studio, as she drinks straight from the bottle, the wine going down her throat in what feels like one uninterrupted swallow. When the last film slips loose of the reel at the end, Lee sits in the sudden hot bright light of the projector, listening to the tock tock tock tock as the film goes around the reel, and she feels overwhelmingly, drunkenly proud.’ Scharer’s novel is about sharing a life, but the lesson from it is what the poet Claude tells Miller, very early on: travel only at the prow of yourself.

A Brush With Evil

February 9, 2019

I never realised ‘Cat Person’ was a story. It went round the internet and I assumed it would be an outtake or gif or a confessional Medium piece. Kristen Roupenian had no previous print publications, just stories published in online zines. In a later New Yorker piece she wrote about her unexpected fame.

I remember the e-mails coming and coming—first, fan letters from people who’d discovered my story and liked it, then anti-fan letters, from people who’d discovered my story and didn’t. I received many in-depth descriptions, from men, of sexual encounters they’d had, because they thought I’d ‘just like to know.’ I got e-mails from people I hadn’t talked to in years who wondered if I’d noticed that my story had gone viral. And, as the days went on, I got e-mails requesting interviews from outlets all over the globe: the U.S., Canada, England, Australia.

The short form is like a half-mythical beast. It lies dormant for years. It sleeps in its cave. People start thinking it’s dead. And then there’s a creak of leathern wings, the cave walls light up, and there’s a dragon arcing across the sky.

You Know You Want This is a collection about dysfunctional relationships. A woman has a compulsion to bite people that dominates her life. A marriage is almost destroyed by a mysterious skin disorder. A single man is taken in by a happy couple who then become obsessed with him. I can’t summarise more than that because I don’t want to spoil the stories. You really just have to sit down and read them. If I went through the collection again no doubt I’ll find things to criticise, but it would take some doing. Roupenian is so good.

There is a tendency in criticism to subgenre authors like Roupenian as millennial romance – the new chick lit, and just as transitory in its success. But I think that You Know You Want This is more in the tradition of American horror. Roupenian’s world is a forest of potential danger. Margot in ‘Cat Person’ might fear misogynists and white-knighters like Robert and Ted, but she faces almost as much threat from her fellow women as portrayed across Roupenian’s stories – they are unruly, cliquish schoolgirls, embittered middle-aged married women and unpredictable selfish singletons. Tilly’s mother, in ‘Sardines’, asks about her birthday wish, and Tilly says: ‘I wished for something mean.’

In the story ‘Look At Your Game, Girl’, twelve year old Jessica is approached by an older boy at the skate park. Not really a boy, to be honest – ‘She thought he was one of the skateboarders. He was about their height, with the same thin, slippery build, but his hair was longer, down past his shoulders, and as he moved to the side, so that he was no longer silhouetted against the late-afternoon sun, she realised that he was in his twenties at least – a young but full-grown man.’ This guy is obsessed with Charlie Manson. He gives Jessica a tape of Manson’s music, and raves about the killer’s legacy – ‘Charlie was a singer and he could have been a star. All the girls worshipped him. They loved him even more than you loved Axl, and he loved them back the same. They followed him everywhere, Mary and Susan and Linda and the rest.’

Again – I don’t want to ruin this. I can say that Jessica survived this encounter with a bad and dangerous man, but she came to see the encounter as a ‘brush with evil… a tiny pinprick of light, nearly imperceptible against a backdrop of whirling constellations made up of other, brighter stars.’ The world is full of violence and evil, Roupenian warns us. Her stories contain some true unearthly monsters as well as the two-legged variety, and there is even a story, ‘The Mirror, The Bucket, And The Old Thigh Bone’ set in a medieval kingdom of a fantasy world. It’s a break from Roupenian’s bleak urban America but feels just as deadly in its way.

It’s a jungle out there. It’s the forest that awaited Young Goodman Brown. Roupenian’s flagship story made an impact because she drills down so deep into the physicality of Margot and Robert as their bad date reaches its messy conclusion. And it is when the characters in her stories confront and fight and fuck each other (as they so frequently do) that she taps into the animality of human interaction. And it’s scary.  You hear the rip of flesh, hair pulled from its roots, and smell the blood. Red in tooth and claw!

And Roupenian drills down into the inner life, as well: the thought processes, the repetition and artifice of thought, awash in cortisol and testosterone. It’s so visceral, this stuff, but there’s not a sense that she’s exaggerating these characters or laughing at them as other writers might do. Think of Ted, dying on a gurney, remembering the mistakes he made in his relationships with women. The story is called ‘The Good Guy’ and the spoiler is, obviously, that Ted isn’t a good guy at all. He conceals his desires, manipulates others, and nurtures bitterness. Because he refuses to admit mistakes, he’s a slave to past selves. The results are awful, for people around him, and for himself as well. Roupenian is expert at nailing down the neuroses of generations of people taught to be passive, yet also that they are entitled to certain things from life, and that it’s important to demonstrate’s one superiority at all times. And what you often get from this is people who lead terrible, wasted lives.

We get other people wrong. We get ourselves wrong. We don’t know what we want, and when we do, we’re often dishonest about it. We lie, lie about the lies, and we repeat the same patterns of behaviour and the same mistakes, over and over. We blunder into things we’re not ready for and keep ourselves away from what we really do need. We’re all heading towards the same place but this truth doesn’t encourage solidarity. There is a line through the forest, but as Paul Scott says in the Raj Quartet, it is not the line, but the forest, that’s our history.

Roupenian chronicles all this with mordant wit but also a depth and humanity. You Know You Want This is a collection for anyone who ever looked at the stars – and wished for something mean.

Books Do Furnish A Room

January 19, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 2, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Promised Land of Low Expectations

November 9, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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