Archive for the ‘Relationships’ Category

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.

The Beautiful Acausal

October 28, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All About Edelstein

October 20, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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