Archive for the ‘Relationships’ Category

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.

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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.

A Psychology of the Bridge

September 29, 2018

Spoiler alert for everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The poet Wendell Berry writes:

You will be walking some night

in the comfortable dark of your yard

and suddenly a great light will shine

round about you, and behind you

will be a wall you never saw before.

It will be clear to you suddenly

that you were about to escape,

and that you are guilty: you misread

the complex instructions, you are not

a member, you lost your card

or never had one. And you will know

that they have been there all along,

their eyes on your letters and books,

their hands in your pockets,

their ears wired to your bed.

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

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

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

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

You will pursue them, begging forgiveness.

They will not forgive you.

There is no power against them.

It is only candor that is aloof from them,

only an inward clarity, unashamed,

that they cannot reach. Be ready.

When their light has picked you out

and their questions are asked, say to them:

‘I am not ashamed.’ A sure horizon

will come around you. The heron will begin

his evening flight from the hilltop.

A Woke Dating Guide

September 17, 2018

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

This Undone England

August 4, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 20, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wilderness Years

May 4, 2018

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

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

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

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

The Shock of the Moment

April 2, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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