Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category


February 6, 2020

This short story of mine has been published by the amazing Words of the Wild as part of their ‘Jungle’ edition. I’ve benefited from their terrific illustrations and layout – though I wouldn’t describe the piece as dystopian, more a what-if of the world would be like if (or when) AI absorbed basically all of human experience. Didn’t Douglas Coupland say that the computer is like humanity’s subconscious? Anyway, I hope you like it.

The Horse and the Man

February 2, 2020

There’s an episode of South Park where the town is shocked to hear that rival cartoon Family Guy are planning to show an image of the prophet Mohammed in their next episode. Cartman sets off to the studio to get the show shut down – not because he respects Islam or fears terror attacks, but simply because he dislikes the programme’s writing style. In an angry tirade he declares:

Do you have any idea what it’s like? Everywhere I go, ‘Hey Cartman, you must like Family Guy, right?’ ‘Hey, your sense of humor reminds me of Family Guy, Cartman.’ I am NOTHING like Family Guy! When I make jokes, they are inherent to a story! Deep, situational and emotional jokes based on what is relevant and has a POINT! Not just one interchangeable joke after another!

When al-Qaeda threaten retaliation, their spokesman criticises Family Guy in much the same tones that Cartman does. ‘Family Guy isn’t even that well written,’ says a scary-looking terror boss. ‘The jokes are interchangeable and usually irrelevant to the plot.’

Both these criticisms was South Park’s way of saying that the animation genre was running out of steam. We all remember watching Simpsons on BBC2 in the evenings but now this type of thing doesn’t have the same impact – although I still get belly laughs from Archer, King of the Hill and South Park.

Yet something different is happening with Bojack Horseman. It’s about a lazy, irresponsible Hollywood celebrity who drinks too much and just doesn’t care, the first few episodes are clever and funny but predictable, but around halfway through season one you start noticing things.

One aspect critics picked up on was the show’s eerie prescience. The 2017 Oscars farce when Faye Dunaway read off the wrong name mirrored a previous episode in which Bojack’s friend Mr Peanutbutter the celebrity dog is supposed to host the Oscars but he loses the list of winners and simply makes them up, getting several wrong. And the episode ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ underscored America’s acclimatisation to horrific gun violence to the extent that the phrase – perfunctorily reiterated by J K Simmons’s weathered film exec Lenny Turtletaub whenever a shooting occurred – has become shorthand for ineffective symbolic gestures in the face of preventable atrocities. (The line is even used in Don Winslow’s The Border when the bad guys are planning out the aftermath of a targeted assassination.)

There’s plenty more subtle stuff going on in the background. Bojack’s Hollywood is a city of man and beast, but the animals aren’t just humanised animals. They act like real animals. A woodpecker drills through his restaurant table, debutante horses dressage through a tony ballroom, and Bojack even helps a male seahorse give birth (‘yes, it’s a thing!’) Guest characters from one episode recur and recur through the series, glimpsed on sets and at parties: Lisa Hanawalt’s deft busy scenes ensure that we care about the little people in Bojack’s life even though Bojack never does.

Upfront is Bojack’s psychodrama and it doesn’t take long for the show to uncover his own formative demons. Bojack’s father was an narcissist, alcoholic and failed author, who like all narcissists rejects his son because he will never provide the true reflecting pool of himself that the narcissist craves. (The dad Butterscotch has a brilliant toxic masculine death – he’s killed in a duel with a book reviewer who criticised Butterscotch’s only published novel.) With no positive male influence to lean on, the boy Bojack becomes a huge fan of Secretariat – in this world, another hybrid celebrity horse. There is a moving scene, written from different angles over two episodes, where Secretariat in a chat show appearance reads out a letter from then nine year old Bojack and gives some advice on how Bojack can make his way in the world. But Bojack never hears of what Secretariat has to say because his parents start one of their predictable arguments and drown out the TV with yelling. Secretariat himself commits suicide soon afterward.

Bojack has come a long way since childhood – he has got rich from silly 1990s sitcom ‘Horsin’ Around’, he has a luxury home in the hills, while he doesn’t have a wife or family he can find sex and companionship any time he wants it. As Mr Peanutbutter says – in a rare moment of fury – ‘What more do you want? What else could the universe possibly owe you?’ In the first episode Bojack starts having panic attacks, and a doctor tells him to take it easy. To Bojack’s agent Princess Carolyn this advice is meaningless – Bojack does nothing but take it easy. So what’s causing the attacks? Bojack is in his fifties but doesn’t seem to fear old age or death, it’s not that he’s ashamed of the stupid commercial hit that made his name, in fact he’s proud of it, he feels that he delivered a great escapist comedy that would make people laugh and forget their aches and cares for a while. It often seems that Bojack is looking for that uncomplicated and predictable happiness of a half-hour’s good television.

Midway through the show develops its central theme of masculinity and its consequences. Bojack does a film tribute to his male role model Secretariat then moves on to a hardboiled cop show written – in a brilliant sendup of the auteur showrunner – by the obnoxious and self obsessed Flip McVicker. As Bojack goes on he accumulates more and more ghosts: the people he’s let down start to haunt his present, from the Horsin’ Around mentor who died of cancer to the ex colleague Sarah Lynn who overdosed on heroin under his care. Bojack is masculine but not toxic, even when he’s an asshole he’s warm and entertaining to be around, but as the show incorporated the real life MeToo events you’re constantly on edge for Bojack’s own reckoning.

One thing creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg empathised in the show was the importance of personal responsibility. At the end of season three Bojack’s sidekick Todd – voiced by Aaron ‘Pinkman’ Paul – finally tires of Bojack’s selfishness and rants:

You can’t keep doing this! You can’t keep doing shitty things and then feel bad about yourself as if that makes it okay! You need to be better!

No! No, BoJack, just… Stop. You are all the things that are wrong with you. It’s not the alcohol, or the drugs, or any of the shitty things that happened to you in your career or when you were a kid. It’s you. Alright? It’s you.

Neither of them speak for a moment, and we’re taking in the trashed apartment, the words that can’t be taken back, and Todd adds: ‘Fuck, man…What else is there to say?’ Credits roll on a scene just as powerful as Paul ever did with Bryan Cranston, if not more.

All this is heavy going for a cartoon, and there’s times you think you’re in a graphic novel written by John Cheever, even F Scott Fitzgerald. The novel has abandoned this whole subject of life and death and happiness and responsibility, but apparently we still want to see it on TV, in particular a TV show about a talking horse.

Numerous episodes take the form of hallucinations experienced by characters in the throes of a drug binge or mental degeneration, and there is one – screening this weekend, if you’ve seen it you’ll know – that happens in purgatory. The cold tragedy of these moments can be a hard watch. Perhaps better than other artists, the comic animator has the skill to portray the finality of things broken that won’t be fixed, things done and said that can’t be undone or taken back, and the terrifying separation between human beings.

As against that there’s a warmth and essential goodness to the show, expressed in the wonderful set piece episodes: the comic funeral eulogy of ‘Free Churro,’ the quiz battle ‘Let’s Find Out,’ the multiple Halloween narratives of ‘Mr Peanutbutter’s Boos’ and the underwater odyssey of ‘Fish Out of Water’. All of it makes this a programme its hapless hero would love to have created – something that makes us laugh and forget our cares, even as it tells us how hard it is to be a horse, and a man.

The Old Devil

January 21, 2020

My story of this name appears in Crossways.

It was inspired by Michelle McNamara’s haunting true crime classic I’ll Be Gone in the Dark – particularly its unforgettable epilogue.

The book got me thinking about the awful, sordid headline crimes in British history like the Sutcliffe murders and I imagined what if one of those evil creepy men from the 1970s had somehow slipped the dragnet and was now living in obscurity in the 21st century.

As always, see what you think…

This Is Not An Entry

December 23, 2019

The plot of Jessie Burton’s The Confession seems simple until you start reading it. It’s 1980 and a young woman called Elise meets a older woman, a novelist named Constance Holden, on Hampstead Heath. The two fall in love and begin a relationship. All goes well until the two women move to Los Angeles, where Connie’s latest book is being adapted for Hollywood. There the relationship falls apart with messy scenes and infidelity on both sides.

Flash forward to 2017. Rose Simmons is slipping along the currents of life. She’s in a relationship with a self employed dullard called Joe, who has left his job to start up his own business (‘Joerritos’). Her best friend is an Insta mother drifting away into a higher social world. Rose is Elise’s natural daughter but has never met her – her father has kept the circumstances a tight secret. Finally the old man reveals the relationship with Connie Holden, now an old lady living alone, raddled with arthritis. Connie is breaking a thirty-year silence with a new novel and needs someone to type up the ms. Rose invents a new identity for herself and hustles her way into the role, hoping to scratch together enough information to find Elise.

Like Burton’s debut The Minaturist, The Confession is a long book with a small canvas. The novel traverses a continent and a century, but the points of the drama are clearly delineated. Unlike The Minaturist, which to be honest I found a bit underwhelming, Burton’s new novel is a spectacular triumph. To start with a small point, much of the novel is set in cities – NYC, Los Angeles, London – and Burton is fantastic on the changing texture of the East End:

Every public wall I walked past on the way was flyered with achingly cool low-key club nights, whose bands and aesthetic I couldn’t even begin to understand. Elaborate and beautiful graffiti lined the brickwork and there were coffee shops with square footage the size of a postage stamp and wooden benches outside. I passed a shop that seemed to sell only black socks from Japan, its frontage rough around the edges, but artfully so. The coffees, I noted, were the same price as in Hampstead.

But the real victory comes from the effort and care that Burton invests in her story and characters. You feel everything: conversations between two people with strangeness and seriousness between them, the awkwardness of unfamiliar rooms and the feeling of destiny carried by certain of life’s movements. The weight of it all is ever present. Burton does the long hard haul into other lives.

One indicator of Burton’s talent is the way that our opinions of her characters change over the course of the novel. The LA scenes feature Connie getting into the film adaptation with stellar actor Barbara Lowden while the younger girlfriend Elise stews in inertia. I thought Elise was a little brattish during these chapters, rattling around in the California sun, but her decision to run off with surfer Matt paradoxically made me respect her more – Connie is wealthy and established, Elise could have lived off her royalties for years but instead had the courage to make a new life with a fellow insolvent dreamer. Connie is a constant diversion in both young and old incarnations, witty and indulgent and quite as clever as she thinks she is.

Rose is the real revelation here. She’s another character that irritates at the beginning, complaining about her aimless midthirties life while doing nothing about it, but her quest to find Elise changes her. The ending doesn’t give the big revelations Rose had hoped for, but at the same time it’s not an anticlimax, the story doesn’t fizzle out at all, it all feels so important and phenomenal. Burton has captured the feeling of stepping outside yourself, the realisation that there are other lives than yours. At one point near the end, Rose realises that her younger coffee shop hipster colleagues actually look up to her for help and advice:

‘There isn’t an endpoint,’ I said to them. ‘No arrival.’ At this, the expressions on their faces ranged from perplexed to despondent. ‘But you’re all so brilliant, and you’ve got so much going for you. And if you haven’t got to where you wanted by the time you’re twenty-five, you should probably thank your lucky stars. Seriously. Because if getting there is hard, holding on to your dream is possibly even harder. Nothing ever stays the same.’

I don’t want to give away any of the plot, but the passages on Elise’s motherhood are some of the most searing and true paragraphs I’ve read on the subject. At one point, she reflects: ‘Did he not realise? The tiny lungs, the heart, the stomach, the intestines, the little bones as frail as a chicken’s, the brain – and inside that a deep and endless chamber of music that none of them could hear.’

Jessie Burton opens our ears to a glimpse of the music that lives inside others.

The Old Curiosity Shop

December 20, 2019

One of my fun reads this year was D J Taylor’s The Prose Factory which is his history of writing and publishing since WW1. It’s a witty and enjoyable read, although for me the book was a bit of a letdown as it has absolutely nothing about Brutalism and 3:AM magazine, a glaring omission that I trust Taylor will rectify in future editions.

Taylor is a critic of the twentieth century old school. From his point of view, writers like David Mitchell and Zadie Smith are still ‘fashionable younger voices’. Martin Amis merits only a handful of mentions – which is interesting because his novel The Information is set around the same period of time when The Prose Factory tails out. Both novels in their way are a tribute to the twentieth century book world. Each takes you into a vast untidy cathedral of printed words.

The Information‘s Richard Tull is a one man prose factory. As well as complex modernist novels – for which he can’t find a publisher – he writes reams of copy for an obscure journal and also book reviews, on an almost daily basis. Significantly, the books Richard reviews are all lengthy biographies of twentieth-century, old school writers and critics. Richard’s life is books: ‘He had books heaped under tables, under beds. Books heaped on windowsills so they closed out the sky.’ His desk is a world in itself: ‘schemes and dreams and stonewallings, its ashtrays, coffee cups, dead felt-tip pens and empty staplers… books commissioned yet unfinished, or unbegun.’

It’s in the section on The Little Magazine, where Richard is literary editor, that Amis shows his debt to and affection for the old school publishing world. He evokes a world of ‘Dusty decanters, hammock-like sofas, broad dining-tables strew with books and learned journals: here a handsome philanderer in canvas trousers bashing out an attack on Heinrich Schliemann (‘The Iliad as war reportage? The Odyssey as ordinance survey cum captain’s log? Balderdash!’); there a trembling scholar with 11,000 words on Housman’s prosody (‘and the triumphant rehabilitation of the trochee’).’ One of Richard’s many unwritten books is a biography of one of the magazine’s legends, R C Squires, a real twentieth century character who was in the Spanish Civil War and pre Nazi Berlin (‘whoring in the Kurfürstendamm and playing pingpong in Sitges, as Richard had learned, after a month of desultory research.’) Amis is so taken with The Little Magazine that he features it in a short story, ‘Straight Fiction’, set in a parallel reality, and I like the idea of Little Magazines sprouting up all over the multiverse, like the magic shops in Discworld.

Richard is a throwback, but he thinks of himself as a pioneer. In his head he interrogates ‘the standard book… not the words themselves that were prim and sprightly-polite, but their configurations, which answered to various old-time rhythms of thought. Where were the new rhythms – were there any out there yet?’ And yet writing and publishing is changing, just not in a way an old school writer might like. While Richard’s novels are out of print, his oldest friend Gwyn Barry has recently found unstoppable success with his Amelior series. Gwyn has embraced the corporate and identitarian world with these novels: while Richard bangs on about the universal, Gwyn feels that ‘the art lay in pleasing the readers.’ Richard is recruited to write a profile of his old rival, and has to follow him around on an American book tour while trying to plug his own latest novel, which he sells out of a burlap mailsack. Critics at the time felt that the American section of The Information killed the flow of the book – but I’d argue that the US section is important because it emphasises the new world of corporate publishing that emerged from the ashes of the twentieth century cathedral of words.

Gwyn is praised for the plain writing and ‘deceptive simplicity’ of his novels, whereas Richard comes to feel that he is just too ‘difficult’ to make a living as a writer: ‘if you do the arts, if you try the delirious profession, then don’t be a flake, and offer people something – tell them something they might reasonably want to hear.’ And it is true that it is harder to make a living as a ‘difficult writer’ and time has been called for the old style literary magazines. I’m thinking here of this wonderful Little Magazine esque passage from Taylor:

Chief among these was Panurge, edited by the novelist John Murray from a farmhouse seven miles outside Carlisle, which managed twenty-five issues in a combative career that extended between 1984 and 1996. Although it published a fair amount of criticism and reportage, from the very first the magazine specialised in the short story; the more obscure the author the greater the chances of him, or her, being published – ‘brilliant work by people you’ve never heard of’ as one of the early editorials put it, with further showcasing of little-known talent provided by occasional anthologies (see Move over Waxblinder! The Panurge Book of Funny Stories, 1994) and compilations. If Panurge had a weakness, whether edited by Murray or, between 1987 and 1993, by David Almond, it was that very few of these discoveries went on to make distinctive careers…. [Murray] signed off with a bumper valedictory number nearly 100,000 words in length, arguing in a final editorial that such cottage industries were no longer economically viable, calculating that he had managed to pay himself £11 a week during his time in the editorial chair and thanking his wife, whose full-time job had kept him afloat.

A lost art. But is it any longer true that modernism and difficulty have been frozen out? Richard Tull would surely have applauded Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, which consists of a thousand-page single sentence, sold well and was shortlisted for the Booker. Paying journals are hard to come by, but there are plenty of new indie publishers who are happy to shake a tin in your face via crowdfunder, a Little Magazine ethos in the digital age. The old curiosity shop will darken its windows but never really close.

The Search for Atlantis

November 21, 2019

I know it’s been a long time, however as you know I am a man of great activity with many flourishing enterprises to look after. Just a quick note to thank Fairlight Books for publishing my short story of this name.

Like a lot of people my age I loved the old Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid. I’ve seen other writers of my generation riff on the format – and the riffs were always to the point that our decisions are generally slight variations of the same routine. Of course that’s true most of the time but I wanted to be more expansive in my own take on it and write about the potential consequences of having a reset button for life, one you could hit not just once but over and over again.

I was very much inspired by this essay about mapping the Choose Your Own Adventure books, by Sarah Laskow at Atlas Obscura.

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?

Bad Guy In Your MFA

June 16, 2019

The campus novel isn’t an easy thing to write, particularly a campus crime novel, and I think only Donna Tartt, in The Secret History, has really ever pulled it off. Elif Batuman’s last book was a little too diffuse for me, John Niven’s Straight White Male is more about fame and success, although I can recommend Julie Schumacher‘s profound epistolary comedy, Dear Committee Members. Apart from that, I don’t know why, the citadel of ideas doesn’t lend itself well at all to the literary novel, let alone genre fiction. (‘The Research Excellence Framework Murders’, anyone?) Until now. Jo Baker’s The Body Lies is a fantastic noir mystery of modern academia.

Part of her success is in the realism. A young novelist lands a job teaching creative writing at a university in North Lancs. The new start isn’t. The narrator ends up overloaded with work due to staffing gaps. Everyone in the department is rushed off their feet and close to burnout. What’s inside the academy’s gates isn’t so lustrous. Baker draws a compelling picture of higher education taken over by the HR industry and turned into yet another process driven target culture environment. If you wondered why lecturers and support staff walked out last year, The Body Lies will enlighten you.

Baker’s skill extends to her deft pen-portraits of the students, even gives you a sense of their work as individuals. There are the careerists and the hobbyists and the half-crazy (‘Around forty per cent of our creative writing students have declared mental health issues, and those are just the ones that choose to let us know’, an admin officer says) there’s glimpses of wonder and talent.

Here Baker digs out another level to her story. Her student Steven is writing a police procedural that begins with the discovery of a dead woman – ‘Posters of her smiling face were on every parish notice board and stuck in every shop window’ – and another student objects. Nicholas is a more experimental writer and complains that ‘I don’t know this woman. She could be anybody. Literally, Any Body. Sure, Girl Guides and yeah whatever the background bullshit we’re given, but she has no agency, she’s not a character, she’s a device.’ Part of the complexity of this book is that Baker uses exactly the same thing in her brief prologue – ‘the young woman curled there, her skin blue-white, dark hair tumbled over her face.’

Nicholas says what many readers think about police procedurals – why do we never get a chance to know the victims before they die? But his own writing isn’t much better, a plotless rush of self absorbed non sequiturs. Nicholas – never Nick – is recovering from a bereavement, comes from a dysfunctional family and seems vulnerable. He is admired and well liked. Is he just another lost soul who thinks creative writing will fix whatever is wrong with him? Or is there something creepier there? Our narrator fears the latter – particularly when she starts turning up in his excerpts. ‘I’ll only write what happened,’ Nicholas says in class. ‘I’ll only write the truth.’

The atmospherics of this novel are something else. The narrator’s problems don’t end at work. She has a marriage that’s falling apart, a young son to take care of and she fled London following a nasty street assault. I’ve not named her as I think the late reveal of her name is significant, but the protagonist is so sympathetic, you have never wanted so much for things to work out for someone. You feel the paradox of being busy and surrounded by people and still lonely, and as the story darkens, feel her sense of danger and being watched: the enemy seems to inhabit the sky. And Baker has the compulsive readability of Fiona Barton or Sarah Pinborough or Robert Galbraith.

It’s also one hell of a book about narration itself. I forget who said that ‘The villain never thinks of himself as the villain, he thinks of himself as the hero of another movie’ but it remains true. There are potential friends in the protagonist’s new Lancashire town. But there are no heroes in The Body Lies because the narrator has to learn to be her own hero and write her own story – all the men in her life have an agenda of some kind, and consider her potential grist to feed their own personal narratives. The problem of entitlement shades into the process of creation.

The protagonist reflects on Nicholas’s ‘innocent arrogance; he was shooting for immortal transcendence, with no idea of how difficult it is to achieve even mediocrity.’ I don’t know if Jo Baker will be immortal, but in The Body Lies she has shot a long way past the mediocre.

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.

The Drama of Reassurance

April 1, 2019

I never got into Line of Duty. It’s generally on in our house and I did try at some point to watch series two in sequence but it just didn’t take. Sure, I love the BBC, but it’s rare I can enjoy its dramas. Their last great show was Happy Valley, a hardboiled crime series set in Calderdale. It ran for two seasons before the execs, presumably realising that a frisky beast had escaped the killing-pen, cancelled it for good. Since then I’ve not been able to watch flagship BBC drama.

Long before Line of Duty Jed Mercurio wrote a novel called Bodies, about a junior hospital doctor. The doctor begins with good intentions but soon becomes burned out and disillusioned with the sclerotic and unaccountable hospital trust. Eventually the doctor is himself investigated for negligence and, on suspension, he watches TV at his parents’ house:

Our public services are failing while television plays hour after hour of incorruptible policemen catching criminals, of crusading lawyers keeping the innocent out of prison, of streetwise social workers rescuing children from abuse, of heroic doctors sticking needles in tension pneumos… I’m flicking between the real world and the drama of reassurance and I feel like I’m the only person watching who recognises the mendacity, sees it clear enough to want to kick in the TV screen.

Line of Duty is about police corruption, but to me it seems also a drama of reassurance. It is an Aaron Sorkin show transferred to London – a world of impeccable people saying the right things in firm RP accents, a world of pristine uniforms and tidy, unhurried offices, of gleaming official cars and hushed corridors and an authority that listens. It is television that takes itself very very seriously. And it communicates, I think, a love of power and process.

While Line of Duty is sort of believable, Mercurio absolutely let his imagination run away from him in his stand alone series Bodyguard. Richard Madden plays a ex-soldier straight out of the metropolitan cliched image of what ex soldiers are like. He is assigned to protect Keeley Hawes, playing a Home Secretary whose policies Madden despises. Naturally, the gruff ex-squaddie and the high-class politician become lovers, before Mercurio has her character killed, and sends Madden off on a mercy mission to capture Hawes’s Deep State killers. Bitch, please. 

Clearly I’m in a minority in my views. Everyone else I know is obsessed with Line of Duty, it’s all over my social media, spilling into the news pages, and there is even a Line of Duty podcast. (What can they find to talk about?) I am the Line of Duty Grinch. But still, I’m not alone. The fabulous Danuta Kean picked up on the show’s cavalier approach to procedural details:

With the subtlety of a size nine boot, each episode has been riddled with inconsistencies that would never pass muster in a novel. From the fact that women being brutally killed seems to be less of a priority than nailing dodgy DCI Roz Huntley, through to a rookie member of the AC-12 anti-corruption team blithely scribbling his password onto a Post-it note. Or the inability of Huntley’s colleagues to notice her suppurating wound, or that all the CPS needs to prosecute is a copper with a hunch, as happens with hapless Polish cleaner Hana Reznikova.

Novelist Kate London also queried the show’s realism while recognising that its problems run deeper than fidelity to force policies.

I don’t even think that any appearance of reality is important in making us consider bigger questions. It all depends on what kind of story you are telling. In Breaking Bad, Walter White, a former chemistry teacher, runs a million-dollar methamphetamine business in Albuquerque. It’s clearly fiction but somehow the complexity of White – his relationship with his family, his young business partner and with money itself – contains something truthful that convinces us. The challenge seems to be to write a gripping plot that also makes us consider our own lives, societies and beliefs. We know TV can do this.

This is it for me. To vary an old saw, it is not the tale but how you tell it. You can start with a ridiculous premise but you can sell it if you trust the audience and tell them something they might not already know. The converse applies: you can have a very well researched and realistic story but it won’t work if you don’t recognise the intelligence of your audience or do the hard work involved in building your world.

It is a subjective thing of course but for me Line of Duty doesn’t do this so that’s why it doesn’t work. It is to the crime drama what Jeffrey Archer is to the novel.