Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Young Capability Brown

February 20, 2017

My short story of this name is now published at fabulous new journal 50GS.

The End-Of-The-World Book Club

February 19, 2017

blackwaveFor a certain kind of reader Michelle Tea’s Black Wave will be a very easy book to slip into. It takes place in a basement world you know or at least have dreamed of: long, drunken nights in soul kitchens and dive bars, laughter and beauty and familiar faces, the music and the feels. And you know the negatives, too: physical and psychic hangovers, strange mood swings, crying jags, and hours spent dodging sunlight and clinging to the walls. The glorious fractured world of the San Francisco bar scene is scaled up into the end times. Animals and plants die out, and are replaced by ornery adaptive species that thrive in the city’s broken streets. You find you can’t get identity documents, then that you can’t get basic staples. Rumours of environmental catastrophe do the rounds. Even this feels comforting in a strange way. For isn’t there a comfort in the apocalypse – isn’t that why so many people do apocalypse novels? Doesn’t part of you love the idea of all that space and free goods in a collapsed civilisation?

The plot is not that complicated. Protagonist Michelle is a downheels novelist who by day works in a bookshop and by night goes out, cops off with other women, and ingests drugs and alcohol in legendary volumes. The fundamental insecurity that most hedonists come to know takes hold of her, and she decides to flee 1990s Frisco for Los Angeles and a new start. As Olivia Laing writes, Michelle is simply ‘doing a geographical’ – and she arrives in LA with her old habits and old demons intact. She gets a job in another bookshop and goes back to her drinking – alone this time, in health-conscious Los Angeles. The world rolls on towards disaster with suicidal pile-ups on the freeways, and drug addicts stealing books from Michelle’s store. Michelle deals with the apocalypse by getting sober and banging actor Matt Dillon during slow days at work.

Black Tea is a postmodern novel, but it’s a exuberant and honest postmodernism far outside the confined academic version of that philosophy. Between the Mission and LA Tea’s narrative splinters in time. We see Michelle of the 2010s, writing about her druggy breakdown from the safety of sobriety and middle age. ‘For the crack narrative to succeed, the character has to be starting out on top, with a place to fall from,’ Michelle writes. ‘Crack wouldn’t work for Michelle’s character. She’s already sort of a loser’. She considers making the Michelle character male. ‘As a straight, male, middle-class man could she now shoot heroin and go on a literary crack bender?’

It’s an interesting point. Hedonism in literature was a club for men only. A male writer getting hammered and making a jackass of himself looks like Charles Bukowski, or thinks he does. A woman writer getting drunk just looks like a drunk. The hedonistic frontiersmen of American letters – Mailer, HST, Burroughs – seem terribly old fashioned now. In a famous hatchet job on John Updike, David Foster Wallace criticised the ‘Great Male Narcissist’ and his roster of author surrogates: ‘They are also always  incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous, self-pitying and deeply alone, alone the way only a solipsist can be alone.’

DFW was writing in the late nineties but the drunken writer alpha males still provoke sensitivity, perhaps envy. Stephen King satirised the GMN writers in his novels, so did Scottish author John Niven. As late as 2016 a minor controversy broke out when John Banville confessed that ‘I was not a good father. I don’t think any writer is.’ That provoked a howling article from novelist Julian Gough, who complained that ‘the message that John Banville sent in that interview, and in that quote in particular, will damage young male writers, if they act on it; damage their lives, their kids, and their art.’ He talks at length about his own irresponsible past, and later redemption, and stresses that ‘if you’re a young male writer reading this: you do not have to choose between family and work. You need both. They feed each other.’ Or, er, you could just not have kids. It’s a free country.

We have wandered quite a way from the path, but I think Black Wave does have a lot to offer about representations of women and hedonism (only Lena Dunham and Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals has really gone there) as well as fantastic, seamless passages on the hedonism itself: the friendships, the accidents and compliments, the long drunken conversations, the flyer scrapbooks, the ash, the smell, the tastes and crazy lusts. A messy scene, but the prose is discplined, with bang-on insights into sex, race, class and the human condition. It’s an emotive, sensual romp, a fractured narrative of a fractured mind. In Black Wave there is always the possibility of other lives, other choices and other histories. The world doesn’t have to be ending.

Towards the end of the book Tea introduces a curious device: people start having plague dreams, but they don’t dream about the plague, they dream of love and happiness. People withdraw from the world altogether, to spend their last days asleep. Dating websites spring up to match each dreamer with their soulmate in life. Michelle herself doesn’t do this. By now she has a clear head, and wants to tilt her face towards the sun. Redemption in life, when it comes, isn’t a flash of lightning. Sometimes, the moments that change us are quieter. When Michelle’s getting wrecked in the Mission, she holds that ‘Nights she fell asleep before the sun came up were good nights. It meant that her life was under control.’ In the end, she ‘shed a tear for the sun, the poor demonized sun the humans had run from when it only wanted to shine and bring warmth, she hoped there was another people somewhere feeling its happy glow.’

The Lost Continent: Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe

February 5, 2017

fracturedeuropeEurope in Winter begins with a journey on a fairly exclusive train. The TransEurope railway – known simply as ‘the Line’ – runs from Paris to the Russian steppe. There are queues, security checks, and you even have to obtain citizenship to get on the train. Only the wealthy and connected can really afford to cross a continent in such style. Kenneth and Amanda Pennington are the gentle rich: polite, professional, stylish and self deprecating. On seeing that Amanda is expecting a baby, the Line staff allow this handsome couple to bypass the queues, and upgrade their accommodation to a stateroom. A couple of days in, the train enters a tunnel through the Urals mountains. Kenneth and Amanda get up, in the middle of the night, and walk along a corridor. After an emotional moment, Amanda triggers a device on her body – a device she has told Line security is a foetal heart monitor. It isn’t though. Kaboom. End of tunnel.

In Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe trilogy, there are many scenes like this – visceral and perfectly paced, with a genuine bombshell at the end. His three books are set in a future continent that has long broken down into random squabbling city-states, republics, micronations, tendencies and tribes. Schengen is a distant memory, but migration control – that white whale for present day politicians – remains rickety as ever. Hutchinson’s protagonist, the drifter chef Rudi, is inducted into the Coureurs, a transnational smuggling organisation set up to move things and people across a shifting panoply of borders, fencing, straits and wall.

This is quite complex enough but midway through the series, Hutchinson introduces a new border still – the dream country of the Community, built by nineteenth-century scientists and occupying a kind of splinter universe. In this final book – and it feels like a finale – Hutchinson moves his cosmic goalposts still wider: bringing in an underground virtual mapping centre that runs seamless simulations of countless possible Europes. It’s a testament to how deftly his books are plotted and written, that the reader never feels bombarded by ideas – there’s no contrived twists, no intrusive passages of unlikely exposition. The feel is fantastic yet incredibly down to earth, an atmosphere of hard work and pragmatism, the enjoyment of food and drink and companionship in a cold world. Hutchinson fills his world with all kinds of little gadgets, concepts and espionage rituals but they feel unobtrusive, like things waiting quietly to be invented. It has you groping for old quotes about the persistence of magic.

Critics rave that this or that book is an ‘underground classic’ – almost none are right. From an indie publisher and with few critical notices, I’m convinced nevertheless that Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe series will be read and enjoyed and puzzled over for generations to come. For these books are not just good espionage or good SF. They are about passion, representations of ourselves, the illusions we call nations and peoples as we muddle through this confusing life of ours. A senior Coureur tells Rudi that ‘Europe is inherently unstable. It’s been in flux for centuries; countries have risen and fallen, borders have ebbed and flowed, governments have come and gone. The Schengen era was just a historical blip, an affectation.’ The Europe series has a feel of a story you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to understand.

A Political Marriage

January 19, 2017

thegoodwifeThere’s a moment in the documentary film Weiner, which accompanies hapless politician Anthony Weiner as he runs for mayor of New York. Weiner had to resign from Congress in 2011 after he had been caught sending intimate photographs of himself to a Twitter follower. At first the 2013 mayoral race feels like a fresh start. Weiner has restored his marriage, he has a new baby, and recent good press, he is a smart man, a good communicator: he develops rapport with the electorate easily, and New Yorkers seem to forgive his old indiscretions. But his campaign falters when it is revealed that Weiner has sent similar explicit messages to another woman (using the alias ‘Carlos Danger’) as late as April 2013. The candidate battles on despite mounting derision, hostility, disastrous public appearances and even Weiner’s internet flirt contact trying to ambush him at the count. At one point Weiner is filming a campaign promo in their apartment, while his wife, the political strategist Huma Abedin, sits on the balcony, in casual clothes, munching on a pizza slice. Off screen, someone asks if she’s appearing in the promo. Abedin barks: ‘Do I look camera ready?’

For all the talk of post feminism, it can feel like a woman’s most important function in politics is to stand by. Hillary Clinton – a woman who came within inches of leading the free world – famously ‘stood by’ her husband, during the Lewinsky scandal and subsequent attempt impeachment. It used to be, in this country, after some dope was caught rifling his parliamentary researcher, there would be a very awkward photoshoot featuring the politician in question surrounded by his nervous, edgy-looking wife and children, in a display of choreographed fealty. The parodist Craig Brown, in his brilliant epistolary comedy The Hounding of John Thomas, features a gentleman’s club made up exclusively of former parliamentarians, disgraced by offences public and private – and the club has its own spin-off, the ‘Standing-Bys’ which consists of wives who have agreed to stand by their men. If the wife of a serving politician seeks a divorce – it still feels like a shock. What the makers of Weiner had captured, in that shot of Abedin, was a real human moment – when the façade slips for just a moment, and you can see the exhaustion and the exasperation and the fury.

Set against real life scandals, the premise of The Good Wife seems rather tame. We first meet Alicia Florrick at a press conference, ‘standing by’ her husband Peter, the Chicago State’s Attorney. Peter has had to resign after a tape surfaces of him banging a callgirl: serious corruption charges follow. With Peter stuck in prison on a ten year sentence, Alicia must re enter the world of work after thirteen years as a full time suburban housewife and mother. She joins a city law firm and is soon sucked into the cutthroat world of Illinois politics, crime and law. Meanwhile, Peter gets his conviction overturned and is soon back in the political game, rising to become state governor. Alicia has to balance her own ambitions, desires and selfhood against Peter’s career and her teenage children.

It sounds tepid when I write it down, but the show is addictive, not least because of how deftly Alicia’s character is written and acted. Alicia agonises over the moral course of action in a compromised world, but never comes off as a prig or a goody goody. She’s someone who naturally plays by the rules, but she demonstrates wit, desire, independence, a fierce intelligence, eloquence and – particularly when her children are threatened – a cold and penetrating fury. Her marriage never really recovers from Peter’s infidelities, but because it’s a political marriage, she must continue to stand by her husband, in public at least – while in private, Alicia pursues her own affairs and independence: her true relationship with Peter encompasses affection, contempt, separation, shared memories and a terse détente.

Two amazing Alicia moments come to mind. At one point, she is at an official dinner with her husband, and a camera crew. The discussion turns to religion. After Peter spiels out the expected platitudes, Alicia is asked her opinion. She turns to the camera, gives a delicious smile, and says sweetly: ‘I’m an atheist.’

Later, she’s on a campaign bus during Peter’s doomed presidential bid. Leaning on a village shopfront, dog-tired and in wraparound sunglasses, she confesses to the campaign manager a moment of regret:

I think if I could go back to Georgetown right now, back in Law 101, seat 35L – that was my seat – I would have said yes… there was a young man in love with me.

These are off script moments in a partnership that is, in significant part, carefully spun. The Good Wife avoids the cliché of the evil spin doctor and instead gives us Eli Gold, a master political PR man who nevertheless has a great deal of warmth, humour and morality (and is consistently outfoxed by his millennial hipster daughter). Yet even Eli – played by the marvellous Alan Cumming – ends up trying to use his skills in places they don’t quite belong. Alicia’s adolescent children handle the public eye with more fortitude. But again there’s a sense that women are there only to stand by in the public eye – even in Obama’s America. Liberal grandee Diane Lockhart is constantly let down by the blueblood Democratic establishment: first, she loses a potential judgeship, then a Supreme Court nomination. Alicia’s own bid for political office is shot down after the Democratic machine realises that Alicia means it when she says she will speak truth to power.

The Good Wife is a crime show in its way and it strikes me that even in the best crime shows women tend to be somewhat sidelined – Carmela Soprano stood by Tony despite his crimes, and Skyler White became a hate figure for Breaking Bad fans precisely because she could see through Walt and challenge him, and because she insisted on taking an active role in his business. Political marriages in real life seem ultimately linked to criminal justice. Bill Clinton ran on a tough-on-crime programme, expanded the prison estate, ramped up the drug war, endorsed three-strike laws and created new capital offences. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s study of mass incarceration – particularly of African-Americans – Alexander writes that ‘Clinton – more than any other president – created the current racial undercaste.’ It’s all too possible that some of the people locked up under the Bill Clinton administration would have voted for Hillary in 2016, had they not been executed, incarcerated or otherwise deprived of their ballot rights under felony voting laws.

As Padraig Reidy points out, 2016 has been a year not for partnerships or marriage but for a certain kind of aggressive toxic masculinity. The winners at the end of history turn out to be Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Nigel Farage – ‘the movement of the golf-club revolutionary, the simultaneously triumphant and self-pitying, the irrational and trite dressed up as ‘common sense’.’ 1970s feminists said that the personal was political. In the future the political may well become personal – more personal than any of us would like.

Let Them Eat Literature

January 14, 2017

amirsistersI was sorry to hear that author Jenny Colgan has deactivated her Twitter after a row caused by her review of writer and Bake Off star Nadiya Hussain’s debut novel. I don’t think she meant to cause offence by writing it. It’s rare that the Guardian books pages become a talking point as they often tend to be anodyne and unmemorable, so I think it’s good that she published the review to an extent.

However, in this para, I think Colgan gets a few things wrong.

It’s hardly a new phenomenon, celebrities turning up out of the blue with novels what they have most definitely wrote. Maybe it’s particularly upsetting me this time because I’m a fan. Hussain is just so brimful of talent; of happiness and grace and skill. From a traditional Muslim background, she grew up in Luton and ended up being universally loved and baking for the Queen. Does she really need to put her name to a novel, too, when there’s only so much shelf space to go around?

This last line sums up the piece. Publishing for Jenny Colgan is zero sum. She explicitly says it: ‘Books are a zero sum game. If you’re reading one, you can’t be reading another.’ The point Colgan wants to make is that in this zero sum publishing world, publishers should not be using their limited resources to publish novels by celebrities like Nadiya Hussain – however much Colgan personally admires her. They should instead direct what they have into promoting new authors and literary fiction.

But publishers spend enormous amounts of money publishing books of no literary merit at all. For example, most of the better known Bake Off people have published cookbooks. All of these books take up time and resources in printing, binding, distribution and promotion. Publishers also of course produce crap celebrity biographies and crap supermarket genre fiction, as well as ordinance maps, histories of railways and lots of other stuff that adds nothing to English letters in any way. Surely that money also could have been spent on Colgan’s hypothetical bookworm or on struggling libraries. Why begin the fight with Hussain?

One implication in the above quoted para is that Hussain, having excelled in one field, should jolly well stick to it. But most creative people have had other jobs at some point. How dare Mr Eliot, who has banking to fall back upon, try and dominate the poetry scene. Couldn’t Agatha Christie have stuck to helping out at archaeological digs? Wasn’t Camus neglecting his college football team?

The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters is a family saga and from reading Colgan’s piece I still have no idea whether the novel is any good. But Hussain could have written the next Anna Karenina and she would have still struggled a great deal to get a book contract. Recently there was a brilliant piece by Andrew Dickson in the NS on BAME brain drain. Talented actors from ethnic minorities like Cush Jumbo and Archie Panjabi (the phenomenal Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife) leave the UK because they know they have no chance of progressing their careers in the white, nostalgia-driven British TV world.

Publishing has a similar problem and publishers know this. A British Otessa Moshfegh or Colson Whitehead would have little chance of getting published here. YA author Alex Wheatle told the Guardian that he had switched from literary fiction because ‘I felt like I was this token black writer who writes about ghetto stuff… My books are seen as only for a black demographic’. He also said: ‘I didn’t go to university or on a fancy writers’ course, and so I think the respect is grudging – ‘Oh he is just serving his community.’’

As I have said publishing is aware that they have a diversity problem and I don’t doubt they are trying to fix this – although so much of the visible groundwork is coming from relative outsiders like Nikesh Shukla and Comma Press. But even in Colgan’s review – and I am sure that this is not deliberate – there is a sense of: haven’t we already ticked this box? She writes: ‘If you want to read warm-hearted sagas about second-generation immigration, Meera Syal is a wonderful novelist.’

Times are tough for career authors and no doubt publishers could and should do more. I know I sound like Lena Dunham at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when I do this argument – ‘why are we being so judgy about popular fiction?’ – but I weary of the complaints about popular novels with big advances. The complainers make good points about the neglect of new fiction, lack of diversity etc but they never seem to address these problems in a meaningful way – they just complain about whichever individual author has got the latest big advance. I also think there are many mediocre novelists in the UK who think the world owes them a living.

At the end of the day I don’t think publishing is a zero sum game. The Bake Off tent is big enough. As Tony Soprano once said: there’s enough success out there for everybody.

Update: Bibliodaze has a good take on this.

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things

January 7, 2017

…and whenever I see some curmudgeon at the club cursing at the labour of cutting open his Times and then complaining that there’s no news in the dam’ thing, I think, aye, you should see what goes to the making of these paragraphs that you take for granted, my boy.

– George MacDonald Fraser

Flashman and the Tiger

I’ve known a few good hacks, local and national. In the early 2010s nearly every serious journalist I knew was worried about Leveson. Isn’t it great though, I’d say to them, that the horrible reactionary press conglomerates are finally being scrutinised as well?

‘Not really,’ reporters and free speech campaigners would tell me. ‘Obviously we accept that the big newspapers have done some terrible things, but the basis of this particular inquiry could open the door to statutory press regulation and we are afraid of the repercussions for free expression in this country.’

‘Er…’ I countered, ‘but, like, what about the Daily Mail, eh?’

What I didn’t realise back then – one of many things – was how toxic the relationship between the press and the public would become over this last decade. People don’t think Leveson and Section 40 affects them, because the general public thinks of journalism as an elite profession that is totally closed off to most people.

There is truth in that – getting into the media is very very difficult – but I don’t think we realise how insecure a trade reportage has become. The internet has had an obvious impact on income generation: redundancies are common, and many experienced reporters are leaving the profession, either to teach college journalism or retrain for something entirely different.

All of which is to say that I think public perception of journalists has a little to do with what the Tories used to call ‘the politics of envy’. From the outside, looking in, it can seem like journalism is one long round of expensive lunches and Soho bar crawls. Maybe if you are at the top of the game, it is a bit like that – but in my experience, being a journalist more often means chasing invoices, crap rental accommodation, and live-tweeting council scrutiny meetings at ten in the evening.

Newspapering is a shaky trade – and a measure going through Parliament will make it shakier still. If and when the Crime and Courts Act Section 40 is implemented, it will impose legal costs on any unregulated outlet in the event of a libel claim – regardless of what happens in court. And when I say ‘unregulated’ I mean not regulated by the official Impress regulatory body.

Reporters have fun with Impress because it is, as the Mail says, ‘a regulator with nothing much to regulate’ – only a few dozen outlets have joined, most of them marginal websites or local newspapers (at least one of which has subsequently gone under because it is so difficult to generate sustainable income as a local newspaper). A censor without writers, Impress appears now to be in the bizarre position of bombarding larger outlets with appeals to let it regulate them. Ben Cohen – who runs the first rate London LGBTQ site Pink News – told the Mail that he’d had numerous cold calls and emails from Impress. But Cohen wasn’t keen to sign up:

We have a lot of vexatious complaints from people who don’t like our content, often because they are homophobic […]

They have an issue with the fact that gay people have a place in society and are protected by law. We are the voice of that community.

In the case of this potential Section 40 regulation, if these people were to bring a case against us and we won, we would still have to pay their costs — a ridiculous situation.

The reason we don’t want to go down the official regulation route is that it would give an avenue and encouragement for those kind of people to waste our time and money.

Cohen taps into a curious aspect of English tradition. After duelling was outlawed, the courts became a gentleman’s recourse when his reputation was threatened. Perhaps the most extreme example of this tendency is Sir William Gordon-Cumming who in 1891 sued five people who claimed that Gordon-Cumming had cheated in a baccarat game at a royal weekend in Tranby Croft. He lost his case and withdrew from public life.

Perhaps the ‘gentleman’s recourse’ tradition still remains. The campaign group 89up in their report on Leveson argued that the inquiry was flawed from the outset, because it was too influenced by wealthy gentlemen with reputations to defend.

Not one of the six assessors appointed by the Prime Minister to advise Lord Justice Leveson had any experience of popular newspapers, the publications that would face the inquiry’s most intense scrutiny. The inquiry devoted only one day to the study of local and regional newspapers, the interests of which are profoundly affected by its recommendations. Critics of the press were granted the privilege of core participant status. They included the actor Hugh Grant, who would front the Hacked Off Campaign, and the former Formula One president Max Mosley, whose demand for stricter privacy laws had already been rejected by the European Court of Human Rights.

[…]

In contrast, some of the UK’s leading freedom of expression organisations, English PEN and Index on Censorship were not granted core participant status. It is unclear why civil society bodies and non-governmental organisations that spent an extraordinary amount of time dedicated to national and international issues of free speech and media freedom were considered of less relevance than a wealthy and polarised litigant such as Max Mosley. It is arguable that this lack of input meant the report’s findings failed to acknowledge the importance of the right to freedom of expression.

If you’re not a gentleman, the libel courts are no fun at all. I know plenty of people who have been threatened with court action: not media elite journalists, but small time bloggers and authors. The threat itself is scary enough. Despite hard-won reforms, libel law in our country is perilous for defendants. If you threaten to sue someone for defamation, you are basically saying: I will take your house. I will bankrupt you. I stand a good chance of taking your job and destroying your marriage. All that you love, I will take away from you.

It’s a hell of a thing to say to anyone. Hacked Off will tell you, don’t worry: most people can’t afford to sue. But people are vexatious. There are individuals out there who will try and get you fired if they disagree with your opinion on something. People make phony complaints to public authorities, to bring official weight onto their side of a vendetta: considerable public time and money is wasted on these claims. And I am sure there are lawyers who would take up spurious defamation claims on a conditional fee basis. Ministers looking at Section 40 need to consider the life-altering impact of libel claims.

The losers in all this won’t be the Sun and the Mail, owned by wealthy gentlemen who have the money to pay libel costs. The people who will be made bankrupt, will be the small time liberal reporters and authors.

The relationship between the public and the press needs to be redefined, from the starting point that most journalists aren’t evil. Too often, consumers don’t see this. People will read any crazy alt-news site, from Russia Today to InfoWars, as long as it is against the ‘MSM’ – and that leads people to believe some extraordinary things. Media studies professor Gavan Titley recalled watching the fall of Aleppo and the slaughter of Syrian civilians that followed:

And, at the same time, witnessing Leftists I previously had plenty of time for dismissing every report of slaughter as propaganda, every image as fake, every source as embedded, every voice from Aleppo as compromised, and every external expression of helplessness or anguished humanity as the halo polishing of bourgeois moralism. For the sworn, realist enemies of postmodernism, there are simulacra to be found when you really want them.

As Titley also says: ‘systemic distrust of the western ‘MSM’ results in nothing more than displaced fidelity to its ‘alternative’, mirror image.’

One positive in all this is that, even though official journalism is so shaky, the principles of journalism are alive and well. Web news that succeeds, like BuzzFeed and the Daily Beast, have succeeded because they do proper journalism. They pay people for their work, they send people to far-flung countries to report on what’s happening. Ten years ago people thought blogging would supersede journalism entirely. It hasn’t because the best bloggers, became real full time journalists. There are things only journalism can do.

The enemies of a free society know this. 2016 was the year of alt media. Alt media arguably put Trump in the White House. Far right activists use the term ‘lugenpresse’ to describe mainstream journalists – Nazi propaganda, in the original German. While I’m sure Mr Trump wouldn’t go that far, he does admire UK libel law, and has a difficult relationship with the American press, which complicates Mr Trump’s public image by exposing the President-Elect’s misdeeds. Journalists are needed most in authoritarian societies.

A more positive British tradition is that, gentlemen or commoners, we’ve always felt free to speak our minds. It would be tragic if this aspect of our national character were to be chilled by authoritarian laws.

A Dangerously Lucid Dream

December 30, 2016

dodgeandburnEugenie Lund did not have a conventional childhood. Her mother dies after being buzz-bombed by a swarm of killer bees: Eugenia and her sister Camille are taken into the care of sinister Dr Vargas, who installs the children in a remote Maine forest house. Vargas keeps the girls under this rigid and isolated circumstance until they turn sixteen: the quack scientist drumbeats his own dogmas into the children, then shocks them with electric collars if they fail to repeat his syllogisms correctly. (The Doctor’s weak point is poker: the girls regularly beat him at the card game, earning library books as a grudging reward.) As Eugenie and Camille grow older, they develop a mystical kinship and powers, and plot to escape Vargas forever. The Doctor is a keen beekeeper, and the sisters manage to set another haze of killer bees upon him so that Vargas too dies.

I’m not giving anything away: this is just the first chapter, a mad prelude to the main story, which has Eugenia and her husband – an ex serviceman who calls himself ‘Venus Acid Boy’ – on the run out of Vegas from both sides of the law. Eugenie also wants to find Camille, who vanished into nothingness at the moment Vargas was killed. The couple take a hectic road trip across the continental US – and also across different realities.

Dodge and Burn is saturated with myths and legends. Buddhism, Jainism, Norse and Olmec mythology, stone circles, the Mothman, the Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni – as Eugenie and Venus tour the free party and survivalist scenes, these legendary shadows accompany them and weave into the story. There’s no sense that these are New Age accoutrements or affectations: Eugenie and Camille use mythology as a comfort and refuge during their childhood, and to define themselves against the hack rationalist Dr Vargas – ‘this dark master imposed upon us a viciously circumscribed, authoritarian, dogmatic and anti-magical system – the mortal enemy of anyone committed to a magical universe in which all is spontaneous, unpredictable and alive.’

Maybe it’s significant that the prologue is narrated in the plural pronoun and we only get a straight first person narrative once Eugenie is an adult. Arguably, that’s what growing up is – a journey from the happy careless we to the lone and embattled I. Eugenie uses mythology to make sense of the world: she regards it as she regards the real-world characters and scenarios she comes across, with honest inquiry but no credulity and no sense that she’s trying to fill a void. Eugenie is a maenad who worships no god exclusively or at any cost. The references are On the Road but Madsen’s novel reminds me of a later classic work. The economy, the reliance on found texts made me think of Alan Warner’s These Demented Lands. Life may be death or a dream, but no less worth living for all that.

There is a marvellous passage where Eugenie discusses lucid dreaming – the state where you are asleep and dreaming but know it. ‘This act breaks the membrane between everyday reality and the dream world, enabling one to step into the dream territory completely aware that one is dreaming and embark on the next steps to gaining more understanding, power and knowledge of that world.’ That’s what Dodge and Burn feels like… a dangerously lucid dream, from which waking is difficult.

Step Nine

September 30, 2016

My story of this name is now available at Storgy.

Also, over at 3:AM, I reviewed Lauren Elkin’s marvellous Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London.

Darkness Physical: Dan Vyleta’s ‘Smoke’

August 4, 2016

danvyletaThere’s a moment in classic 1990s novel Bridget Jones’s Diary where Fielding’s heroine, appalled by the state of the segregated smoking carriage on a train journey, vents in her journal: ‘Would not have been in least surprised if carriage had mysteriously been shunted off into siding never to be seen again. Maybe privatised rail firms will start running Smoking Trains and villagers will shake their fists and throw stones at them as they pass, terrifying their children with tales of fire-breathing freaks within.’

Bridget strikes a chord, not just on the identification of smoke with sin (even the harmless electronic cigarette is frowned upon in some public health circles) but the imagery of it – people of ash riding a doomed train. It’s an image that comes to mind on reading Smoke, Dan Vyleta’s fantasy thriller where sin is all too visible. In Vyleta’s England (it’s set in the nineteenth century, although could be later because the authorities in Vyleta’s England suppress new technology and the world beyond its borders) any dark thoughts or impulses cause actual smoke to rise from the person’s skin.

In boarding school, where we begin the story, the environment is carefully regimented so that barely anyone ever emits the sin-smoke at all: later, the boys visit London, a city almost caved in by the weight of its own smoke and soot. Vyleta’s young protagonists get caught between the Tory and Whiggish wings of the authorities, each trying to carve its own path to the Republic of Virtue: there’s also a working class rebel movement that works in underground mines so that the smoke coming off the conspirators is less obvious.

It’s all beautifully written but Vyleta’s concept isn’t as original as he thinks: the idea of someone’s inner life taking physical form is as old as sin itself – think of the dæmons of Northern Lights, or Patrick Ness’s Noise. Still, there’s loads of fascinating angles on poverty, prejudice and class, and reflections on the puzzle of sin in a secular world – why hidden thoughts and motivations still seem more important than actual demonstrable actions. (Politics these days seems near written in the language of faith.) As the sailor says in Vyleta’s absorbing novel: ‘This is Britain, though. Here crookery has had a haircut, and its shirt cuffs are freshly ironed.’

When Two Tribes

July 6, 2016

We’re ever so nice to our pets

And we know not to work too hard

We’re inventive, accepting, eccentric, and yes

I suppose we’re a bit bizarre

– Professor Elemental, ‘I’m British’

The novelist Clare Allan has a piece in the Guardian on empathy and the EU vote. It doesn’t really go anywhere or make much sense but her para here strikes a chord:

If it’s hard in fiction to get inside another person’s point of view, it’s much harder in real life – and in politics it appears to be close to impossible. Yet, in the post-referendum turmoil when the country seems divided as never before – fractured down every conceivable line – it might be about the most essential skill we could all try to master.

In this tense and febrile summer Allan’s line rings true. It has seemed to me that we in the UK are separating into two tribes – young against old, cities against regions, class versus class, cosmopolitan versus the provincial – and the referendum has widened divisions that have been growing throughout my adult lifetime into one single, glaring fissure. Obviously we all have our opinions and allegiances and it shouldn’t matter. We’re all human, we’re all British – we’re not enemies. Everyone who follows politics has a phase of judging others by their political choices: in the ironic, Radio 4 kind of way. These days, as politics is ceded to the humourless hardcore activists, the irony casts a shadow.

I knew friends in tears and half-mad with worry over the result of Friday 24. I don’t know many Leave voters. I accept that there were good arguments for leave  – the best I think by Professor Alan Johnson, explained here on Harry’s Place – but even the best arguments are simply a list of the European Union’s failures and difficulties. It seems to me that in answer to these difficulties, and the frustrations of millions in forgotten towns, we’ve done the equivalent of what the plague did, in The Stand – unravelled the Gordian knot by simply slashing it down the middle.

And I think it matters that the official Leave campaigners did not argue their case with anything like the intelligence and rigour with which Professor Johnson argues his… particularly since the architects of these campaigns have decided for whatever reason that they don’t want to be a part of whatever comes next, and don’t want to be around when people start asking when the magic money tree is going to appear. There’s a very famous line from Gatsby that comes to mind:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Still, what’s the point in tears and worry and Change.org petitions. What’s done is done, hard reality. The point now is what kind of country do we want to be? There’s talk of a second Scottish referendum, Northern devolution, even serious people proposing that London should be allowed to set itself up as a separate entity and get back into the EU. I admire the people who organised the recent public rallies against post referendum racism and to celebrate diversity. In such a nasty political climate it takes personal courage to organise and participate in a pro diversity demonstration. But I fear the idea of London as a city state unto itself is very much part of the problem.

It’s sometimes said that you’re not allowed to talk about immigration. Wrong. Immigration is all we’ve talked about in British politics since the 1980s. It’s a particular talking point for many working people struggling with crap jobs, broken cities, shitty, damp-infested housing and little say in their futures. Governments, responding to their ‘legitimate concerns’ (but only about immigration) built detention centres, passed Immigration Acts, increased deportations. It’s a war of attrition with apparently no end to it, but who knows, maybe with more deportations, more detention centres, more Immigration Acts, maybe people will stop coming. And then we will find out what it is like to live in a country that people don’t want to come to. I wonder if this will be the paradise it seems?

Maybe Europe and the UK will collapse into competing federations like the ones in George Martin’s Westeros, or in David Hutchinson’s fantastic dystopia Europe in Autumn – entertaining worlds to read about, perhaps not so entertaining to live in. Or it could be that everything will be fine. I hope so, because what I really don’t want to see is an isolated and bitter country where everyone’s first priority is to leave. We’re not the centre of the world, and perhaps a little humility on the part of our leaders is required. We are one place in a dangerous world.

I think of the closing chapters of Ian McEwan’s flawed, but thoughtful novel Saturday, where neurosurgeon Henry Perowne is looking out onto the London night after an eventful day in 2003, and thinking:

A hundred years ago, a middle-aged doctor standing at this window in his silk dressing gown, less than two hours before a winter’s dawn, might have pondered the new century’s future. February 1903. You might envy this Edwardian gent all he didn’t yet know. If he had young boys, he could lose them within a dozen years, at the Somme. And what was their body count, Hitler, Stalin, Mao? Fifty million, a hundred? If you described the hell that lay ahead, if you warned him, the good doctor – an affable product of prosperity and decades of peace – would not believe you […]

But this may be an indulgence, an idle, overblown fantasy, a night-thought about a passing disturbance that time and good sense will settle and rearrange.