Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Badaude’s Aubade: Joanna Walsh’s Worlds from the Word’s End

October 22, 2017

If a story is a song, a collection is an album. To take a few examples from my own shelves, Stephen King’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes is like mid period REM, good hard smart rock music (unfortunately his later short form stuff is more like late period REM) Irvine Welsh’s The Acid House a dark funky Screamadelica or Jilted Generation, E Annie Proulx’s Close Range a hard-edged blues chronicle from R L Burnside or the Yossarians or the Blind Boys of Alabama, Lara Williams’s Treats more like some unsigned band blasting the rafters of an under-arches Manchester bar, low-fi and unpolished but with loads of energy and a ragged yet verifiable talent. And as with all great albums – remember when you used to listen to albums all the way through in sequence? – there are disappointments, filler, ego-trips, unsuccessful experiments and longeurs. 

Joanna Walsh’s Worlds from the Word’s End is more like dark, haunted electronica – the Hidden Orchestra’s Night Walks, or the Future Sound of London’s Dead Cities. Walsh was already an accomplished writer, a contributing editor to my old parish 3:AM Magazine, creator of the @Read_Women TL and recently wrote an interesting take on publishing and writing awards. She has the two great skills of short form writers – to write stories with the power and scope of novels, and to write a last line that the reader turns over in their mind over and over again for months afterwards. Her fiction is redolent of transit points in strange cities, and aloneness unaccompanied by loneliness.

She opens with ‘Two’ narrated by a person, carrying two well loved objects or organisms to the side of a busy road, waiting for an impulsive stranger, or some rendezvous, for an exchange of – what? We never find out what the Two are, pets or dolls or children, probably better minds than mine would pick it up, but for me the story impressed just as an evocation of what it is like to love someone, or something…. purely for its own sake. It was the title story, though, that really knocked me out – set in a country where communication gradually disappears.

That’s a broad and vague way of explaining it, but Walsh writes it brilliantly. The death of words happens slowly at first (‘I’d say our nouns faded first. In everyday speech the grocery store became ‘that place over there”… ‘gatherings – I mean parties, that sort of thing – became quieter, then entirely noiseless’.) Signs disappear, newspapers still publish, but only printing pictures, and eventually just white space; TV still broadcasts, even discussion panel shows, with ‘critics’ reactions… inferred from a facial expressions by a silent studio audience’ and ‘the first wordless president’ wins on ‘a quiet platform, gaze fixed on the distant horizon.’ The only people who still use language are the underclass, and the migrants, who trade words and speech on black markets. It’s an eerie, fabulous creation of a silent world, and I wonder if the later story ‘The Story of Our Nation’ is a companion or sequel? Whatever, for a writer who makes brevity into a song, this collection’s one flaw is that it’s far too brief.

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Wasafiri

October 21, 2017

Was delighted and surprised to be shortlisted for this year’s Wasafiri New Writing Prize for a recent story. The winner was Ndinda Kioko and you can read her first place story on the website, ‘Some Freedom Dreams’.

Remember When: John Darnielle’s ‘Universal Harvester’

August 21, 2017

In Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen – probably the standout novel of 2016 – the narrator is trapped in a town she calls ‘X-ville’, where ‘the streets in my neighborhood were all tree lined and orderly, houses loved and tended to with pride and affection and a sense of civic order that made me ashamed to be so messy, so broken, so bland. I didn’t know that there were others like me in the world, those who didn’t ‘fit in,’ as people like to put it. Furthermore, as is typical for any isolated, intelligent young person, I thought I was the only one with any consciousness, any awareness of how odd it was to be alive, to be a creature on this strange planet Earth. I’ve seen episodes of The Twilight Zone which illustrate the kind of straight-faced derangement I felt in X-ville. It was very lonely.’

Small towns are also the subject for John Darnielle in his short and curious novel Universal Harvester. The setting is Iowa rather than New England, and jumps about through time rather than sticking to the mid 1960s. There is quietness, routine, comfort, and a loneliness that feels almost solid, that raises your awareness to the point of high altitude.

While Moshfegh’s protagonist wants to escape places like this, Darnielle’s seek to understand them. He starts with the connections between people. For Jeremy Heldt, a video store clerk living with his widowed father, ‘conversations tended towards simple genealogy and geography: who was related to whom, who lived where now, where they’d lived in the first place… These conversations, endlessly repeatable at any family gathering, were a zero-stakes game. Is Pete still in Tama? No, he got a job over in Marshalltown working in sales for Lennox. Is that the air-conditioning people?…’ But at some point, always, ‘the trail went cold’ and it’s the same small town silence again. ‘The lowest form of conversation,’ Tony Soprano complains in the HBO show, is ‘Remember when’.

The first chapters, which take place in the late nineties, constitute a quietly brilliant depiction of father and son relationships. Jeremy is a college graduate, his father is a low level white collar worker, both are still shaken by the death of Jeremy’s mother. They enjoy a beer and a movie together, but conversation isn’t easy, even though there is no hostility between them – both men are just constantly, acutely aware of each other’s presence. Darnielle is a subtle master of relationships between basically good men.

He picks up this theme of connection later on in the story, and later on in time, when ‘people see more of their high school classmates on Facebook every day than they previously would have in their entire lives after graduation.’ The undergraduates of the 2010s, visiting retired parents in present-day Iowa are investigating a string of missing persons, perhaps connected to a religious cult. The families of the missing put up an appeal website that ‘boasted all the trappings of the initial expansion of the Internet from college campuses and computer laboratories to the wider world: site design from a template supplied by the host, clip art, and several uncorrected spelling errors in the single paragraph atop the frame.’

From the mid twentieth century, something has invaded this quiet world: the strange church, the disappearances connected to it, and something else as well. Jeremy’s video store customers begin to return their tapes early, complaining that the movies on them have been spliced with other movies – odd, furtive handheld clips, called things like ‘Shed #4’, that give disquieting impressions of captivity and restraint.

Universal Harvester is a brief book, in which not much happens, but it could have been twice as long and still not lost the reader’s attention. I suspect it will baffle readers for generations to come. Darnielle writes about a region that is ‘quiet, unremarkable, well ordered and well lit, just exactly enough of everything for the people within its boundaries. A little drab from the outside, maybe: slow, or plain. But who, outside, will ever see it, or learn the subtleties of its textures, the specific tensions of its warp and weft?’ In his remarkable novel Darnielle comes closest to the mystery behind these tensions.

Harder Than Heaven

July 23, 2017

I don’t know who it was that called Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness ‘the longest short novel’ but, in terms of long short novels, Boualem Sansal’s 2084 gives it a run for its money. He writes his religious dystopia in short, elegant, powerful sentences and paragraphs, which (thanks also to his translator, Alison Anderson) convey all too well the cruelty and struggle of his fictional Abistan.

The enemy in Orwell’s 1984 is ‘called by a Chinese name normally translated as Death-Worship, but perhaps better rendered as Obliteration of the Self.’ That seems to sum up Sansal’s Abistan quite well. In Abistan life is lived out according to a single holy book, with a prophet figurehead as god’s representative on earth. People are allocated housing, employment and other privileges according to a rigorous examination of personal morality in which the citizen must recite psalms and scripture and stanzas: everyone wears robes, embroidered according to status, caste and said moral score. Technology is almost non-existent, food bitter and scarce, no one ever leaves their designated district and crossing the country itself takes years. Economy is reliant upon an endless war without, and within on public executions, the mechanics of torture, the bureaucracy of power, and on long, hazardous pilgrimages all meant to ‘transform useless, wretched believers into glorious, lucrative martyrs.’

Sansal’s novel is blurbed as a tribute to George Orwell’s classic, and indeed it sometimes surpasses the original in its prose. True, there is little dialogue or dramatisation – Sansal breaks the rule of the finger-wagging creative writing hack, that you should always show rather than tell. His writing is elegant and demonstrates obvious empathy as well as the continual apprehension of fresh hells.

The story itself is no great shakes. Protagonist Ati returns to his home town after spending a year in the mountain sanatorium where a superstitious regime sends its sick. Surviving such perilous convalescence in itself grants Ati a higher revised status, and he is given more relative autonomy within the province. A good believer all his life, Ati becomes more curious about the society he lives in. He teams up with the wealthy scholar Koa and the two men try to infiltrate the heart of government to find out Abistan’s secret origins.

Fans of dystopian fiction will smile in recognition at the 1984 references that Sansal weaves into his text – you will recognise the enormous woman in the courtyard, singing as she hangs her line out, an Abistani analogue of the ‘red-armed woman’ from 1984, who sings ‘They sye that time heals all things,/They sye you can always forget’… inspired in turn by Orwell’s early mornings at the BBC, when the cleaning women would sing as they went about their work.

Orwell developed this into the only element of hope in his novel: ‘The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing… everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing.’ In 2084 it is the song of fellow feeling that resonates. During their difficult journey into the heart of Abistan, Ati and Koa are helped at every turn by the common people, who show them the shortcuts and safe passages. Human nature, Sansal says, is basically good – however ‘in the presence of the forces of law and order, whether it was a war tactic or simple human weakness, they set aside their kindly disposition and heaped abuse on strangers.’

So 2084 is a more hopeful book than 1984. Orwell imagined Ingsoc going on more or less forever, while Abistan by the end becomes vulnerable from infighting. (I note here Margaret Atwood’s more optimistic theory that the Party had to have fallen at some point because of the novel’s appendix, which talks about Ingsoc retrospectively.) Perhaps Sansal’s novel in that sense reflects better the world of its time – the recent defeats of ISIS, by Iraqi and Kurdish forces as well as western air strikes, testifies to Stephen King’s line that evil is fragile as well as stupid. And what resonates from Sansal’s 2084 is the reverence for life, the sanctity of life, which in the face of terror and oppression, so often manages to find an honourable way through the dark.

Update: this fine archive piece from Leyla Sanai gives more background to Sansal and his work.

Real Intellectuals Have Day Jobs

July 18, 2017

Turkish novelist Elif Shafak has an excellent piece in the weekend papers in which she compares public life in the UK to Erdoğan’s expanding kingdom of fear.

Here in the UK things are very different. Freedom of speech prevails, democracy is strong. Novelists are not sued for tackling controversial issues, academics are not expelled in their thousands, journalists are not put in jail en masse. Compared with their Turkish, Russian, Venezuelan, Pakistani or Chinese counterparts, British intellectuals have so much freedom. One would expect them to be aware of this privilege, and speak up not only for themselves but also for those who can’t. So why don’t we have more public intellectuals in this country? The answer lies in the words of a British academic who once told me: ‘Well, we think it’s a bit arrogant to call yourself intellectual. And to do that publicly is twice as arrogant.’

There appears to be an interesting mapping of the world in some people’s minds. According to this, feminists and activists for freedom of speech and human rights are only needed in those parts of the world where things are dire and democracy is visibly under attack. What seems arrogant to me is the presumption that intellectuals are needed in backward countries whereas over here in the developed, democratic west we are beyond all those ‘petty troubles’.

Shafak makes a fine point, but I’d like to expand on it. There are other restraints on intellectual life on this country. (I’m using the word ‘intellectualism’ to cover emotive and intuitive thinking, as well as cerebral rationalism.) So my attempt at answering Shafak’s question is in two parts.

Britain is a very stratified and class-oriented society. To be a ‘public intellectual’ in the UK – that is, to speak, and write, and argue, for a living – you need to have gone to certain schools, then to certain colleges in certain universities: you need introductions in the better parts of the capital, and a private income once you get there. Ideally, the legwork needs to begin long before one is even born: influential relatives and inherited wealth can open doors that nothing else can. I don’t want to be chippy: class considerations don’t necessarily poison everything, I think that amazing things still come out of British publishing and journalism. But let’s not kid ourselves.

In Amitav Ghosh’s fabulous opium novel Flood of Fire a young Indian farmboy, who dreams of being a soldier, refuses to join an English regiment because, he thinks, John Company doesn’t understand caste tradition. A havildar puts him right: ‘the English care more about the dharma of caste than any of our nawabs and rajas ever did… The sahibs are stricter about these matters than our rajas and nawabs ever were. They have brought learned men from their country to study our old books. These white pundits know more about our scriptures than we do ourselves… Under the sahibs’ guidance every caste will once again become like an iron cage.’

When intellectualism gets tied up with class and caste, intellectuals tend to hang out mainly with people similar to themselves, and to develop ‘packages’ of opinions – circumscribed always by the fear of getting sued, or pissing off certain key people. Meanwhile everyone else is brought up on the lie that books and reading have no practical application and that the right thing to do is get an apprenticeship and find steady work on a building site – steady work until the next crash, of course.

Or as Jeremy Clarkson wrote the other day: ‘I’m sorry, but an upper second from Exeter is always going to be trumped by a spot of nepotism. If I know your mum and dad, you stand a pretty good chance. If not, you’re just another name.’

The second part of my response to Shafak is about ideas. Shafak writes that: ‘Populism creates its own myths. It tells us that intellectuals are ‘a privileged liberal elite’ out of touch with ‘the real people.” Now, I hate giving credit to any of the foul ideologies and movements that call themselves ‘populist’ today – but the lies of what Shafak identifies as ”anti-public intellectual’ discourse’ are leavened with a grain of truth: it’s the iron rule of propaganda that the grain of truth is what makes the big lie believable.

People don’t trust intellectuals in this country because so many prominent thinkers have been ‘out of touch’ with England’s liberal, radical and democratic traditions. Turkish writers and journalists have been jailed for speaking out against Erdogan’s dictatorship. Too many English writers and journalists have spoken out for dictatorship – from the defenders of Soviet totalitarianism in the 1930s, to Corbynite fanboys for Putin, Assad and Islamism today. (The same weekend Shafak’s brilliant essay appeared, the same newspaper carried a comment article by President Erdoğan himself, in which he defends the repressions that followed a recent coup attempt by the hated Gulenists.) British intellectuals have been reluctant to make the most of their own freedom. As Shafak writes: ‘One would expect them to be aware of this privilege, and speak up not only for themselves but also for those who can’t.’

George Orwell has escaped the blanket scepticism that British people tend to have about public intellectuals – he wrote so clearly and honestly that he was accepted, with only a little bad grace, into English cultural tradition. In his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’ Orwell demonstrated why the scepticism endures.

But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States. Moreover they do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defence of western countries.

People sense in public intellectuals, particularly the very political ones, what Orwell called ‘an admiration for power and successful cruelty.’ They suspect that a great deal of the intelligentsia would be comfortable with a British Erdoğan. (And can’t you hear the dinner-party rationalisations already: ‘It’s easy to criticise, but… vital measures to ensure the security of the People…. regrettable necessities…’)

Shafak writes:

We have entered a new era in world history. Liberal democracy is widely under threat. There is a dangerous discourse brewing outside the borders of Europe that claims, “Democracy is not suitable for either the Middle East or the east”. Isolationists are proposing new social models in which democracy, human rights, freedom of speech are all dispensable and all that matters is economic stability. They do not understand that undemocratic nations are deeply unhappy nations and cannot be stable in any way.

Turkey, Hungary, Poland … Case after case shows us that democracy is more fragile than we realised. It is not a material possession that some countries have while others have not; rather, it is an ecosystem that needs to be continuously protected, nourished and cared for. And today, faced with populist movements and tribalist discourses, this ecosystem is threatened. If we do not speak up for basic human rights and pluralistic values then we run the risk of losing them one by one. Turkey holds important lessons as to how countries can go backwards with a bewildering speed. What happened over there can happen anywhere.

Despite everything I’m optimistic – Britain still has a literate and creative culture that’s proven itself more than a match for bigotry, philistinism and wilful stupidity in the past. But the above, I hope, illustrates why other things entrenched in this country may make the storm longer than it should be.

Summer Song

July 14, 2017

This story of mine is now out at the marvellous Ellipsis zine.

A Summer of Apprehension

July 3, 2017

‘Time had turned it into a historical novel,’ Elif Batuman writes of her debut, The Idiot, in the acknowledgements to it. She began the draft in 2000-2001, but more recently came back to her story of a shy Turkish-American student finding herself in Europe and America. But on close reading this odd, quirky campus novel seems well ahead of its time.

Protagonist Selin turns up at Harvard and finds herself lost in the 1990s academic scene as much as inside her own head. She gravitates towards teaching ESL, at first teaching classes in the Boston projects, then over the summer in Hungarian towns. She also falls in love with a Hungarian student named Ivan, an older man, a mathematician and an intellectual. The romance between two chronically awkward, introspective and self absorbed people works about as well as you’d expect. Mainly they send each other long, intense emails.

I came of age before the digital era and there’s a pleasant nostalgia in Batuman’s early electronic touches – co-op internet cafes, Ethernet cables and the clatter and zing of dial-up connections. There is a deeper recognition also in Selin’s way of looking at the world. Selin is part Turkish but barely knows Turkey, she doesn’t really understand Boston either: she travels widely but is a stranger everywhere she goes. She doesn’t do booze or sex or nightclubs, not from puritanism but because she just doesn’t see the point in such things. Critics might call Selin’s narration ‘affectless’ but this isn’t Less Than Zero, there’s no nihilism or ennui in Batuman’s novel. Selin is the opposite of bored: her narrative is a constant apprehension of new stimulus.

The story is set in the Long Calm of the 1990s but the constant references to Soviet-era literature, Europe under the commissars and medieval and Islamic history bring to the novel the constant presence of the authoritarianism of the past… and of that still to come. In an engaging interview with the Guardian Review, Batuman says: ‘ I thought: racism is over, sexism is over, bigotry is over. I was in for a rude awakening.’ Selin is surrounded by the knights of summer, but knows winter is coming.

Although Batuman takes a pride in the messiness of her structure (‘Write long novels, pointless novels. Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things’) there is a momentum to The Idiot. In it there is the gradual accumulation of references, points of friendship and in-jokes (in the second half you won’t be able to read the word ‘antlers’ without giggling) that bind Selin to her experiences, her fellow students and the wider world. Yet that wider apprehension of experience isn’t necessarily incompatible with solitude and the reading life. There is a lot to said for the simplistic and instinctual view that books get in the way of life, I personally have a respect for that position, but at the same time, can it be life if it doesn’t have reading and stories and ideas and other worlds? I doubt it.

The Women of Hyde Park

June 6, 2017

Delighted to have this new story published on the outstanding Cold Coffee Stand magazine.

The Trouble with Goat’s Milk

May 7, 2017

The worst individual memories often rest on something trivial. In the space sitcom Red Dwarf, neurotic technician Arnold Rimmer’s darkest secret centres around soup. Eventually he gets drunk and confesses that as an up and coming Space Corps man he was invited to the Captain’s table – a sure sign of promise. During the meal Rimmer orders a waiter to reheat his soup course – not realising it’s gazpacho, which is meant to be served cold. He blames his failures in life on this one misstep, and when he dies, these are his last words – ‘Gazpacho soup!’

Cat Marnell’s drug memoir isn’t like most drug memoirs. The tone is brisk confidential. She takes you through her childhood in Cheever country (‘The houses on my street, Kachina Lane, were so far apart that no one ever had any trick-or-treaters on Halloween’) her prep school, and first jobs in New York fashion magazines. There’s no melodrama or self-pity, but when something irritates or frightens Marnell, there are a lot of exclamations – ‘RAARRRRRR!’ ‘AAAUUUUGH!’ It’s like reading something from a feminist zine fair. The Bell Jar rewritten by Shoshanna Shapiro.

Then Marnell is assigned her first byline: a one-para analysis of goat’s milk in beauty products. Dropping prescription meds and grinding her teeth to the nerves, Marnell reworks her sentences over and over again, all through the working day and into the night. By nine thirty she is weeping at her desk in despair and frustration. Her boss takes her into a private office, gathers up what Marnell has done, and assembles a reasonable, readable para, which Marnell includes in the book – ‘This is the paragraph I’d lost my mind writing.’

How does a person reach such a state – to detonate one’s brain over 120 words on a dairy-based exfoliant? How to Murder Your Life is preoccupied with pop culture and fashion, bristling with neologisms and listicles and odd little fragments of advice – ‘When writing, never refer to your own body parts – toes, stomach, bikini area – or prisoners will use the imagery you’ve created for their masturbatory fantasies, and you will get letters from them.’ The fashion world as Marnell writes it seems dysfunctional, but not toxic or cutthroat. People collect obsessively, but don’t seem to judge by looks. This is not The Devil Wears Prada. Marnell’s employers seem like decent people, and support her through her periodic crises and rehabilitations.

Marnell’s book traces the industry from its print based boom period, through the 2008 crash and towards a more online based and body positive form of glamour. Marnell has to hide her addictions at Condé Nast, but ends up as a kind of gonzo drug correspondent for internet startups: sample articles include ‘I Spent Two Weeks in a Mental Institution, but I Left with Better Hair’ and ‘The Art of Crack-Tractiveness: How to Look and Feel Hot on No Sleep’. It’s interesting that part of Marnell misses the more prescriptive and airbrushed Manhattan scene. ‘I particular hated the gross-out stories and embarrassing bodily function-centric ‘It Happened to Me’ essays. ‘Why don’t you just hire a full time yeast infection editor, Jane?’ I’d bitch’.

Sometimes Marnell’s conversational tone clashes with the darkness of what’s happening in the narrative – in the second half of the book a lot of it is sleeplessness, penury, hallucinations, destructive narcissistic friendships and suicide attempts. But that’s also where How To Murder Your Life becomes a more muscular and involving piece of work. The life lessons aren’t obvious, but they are there, and owe more to the honest emotive grunge aesthetic of Marnell’s youth than to any twelve-step programme.

Her unconventional ending reminded me of an Atlantic piece I recently read that critiqued abstinence based addiction therapy. Reporter Gabrielle Glaser asked why alcohol and drug therapies are practically the only branch of medicine that hasn’t moved since the 1930s. She interrogates AA and NA’s low success rate, and points to more effective but barely known treatments. Cat Marnell’s cycle of binge and patchup is the norm for most addicts. But her writing is heading towards something new. A different form of struggle and desire.

Ghosted

May 2, 2017

My story of this name is now up at the fabulous LossLit magazine. The whole issue – and the critique gallery about novels of loss – is well worth a read.