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.

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Everything Belongs to the Past

June 8, 2017

No one wears them; they’re empty. It’s an image of a shape with one entrance and two exits. One may imagine falling continually into the waistband, not knowing from which leg one may emerge. So does history occur: in myriad, often unconsidered, minor decisions.

‘The Trousers of Time’

– Terry Pratchett ‘L Space’ wiki

I remember the June 23 referendum as if it’s actually happening real now in real time. It’s been a long close race, but ultimately not close enough. About four in the am, just as the sunlight is beginning to break into the sky, a decision starts to emerge. Remain establishes a 52% majority and keeps it going well into the stirrings of the working day. Eventually, Dimbleby calls it. The votes are counted, the boxes emptied, the final hand is on the table. Britain has voted to remain in the European Union.

No one has slept, but the real work is only just begun. Cameron and Osborne, faces flushed with victory and relief, are all over the front pages. It has been Dave’s big gamble – and it’s paid off. Subtle but drastic realignments occur all over Westminster as career politicians scramble to adjust their philosophies in line with the triumphant Chipping Norton order. Businessmen all over the country check the result on their phones, shake their heads in relief, and drive to work. Radiographers and IT specialists and hop pickers and schoolteachers and retail workers and others who came from the continent and beyond to build lives here, decide to junk their visa applications, and wonder why they ever even considered leaving a country they love.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect is the response from the Leave campaign. UKIP disbands a day after the referendum. Even ultra liberal commenters praise Nigel Farage for his grace and good spirit. He tours the studios shaking hands with his opponents. ‘The result was not what I had hoped, but I respect the outcome of the democratic process,’ Farage tells reporters, trademark pint in hand. ‘Whether or not we are in the EU, we will always be British and nothing can change that. Let’s work together to build a great future.’

Farage takes the wind out of a defeated Leave campaign. Paul Nuttall leaves politics and embarks on the first manned mission to Mars – at least, that’s what he says later on his CV. Far away, in an office of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin allows himself a drink of strong spirits while he reflects on a new plan. Boris resigns to spend more time with his mistresses.

See anything wrong with my little counterfactual there?

That’s right – the last paras.

If Remain had won, even if they had won big – I don’t believe that the leave crowd would have walked away and accepted the result. They would moan and complain and demonstrate. They would say the result was ‘rigged’ and the electorate was ‘brainwashed’. There would be court challenges and appeals to the Electoral Commission. We could even, right now, be in the middle of a second referendum campaign. Because for political fanatics, democracy is a one-armed bandit. You yank the lever until the thing pays out.

Ian McEwan confessed recently that ‘I don’t accept this near mystical, emotionally charged decision to leave the EU. I don’t, I can’t, believe it. I reject it.’ But he admits he is in a minority on this: ‘Our church, perhaps to its detriment, is not so broad. It is moody, tearful, complaining, sometimes cogently, even beautifully. In general, until now perhaps, it seems to have stoically accepted the process.’

As we know, Theresa May was once a Remainer but has committed herself to taking us out of the EU off the back of the referendum result. It looks like an honourable stance – whatever she fought for in the campaign, she accepts that ultimately she’s a servant of the people and must carry out the majority wish.

But it seems to me that this honourable stance has faded into what I call ‘let’s do it to say we’ve done it’. This is a form of bad practice in organisations that can also be called ‘box ticking’ or, more simply, ‘cover thine arse’. You know what I mean by this – you follow protocol or directive, and document your actions thoroughly, without necessarily thinking of what’s best for the project or the client. Then, if and when everything falls over, you can throw up your hands and say: ‘Don’t look at me. I did what was asked.’

There are many good arguments for Brexit – I recommend this gentle low-key and wise piece in particular, by the academic Martin Robb. Many smart Brexiters have close affinities with Europe, and they know we will always have a relationship with the continent, no matter the constitutional arrangements of the day. (They are perhaps less wise in their enthusiasm for local representative structures above all else. How’s your local democracy doing these days? Bins collected recently?…) So I never believed that Remain had a monopoly on virtue or intelligence in this debate.

Fact is, though, any pro Brexit argument has to answer two big questions: how is this thing going to work, exactly, and can we trust this government to achieve it?

So far, the May approach looks like ‘do it to say we’ve done it’ on a constitutional scale. The government triggered A50 early and made Brexit the centre of their programme. Tony Blair spoke in almost DeLillo-style prose when he said ‘this Government has bandwidth only for one thing: Brexit. It is the waking thought, the daily grind, the meditation before sleep and the stuff of its dreams; or nightmares.’ And yet detail is lacking. We will have SME, and less immigration, but we don’t know exactly how. This government is doing a very radical thing, in a very mediocre way. Think the English Reformation, but project managed by the guys who used to run the godforsaken call centre you temped in after college. The American Revolution led by Mr Bean.

This is where acceptance can be a sleepwalk off the cliff’s edge. People have a habit of falling back on the position that things are going to happen because they have to happen. And indeed this post could well appear like the half-assed fantasies of an ivory tower liberal globalist. Maybe, but I should say that when I got interested in politics I was passionately anti globalisation. When I’d argue with friends about Thatcherism’s legacy, I’d get the rejoinder: Look, it had to happen, the world was changing, any government would have found it necessary to do what Thatcher did.

Again, maybe. But I am still not sure that it had to be done in the thoughtless aggressive way that Thatcher’s government did it – the onslaught upon the cities and valleys and towns, the devastation of entire communities. Like I say, I think Brexit could work for us. But I am not at all sure that Brexit will work if it’s the kind of Brexit that this government is aggressively and thoughtlessly pursuing.

Ian Dunt is the best writer on the Brexit age and provides the detail politicians won’t tell you. Here he reflects on the possible future if we crash out of Europe without a deal:

The early effects can already be seen. A year ago we were outperforming Germany, the US and Japan. Now we have slumped to the bottom of the G7 list of advanced economies. The pound fell in value after Brexit and that has translated, due to increased import prices, into inflation. This is denting consumer demand – the main driver of UK growth. Wages are no longer keeping up with inflation. The Bank of England has warned that living standards will continue to fall […]

Producers in Europe are coming to hard conclusions about the UK’s direction. Many goods must pass over borders in their manufacturing process. If there is a tariff and various bureaucratic requirements when they do so, they would be better off based inside the customs union. Almost half of European businesses have already started looking to replace British suppliers with competitors from inside the EU.

Meanwhile, British businesses are being given no certainty whatsoever. Every time May says that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, they are again being driven closer to having to make snap investment decisions in a state of regulatory uncertainty. None of this is necessary, even under Brexit. If guarantees were offered they would not be in this situation. Instead, May continues to play Russian Roulette with the nation’s future.

It is a truism that there are communities all over the UK that have not yet recovered from what happened in the 1980s. I have to smile when I hear fanzine leftists frame hard Brexit as a rebellion against neoliberal elites. What do they think will happen to working class communities after hard Brexit has finished with them?

For neoliberalism has an evil bigger brother: isolationism. It will rip through the fabric of our society like neoliberalism on rocket pills.

As Dunt also writes, you won’t hear this from the major parties. I want to be positive and in many circumstances I am also happy to be a liberal globalist, so I want to end by saying something positive about that magical half-known thing, civil society. I feel good every time I get into a decent argument or laugh out loud at social media or turn on the news to see a carnival demonstration. Civil society is not everything, it may not even exist outside liberal enclaves, but it is something.

And I remember Christopher Hitchens, who once said: ‘if the fools in the audience strike up one cry, in favour of surrender or defeat, feel free to join in the conversation.’

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.

A Monster’s Ball

April 21, 2017

When Martin Amis came to write The Pregnant Widow, his novel of lost youth, he chose for his epigrams the story of Echo and Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Over an Italian summer of the 1970s he assembles his student characters – ‘all of them in the cusp of Narcissus. They would not be like their elders and they would not be like their youngers… Down by the grotto, down by the bower, they lay there near-naked, in their instruments of yearning. They were the Eyes, they were the Is, they were reflections, they were fireflies with their luminescent organs.’

The Pregnant Widow is problematic and flawed in many ways but I think Amis still captures something of the energy and solipsism and narcissism of being young. Sophie Hannah says that we live in a very psychologically unaware society – however I think we are becoming more aware of psychological forces over the individual, thanks of course to recent world events and personalities. ‘Find a mirror you like and trust, and stick to it,’ says Amis. ‘Stand by this mirror, and be true to it. Never so much as glance at another.’

Lena Dunham’s Girls is perhaps the most deconstructed TV show since Breaking Bad. There’s an enormous amount of analysis and critique that I can’t even pretend to follow. Dunham herself attracts a great deal of criticism, furious and somehow diffuse, so that you get the feeling that her real crime was to do liberalism in a commercially successful way. I’ve watched the show from beginning to end and loved it, not despite its narcissistic characters but because of them. Hannah Horvath’s crew of entitled millennials exhibit the kind of unconscious selfishness that we’ve seen in The Sopranos. There’s no cruelty in it, just a casual faith that the world revolves around them. A scene from season five sums this up. Hannah and her boyfriend are travelling out of town. She makes him stop at a petrol station, runs to the urinals, and dumps him by text. When the boyfriend drives off in disgust, Hannah summons her friend Ray to drive by in his coffee shop truck to pick her up. In the cabin she performs a sexual act upon him, from impulsive gratitude, with the result that the truck falls over onto its side. Hannah then hitches a lift back to New York in the next passing car, leaving Ray fuming in the wreck of his coffee truck.

‘I’m a starving artist in the garrett,’ Hannah declares, rolling about on the floor as she implores her parents for cash. ‘I’m a famous liberal,’ she boasts in a city bar. Laugh-out-loud portrayals of narcissistic personality – but Dunham does not simply leave it at that. She treats her characters with a warmth and sympathy they rarely deserve. Hannah’s circle are full of dreams and schemes but they don’t leave the city or their dysfunctional circle for long. Hannah is accepted on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop but she barely lasts half a term. Iowa has everything she’s always wanted but she can’t get over that stage when you move to a new place and feel lost and sad for no good reason. She returns to New York to find that her ex has moved his new girlfriend into their flat and put Hannah’s possessions in storage. She locates the storage bunker, somewhere in the underlay of the city, and sleeps in it.

The best writing in Girls is where Dunham shrinks the canvas. ‘One Man’s Trash’ begins at Ray’s coffee shop where Hannah is working. Handsome local doctor Josh comes in and starts an argument with Ray, accusing him of putting commercial waste in the doctor’s bins. After the discussion ends in acrimony, Hannah follows the doctor to his house and apologises – it was her that misplaced the trash. They end up having a passionate love affair. Josh is everything Hannah and her friends are not – middle aged, professional, solvent and straightforward. It’s like you’ve suddenly walked into an entirely different show. She tells him: ‘You know what I think I didn’t know until I met you was that I was, like, lonely, in such a deep, deep way.’ Then it ends and they both go on with their entirely separate lives. (My theory for a long time was that the whole thing was a fantasy of either partner constructed around a chance meeting, but then Josh comes back in the last series and it’s obvious that they both remember their time together. Still, I think my fantasy theory is better and will be sticking to it, against the evidence.)

If the show has a hero it’s Ray of course, the weary and put-upon Brooklyn barista. While everyone else is obsessed with their own bands, videos and relationships, Ray operates on a universal principle of some kind. Furious at the haphazard rat run outside his bedroom window, he starts arguments with several different motorists in the same traffic jam – he’s like a modern Herzog, driven to perpetual distraction by the selfishness and irrationality he sees everywhere in the world around him. When mortality enters the Girls universe, it’s because of Ray. He’s devastated by the death of his friend and mentor. ‘It’s right there, right in front of us, just patiently waiting to take us all.’ His ex Shoshana replies: ‘No. Not me… It’s super random, but I’m just not gonna die, like, ever.’ Ray’s inheritance includes a cache of cassette tapes from lost gigs, which inspires him to go out talking to the people of old Brooklyn that he wouldn’t normally notice. It’s worth comparing Ray’s final creative project to the film that Adam and Jessa make around the same time. While Adam’s movie is centred on himself and just reminds him of his own failures, Ray falls in love during his history mission. He has discovered that happiness comes from without.

What’s it like to drown in your own reflection? I think that’s the question Girls wanted to ask. The characters may be monsters – but Dunham loves her monsters. There’s never a sense that we’re laughing at them – or that we are just laughing at them. We’ve all been this silly and screwed up once, Dunham says – and we may be again. She invites you to the monster’s ball.

Luxemburg’s Cat

April 16, 2017

Professional book reviewers, particularly recently, often attempt to bring a current affairs element into whatever new title they’re reviewing. You see phrases like ‘a disturbing portrait of a world that seems not entirely confined to the realm of fiction,’ ‘dramatic scenes that would not look out of place in the pages of today’s newspapers,’ ‘a warning of a nightmarish scenario that today seems all too possible’ – try looking for this yourself, you’ll see that I’m right as often as I’m wrong. Frequently these stabs at universalism seem inane and half hearted. But the general effect is achieved – the title under review now looks ‘timely’ and ‘relevant’.

I’ve used this rhetoric myself of course, and reading the correspondence of Rosa Luxemburg I cannot escape the cliché. There is something about Luxemburg that always feels here, that feels now, and it’s not entirely because of the politics – violent and confused as they were in Luxemburg’s time. I should say I only have a very broad understanding of events in Europe between 1891-1919, and came to Luxemburg’s letters expecting to lose myself in the activist forest of revolution, denunciations, theory and composite resolutions.

But the letters turned out to be a striking and addictive read. Great political thinkers are not always great writers (try Gramsci’s stuff if you don’t believe me) but reading Luxemburg is to be consistently blown away by her forensic intelligence and her clarity of expression and thought. She was tough, and faced with equanimity her frequent prison sentences for political non-offences. She had no time for ideological fools in the male dominated activist left (‘And with such people we’re supposed to turn the world upside down?’) and was not afraid to speak up. Enduring a Social Democratic meeting in an ‘obscure tavern on the corner of Menzel and Becker Streets’ she reports that ‘Karolus cleared his throat and began to lecture on the subject of value and exchange value… in such a unpopularised way that I was absolutely amazed. And so it went for about an hour. The poor things struggled desperately against yawning and falling asleep. Then a discussion began, I intervened, and immediately everything became quite lively.’

Not that there’s nothing to argue with here. Time and again Luxemburg affirms her faith in ‘the objective logic of history, which tirelessly carries out its work of clarification and differentiation.’ This leads her into lapses of ‘don’t rock the boat’ revolutionary conformism: during the early Leninist terror of 1918 she admits that ‘One would like to give the Bolsheviks a terrible tongue-lashing, but of course considerations do not allow that.’ Luxemburg implores a friend in April 1917 that ‘Don’t you realise it’s our own cause that is winning out triumphantly there, that World History in person is fighting her battles there and dancing the carmagnole, drunk with joy?’ As it turned out, History was dancing the mortata.

Is it an insult to dwell on Luxemburg the person? I don’t think so. A huge part of the correspondence is by nature on her relationships with others – her friendships and love affairs are at least as complicated as was the political situation at that time. She was clearly the kind of woman it’s easy to fall in love with – and she wrote the best ‘btw you’re dumped’ signoff ever, dismissing one crestfallen fellow with ‘Now you are free as a bird, and may you be happy. Principaccia no longer stands in your way. Fare thee well, and may the nightingales of the Appenine Hills sing to you and the wide-horned oxen of the Caucasus greet you.’

We see so much of Luxemberg domestically: arranging flowers, painting, playing with her cat (an intermittent delight in the letters: ‘Mimi is a scoundrel. She leaped at me from the floor and tried to bite me’) and complaining about the laxity of her domestic servants (perhaps forgetting on such occasions the role service workers had to play in the Women’s Question and the struggle of the proletariat). Even in prison she keeps herself occupied by making friends with the birds and wasps that fly in and out of the exercise yard, and cultivates little gardens on whatever patches of green space are available to her. Had she been born in 1971 instead of 1871, she’d likely be organising book groups, writing NS columns, instagramming the Trump demos and bitching about Waitrose substitutions.

Luxemburg can make you laugh at such moments. She travelled widely, and saw with fresh eyes the little quirks and discordancies of an unfamiliar landscape. She enjoys visiting the Italian Riviera, but its soundscape drives her crazy: ‘Frogs – I can put up with them. But such frogs, such a far-reaching, self-satisfied, blown-up croaking, as if the frog was the number one and absolutely most important being!… Second: the bells. I appreciate and love church bells. But this ringing every quarter of an hour, and such a light-minded, silly, childish ding-dong-ding – ding-ding-dong, which can make a person quite idiotic.’ When Lenin visits her in 1911, her cat attacks him: ‘when he tried to approach her she whacked him with a paw and snarled like a tiger.’ (Go, Mimi!)

What comes through the most, though, is Luxemburg’s force of life and joy at being alive, and this is what makes her timely and relevant, over the distance of a century or so. From a letter in 1916:

To be a human being is the main thing, above all else. And that means: to be firm and clear and cheerful, yes, cheerful in spite of everything and anything, because howling is the business of the weak. To be a human being means to joyfully toss your entire life ‘on the great scales of fate’ if it must be so, and at the same time to rejoice in the brightness of every day and the beauty of every cloud. Oh, I don’t know any recipe that can be written down on how to make a human being, I only know that a person is one, and you too always used to know when we walked together through the fields of Südende for hours at a time and the red glow of evening lay upon the stalks of grain. The world is so beautiful, with all its horrors […]

The Open Mic

April 1, 2017

Delighted to have this story in the new issue of Under the Fable – starts on page 26, but the whole magazine is well worth your time.

An Unfound Door

March 18, 2017

Magic persists even in the most evil situations. This, I think, is the message of Mohsin Hamid’s startling new novel Exit West. Consider Hamid on the smartphone. A humble and ubiquitous gadget these days, Hamid makes us see the device as a new thing again:

Nadia and Saeed were, back then, always in possession of their phones. In their phones were antennas, and these antennas sniffed out an invisible world, as if by magic, a world that was all around them, and also nowhere transporting them to places distant and near, and to places that had never been and never would be. For many decades after independence a telephone line in their city had remained a rare thing, the waiting list for a connection long, the teams that installed the copper wires and delivered the heavy handsets greeted and revered and bribed like heroes. But now wands waved in the city’s air, untethered and free, phones in the millions, and a number could be obtained in minutes, for a pittance.

And there’s a later passage, when Nadia and Saeed find themselves in a polished London home:

They lay still, hoping not to be discovered, but it was quiet, so quiet they imagined they must be in the countryside – for they had no experience of acoustically insulating glazing – and everyone in the hotel must be asleep.

In both these extracts Hamid makes us see the known magic we take for granted, and brings visibility to the unobtrusive. Skype and soundproofed walls would have seemed like fiction, at one time – technology from pulp fables about space adventures and genetic mutants and variants of the apocalypse. In the twenty first century the technology is real, and the apocalypse is real, too – it’s just not happening in our country, at least not yet. Civilisations fracture into violence and chaos, and they don’t need an alien invasion or super plague to achieve it: in most cases, religion and politics and barrel bombs will get the job done well enough.

As Saeed and Nadia meet, fall in love, and build a relationship, the city where they live collapses around them. And again Hamid is brilliant on the little signs of end times, that jerk us out of our personal dramas and make us see the world around us for a moment. Checkpoints are thrown up, and curfews imposed. The internet goes down, then the water, and electricity. People stop paying in notes and coins and start bartering in food and cigarettes. Entire neighbourhoods are claimed for this or that sectarian militia, and gallows start appearing in the public parks. Hamid writes: ‘A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come. Windows could not stop even the most flagging round of ammunition: any spot indoors with the view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire. Moreover the pane of a window could itself become shrapnel so easily, shattered by a nearby blast, and everyone had heard of someone or other who had bled out after being lacerated by shards of flying glass.’

Here Hamid introduces his central conceit. Just as Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad brought actual secret railways into the antebellum south, so Hamid builds magic doors into his failed states. You can walk through and end up in Colchester or San Andreas or Paraguay. Although the revolutionary guards try to block as many of the exit doors as they can (for authoritarians build walls just as much to keep their subjects inside as to keep migrants away) Saeed and Nadia are still able to bribe their way through a portal. The idea of teleporting immigrants is a border force’s nightmare, and just as every world at Whitehead’s station stops is defined, in some way, by racism and slavery – so every journey Hamid’s lovers make is to somewhere shaped by migration control. Governments endeavour to keep the more desirable doors – those leading to the rich nations – under armed guard, and encourage migrants to return home or elsewhere through another ‘poor door’. Mansions of Kensington and Chelsea are squatted en masse by refugees, and the state meets them with drones and riot police.

But the doors keep popping up. Hamid includes several unrelated vignettes of men and women in random countries discovering doors in their homes, in their apartment buildings, in cellars and attics. Exit West is a story about place, but it’s also a story about time. Saeed and Nadia are constantly stargazing at planets from light years away, and in one settlement they have to pay a ‘time tax’ – a tax on new arrivals, which over time becomes a subsidy for natives and more settled migrants. ‘We are all migrants through time,’ Hamid writes.

Exit West is a short, lovely, meandering novel, compassionate but never handwringing, a tribute to multiculturalism without multicultural pieties, a story of mass migration that never forgets about the practicalities. ‘Geography is destiny,’ Hamid says near the beginning of the novel. The rest of his story shows that this need not always be so.

Break the Fourth Wall

March 4, 2017

Every year when winter nights roll in a church near my home organises a carol concert on the local park. Everybody in the area goes. We sing carols. Friendly people hand out mince pies. We live high up and the park slopes onto a view of city and countryside that is beautiful in the way only a Yorkshire night can be. At the end there’s a fireworks display. The church has been doing this for twenty years. It’s free.

Last year the vicar made a brief speech at the concert, in which he drew on the political events of 2016. It wasn’t exactly the Sermon on the Mount. It was just the vicar talking about Trump and Brexit and how scary it all was and how worrying that our country had become so divided. I didn’t follow the whole thread but, judging from the Facebook area chat page, it seemed that the man had gone too far. People complained: how dare the vicar bring politics into a community event, how dare he take it upon himself, and all of this. As an atheist I can’t say I have a dog in the fight, but I did think, isn’t it the priest’s job to sermonise?

This week the author Susan Hill cancelled a signing at a bookshop because, it seems:

I do not expect this bookshop, wherever it is, city or market town, to have posters and a Twitter feed and a Facebook page telling me it is so against what the President of the United States stands for/believes/is/is doing that it is stocking only books devoted to those writers who oppose him too, and what is more, will give them away free. Needless to say, the opposite is also true. You will not find Donald Trump’s autobiography here, or anything by those authors known to support/admire/have voted for him.

[…]

This is a form of censorship and, of all places, a bookshop (like a library) should never ever indulge in that.

[…]

All of this leads to an explanation of why I have cancelled a scheduled appearance to discuss my new novel at a bookshop. They have put their own political and personal views about the USA and its President before their business, their customers and what a bookshop is and must, more than any other sort of shop or business, be about.

Danuta Kean has a good piece about the minor controversy this provoked, and the bookshop has itself responded here.

In turn, this reminded me of the row that erupted when Hamilton cast members interrupted their musical to deliver a brief speech to Vice President Mike Pence, sitting in the audience that night. You can read it here. One of the actors, Javier Muñoz, is openly gay and HIV positive and maybe the cast thought that breaking the fourth wall would provoke a reasonable debate about what the next four years might be like. Not a bit of it though. Trump moaned on Twitter about the cast’s ‘terrible behaviour’ and demanded apologies. Others followed his lead.

There appears to be a consensus, that Trump and Susan Hill and my fellow carol singers have tapped into: that this is a failure of decorum, and that politics should be left to politicians.

I’m not so sure. Of course elected representatives have to be careful what they say, and try to represent all shades of opinion within their community (although this duty seems to have lapsed following the events of 2016). Private citizens should have no such obligation. If you run a bookshop or a theatre or another commercial business, you’re not seeking anyone’s vote. You run the business how you see fit. And as an individual you don’t have a duty to represent anyone but yourself.

Don’t misunderstand me. Diplomacy is a great thing in human relations. Many volatile situations, which might otherwise escalate into violence, can be resolved with listening skills, and carefulness in stance and tone. But when it comes to politics, the idea that everyone should be diplomats is a counsel of despair.

Take FT columnist Janan Ganesh on the Women’s March. I used to have a lot of time for Ganesh. But even he has retreated into centrist chin-stroking. Ganesh complained that marchers prioritised ‘the cultural over the material. Their ultimate objection to EU exit is its tinge of nativism. Their main quarrel with Mr Trump is his attitude to women and minorities’ – as if nativism, racism and misogyny had no real impact: as if these forces don’t wreck lives, and not just those of women and minorities. The march was not going to convince ‘the marginal voter, the person who backed populists in 2016 but with some qualms’ – as if any serious person said it had to. This is quietism as virtue signalling – and it is condescending. Ganesh writes: ‘The marginal voter was doing some hamper management over the weekend. The marginal voter has never been on a march and might be unnerved by zealous multitudes.’ Oh I don’t know. Perhaps some of those marginal voters looked up from their laundry at the TV news.

My point is that politics is increasingly not diplomatic. If you’re not one of the 52% (or a 52 percenter who didn’t vote for what the government says you voted for) then you might as well not exist as long as Westminster is concerned. Populism is a club. Only the right people get to be The People. Others are sick of having nothing to vote for. I didn’t go on the January march but I heard from others who did, and what I heard was a weary exasperation at having to be polite and diplomatic for so long – to opponents that will never reciprocate the same courtesy. P J O’Rourke said that ‘there’s always a tinge of self seeking in making sure things are fair. Don’t you go trying to get one up on me.’

It’s worth mentioning that when the crowd booed him at Hamilton, Mike Pence said ‘I nudged my kids and reminded them that’s what freedom sounds like.’ He’s not wrong.