Thursday, 18 September 2014

Dave Hutchinson, Europe in Autumn (2014)

Young Rudi is a citizen of a future Europe that has been balkanized into a tessellation of new mini-states, of all sizes and sorts, including a trans-European high speed railway line from Portugal to Siberia that declared itself an independent nation-state as soon as construction was concluded. As the novel starts Rudi is working as a chef. After some argy-bargy in his employer’s Polish restaurant involving a drunken party of Hungarian Mafiosi, he is recruited into the shadowy organisation of ‘Coureurs’, an apolitical group that specialises in moving information, parcels and people covertly across the spider-web proliferation of new borders. We follow Rudi’s training, and then his adventures in a labyrinthine nested set of plots, counter-plots and counter-counter-plots that take him from Poland to Estonia, Germany, former ski resorts that are now nations, to London and elsewhere; from Spy Who Came In From The Cold waiting around in seedy cafes, to more Bondy shootings and explosions and severed heads in lockers.

There are times when being a writer as well as a reviewer can get in the way, rather, of the simple business of Doing The Reviewing. A writer reads slightly differently to the way a reader reads, since she always has a portion of her eye on the technical skill or otherwise with which the job has been done, like a plasterer at a dinner party, slyly checking out their host's walls. In this case, what kept getting in the way of full absorption in the story was sheer admiration at Hutchinson’s chops.

This is my main take-away from the novel actually: that Hutchinson is an exceptionally skilful writer. Europe in Autumn is rendered with impressive fluency, precision and vividness. Hutchunson knows how to write dialogue, how to plot, how to pace, and best of all he writes characters—both main characters, and walk-on figures—that just lift off the page, alive, distinct, believable. He gets inside the variety of European settings in ways that absolutely compel belief. He is good with mood and atmosphere, and he is bold in withholding many of the satisfactions readers come to thrillers for—explanations, loose-end-tyings-up and so on. The whole book, actually, is a masterclass in how to do this sort of thing—this sort of thing being the post-Le-Carré, state-of-the-(European)-union thriller-y, adventure-y, ideas-y novel with a pinch of travelogue. I enjoyed the whole thing immensely. Quite apart from anything, it’s very funny.

Europe in Autumn is also a very timely novel, not only because (I’m writing this before the results of the Scottish Independence Referendum are known) national independence and succession movements have become such a prominent feature of contemporary European life, but because it is a book about Europe—and it’s surprising how few such novels are written. I say surprising, because it seems to me that ‘Europe’ is so patently a major subject. We need more art about ‘Europe’, rather than just about individual European nations. Indeed, one of the great strengths of Europe in Autumn is its geographical capaciousness. For a long time the view from Britain has been that ‘Europe’ (to which we regard ourselves as, at best, semi-detached) is basically three things: German, France and ‘the South’ (Italy, Spain, maybe Greece). One of the nice things about Norman Davies insanely ambitious attempt to comprise an entire history of Europe in one volume was the attention he paid to Eastern Europe—although his Polish expertise perhaps over-played that one Eastern nation.

Hutchinson doesn’t include scenes in every single European nation in his narrative (it would look forced if he did); but he gives a much wider and more convincing sweep of the whole than most writers or historians. Formally the novel is a sequence of more-or-less closely linked novella-ish chapters, each one approaching the condition of standalone. I liked this, as appropriate to the logic of balkanization the novel explores on the level of content. And the main character is a lovely piece of writing: potentially unlikeable—he is, after all, a loner, a breaker of laws,

If I had to carp (carping? oh -- Muß es sein?), I might say that the books don’t generate any great sense of dread. Hutchinson’s instincts as a writer are comic rather than specifically Hitchcockian or Kafkaesque. Even when Rudi’s plans go wrong, and he is captured and tortured, the book still reads as pleasant and funny rather than alarming or horrifying. This is not a bad thing, in one sense; and the geniality of mood Hutchinson creates in this novel is its own reward. But it melds awkwardly, in places, with the conventions of thriller adventure, and the result can feel leisurely and pleasant when it needs to be tighter or sparer. And the ending—no spoilers, now; you’ll have to read for yourself to see what I mean—left me thinking: ‘hmm, does that quite work, now?’ But you know what? Probably it does.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Sibilant Fricative the Book: some reviews

Even though I set this blog up in order to plug this book (look at the title of the blog! Up there, on the masthead! Doesn't that give you a clue?) I'm feeling a little awkward pushing Sibilant Fricative: the Book upon you yet again. That said, it would be remiss of me not to alert you to the existence of some reviews. What does 'Hexed' think?
A great miscellany, filled with sharp, versatile, roving appraisals, of and meditations on, SF & fantasy books and cinema. Shows that the best way to think about the big picture of genre writing is often with a particular specimen right in front of you.
Five stars! Meanwhile, over on his blog, the estimable Ray Garraty considers the collection at length:
Roberts is definitely among the top five British reviewers, stuck somewhere between the genres. He can read the dullest fantasy, and can casually review Booker short list in its entirety. He is always looking for something new in the literature, but not disgusted by musty space opera. Roberts is a heir to John Clute and a colleague of Paul Kincaid, but will compete with Adam Mars-Jones.
He calls it 'this important and necessary book'; and who am I to argue with that? So, heartened, I hereby plug:

1. has the ebook at £3.42.

2. It's $5.58 over on

For those who prefer not to patronise amazon, I'm assured it will soon be available via; though it doesn't seem to be up there at the moment.

Erika Johansen, The Queen of the Tearling (2014)

My review of this title is up on Strange Horizons today. Snip:
The front cover of my copy comes with a "notice me!" big red sticker announcing "soon to be a major motion picture, starring Emma Watson." The flap-copy doubles down on this boast: "film rights have been acquired by Warner Brothers, who will reunite 'Harry Potter' team of producer David Hayman and star Emma Watson." Not that Watson will be well cast as far as this role is concerned. One thing the novel insists upon, with a weirdly insistent repetition, is how plain-looking Kelsea is: tall and dark, but heavy-set and unpretty. The handsome Fetch assures her that he's not romantically interested in her ("You're far too plain for my taste," [p. 66]); and her fencing master is downright rude ("'You require conditioning, Lady. You'll never be as lithe as a dancer, but you'd move faster if you carried less weight.' Kelsea flushed and quickly turned away. She knew she was heavier than she should be, but there was a big difference between knowing something and hearing it spoken out loud" [p. 266]). This is a venerable Jane Eyre-y strategy, of course: dialing down the pulchritude of your heroine the more believably to mary-sue her. And as a strategy it has certain advantages: for since the hero isn't distracted by a pretty face, and falls in love with the true heart beneath the unalluring exterior, it can work to heighten the true love pang with which the story will eventually pay off. (I'm guessing here: The Queen of the Tearling surrounds Kelsea with gorgeously handsome men, but she has copped-off with none of these by the end of vol 1. That will surely have changed, come vol 3.) Hollywood, I suppose, is like US daytime soap operas—simply disinclined to cast actual human beings in key roles. But the point of the red sticker, and flap copy, has less to do with the rather boyish good looks of Watson herself. It is a signal to potential readers. Want more Harry Potter? Buy this! As far as that goes, Potter is a tricky prototype to follow. I don't just mean in terms of its globe-spanning success, or special charm. I mean that Rowling's series starts out Young Young Adult, and ends up, via death, torture and burgeoning sexualities, considerably more Adult Young Adult. If you want to pitch your book to readers who have already worked through all seven of those books, you may feel obliged to plump for the Deathly Hallows rather than the Philosopher's Stone end of this spectrum.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Her (dir. Spike Jonze, 2013)

So Her, it turns out, is basically this:

... only not as funny or profound. It's like Douglas Coupland on an especially bored and gloomy day.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Howard Jacobson, J (2014)

First off, the novel is not called J. It is called J-crossed-through-with-two-horizontal-lines. The fonts with which my computer is supplied do not have the actual letter, but you can see it on the title page there:

The best I can do is: J; but Jacobson wants the double strikethrough, partly for emphasis, partly because it mimics what the main character, Kevern ‘Coco’ Cohen does whenever he speaks any word that begins with ‘J’: ‘he put two fingers across his mouth, like a tramp sucking on a cigarette butt he’d found in a rubbish bin. This he always did to stifle the letter j before it left his lips’ [6]. Kevern doesn’t know why he does this. He does it because his Dad used to do it.

Which brings me to S. Why do I put one finger across my mouth when I say this letter? Because Spoilers arouse fiery feelings in some people; irrational hatreds, ferocities. And there’s simply no way to review this novel without letting some sibilant Spoilers out of the bag. I’ll hold back for a paragraph or two, and then warn you again, dear reader; because the best way to read this novel is to do so blind, so that the significance of the double-strikethrough-J creeps up on you.

And in a way, the first third (or so) of the novel—before Jacobson gets more specific—is easily the best. It’s a remorselessly grim, near-future portrait of Britain, focussed on our hero ‘Coco’ Cohen, who makes a living turning wood in his seaside cottage near the run-down, charmless village of Port Reuben. With thwunking irony, Cohen’s main productions are wooden love-spoons, sold in the village shop—ironic because nobody in this place seems to know anything about love. Married couples scream in the village inn at one another to eat shit; couples are either drunkenly fighting-grappling one another, or else drunkenly rutting like pigs in car-parks and up against walls. Cohen, thoughtful and sensitive, is more-or-less shunned. When he finally starts a relationship, with the beautiful, younger Ailinn Solomons, she is amazed that he just kisses her—rather than, like all the other men, punching her hard in the face. The locals are boorish, beery, aggressively quick to take offence and ready with their fists. There are references to some collective trauma in the near past, referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. After this happened, if it did, a national programme called ‘Operation Ishmael’ was instituted, and the entire country worked to forget what happened (if it happened). Everyone changed their names to Jewish ones, drew a line under the past and looked to the future. This was not a matter of centralised diktat, or top-down authority. Indeed, there don’t seem to be any actual laws in Port Rueben; just a collective sense of what is permitted and what isn’t—a state of affairs (Jacobson makes a good job of persuading his reader) more, rather than less, tyrannical. ‘History books were hard to come by, diaries were hidden or destroyed, and libraries put gentle obstacles in the way of research’ [5]. The one thing everyone seems to agree on, sometimes violently, is that nobody has anything to apologise for. Black has been ‘outlawed’, since it might be confused with mourning clothes, and nobody has any reason to grieve over what happened (if it happened). Lots of things from the past, like Jazz music and foreign travel, are strongly discouraged.

This, then, is where the novel starts. The tender but cranky relationship between Ailinn and Kevern is well drawn, and their world, though in many ways schematic and sharply tendentious in its dramatization, sort-of works. Which is to say, it works as the setting for a fable, a Saramago-like milieu. A second story strand is woven in early-on, from a generation before: a young girl called Esme Nussbaum is looking-into WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. Uncoincidentally she is knocked down by a motorcycle and hospitalised in a coma. A third strand, the least successful of the novel I think, centres on a series of violent murders in the village, and the policeman Gutkind, much given to conspiracy-theories, who investigates them. These killings are there to illustrate Jacobson's belief that literally murderous violence is always bubbling away millimetres below the surface of ordinary English village life. This is also the moral, surprisingly, of the Miss Marple novels; and I have to say I don’t really believe it, in either textual incarnation. And actually, to speak more practically, the murders are also there to give some narrative heave and motion to what is otherwise a pretty static piece of novel-ising.

Still, as we move into the second two-thirds of J the whole artifice of the book starts to stall and judder. Willing suspension of disbelief gives way to grudging suspension of disbelief, and finally morphs into uh-oh-there-goes-my-disbelief,-crashing-down-like-a-rodeo-clown-tossed-from-the-back-of-an-unusually-skittish-colt. There are more murders. Kevern is prime suspect. Ailinn and Kevern go on an in-country holiday, eventually pitching up in London—never called ‘London’ in this novel, only ever referred to as ‘the Necropolis’. Esme Nussbaum, having survived her coma and grown old, now inserts herself into the life of Ailinn and Kevern, for her own frankly mind-boggling reasons. I’d explain what they are, but S! Hmm. Sss.

I’m hissing like that because, from here to the end of this review, the snake-tongue Spoilers will flicker forth. Then again, you may have already guessed what the reveal is. WHAT HAD HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED turns out to have been WHAT HAD BEEN DONE [225]. And what was that? The mass-murder of Jews by the population of Great Britain. This, it seems, was a spontaneous ground-up atrocity. One character refers to the crucial tipping point as 'Twitternacht'—not as witty a pun as Jacobson perhaps thinks it is. We are not given any specific rationale for this new Holocaust, because one of Jacobson’s main points in the novel is that such ‘rationales’ are always spurious. Pogroms happen, he says, because the ancestral, endless hatred the world feels for the Jews bubbles over from time to time. Pogroms cannot be explained, and no more can they be legislated against or prevented. 

This second Holocaust seemed to me a fundamentally unbelievable thing. What I mean is: I do not believe there is any prospect of a second Holocaust in Britain in the near future; and I certainly don’t believe that it is liable to happen out of a sort of spontaneous action of the twittering classes, suddenly deciding en masse to pick up tire-irons and anything else to hand and brain all the Jews (this is, more or less, how Jacobson portrays the WHAT HAPPENED). Mind you, and rather cleverly, my reaction is already part of the structural fabric of Jacobson’s novel. His point (and it is a powerful one) is that people thinking ‘it could never happen here’ has always been the prelude to it happening. The Jews in multicultural, civilised 1930s Germany believed it would never happen there, and they were catastrophically wrong. Insofar as his novel acquires the kind of weight and resonance that justifies its place on the Man Booker shortlist it is by framing its catastrophe as un-rememberable, not because it is forgettable but precisely because it is unforgettable. That-which-cannot-be-spoken is the leitmotif of the book. The word ‘Jew’ nowhere appears in it, except that it appears with every doubly-struckthrough J, from the title page on.

The pogrom was proceeded by ice-cream vans—of all things—touring the countryside.
‘Those vans were going round the country painted with the slogan “Leave Now or Face Arrest”. Bethesda Academy did the artwork.’
‘Ice-cream vans?’
‘Telling people to leave?’
‘Which people?
‘Come on, Kevern. You know which people.’ [198]
These vans keep their chimes: ‘Greensleeves’; ‘You Are My Sunshine’. Jacobson is not afraid of walloping his readers pretty hard with the irony stick. Elsewhere he gives over a long, long section to one of the murderers, a regular Briton, justifying his killing of a nine-year-old Jewish girl (burned to death in an art gallery because said gallery traded Jewish art) as ‘necessary’ and ‘inevitable’. The closer it gets to its melodramatic death-plunge ending, the clunkier the novel gets.

Perhaps I say so because I’m a gentile, and complacency about the level of anti-Semitisim in my homeland is my part of my white privilege. I don’t think so, though. The self-evident foolishness of the dodo's ‘it could never happen here!’ is not the universal solvent Jacobson perhaps thinks it is. Now, it should not need saying, but always bears repeating: there is never a ‘justification’ for genocide. But saying that is not the same thing as insisting that the desire to murder Jews is fed by the quasi-mystic ancestral darkness that has always swirled in the violent hearts of gentiles since time immemorial. The man who murdered the nine-year-old confesses his reasons to his schoolgirl lover (he is himself a middle-aged schoolteacher) in a long speech like something out of The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. He desired the girl’s Jewish mother in direct proportion to how much he hated her and wished her dead. ‘The more I hated her the more fascinated I became’. This Jewess is the defining Other to his gentile masculinity:
‘It's you or them. You can’t both breathe the same air. Some people are too different. I am who I am because I am not them, you tell yourself. That’s why you fall in love at first—this clean break with yourself. Because if you are not them, they are not you. But then you realise it isn’t anything about them that you love, it’s the prospect of your own annihilation. They say before the executed die they fall in love with their own executioner.' [245]
He says having sex with this Jewish lover was like being ‘in a sarcophagus making love to a mummy’. There was ‘something ancient about her. I don’t mean in appearance. I mean in what she represented. She went too far back. History should have finished with the likes of her by now.’ As for his actual murderous actions, he claims ‘they weren’t mine alone. I was just repeating what had been done countless times before … I’d been culturally primed to do it.’ The ultimate effectiveness of this novel, it seems, will stand or fall on whether you buy this. I don’t. It is possible to insist that there can never be a ‘justification’ for things like the Holocaust whilst also insisting that things like the Holocaust happen for reasons of ideological and socio-political specificity, not out of a mystic swirl of ancestral hate. And I really couldn’t piece together in my mind the circumstances in which the people of Britain would spontaneously rise up and beat all the Jews to death with tire irons. I didn’t see how—let’s say—outrage at the Gaza situation would scale up. (Jacobson gives us no specifics). I’m certainly not trying to pretend that there is no anti-Semitism in Britain. But I suppose I am suggesting that it has to jostle in the scrum alongside the pervasive anti-Catholicism, anti-Black and anti-Pakistani prejudices, not to mention Islamophobia, Euroscepticism and general dislike of foreigners. The Jew is not the only Other.

Jacobson’s belief in this malign form of Jewish exceptionalism speaks to his personal situation as a prominent British Jew, of course. But his novel has to make it work as more than just the sophisticated paranoia of an individual well-versed in the last millennia European history. I don’t mean that to come over as dismissive. How have moral panics actually manifested themselves in Britain recently? Take a word beginning with P: I mean the sporadic ground-up self-righteousness about paedophiles that prompted mob action some years ago, satirised so well by Chris Morris’s Brass Eye ‘Paedogeddon’. There was a similar group idiocy about this (attacking the houses of paediatricians because the mob didn’t comprehend the difference in the two words and so on); and I daresay a tangle of psychological paradox underlining it of the sort Jacobson attributes to his Jew-murdering teacher—that is, the people who most vehemently demonize ‘paedophiles’ and the people who derive erotic enjoyment from ogling 16-year-old page three girls may be doing the former in order to split off their ‘bad’ selves from their self-acceptable identities. Of course, ‘paedophiles’ are defined as a group by their socially repellent actions, where Jews are defined simply by their ethnicity (the same is true of ‘Blacks’, ‘Arabs’, ‘Irish’ and so on). Individual Jews are good or bad, depending; Jewry is neither of those things. Indeed Jacobson makes this point in (again) slightly clunky manner early on. All the popular singers in his imagined future world are Black. Why?
No laws or duress. A compliant society means that every section of it consented with gratitude—the gratitude of the providentially spared—to the principle of group aptitude. People of Afro-Caribbean were suited by temperament and physique to entertainment and athletics, and so they sang and sprinted. People originally from the Indian subcontinent, electronically gifted as though by nature, undertook to ensure no family was without a functioning utility phone. What was left of the Polish community plumbed; what was left of the Greek smashed plates. [14]
This is aiming for a wry deadpan, I know. But even so. The problem is that Jacobson can’t resist the allure of the sweeping, vatic statement; as if the business of the novel is very much not to give you the specific details of actual lived-experience, but instead always to extrapolate to the pretentious-general. ‘Women talked of resisting love because it weakened them,’ says the narrator [183]. Really? Is that what 'women' do? When his girlfriend chides him that he’s not having a crisis, Kevern replies ‘the behaviour of men is the proof we’re in a crisis.’ ‘That’s a tautology,’ she returns [116]. Wait—really? Discussing art with a librarian called Rozenwyn, Kevern agrees that ‘to be an artist is to have the freedom to think anything’, including ‘the freedom to think evil.’ Rozenwyn agrees, and recalls a (fictional) writer called Everett, of whom she says: ‘he likes to play with the idea of wrongdoing. It thrills him. He’d be another Sade if he had the balls. They all would.’ [197]. Wait: all of us?

This is where the greatest strength of Jacobson’s novel becomes, I think, its greatest weakness. That strength is in the way he has reconceptualised near-future dystopia, or post-apocalyptic writing. It has hitherto almost entirely been the case that post-apocalyptic novels, from On the Beach to The Road have predicated their stories upon an actual material catastrophe—comet collision, zombie uprising, whatever. Jacobson does something much cleverer: his catastrophe is a moral one. And he is, I think, absolutely right to insist that living in the aftermath of a moral catastrophe—like the decisions taken by the German state to murder all its Jews—is as materially damaging as any zombie-phage-asteroid-collision fantasy version would be. He's also right that this post-apocalyptic situation is a collective, rather than just a personal, one. Hence, 'dystopia. But, that said, the lineaments of Jacobson’s version of this post-traumatic social logic are full of holes. ‘Operation Ishmael’, by which the nation collectively tried to forget what it had done, entailed amongst other things people and places abandoning their old names and taking on names like Cohen and Solomons. Is this supposed to be like the planetary settlers in Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles? Or a counter-intuitive psychological tactic? Un-memory doesn’t work this way.

Remember the word beginning with P, above? There’s another one of those unspoken P-words in this novel: Palestinian. Imagine (imagining things is the currency of the speculative writer) that Israel made the tactical decision to nuke Gaza and kill every Palestinian. It would not, I think, then institute an ‘Operation Aladdin’, and change everybody’s name to Maħmūd and Haroun. When genocide has happened in the world, it has usually been followed by—simple forgetting. Modern Turkey doesn’t consider itself defined by the Armenian genocide of 1915. Today’s Republic of Rwanda (motto: ‘Unity, Work, Patriotism’) is building a lucrative tourist industry that depends upon rather pointedly not mentioning the mass murder of a million Tutsis two decades ago—the tourism board website boasts not just that ‘Rwanda is a green undulating landscape of hills, gardens and tea plantations, home to one third of the world remaining Mountain Gorillas’, but also that the people are ‘friendy’: ‘Rwanda is a thriving, safe country with one of the lowest crime rates in Africa.’ Maybe the repressed doesn’t always return. Maybe forgetting is one of the superpowers with which we ordinary Clark Kents all happen to be gifted.

Jacobson’s J is not about the Gaza conflict, or modern Israel (neither place is mentioned; and this absence is not freighted in the way the lack of the word ‘Jew’ is). Jacobson’s novel is about Britain; and a very unflattering portrait it paints, a country filled with casually violent, beer-swilling, blinkered idiots and fools. Maybe that’s true. But I don’t think so; or to put it more precisely, I don’t think that’s the whole picture. It lacks nuance, and that’s a problem—because Jacobson’s labour in this novel is all about suggesting not telling, about the potency of inflection and the eloquence of innuendo. It has to be, because if we strip it back it might look as if the response of one of Britain’s most esteemed novelist to the recent Gaza war is: ‘why do you keep going on about those dead Palestinian children? It’s Jews who are the real victims here. Jews are the ones at risk!’ And put like that, without nuance, that looks a little, shall we say, crass.

Reading the novel put me in mind of Lyotard’s Heidegger and the ‘jews’ (1990), not only because of that work’s insistence (reinforced by the deliberate use of scare-quotes and the lower-case-j) that ‘jew’ is a larger category of abjected and persecuted Other than ‘Jew’. Jacobson’s book is about not just present dangers but about the actual, measurable psychic and social violence a people does to itself by refusing to remember its history. Lyotard has a different perspective on the injunction ‘never forget!’ What does it mean to insist that the Holocaust must always be remembered?
Here to fight against forgetting means to fight to remember that one forgets as soon as one believes, draws conclusions, and holds for certain. It means to fight against forgetting the precariousness of what has been established, of the reestablished past; it is a fight for the sickness whose recovery is simulated. [Lyotard, 10]
This looks more tricky, perhaps, than it actually is: for Lyotard is saying that categorical ‘remembrance’ is as or more distorting than the evasions and repressions of traumatised non-recollection. Genocide has been a ghastly feature of human history for millennia, but the Nazi Holocaust, of all genocides, is surely the one that most runs the risk of becoming the kind of calcified ‘officially remembered’ reification that Lyotard is talking about here. When, a little later he says that where trauma is concerned ‘psychoanalysis, the search for lost time, can only be interminable, like literature and like true history (i.e., the one that is not historicism but anamnesis): the kind of history that does not forget that forgetting is not a breakdown of memory but the immemorial always “present”’ [20], it made me wonder if Jacobson’s novel isn’t too terminable. This is how Lyotard’s short book ends, and where he finally defines what he means by ‘jews’:
The debt that is our only lot–the lot of forgetting neither that there is the Forgotten nor what horrors the spirit is capable of in its headlong madness to make us forget the fact. “Our” lot? Whose lot? It is the lot of this nonpeople of survivors, Jews and non-Jews, called here “the jews,” whose Being-together depends not on the authenticity of any primary roots but on that singular debt of interminable anamnesis.
‘Which people?' ‘Come on, Kevern. You know which people. All people.’ Still: the moment I find myself asking 'ah, but is the anamnesis of Jacobson's novel sufficiently interminable?' is clearly the moment to give all this a rest. Is this novel a masterpiece? Is it fundamentally rubbish? It's very hard to say.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Graham Joyce

My friend Graham Joyce died yesterday. He was 59, far too young for anyone to die; but with Graham it is especially shocking, especially grievous. He had always been so emphatically alive. He lived life with what we could call an unforced, mature joy. That wise quality infuses his writing too. My happiest memories of him are of our team, which always lost, at the highfalutin 'pub quiz' held intermittently at the Century Club on Shaftesbury Avenue: James Barclay, Rob Grant, Simon Spanton, myself and Graham. I think it was at the last of these that he tried to persuade me to join him on the 'England Writer's' football team that toured the Continent. I promised him I was a rubbish player. 'You think I'm not?' he countered. 'You should definitely come; it's a laugh.' I wish I had, now.

He taught creative writing at Nottingham Trent University, and at some point decided it would be useful for his career to have a PhD in the subject. So he submitted work for a PhD by Publication (he put in Leningrad Nights and Smoking Poppy, together with a specially written critical commentary). To ensure impartiality Nottingham appointed two external examiners: myself and Farah Mendlesohn. Since the creative work was to all intents and purposes flawless, we concentrated our attention on the critical commentary and gave him a pretty rigorous viva and some key re-writes. But of course he was awarded the PhD. Later Private Eye published an article accusing Nottingham of corruptly gifting one of its employees a soft PhD. So I wrote them a pompous letter, which of course they printed, insisting upon the scrupulousness with which the process had been carried out (as indeed it had been), and informing them that PhD by publication is a standard pathway in the sector. Graham thought the Eye article was hilarious; but he thought my pompous rebuttal even funnier. He was as far from pompous as it is possible to get. Some time after that viva, he was my interviewer at a BSFA night, and with the best grace in the world put me through the ringer. I don't know anyone in the writing or publishing world who didn't love him dearly.

But most of all, this. I daresay it's a symptom of the narrowness of my horizons of judgment; but since I am a writer, this is the highest praise I can think of (and it applies with tremendous force to Graham): he was a superb writer. You must go and read his books.

Monday, 8 September 2014

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (2014)

Already a hardback bestseller, longlisted for the Booker, one thing The Bone Clocks does is cement Mitchell’s post-Cloud Atlas reputation as the English novelist today who most prominently combines critical kudos with commercial chops. It’s not hard to see why: he’s a deeply readable and entertaining storyteller who is both hospitable to ‘genre’ and willing to play not-too-alienating-to-the-general-reader formal games in his writing. The critical kickbacks (for of course there have been some big klout-swinging reactions) have mostly taken the line that Mitchell’s dalliance with ‘fantasy’ demeans his literary ambitions—it being axiomatic to a certain kind of critic that genre stuff is both silly in itself and brings a contaminating silliness to anything it touches. Read Robert Collins’s unguardedly pompous and hostile Spectator review for an example of what I mean.

Of course my own feelings about the place of genre in the contemporary novel lie along a 180° orientation away from Collins's. And I enjoyed The Bone Clocks very much. It is a big and rather loose-limbed novel, roping multiple stories together with cords more like battleship chains than Austenian fine threads. The narrative hops from the Thatcherite 80s through the present-day into a climate-change ruined near future; there’s a Frith-canvasful of characters, starting with the genuinely likeable teenager Holly Sykes who runs away from home in 1984 to move in with her 24-year-old car salesman boyfriend. Her voice is, I thought, well handled (so much so that I entirely forgive her for incorrect use of the subjunctive in the novel’s very first sentence!), and it sets the tone for the rest. By that I mean: Mitchell embroiders a carefully trompe-l’oeil texture of actual lived experience in order to frame artfully concealed references to the real meat of the novel—in this case, that Holly hears voices, her 'radio people'. They are not, whatever Holly thinks, symptoms of her ‘nutso’ tendencies. Other narrative braids do similar things by way of balancing closely observed actual life against intimations of something beyond. Those intimations come into the open in the books’ fifth section, revealing a coherent and, despite a slightly hokey, over-familiar vibe, effective fantasy through-line. Two species of ‘immortals’ are fighting a sort of cosmic war. On the one hand are the ‘Horologists’, disembodied entities who it seems are incapable of dying—though they may wish to do so—and are repeatedly incarnated in mortal human existences. The Horology is composed of, basically, 'goodies'. But there are also baddies: the ‘Anchorites’, beings who commit ‘soul-murder’ (‘animacide’) to elongate their own existences.

The Bone Clocks certainly provides its reader with variety. Some of these elements worked better than others, I thought; but this is precisely the old variety theatre rationale: if you don’t like whichever act is on stage at the moment don’t worry; another will be along in a bit. So, for example: I thought the ‘Crispin Hershey’ section tiresome: an extended sort-of satire, or riff, or splurge, on the contemporary (or, strictly, near-future) literary world. Hersey is a transparent puppetus sockus for Martin Amis (a writer ‘so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower’) who vents a series of vehement jealousies and hatreds; and his voice wasn’t really funny, or deft, or relevant, or even bilious-sparky enough to earn its keep, I thought. Perhaps it is a narrowness in my sense of humour that means I fail to smile at spleen of the ‘who on God's festering earth does that six-foot wide corduroy-clad pubic-bearded rectal probe think he is?’ sort. Then again, I liked the sinisterly sociopathic Hugo Lamb, a Patricia Highsmith-y villain working his way through Cambridge. I think it helped that I grew up in East Kent (where young Holly goes on the lam) and studied at Cambridge last century, and that I recognised both worlds as Mitchell writes them. There's also a storyline about a journalist (Holly’s fiancé in 2004), wedding-ceremony bored and thinking back to the horrors of the Iraq warzone he has covered, which is a little over-padded.

In a characteristically thoughtful review over at the New Atlantic, Alan Jacobs wonders whether the novel isn’t about the grounds and force of human love; and whether an existence un-limited by death would be capable of love in the deepest sense that is available to humans. But Jacobs makes a telling negative point too: the novel is too long (“I don’t wish that the book were shorter; but I do very much wish that it had been equally long in a somewhat different way. There is occasional tedium here for the reader, or for this reader anyway — a shocking thing to experience in a David Mitchell book.”) I thought that too. Indeed, I found myself comparing it to Stephen King’s recently published sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep (2013), a novel close enough to Bone Clocks that I wondered if Mitchell was writing a kind of homage. (I’m surprised, actually, that reviews don’t seem to mention the parallel).

King’s tale is also about soul-murdering immortals interpenetrating the contemporary human world. And King likewise writes long novels. It's just that King handles length in a very different way to Mitchell. One area where King is nonpareil is the generation of narrative tension—he draws a story out by way of ratcheting the screws inside the reader’s head. Since the unsaid-but-anticipated acts in vastly more potent ways upon the imagination than the explained-and-revealed, this means his writing is capable of generating immensely potent and uncanny atmospheres. The slow burn, and slow reveal, can also invest even the silliest narrative premises (and written down in summary form Doctor Sleep's torturing-children-to-death-so-as-spiritually-to-devour-the-‘steam’-they-release ‘True Knot’ surely sound pretty silly) with the illusion of that weight, that affective profundity, without which terror cannot be trout-tickled out of the cold pond depths of the reader’s soul.

This is where Bone Clocks falls down for me. I’m perfectly amenable to High Fantasy hokum about supernatural beings fighting for the very fate of the world in Swiss mountain fastnesses. But although the first four sections of the novel might look like they're doing the King-y slow burn, gradual reveal thing, they’re actually not. They’re just too busy. Mitchell doesn’t trust his reader not to get bored, or doesn’t trust himself not to bore his reader, so he keeps piling in, loading his rifts with as much ore as they can manage and thereby fatally swamping the creation of the mood needful for the supernatural reveal properly to work. As a read, Bone Clocks is generally diverting and entertaining; but I, for one, missed the sensation of accumulating dread that would have boosted the cosmic battle out of the realm of hokum into something more powerful. Textual restlessness can achieve a number of things, but here it is pulling unhelpfully against the larger momentum of the book.