August Superlatives

All men this month, or almost all! And almost all pretty heavy—both literally and figuratively. Not quite sure what happened to the idea of “summer reading” being light (not that I actually subscribe to that much anyway). Two Man Booker longlisters this month have given me hope for the prize’s future, and one absolutely dreadful reading experience has resulted in one of my rare negative reviews, which was delightfully good fun to write. One needs reminding, sometimes, of what Hazlitt so rightly called “the pleasures of hating”.

most utterly heart-rending: This would have to be William Golding’s Neanderthal-meets-human novel The Inheritors. The story of one species’ demise and another’s ascent is bound to be at least a little bit moving; this story plants a foot squarely in tragedy. The scene where the last Neanderthal curls up alone by the hearth in the tribal cave and waits to die is one of the saddest images of loneliness I know.

most unabashedly comforting: Pen and Ink, a collection of tattoos and the stories behind them. Isaac Fitzgerald collected and transcribed the stories, while Wendy McNaughton did the drawings (there are no photographs; each tattoo is recreated as it appears on the subject’s body). Some of the stories are sad, some are ridiculous, some are delightful (one of my favorites is Cheryl Strayed’s “divorce tattoo”, which she and her now ex-husband got to commemorate their breakup.)

most thoroughly engrossing world: This is definitely a tie between the Jamaica (and Bronx) of A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James, and the eleventh century Lincolnshire of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake. The former is a novel about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley and the subsequent infiltration of the East Coast crack market by Jamaican gangs, written almost entirely in patois, and that vocabulary really gets into your head. If I could count the number of times, over the week I read this, that I nearly muttered “bombocloth” in response to some vexation… The latter is a fictionalization of the English resistance efforts to William the Conqueror, but told through the eyes of an obsessive, reactionary, somewhat megalomaniacal farmer named Buccmaster. Most reviews dwell heavily on its use of a faux Old English; what I found most interesting, by contrast, was the subtle relentlessness with which Kingsnorth destabilizes the reader’s ability to trust Buccmaster as a character. The slow reveal of his past is masterful and creepy as hell.

dishonorable mention: I stopped reading Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. I can’t remember the last time I straight up refused to finish a book. In fact, I’m not sure it’s ever happened in precisely this way. But the protagonist was an irritating asshole and the book engaged with its genre trappings the way a lot of bad “literary sci fi” does, which is to say that it didn’t engage with them at all, and frankly I would rather reread The Sparrow, which covers much of the same ground with more aplomb, humour and sensitivity.

most frustrated potential: After dropping the Faber like a hot potato, I picked up This Perfect Day by Ira Levin, which is an Orwell/Huxley-esque dystopia (an accurate usage of that word, for once!) about a future Earth that’s run by one ginormous supercomputer, named Unicomp (or Uni for short). There’s a lot of excellent stuff in here: messianic tech-head fantasies, controlling a populace through calculated hormonal alteration, the kind of culture that might exist under a global government (Jesus Christ, Karl Marx, “Wood” and “Wei” are the four major—well, deities is the wrong word; “fucking” isn’t an obscenity, but “fighting” and “hate” are.) But there’s also a curious erasure of women (there are two or three major female characters, but they are, respectively, a nymphomaniac, a childlike doormat, and a fuck-up), and a graphic rape scene which left me baffled as to its utility in the actual plot. I didn’t get around to reviewing this in part because I didn’t know what to make of that at all.

most impressive debut: The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma, has a gravitas to it that is completely belied by its primary-colored dust jacket and its relative slimness. A story about four young brothers in 1990s Nigeria whose bonds are remorselessly torn apart by a madman’s prophecy that the eldest will be killed by one of his brothers, it takes in elements of classical tragedy, as well as being imbued with the rhythms of oral storytelling and possessing a flavor of colonial fable. Its structure is beautifully controlled, its use of flashback elegant and restrained, and its author is only twenty-nine.

most personal: The song “Hallelujah” was written by Leonard Cohen, but its most famous performance is probably the one on Jeff Buckley’s 1994 album Grace. Subsequently, it’s entered into the cultural bloodstream in a big way. The Holy or the Broken, by Alan Light, is a history of the song; it was a late Christmas present from Red to me, and it resonated especially deeply because “Hallelujah” is a song that means a lot to me. I still haven’t figured out how to sing it right.

most publicly upsetting: Of all the reviews written of Sara Taylor’s Baileys Prize-longlisted The Shore, no one mentioned how traumatic it was to read. Sexual violence in books isn’t exactly new, and sometimes the impact feels dulled, but one of the scenes in The Shore made me sob openly in a coffee shop. The whole novel was significantly more affecting than I had expected it to be—possibly it’s time for some slightly less heavy books in September?

up next: Further to starting the month with what my mum used to call “a safe book”, I think I’ll pick up Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, the Duchess’s birthday present to me. I’m going to Glasgow later in the month, so I’ll need something rather heavier for the plane…perhaps A Suitable Boy will come into its own at last!

The Holy or the Broken, by Alan Light

The other day, I was chopping potatoes in the kitchen and singing quietly to myself. (I always seem to sing quietly when indoors; I have an ingrained terror of disturbing the neighbours.) The Chaos came into the kitchen. “What are you singing?” he asked. I was mildly surprised that he didn’t recognize it. “It’s Hallelujah,” I said. He looked blank. “You know, Leonard Cohen wrote it? Later popularised by Jeff Buckley?”

He shook his head. “I’m not sure I like it. It sounds like it ought to be a folk tune but isn’t.” He hummed a few bars in a satirically wishy-washy manner. “It’s probably the way I’m singing it,” I said, embarrassed–I had, indeed, been singing it in a low, breathy, absentminded sort of way (bad technique!) “No no,” he said, “I think it’s just the song. It can’t make up its mind.”

That, in a nutshell, is the glory of Hallelujah. It cannot make up its mind. It’s about sex; it’s about God; it’s about longing; it’s about defeat; it’s about love; it’s about how love isn’t always enough. Justin Timberlake, that mighty and perspicacious critic, once said of it that Leonard Cohen never tells you what to feel. He gives you a branching road, and you choose.

For me, also, it’s a personal song, one that means something not merely by virtue of its words and notes but also through the memories I associate with it. It’s a song I used to sing with my friend JonBoy, from home. Our friend Red loves it (she gave me this book.) Once they and two other friends came to stay at my house for a few days just before Christmas. We spent one night doing shots, running outside into freezing air to look at the lunar eclipse—and singing Hallelujah. Later, the Duchess and I worked out some harmonies and used to sing it in our kitchen (again!) at 52 Cowley Road. Heard in this context, it doesn’t just evoke God and sex, but deep friendship, too.

American music journalist Alan Light has written The Holy or the Broken, a history of the song–both its composition and its place in cultural history. Cohen’s writing process for Hallelujah is the sort of thing that ought to be apocryphal and yet is true: it took him fifteen years to settle on the version he finally recorded, during which time he wrote around eighty verses. On the Various Positions record, the track has four. When Jeff Buckley recorded it, he did five, of which only two were also on Cohen’s recording. John Cale, of the Velvet Underground, did the most high-profile pre-Buckley cover, also using those five verses. The words you choose to put in Hallelujah affect the main focus of the song, of course; Cohen’s version generally comes across as spiritual as well as sexual, while Light refers to Buckley’s as being the product of “a sullen, lustful adolescent”. Well, maybe. But it’s also, I think, one of the best performances ever recorded, not just of Hallelujah but of anything. It is beautiful just to hear him exhale at the beginning of the track, and his sustained high note near the end is pure, simmering, impossible, careless, contained power.

I’m not really reviewing the book, am I? Sorry. Light’s good at writing about music. He describes how the song functioned on television shows, in films, and, most interestingly, as a sort of secular American national anthem post-9/11. It became ubiquitous on shows like the X Factor and American Idol, which is both infuriating (Susan Boyle’s rendition is, justly, deemed “atrocious”) and indicative of how widely this song applies, how many people it can mean something to. Light spends perhaps a little too much time quoting–such that it can be difficult to get a feel for his own prose style–but it’s smart quotation, lucid and relevant, and it comes from an impressive body of interview transcripts. The impression that you come away with is that no one entirely understands of what this song’s magic consists. There is the relative simplicity of the chord structure, the fact that singers have historically picked and chosen verses at will (therefore making it infinitely adaptable) and the fact that the lyrics embody the melding of the sacred and the profane, intertwined in ways that many songs attempt and fail at. Hallelujah can be almost all things to almost all people; it’s like Hamlet’s speech, although less precisely about something.

Last night, I made The Chaos listen to Buckley’s rendition twice. He still didn’t like it. He really didn’t like it. He thought its attempt to blend biblical and sexual imagery “hamfisted” and its melody “deeply uncompelling”. It’s just possible, I suppose, that he has a point. But the things he singled out are the very qualities that lend Hallelujah its peculiar majesty:

Unlike the breathtaking precision of some of Cohen’s songs, the lyrics to “Hallelujah” are confusing, slightly out of focus. Perspective shifts between verses. Images from different stories are crosscut, adding up to a mood more than a single coherent narrative. The effect is that…it can be as “religious” a song as you want it to be…An interpretation, by listeners or another artist, can permanently alter the world’s impression of a song…This inherent ambiguity is only heightened for a song like “Hallelujah”.

And as for the melody being simplistic, well, it is. But uncompelling? No. Just deeply, deeply versatile. As Light notes, it’s easy to sing; Cohen’s notoriously gravelly and cumbersome voice can handle it, but it’s open enough to allow for a lusher interpretation: “The song is built on a simple, gentle ascending and descending figure…There’s plenty of room for more gifted singers (Renee Fleming) to explore, but nothing to intimidate a less conventional vocalist (Willie Nelson).” He quotes uke player Jake Shimabukuro, who’s done a cover of the song:

“You can get the same satisfaction singing it alone in your living room as you can onstage in front of an audience… There’s a lot of space for contemplation, a lot of space for whoever wants to be a part of the song. And that’s a very rare thing. A song like ‘Hallelujah’ takes you off the grid.”

Self-aware, perhaps it isn’t. Imperfect? God, yes. But what this song does is to make manifest in the world that thing which we do when we can’t make up our minds either; it mourns, it rejoices, and it surrenders. It throws up its hands and holds out its arms.

Fuck it. Let it go.

Hallelujah.

The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma

The prophecy, like an angered beast, had gone berserk and was destroying his mind with the ferocity of madness, pulling down paintings, breaking walls, emptying cupboards, turning tables until all that he knew, all that was him, all that had become him was left in disarray.

The Fishermen is a deceptively small book. It’s not much more than two hundred pages, but in those pages it manages to be an allegory about post-colonial governments, a tragedy in the classical mould, and a particularly high-stakes coming-of-age story. Chigozie Obioma, its twenty-nine-year-old author (brief pause for those of you under thirty to be sick with envy; we resume), writes in a style that melds oral storytelling rhythms with the portentousness of myth, all filtered through the eyes of a child. If that sounds like a difficult thing to pull off, well, it is, but Obioma does it, which is probably why the Man Booker Prize committee put The Fishermen on its longlist.

The basic story is that four brothers, ranging in age from nine to fifteen, are left to get up to mischief when their father, who works for the Central Bank of Nigeria, is transferred to a different town. He visits every other weekend, but it’s not enough for him to maintain the discipline of his household, and Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin are soon traipsing down to the river with lines and fishing hooks instead of going to school. On one of these trips, a local madman named Abulu prophesies that Ikenna, the eldest, will be killed by a fisherman, which the boy takes to mean one of his own brothers. From then on, the novel spirals into the doom of the inevitable, as fear of the prophecy and attempts to avoid it lead only to its fulfilment.

Plenty of novels try to incorporate elements of classical literature, but not many of them manage to integrate those elements fully into a culture that seems, at first glance, utterly different. Nigeria in the 1990s, for instance, doesn’t look much like the environment that spawned classical notions of tragedy. But it has, in spades, the requisite elements. The Agwu boys are kept pinned beneath the hubris of their father, who has picked out professions for each of his sons that will make them “great men”: a pilot, a lawyer, a professor. Mr. Agwu’s determination to keep his children on the straight and narrow is more destructive than he imagines: having set himself up as the arbiter of discipline, he doesn’t realize that by leaving the household, he also leaves his sons without an authority figure. Although they are an educated and middle-class family, Mrs. Agwu’s authority is entirely subordinated to her husband’s, and she must resort to threatening the boys with the prospect of being beaten by him, instead of being able to discipline them herself. In deeply classical mode, Mr. Agwu brings upon himself the very thing he is trying to guard against: the wasting of his sons’ potential.

Once the prophecy is made, this sense of inevitability only grows. Ikenna, who is the eldest and the leader, shuts himself away from his younger brothers out of fear. His mother can’t prevail upon him to go to church, not even to pray for himself: “I am a scientist!” he shouts at her, but he doesn’t behave like someone who believes in the primacy of reason. Instead, he antagonizes and rejects his brothers by turns until eventually provoking a fight with the second oldest, Boja. Obioma’s slightly breathless prose style works particularly well in the scene where Ikenna’s body is found:

Obembe was not alone in the kitchen. Mr. Bode stood beside him, his hands on his head, gnashing his teeth. Yet there was a third person, who, however, had become a lesser creature than the fish and tadpoles we caught at Omi-Ala. This person lay facing the refrigerator, his wide-opened eyes still and fixed in one place. It was obvious these eyes could not glimpse a thing. His tongue was stuck out of his mouth from which a pool of white foam had trailed down to the floor, and his hands were splayed wide apart as though nailed to an invisible cross. Half-buried in his belly was the wooden end of Mother’s kitchen knife, its sharp blade deep in his flesh.

Gory, yes, but also a magnificent tease of a paragraph, in the guise of an innocent child’s reportage. “This person” isn’t even named as Ikenna until two paragraphs later, but it doesn’t matter; what Obioma doesn’t write is just as effective as what he does, his style managing to be both stripped down and full of detail.

(I’m now writing on my phone, without access to the book or a charger, so the last half of this review is going to be me trying to get down my remaining impressions as effectively as possible. Onwards!)

The clever thing that Obioma does is to not stop with Ikenna’s death. He could easily have done so; a lesser novelist might have done. But he makes the point of the story be not just about the prophecy’s effect on Ikenna; instead, it’s about what unchecked fear and superstition does to an entire family. Boja, Ikenna’s killer, is also headed for a reckoning, and after he meets his fate, the two younger boys, Obembe and Benjamin, become obsessed with murdering Abulu, the madman whose prophecy started the whole saga in the first place.

Their desperation to blame someone external, some kind of elemental misfortune, for the decisions that led to such disaster, is particularly interesting because the novel is interspersed with flashbacks to the boys’ childhood, and much of these reflect political unrest in Nigeria. Ikenna, for instance, becomes a local hero at the age of about twelve when he drives his younger brothers away from a political riot in an abandoned truck, and one of the greatest moments of the brothers’ childhoods is meeting MKO Abiola, who became the president of Nigeria. The reader can see how he manipulates them, how they are used as photo op fodder for Abiola’s campaign, but his ambiguous goodness as a leader or man doesn’t prevent him from being a monumental figure in the lives of these children. Politics is personal, in this novel, in a way similar (though not identical) to the personal politics in A Brief History of Seven Killings. And the personal investment in politics means also that when the politicians fail, as they inevitably do, it feels like a personal betrayal. It’s no coincidence, I think, that Abiola is found dead in “suspicious circumstances” just as the events of the novel are also reaching their climax.  Meanwhile, the autocratic Mr Agwu reflects both the long shadow of paternalistic colonialism–which valued things such as “education”, “civilised behaviour”, and “bettering oneself”–and the stranglehold of tyrannical leadership under which many African countries suffered when the colonisers moved out without bothering to create a system that could function after them. His absence from the family home is what enables the boys to go to the river in the first place, and although I don’t think Obioma is writing a defense of any sort of paternalism, I think he does want to convey how easy it is to make fatally bad decisions when you are suddenly given a great deal of latitude without being accustomed to any.

It is, in short, a very good book: sobering, moving, but with a light touch and, in Benjamin, a protagonist we can ache for, with a child’s voice that mercifully avoids irritating precocity. A short-lister? One hopes so.

nb: Many thanks to ONE/Pushkin Press for a review copy of this book.

In Which I Give Up On A Book

First of all, let me be clear about one thing: this never, and I mean never, happens. I don’t stop reading books. Partly this is because I have a good sense of what I like as a reader; partly this is because “what I like as a reader” happens to be an extremely wide field; and partly this is because I have a weirdly Protestant work ethic/competitive streak when it comes to completing a book. Even if I’m not particularly enjoying it, I’ll push through to the end. Very occasionally, I’ll stop a book halfway through because it’s too dense or I don’t have enough time or something else comes along (see, for instance, The Hobbit and The Portrait of a Lady), but I always keep those books on hold in my head; I always intend to pick them up again. (In the case of The Hobbit, I actually did, when I was ten or eleven. I have yet to return to The Portrait of a Lady, but I know precisely where my copy is and I have every intention of reading it properly in the future.)

Putting a book down and thinking, no, I’m done now, I’m not going to finish this? Never. I can’t ever remember doing it before.

The book that made me do it this time is Michel Faber’s novel The Book of Strange New Things.

Plenty of people have loved this book, and they’re not necessarily wrong. I was excited for it. Its premise is thrilling: a not-quite-first-contact mission to a faraway planet undertaken by an evangelical Christian. A chance to play out the tropes of colonization, with its ingredients of racism and religious fervor, in a new arena; whenever I see an author trying to play out tropes in a new arena, I get excited. I think, maybe we’ll learn something about ourselves that we couldn’t learn if we used an old arena, a familiar setting. Maybe something true will come to light.

But a little more than a hundred pages in, I realized I wasn’t enjoying it at all. I carried on for a few more pages, and then had one of those epiphanies about my own agency: I didn’t have to keep reading it. You’d think this would be fairly obvious, but see paragraph one, above: I don’t stop reading a book. It’s not something that even occurs to me 96% of the time. It’s a really nerdy version of the mentality I heard a triathlete describe a few weeks ago: Not finishing is not an option. But it was this time; it was a necessity. I had to put the book down. And because I’d promised to review it in Shiny New Books, and because their ethos is a book recommendation site, not a review site, I had to write to them and tell them that I was terribly sorry, but I couldn’t do it. They were lovely about it, but it made me want to write down what, in particular, made me stop.

Partly it was because the protagonist annoyed the shit out of me. In and of itself, this isn’t a huge problem: Holden Caulfield annoys the shit out of me, but I liked (and, more to the point, finished) The Catcher In the Rye. Peter, Faber’s main character and evangelist (you see what he did there with the names, huh? Peter, the bad disciple, the salty-tongued and boisterous, who was still entrusted with being the first pope. Oh, and the character’s saintly wife is named Beatrice. Sigh.)—anyway, Peter is a Christian. One of the first things I read about this book, in a New York Times review, was that Faber does an unusual thing in portraying a Christian who isn’t rabidly exploitative, a la TV Tropes’s Corrupt Church. I grant that this is unusual, but I don’t think Faber’s solution is much better. Peter and Beatrice are kind of guerrilla evangelists: there’s a scene in the first chapter, in Heathrow, where they talk to a couple going on holiday with their children, in a manner that one reviewer (I can’t find which one, now) referred to as “predatory”. It’s exactly the right word. This is coupled with a general sense of what the Strange Horizons reviewer calls “unthinking privilege”: Peter and Bea are constantly internally judging and assessing other characters in a manner, at best, flippantly thoughtless, and at worst, cruel. The couple they talk to in the airport are “none too bright, and not very fascinating” (but that’s okay because Peter and Bea recognize that “they were human beings, and precious in the eyes of God”. Isn’t that generous of them.) A woman who works at the USIC base on Oasis is described three times as “butch” and “hefty”, though none of this contributes to her character in any way. Bea jokes, of a young Muslim woman whose husband has just beaten her for attending their church in secret, that she doesn’t want their house to be “the scene of an Arabic honor killing!”, which would be a sufficiently tasteless remark even without the exclamation point.

All of this isn’t to say that such Christians don’t exist—they most assuredly do. It just means that Peter (and Bea to a lesser extent, as someone with fewer pages) is a self-righteous asshole, and Faber (as the Strange Horizons reviewer again so brilliantly says) never interrogates that. We’re meant to think of Peter as a good man, a flawed “human being…precious in the eyes of God” who’s trying his hardest. Instead, he comes across as pompous, dour, and a bit stupid. His backstory as an addict and homeless person doesn’t help; he’s curiously naïve for someone who has supposedly experienced rough living, not to mention that his devoutness seems, in this context, more like a symptom of displaced obsession than of profound spirituality. Again, this could have made him a fascinating, rounded character, if Faber had acknowledged the inconsistency, but he doesn’t seem aware of it.

The patronizing, self-congratulatory, middle-class form of Christianity that the book espouses wouldn’t be so bad if the plot compelled me or the world and situation seemed built with care. None of this is the case. Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow does a beautiful job exploring the practicalities of a mission, both scientific and religious, to another planet. Faber’s novel doesn’t. Russell takes care to outline the deep background in linguistics that her protagonist has, which he needs in order to communicate with the indigenous folk on Ra’kat; Faber invokes a shadowy linguist named Tartaglione, who disappears before Peter arrives on Oasis. There’s talk of fuel, something called the Jump (like a warp drive?) and various disasters occurring on Earth in Peter’s absence, but there’s no follow-up. What kind of fuel? How does the Jump work? What the hell is going on? What is USIC? How have they been allowed to essentially colonize a new planet? How did we find this damn planet in the first place? Maybe all of this is explained later (although I doubt it, since there was no serious attempt at world-building in the first 150 pages), but it’s still not good enough. Of course, this is a matter of personal taste, but it’s a taste I share with a lot of other people, including ones who read sf far more seriously and regularly than I do.

Here’s the takeaway: read The Sparrow. It does what this book is trying to do: it tells a story about a Jesuit priest who, along with some actual scientists, embarks on a journey to a newly discovered planet. It builds its world carefully—there are explanations of telescopes, technology, biology, physics—without being impenetrably technical. It’s also emotionally engaging from beginning to end, and the actions and reactions Russell describes in her characters ring true: even the less savoury stuff (and there is plenty of that; it’s a visceral, at times very violent book) adds complexity to the work. The Book of Strange New Things simply left me feeling uncomfortable as, time and again, our solipsistic hero muses on the “childlike” innocence of his “sexy” wife, or congratulates himself for being able to get over the shock of looking at the aliens’ unhuman faces. Ultimately, I felt I’d already read a better version of this book. It’s a shame, because I loved Under the Skin and am really looking forward to The Crimson Petal and the White, whenever I get around to it. But it feels strangely nice to put down a book that’s bothering me. Maybe I’ll do it again sometime.

Further Reading: Here’s the Strange Horizons review that really helped me get a handle on the nature of the issues I had with this book, and here’s the New York Times review.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James

There’s a version of this story that’s not really about him, but about the people around him, the ones who come and go that might actually provide a bigger picture…

In December 1976, Bob Marley’s home in Jamaica was invaded by seven gunmen. Marley, his wife Rita, and his manager Don Taylor were all shot; Rita and Taylor were seriously injured but made full recoveries, while Marley was hit in the chest and the arm. Two days later, with the bullet still in his arm because taking it out would have caused irreparable nerve damage, Marley played the Smile Jamaica concert, an event that was intended to promote peace between the country’s two major political parties. At the end of that month, he left Jamaica for England. He didn’t return until his death five years later.

None of the men who had attempted to assassinate him were ever found by police.

From this stew of national mythology, conspiracy theory and gang violence, Marlon James pulled a novel. In the Acknowledgments, he writes that he only figured out how to structure the book when a friend told him to read As I Lay Dying. The multiple narrators do echo Faulkner’s strategy, as does the way that the narrative circles around events, telling and retelling them from different perspectives. The more I thought about this, the more I saw at least one major similarity between Faulkner’s project and James’s: they’re both trying to demonstrate how a national or regional culture can utterly sway and destroy individual lives, while at the same time, individuals are the very ones who are creating that destructiveness. Faulkner’s canvas is small and basically apolitical, while James’s is epic (a word difficult to avoid using when discussing this book) and deeply political, but their character-drivenness makes them kissing cousins.

It helps to know a little about Jamaican history, and about Cold War politics, when reading this book. From what I already knew, and from a bit of judicious Googling, I gathered the following: there were two major political parties in post-WWII Jamaica, the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), which was centre-right, and the People’s National Party (PNP), which was socialist. Both the JLP and the PNP used street gangs to help them whip votes in West Kingston—we’re repeatedly told that whoever wins West Kingston wins the whole of Kingston, and whoever wins Kingston wins Jamaica. Marley’s “peace concert” was PNP propaganda, or at least it was seen to be, despite the claims that it was meant to foster bipartisanship. Meanwhile, the CIA, with all of its customary paranoid alacrity, was desperate to prevent a socialist government in Jamaica, considering how close it was to Castro’s Cuba. And this is all before the assassination attempt; after it, we have to contend with the Jamaican organized-crime syndicate in New York and its alliances with the Colombian drug cartels.

This complexity is necessary because everything is intensely interrelated. The Bob Marley figure in the book is referred to simply as The Singer. (Lots of reviews assert that he’s never referred to by name at all; he is actually called “Marley” once, pretty early on.) The Singer is the hook from which A Brief History of Seven Killings hangs, but he himself is curiously elided; he doesn’t speak much if at all. He’s not the point. The header quote that I chose for this review seemed to gesture at that fact: the real story is in the people who surrounded him. Papa-Lo, the (fictional) don of the Copenhagen City ghetto, is replaced in 1979 by the fearsome and ambitious Josey Wales, and it’s Josey, for my money, who is the driving engine of this book. It is he who organizes the violence, it is he who has the most to gain and the most to lose, and it is he who eventually miscalculates and falls. He’s a brilliant character, pretending to be the shiny-toothed black stooge to the white CIA men while in reality playing them at their own games. He is terrifying and ruthless—there’s a scene where he shoots up a crack house that reads like a nightmarish video game walkthrough—yet he adores his common-law wife and his young daughter.

James excels at creating such nuance in his killers. There’s Weeper, who seems poised to take over from Josey until he starts using the supply of crack that he’s meant to be dealing; he’s a conflicted gay man living in a world where to be a “battyboy” is frankly a death sentence all on its own. There’s Bam-Bam, a fifteen-year-old who saw his parents raped and killed in front of his eyes and who was drafted into a ghetto gang before adolescence; he’s one of the gunmen who storms the Singer’s house. His gang handlers have got him hooked on cocaine, and for thirty-six hours before the assassination attempt, he’s been kept in a shed with four or five other men, all of them edging perilously close to a major comedown. When Josey and Weeper come with lines of cocaine and guns for them, they’ll do anything:

And I want to kill kill kill

And fuck fuck fuck

But instead I scream scream scream

There are, too, the characters whom I thought of as “the normal people”, which is a relative term, but refers essentially to those who aren’t gangsters or politicians. Among these is Nina Burgess, who walks unawares into the Marley house immediately after the shootings and is so terrified by her encounter with Josey there that she changes her name and flees the country; Barry Diflorio, the CIA Jamaica station chief, whose marriage is a car crash; and Alex Pierce, a journalist for Rolling Stone who comes to interview the Singer and ends up spending twenty years of his life researching a story which, he eventually realizes, is much bigger than what nearly happened to one man. Nina is wonderfully well drawn, an intelligent, angry young woman whose sense of autonomy suits her better to life in America anyway, but who carries an immense freight of guilt and sorrow for leaving her family behind. Barry Diflorio was one of the few voices that didn’t entirely convince me; he felt too stereotypical, a sweaty, harried wiseguy with frightening responsibilities and a nagging, uncomprehending wife. Alex Pierce’s story, I’ll get to in a minute.

The book is divided into five sections, each one prefaced by a chapter narrated by one Sir Arthur George Jennings. He is listed in the book’s Dramatis Personae as “former politician, deceased.” It didn’t occur to me that he might be entirely fictional until I Googled him, looking for more information; it turns out that James did invent him, a white colonial bureaucrat who was, apparently, pushed to his death from a hotel balcony in the 1950s. Jennings haunts the novel both literally and figuratively; we see him appearing to characters who are about to die (who never understand just who this silent white man is), and his voice is present only once in each section, but it is infallibly there. His symbolic function is the most Faulknerian touch in the book: he’s a figure of the murdered Empire which just doesn’t go away, a past that isn’t dead because it is not even past. The ghost of Jennings warps the trajectory and perspective of the book in the same way that the ghosts of slavery and imperialism have warped the trajectory of Jamaica, and continue to do so. “Dead people”, as Jennings himself says, “never stop talking.”

That sort of ripple effect explains, I think, the book’s title. A Brief History of Seven Killings is the name of the article series that Alex Pierce eventually writes for The New Yorker, taking as its subject the aforementioned shootings in the crack house. As the title of the book, what it suggests is that any attempt to explain, to narrate or to historicize this story of violence is going to need to go a long, long way back to get to the beginning of it all. Critics communally moaned that the word “brief” is a tease in the title of a book that’s nearly 700 pages long; I would contend that the word “brief” is not ironic. It’s quite a Modernist idea, that you can never fully tell a story, that every detail, every backstory, is essential to how the Big Picture turns out. This history of killing spans nearly forty years, and that’s as brief as it could possibly be. It is still not finished.

NB: A Brief History of Seven Killings is on the long list for the Man Booker Prize. I don’t think it will win—I think that decision would probably be too much, too soon for a historically fairly conservative prize—but it ought to make the shortlist. It’s certainly got the right balance between power and control, and it’s utterly engrossing. 

The Inheritors, by William Golding

“The new people are like a wolf and honey, rotten honey and the river.”

There are two things it’s useful to remember when you read The Inheritors: one is a fact, one a contention. The first, the fact, is that homo sapiens shares 4% of its genome with the Neanderthal. The second—the contention—is that a large part of what makes us human, and what allowed prehistoric humans to succeed, is the capacity for abstract thought, which often (though not always) takes the form of figurative thought, of metaphor and comparison.

Figuration is precisely what’s lacking among the People, Golding’s locution for a small extended family of Neanderthals. (He never capitalizes “People”, actually; there’s no need, for in the minds of his Neanderthal protagonists, there is no other group from whom they need to differentiate themselves.) There are eight of them to begin with: Fa and Nil, adult women; Lok and Ha, adult men; Liku, a child; “the new one”, Nil’s infant; Mal, the patriarch, and “the old woman”. The old woman doesn’t speak for most of the book’s opening section, but she carries with her a mysterious bundle which turns out to be a hearth flame. She is the locus of mystical, intuitive, female knowledge (Golding has Neanderthals worshiping a fertility goddess named Oa) in the same way as Mal, the oldest man, is the repository of “pictures”, or memories; he is all the people have by way of history.

(A quick note on Golding’s accuracy regarding Neanderthals: there’s no evidence that they had any kind of religion. He knew this, and, as John Carey says in his short but deeply illuminating introduction (in the Faber paperback edition),

gets round these possible objections by making his Neanderthals worship ‘ice women’, and place meat and water in the grave for the afterlife, none of which would leave any remnants for archaeologists to discover.

So, a rather clever novelistic hack, I feel, and one I’m quite happy to let stand.)

The book opens as the people try to cross a river, following a trail that will lead them back to their summer territory. They’re stymied by the fact that the log which usually serves as their bridge across the water has been washed away. Disappearance is more than an inconvenience; it literally incapacitates them. Lok, our protagonist, simply cannot process the idea of absence:

He shut his eyes and frowned at the picture of the log. It had lain in the water from this side to that, grey and rotting. When you trod the centre you could feel the water that washed beneath you, horrible water, as deep in places as a man’s shoulder…So sure was he of this log the people always used that he opened his eyes again, beginning to smile as if he were waking out of a dream; but the log was gone.

It takes Mal, the old man and keeper of the people’s memories, to tell them what to do: find a new log and maneuvre it to take the place of the old. But Mal is elderly and weak, and falls into the river as they cross, and although they pull him out, he quickly sickens and dies. Without him, the people have no history, no hope of being able to use their past experiences to inform their present behavior or to help them solve problems. None of them remember, or none of them have the capacity to put their memories together, to make useful connections.

None of them, that is, except for Fa. It becomes clear that Fa is by far the brightest of the people, and although we see things through Lok’s uncomprehending eyes, a reader’s understanding of Fa’s abilities is quicker. It interests me both that Golding makes the most competent and well-equipped member of the people a female character, and also that the tragedy of The Inheritors is, in a certain way, specifically Fa’s tragedy. She comes very close, several times, to articulating ideas that would help her people immeasurably: for instance, when the old woman feeds Mal by repeatedly dipping a stick into some broth and holding it to his mouth, Fa “gets a picture” of seashells filled with water. What the old woman needs—what the people need—is some way of holding things, of containing them, so that they can be put aside and used at leisure, but they don’t have this concept. If the old woman could feed Mal from a bowl, that would be physically easier, and less time-consuming, than feeding him drops from a stick. But Fa never manages to articulate her pictures to the rest of her people. Even if she did, they might not understand her; Lok, although he’s in love with her, almost never does, preferring instead to play pranks and “babble” (Golding’s word). Interestingly, while the old woman is alive, she actively discourages Fa’s pictures by advocating a sort of gender essentialism: “A man for pictures,” she insists; “a woman for Oa.” Fa is for both Oa and pictures, a fact which utterly diminishes Lok’s sense of himself. “Diminishes” is actually, again, the word Golding uses (it’s worth paying attention to the precise wording of this book).

The catalyst of the book’s events is the coming of the new people (again, never capitalized). Ha, the only other adult male of the people, goes missing. There are movements and strange smoke rising from an island below the cave in the cliff where the people are staying. In short order, the old woman and Nil turn up dead; Liku and the new one, the children of the tribe, are taken prisoner by the new people. Fa and Lok spend most of the book trying to rescue them, while also trying to determine who, exactly, these new people are. We know them; they’re us, a prehistoric us, homo sapiens about to be victorious. From the Neanderthal point of view, however, the new people are monstrous and terrifying and addictive: not quite gods, for the new people worship their own gods, but something very like them.

Golding said that he was interested in the concept of the Fall as he wrote this book: he is not religiously dogmatic, but the loss of innocence is very keenly felt. The image of the waterfall, the landmark around which much of the action takes place, is the most blatant of the symbols he introduces, but the really brilliant symbolic linkage takes place when Fa and Lok discover the fermented honey drink of the new people. They become roaringly drunk (none of which is comprehensible to them; Lok keeps thinking that the trees are moving, whereas we know that his vision is blurring) and awake hungover. Not long afterwards,

Lok discovered “Like.” He had used likeness all his life without being aware of it. Fungi on a tree were ears, the word was the same but acquired a distinction by circumstances that could never apply to the sensitive things on the side of his head. Now, in a convulsion of the understanding, Lok found himself using likeness as a tool as surely as ever he had used a stone to hack at sticks or meat. Likeness could grasp the white-faced hunters with a hand, could put them into the world where they were thinkable and not a random and unrelated irruption.

If the biblical Fall is the knowledge of good and evil, Golding sees it as simile, the Fall as language. (It’s a somewhat Miltonic notion.) Saying that the new people are like something else allows Lok to understand them better, to integrate them into his world instead of having to face them with childlike bewilderment, but the flipside of that understanding is the knowledge of evil. There can be no going back after the sudden recognition of cruelty, or murder, or vice.

The extraordinary thing that the novel does at the end, however, is to switch its point of view suddenly and without warning. Up until now, we’ve been mostly inside Lok’s head; but when he loses Fa, everything changes. It is no coincidence that she is lost by going over the falls. The next thing we know,

The red creature stood on the edge of the terrace and did nothing. The hollow log was a dark spot on the water towards the place where the sun had gone down. The air in the gap was clear and blue and calm…The red creature turned to the right and trotted slowly towards the far end of the terrace.

But he doesn’t stop there. The final chapter is told entirely through the eyes of Tuami, one of the new people, who is paddling his little group away from the “country of the devils”. They’re on the run themselves, from the rest of their tribe, and the future is, at best, uncertain; Tuami is calculating the wind, the currents, the strip of darkness at the edge of the lake, and how long he can go before he stabs the shaman Marlan and assumes the leadership for himself. The last we see of “the red creature”, it is curled, lifeless, in the cave where Mal was buried, struck by grief, identity lost with the loss of its people, come undone, nothing left to live for. To read this and to know that you are reading from the winning side, genetically speaking, creates an extraordinary dissonance; you feel horror and sorrow for the fate of Lok and his people, you feel revulsion for the violence of the new people, but you also see in them the capacity to be interesting and to create interesting new things, to have ideas. If the tragedy of The Inheritors is in Fa’s missed opportunities, its irony is in its title: it wasn’t the meek who inherited the earth—at least not yet—but the bold.

July Superlatives

Only seven books this month, which is not bad given that I was socializing heavily every weekend bar the first (she says, trying to make herself feel better…) I was rubbish about reviewing them, unfortunately—only managing two, both at the beginning of the month, unsurprisingly—but I gave you a birthday books post and a Man Booker longlist post, so no complaining.

most unnerving: Kelly Link’s short story collection Magic for Beginners, which is nothing if not deeply, deeply weird. They sort of reminded me of episodes of The Simpsons, in that each one starts with what looks like the major plot, only for something to happen that creates another major plot, and then sometimes another. They’re also quite happy to be a tad incoherent; you can never really pin down a symbol or a message, the way you can even with other fantastical writers like Angela Carter. I liked that, how clearly they’re the product of a particular imagination, which you don’t have to understand.

most poignant: Just Kids, by Patti Smith. I wasn’t blown away by her prose style, but it was a sincere and, by the end, deeply sad and lovely memoir. You got an excellent sense of how insanely, effortlessly charismatic she and Robert Mapplethorpe both were, and it’s a pretty good period piece, too, describing the New York art scene of the 1970s which is now gone forever.

most disturbing: Knockemstiff, the second book I reviewed this month, a collection of linked short stories by Donald Ray Pollock. It’s like early Cormac McCarthy, or like Daniel Woodrell, in a category I’ve heard referred to as “grit lit”. There’s a lot of prescription drug abuse, alcoholism, and misery, and a tiny grain of what might be hope right at the very end.

most tidily plotted: There’s a bit of room for interpretation here, since several of the books I read in July had intricate or deeply thought out structures, but Will Cohu’s novel Nothing But Grass spans over a hundred years in the same corner of Lincolnshire countryside, and I loved how cleverly he shows the ramifications of events from generation to generation.

Prose Prize: Again, there’s wiggle room, but Light Years, James Salter’s best-known novel, is a really gorgeously written book. The effect is quite deliberate; he’s writing about people whose lives are beautiful and full of friends and love, but simultaneously empty and lacking in meaning. The sense of light and shadow, of color, of texture, and of luxury, that you get from reading the prose is palpable.

most utterly heartbreaking: I can’t remember now how I came across Patricia Smith’s collection of poetry Blood Dazzler, but I must have heard about it somewhere. It takes as its subject the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans, and it ventriloquizes such characters as a dog, an old woman, a drag queen, President Bush, the city, and the hurricane herself. It is the sort of book you have to put down every few pages so that you can look out the window and breathe deeply through your nose and not cry. It’s also a very, very significant testimony to the betrayal of the people of New Orleans by the US Government in the hurricane’s wake, and ought to be read for years to come.

my favorite: This isn’t exactly a category, but it’s the best way I can think of to describe Jesmyn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones, which is also about Hurricane Katrina and its effects on poor Gulf Coast residents. Ward’s protagonist, Esch, is a pregnant fifteen-year-old, and the story is told in the twelve days leading up to the hurricane, during which time Esch’s brother’s prized pit bull, China, gives birth to a litter of puppies, and Esch tells the father of her child. There’s a lot about family relationships, mother-love (Esch’s mother is dead; she’s obsessed with the story of Medea, whom she’s reading about for school) and the elemental—things you can’t fight, like a Category 5 hurricane, or loyalty to a family. It won the National Book Award a few years ago and entirely deserves it; it made an excellent companion read with Blood Dazzler.

up next: I’m currently reading Marlon James’s Booker-longlisted A Brief History of Seven Killings (I was in Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street on Sunday and could not resist). I also have to read The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber for Shiny—I thought I’d get to that last month, mais non…