February Superlatives

It’s been a whole year since I started doing Superlative wrap-ups! Elle Thinks has come a long way since then. Last month it didn’t seem worth doing Superlatives because most of what I’d read was reviewed; this month, I’m getting back into the swing of things. Reading was decent—I spent two whole weeks on two different 900-page books, which resulted in fewer total books read, but it was worth it.

most thoroughly engrossing world: The seventeenth century in Neal Stephenson’s erudite, globe-spanning novels Quicksilver and The Confusion. They cover almost everything—commerce, finance, politics, sex, war, slavery, physics—and everywhere: London, Cambridge, Germany, Constantinople, Versailles, the Barbary coast, India, the Philippines, Mexico. There’s Daniel Waterhouse, fellow of the Royal Society; Jack Shaftoe, soldier, galley slave, King of the Vagabonds, and pirate; and Eliza, who works her way up from slavery in a Turkish harem to major stockbroker for the French crown and a duchess twice over. Other characters include Isaac Newton, William of Orange, Peter the Great, Charles II, Samuel Pepys, Christopher Wren, Gottfried Leibniz, and Sophie, Electress of Hanover. It’s extremely difficult to stop reading them once you’ve started. The third in the trilogy is called The System of the World, and I nearly bought it this weekend, but The Chaos insisted I try reading his ebook copy first. This will be my first (and very reluctant) foray into ereaders. I will report back.

most comprehensively devastating: Without a doubt, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life. I read some rough stuff this month, especially towards the end, but Lish’s story of an Iraq War veteran and the Chinese Muslim he falls in love with is classically tragic in its inexorable downward slide. It’s also some of the best writing about New York City I’ve ever read.

most obscurely baffling: I didn’t really get on with Shylock Is My Name, Howard Jacobson’s retelling of The Merchant of Venice for Hogarth’s Shakepeare project. Much of the plot felt begrudged, as though Jacobson were primly disgusted by all of these goings-on. The dialogues between Shylock and his contemporary stand-in, Strulovitch, were genuinely interesting, but marred by Strulovitch’s prurient fascination with his daughter’s sex life. That sort of thing tends to give me the shudders, and not in a good way.

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most chilled-out read: This wasn’t a hard book, either stylistically or intellectually, but damn if I didn’t have a jolly nice time reading it: Jes Baker’s Things No One Tells Fat Girls. It’s a bible of radical body-positivity. I’m really into this idea: that not all bodies are “pretty”, but that every single body is beautiful, and that, moreover, your body is absolutely no one else’s business, and no one else’s body is your business, unless and until they explicitly invite you to it. Imagine what the world would look like if people didn’t publicly (or even privately) comment on other people’s bodies. Imagine what magazines and TV and the Internet would like. Imagine how health writing and food marketing would change. Imagine how much more we could do with our lives.

book that could have been written for me: Love Like Salt, Helen Stevenson’s memoir of her daughter’s cystic fibrosis, plus her mother’s dementia and their life in France, ticked so many boxes for me. She’s a good amateur pianist who writes lovingly and knowledgeably about music I know and love. She’s a linguist and a reader who uses poems and prose that mean something to me as touchstones for her own thoughts. She’s the  mother of a child with a chronic illness; I was a child with a chronic illness, and am now an adult with one, and I remember what my mother had to do for me when I was younger. In fact, Love Like Salt touched me so personally that I am actually dreading having to finish a review of it; it cuts so close to the bone.

greatest potential: I wasn’t unimpressed by Harry Parker’s debut novel, Anatomy of a Soldier. Quite the contrary; he takes a conceit that could go horribly wrong (a novel about an IED explosion in Afghanistan, narrated by forty-five different inanimate objects) and gives it life. What did surprise me was the stylistic awkwardness that pervaded the writing. I wonder more and more now about editorial practices in large publishing houses: how much work gets done on a manuscript after it’s been bought from an agent? It was a poignant, topical book and it’ll get a ton of publicity, which means it’s likely to sell well, and perhaps that was the rationale, but it just strikes me as odd that no one looked at it and thought, This is pretty good, but we can make it even better.

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most nightmare-inducing: I don’t remember my good dreams, just my bad ones. Elizabeth Knox’s new novel, Wake, gave me a nightmare after I’d only read forty pages of it. It’s about a small town in New Zealand that falls into the grip of a mysterious insanity, causing everyone to kill each other. There are only fourteen survivors, and the inexplicable malevolent force that caused the disaster isn’t quite finished… Brilliant literary psychological horror that cleverly keeps its monster offstage for most of the action, while also making sure to actually explain what the hell is going on. (You’d be amazed how many of these sorts of novels never do, which, contrary to the beliefs of their authors, is not clever but infuriating). I won’t forget it for some time. I also think it would make a fantastic mini-series.

what’s next: I’m about to start Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel, Eileen. I have heard Patricia Highsmith comparisons and am expecting good things. (Though I am also wondering how to stop myself burning out on dark twistedness next month. Many of my to-review pre-pubs for March seem…rough.)

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Anatomy of a Soldier, by Harry Parker

I functioned.

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That line, “I functioned”, is spoken by a bomb. It’s just one of the forty-five different objects that narrate this novel, swapping off chapters to create a picture of British army life in Afghanistan that one journalist has already described as “literary cubism”. It’s an appropriate word, I think, for its sense of fractured perspective: these objects frame the experience of the protagonist, Captain Tom Barnes, but whenever the same event is recounted from another point of view, the reader gets a broader sense of how causes and effects tie into each other. Like the conflict itself, the weeks that the novel covers are complicated. There’s the fear and boredom of patrolling; there’s the explosion itself; there’s Barnes’s recovery in an English hospital; and there’s also another narrative strand that belongs to Afghan locals, both the insurgents and those who fear them.

Each object narrates in the first person. It’s a huge gamble, the kind of strategy that makes you think uneasily of your high-school creative writing class. Pleasingly, it actually works here. Parker has said that he set rules for himself while writing, including one that specified an object could only “know” what someone was thinking if that character was touching them. That minimizes the inherent silliness of a telepathic camp bed (or body armour, or snowflake), and instead creates an atmosphere where it seems entirely natural that a piece of equipment being used by a soldier should enter into some kind of emotional partnership with them. In one scene, Barnes crouches in a ditch with his platoon and experiences the strongest sense of connection in the book; the way that men have to work together, and tools have to work with men, during warfare makes such connection plausible. When your life relies on the proper functioning of your helmet mike, you have a relationship with that object; why shouldn’t it, for its part, have a relationship with you?

One obvious reason why not is the charge of sentimentality, of which, thank God, there is none. This is the other clever aspect of narrating a war novel through the inanimate; a flag does not, in and of itself, have a philosophical mind, although the eventual fate of a flag can (and does) make a philosophical point. In all war novels narrated by humans, an evaluation of the morality of war enters the picture at some point. It must, because non-sociopaths can’t do anything for very long without wondering whether it’s the right thing or not. By using objects, which have no sense of morality, Parker avoids having to either denounce the war or praise it, which makes the novel far less preachy than it might have been. It’s also a canny move for a man whose father is the former deputy NATO commander in Afghanistan, and whose own Army career follow his protagonist’s closely.

If Parker makes any moral or political statement at all, it is in the inclusion of the insurgents. We hear from objects around the doomed boy Latif, his former best friend Faridun Hhan, Faridun’s father, who assists the soldiers and fears for his family’s safety , and Aktar, the leader of the provincial insurgency. A scene where Barnes enters the Hhan compound and offers money to help rebuild the school is given piquancy by the fact that we know the Hhans are under the eye of Aktar and his men: they’ve already threatened to cut off the head of the daughter, Lalma. And the appeal of the insurgency is poignantly expressed by a chapter told from the point of view of a pair of knockoff Nikes, which young Latif purchases with his first paycheck from Aktar. They’re pristine and they’re incredibly cool–never underestimate the power of cool to a seventeen-year-old–and there’s no way  he could have afforded them working as an agricultural laborer in the province. I’m not as convinced by Parker’s portrait of the higher-ups; perhaps it just takes more time and space than he had to explore what makes a man believe that IEDs are the best way to achieve his (vague) ends.

Although I want to call it a stylistic triumph for what it does with its narrating voices, I can’t quite, because there’s a certain clunkiness to the sentences. Parker has a habit of linking independent clauses together with the word “and”, which is unnecessary; you can see that he was possibly inspired by the polysyndeton of Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy, but even those chaps don’t always pull it off. McCarthy, in particular, only manages it because his sentences are perfectly balanced, as though he’s sung them out loud to himself a dozen times. Parker hasn’t; the effect, instead of being hypnotic, is frequently sing-song. Sometimes, it’s actually nonsensical:

He returned home and expected that Hassan’s men had visited. [pg 216]

I am a communications platform and information bounced through me. [pg 238]

He hated this, and he stretched his fingertips into the hole he’d created. [pg 280]

None of these independent clauses need to be yoked together like this. In the first sentence, the grammatical implication is that Faridun’s “expecting” is accomplished after he returns home, much like “He returned home and boiled the kettle”. But in fact, his expectation occurs while he is on his way home. The “and” creates a false chronology. In the second sentence, the two verbs, “am” and “bounced”, are in different tenses—fine if they weren’t linked by that “and”. In the third, you expect the sentence to read something like “He hated this, he thought, and he stretched…” But instead, the distance from “hating” (an abstract action) and “stretching” (a concrete one) is mediated only by the comma and “and”. It’s slightly more defensible than the previous two sentences, but it disorients. It’s a little surprising that no one at Faber caught this; these are just three examples of a tendency that runs through the whole book, start to finish.

The other tactic Parker adopts that can go both ways is a lack of specificity in the characterisation and the dialogue. You get a decent sense of who Barnes is when you’re with him in Afghanistan, but he could still be almost any halfway-decent officer, capable in command but emotionally torn. Sometimes the vagueness of the dialogue works brilliantly. In a patrol base, conversation probably doesn’t vary all that much, and the brief exchanges that we’re privy to between Barnes and his colleagues are smile-inducing, silly, brotherly. Recovering in England, though, Barnes becomes more of a cipher. His sorrow and shame and helplessness are Everyman traits, which on the one hand means he’s relatable, but on the other hand means he doesn’t feel individuated. The dialogue, too, is oddly reliant on names: he calls his brother “David” , his dad “Dad”, and his mum “Mum”, far more frequently than any actual person would. Likewise, they nearly always address him directly as “Tom”. I think authors do this in order to create a sense of emotional intensity, which is a perfectly legitimate goal; but to use someone’s name is more intimate than you realise. Imagine addressing your sibling or parent or partner by name every three sentences. They’d think you were patronising them, or trying to sell them something.

That said, what Parker has achieved is immense: a book about a highly emotive subject that has a greater claim to objectivity than any of its peers that I can think of. He’s tackled Army life, but, just as importantly, the physical agony and emotional strain of rehabilitation. It’s a brave, bold thing to want to write about, and to choose this kaleidoscopic strategy is bold, too. I suspect that stylistic infelicities will be brushed over in broadsheet reviews, and, to be honest, I can’t say I’ll blame the reviewers. Parker earns praise through sheer technical audacity; in this case, that really is enough.

My copy of this came from the pre-pub pile at work, but if it hadn’t, it would’ve come from Kate McQuaid at Faber. Anatomy of a Soldier was published in the UK on 25 February.

On J.R. Carpenter’s “Gorge”, Part One: String Theory

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There’s this thing called digital literature. To those of us with a disposition to love physical books, their material essences, the phrase can be alienating, disturbing even. It makes me think of some immense ethereal database, to which novels and poems and plays can be hooked and uploaded, a Matrix of the creative mind. It doesn’t, in those terms, sound particularly appealing, but rather like a vast, crammed forest. It sounds like somewhere you could get lost—not in the exciting, carefree, sight-seeing way, but more in the “oh God this industrial wasteland is nowhere near our hotel and also it’s raining” sort of way.

Fight this fear. Digital lit is really, really neat, not least because it’s so much less interested in uploading Madame Bovary to the Cloud than it is in finding out completely new ways of creating things with words, using technology and programming languages as tools to assist in the endeavour. I’m going to be writing a series of posts exploring one instance of digital literature, breaking it down into its source code, looking at that code, assessing how it works, and finally deciding what it’s worth as literature. If you have never seen computer code in your life before, I urge you not to navigate away immediately; until this summer, I’d never had a proper look either, so I promise you that everything will be explained for the layman, clearly and accurately. (I live with a real live computer scientist, who checks all of these posts for accuracy.) Plus, the possibilities for what you can do with code are literally infinite—it’s expressed in languages just like literature is—so it’s worth your while to know something about what can be done with it.

In 2009, Nick Montfort wrote a program that created a neverending poem called “Taroko Gorge“. (Do you see what I mean about these things being really neat? A neverending poem! Holy shit!) You might think that this would require a great deal of complicated and arcane mathematics and large word banks upon which to draw—not a bit of it. Such are the joys of combinatorics that you don’t actually need very many resources in order to create a large number of variations. It’s likely that, given some complicated and arcane mathematics and large word banks, you could create a more complex, nuanced and interesting neverending poem, and this is a notion worth exploring, but we’ll get to that later. For now, let’s look at the code.

The code I am going to look at here actually belongs to an adaptation of Montfort’s program by a poet and programmer called J.R. Carpenter. (She’s commented on this post, so check out her comment below!) I came across it while looking at a zine called Hack Circus, which I’d recommend wholeheartedly. They describe themselves as an artistic collective interested in “the entertaining and engaging side of inventive thought, whether that manifests physically with wires and batteries, or conceptually in artistic or philosophical ways”—or, as their website tagline succinctly puts it, “fantasy technology and everyday magic.” It’s a playground for the imagination; every article is a jumping-off point for something fascinating and bizarre.

Carpenter calls her iteration of the work “Gorge“. You’ll realise why when we start to look at her inputs: the poem that “Gorge” produces is, yes, about the body and its processes, while the poem generated by “Taroko Gorge” is about the natural world and has a serene, secluded feel to it. But that’s nothing to do with the structures of either poem; it’s entirely down to the words. If you look at their skeletons, these two poems are built the same way, and I’m just not sure that structure should be irrelevant to two poems with completely different emphases. It’s as though Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Marlowe’s “Come live with me and be my love” were written in the same meter and idiom.

On the other hand, both “Leda and the Swan” and “The Windhover” are sonnets about birds, and they still manage to capture their own very different essences in similar forms. (On the other other hand, “The Windhover” is extremely cavalier about meter. You could keep having this argument forever.)

So, Carpenter’s code starts like this:

var t = 0;
var n = 0;
var paths = 0;
var above = 'appetite, brain, craving, desire, digestive juice, enzyme, gaze, glaze, gorge, gullet, head, incisor, intellect, jaw, knowledge, language, maw, mandible, mind, molar, muscle, mouth, nose, sight, smell, spit, sweat, spirit, thirst, throat'.split (',');
var below = 'aroma, bladder, blood vessel, bowl, bowel, crust, dip, dressing, film, gut, lip, lower lip [etc etc]'.split (',');
var trans = 'agitate, attract, bite, boil, braise [etc]'.split (',');
var imper = 'become, confuse, cut, decant, enter [etc]'.split (',');
imper = imper.split (',');
var intrans = 'absorb, age, assimilate, balance [etc]'.split (',');
var s = 's,'.split (',');
var texture = 'acrid, barely perceptible, cautious [etc]'.split (',');

In JavaScript, the programming language that this code is written in, var introduces a variable. A variable in programming is just a thing that gets assigned a value. We’ll worry about var t, var n, and var paths later; we don’t have enough information about them right now to assess them meaningfully, other than to note that they have all been assigned a value of 0. What we do have is a large amount of information about the other variables, all of which seem to have been assigned multiple different values. But if you scroll to the right, you’ll see that the whole shebang—all of the words associated with, say, var above—are within one set of quotation marks. And what that makes them is one value, because they’re a string. A string is everything inside a set of quotation marks, which all gets lumped together and treated as one. So, for instance, ‘appetite, brain, craving, desire’: the program will treat that list of adjectives as one value for our variable, unless told otherwise. What tells it otherwise is the piece at the end of each line, .split (',').

What .split (',') does is split up the string (hence the name; everything in programming has or should have an eminently reasonable name) into an array of substrings. The advantage of writing like this is that it prevents the programmer from having to type out a whole bunch of quotation marks (like, ‘appetite’, ‘brain’, ‘craving’, ‘desire’ and so on). The advantage of making an array of substrings, instead of one massive string, is that now, in theory, we can choose any one of those substrings to be the value of our variable above.

Next up: How we choose a substring, and what happens after that.

 

Shylock Is My Name, by Howard Jacobson

It is justice that makes us human, not forgiveness.

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This is a weird book.

In part, this is because it’s a contemporary adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, which is in and of itself a weird play. Along with Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, and (sometimes) Troilus and Cressida, it’s been lumped in the category of “problem plays” for about a century. This is a category—now essentially discredited in academia, but still frequently used in popular discourse about Shakespeare—that critics invented for those of Shakespeare’s works that didn’t fit neatly into comedy, tragedy, English history, Roman history, or “romance”. (For more on Shakespearean romance, I direct you to my review of The Gap of Time, an adaptation of The Winter’s Tale.) The problem plays are deeply philosophical: they’re explicitly about ethics and morality, they’re not funny, and if there are any marriages at the end, the romantic or erotic lead-up to those marriages was certainly not the main point of the preceding five acts. When you watch one of Shakespeare’s comedies, you leave the theatre grinning broadly and feeling a little saucy; when you watch the tragedies, feeling drained and pared down. When you watch a problem play, you leave the theatre scratching your head and frowning thoughtfully.

A brief recap of The Merchant of Venice (which, incidentally, Jacobson does not provide): Bassanio is the titular merchant, who needs money that he doesn’t have to woo the noblewoman Portia. He asks a friend, Antonio, for a loan; Antonio doesn’t have hard cash, but he promises to be the guarantor if someone else will loan Bassanio the money. Shylock will; he’s a Jewish moneylender, and he hates Antonio, because Antonio is viciously, outspokenly anti-Semitic. He almost refuses the loan altogether, but eventually, he lays out the following terms: if Bassanio defaults, Shylock can take a pound of Antonio’s flesh as repayment. Unsurprisingly (see “the gun rule”: if a gun appears in act one, it must go off by act three), Bassanio does default–all his ships are lost in a storm at sea–and Shylock demands the flesh. Portia, Bassanio’s lady love, disguises herself as a lawyer and argues that Shylock’s contract gives him only flesh, but says nothing about blood, which he would have to spill in order to get what the contract allows him. Defeated, Shylock is dragged off to be forcibly converted to Christianity and to have his (considerable) estate divided up between Antonio and the Venetian government. Oh, and also, his daughter runs away with a Gentile.

There’s a little bit more to it than that, mostly involving some unconvincing and not particularly sexy or funny prancing about at Portia’s country estate, but that is the crux of the story.

I don’t actually feel competent to review Jacobson’s updating of the play, mostly because it (the novel) is all about Jewish identity, and I am not Jewish. The Duchess (who, long-time readers of this blog will recall, is my best friend from university and former housemate) is, and through her I’ve learned some things about what it’s like to live in a country that forcibly expelled your people in the year 1290, only to grudgingly re-admit them a few hundred years later; a country where large numbers of the mid-century social elite thought that Hitler, though a grubby little man, perhaps had the right idea; a country where casual, institutional anti-Semitism exists under the radar, so that no one believes you when you say you’ve encountered it. But I am not, and so I lose the nuance and weight of many of the conversations that pass between Jacobson’s two main characters–Shylock himself, transported to 21st-century England by some mystical means we are not meant to interrogate, and Simon Strulovitch, a billionaire art collector and benefactor who represents the Shylock character in the modern-day plot.

There are a few things that I can cavil at. One is the alarming nature of Strulovitch’s approach to fatherhood. His daughter, Beatrice, is sexually precocious and beautiful. He spends much of her adolescence driving around Cheshire and London, trying to find her, and dragging her away from parties by her hair (literally). He is bizarrely jealous of any boy she kisses. He is pruriently interested in whose bed she has been in, or will be in. This is waved off as overprotective Jewish fatherhood. Not knowing anything about Jewish fatherhood, I cannot speak to that, but to me it seems psychotic, abusive, and Freudian, and not something that you ought to be pinning on religious conscientiousness.

There is also the problem of everyone else’s attitudes to Beatrice. The crisis of the plot is precipitated by her apparent elopement with a footballer who is ten years her senior. She is sixteen, but evidence suggests that the footballer first slept with her when she was fifteen. She was essentially procured for him by Plury (the Portia character, a wealthy young-ish woman who throws a lot of parties) and D’Anton (the Antonio character, an also-wealthy gay aesthete and social butterfly), who are aware of the footballer’s proclivity for “Jewesses”, and find him one accordingly. It’s not just the gross dehumanisation suggested by the use of the word “Jewesses” (though Plury and D’Anton use it frequently); it’s also that, basically, they’ve pimped a teenager, and none of the resulting brouhaha treats that as a big deal. Strulovitch is more enraged that they pimped a teenager to a goy; Plury and D’Anton, when they realise that they could be in legal trouble, are so ridiculously naive in their shock that I wanted to throw things. Combined with Strulovitch’s original pervy possessiveness, and the many approving references to Philip Roth, it just all made me hideously uncomfortable.

 Possibly, what we should take away from all of this is that it is much easier to update some of Shakespeare’s plays than others. Jeannette Winterson managed it with The Gap of Time in part because the original already had a slightly fairy tale aspect. I wonder whether the plot details of The Merchant of Venice meant that Jacobson bogged slightly; it certainly feels as though he’s much more interested in having Strulovitch and Shylock debate identity than in the movement of the plot, and those conversational sections were the ones I found most engaging. Shylock’s conversations with his dead wife, Leah, were also rather beautiful and moving. Perhaps if the whole novel had been a dialogue, it would have been more powerful; instead, more than half of it was irritating if not downright horrifying. (I suspect–with very little in the way of concrete evidence, I admit, but a lot in the way of gut feeling and experience with entitled old men–that Jacobson is one of those public intellectuals who would jump right on the “freeze peach” bandwagon with regards to misogyny.) So…buy it if you’re into Shakespeare, and buy it if you’re into the philosophical bits (I was both, and enjoyed it for that alone), but be prepared to either wade through the other half, or skip it altogether.

Many thanks (despite the above excoriations) to the kind folks at Hogarth for the review copy. Shylock Is My Name was published in the UK on 4 February.

V Daze

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2011: My first year of university, four months in. I have developed a fierce obsession with a boy who seems to sincerely like me half of the time, and to be incapable of talking to me, or anyone else, the other half of the time. We’ve already tried going out and it was disastrous, so now we’ve been split up for the better part of a month. I’m eighteen and still haven’t grasped that you don’t have to live your life like it’s a movie—that, in fact, it’s easier and more interesting and less suffocating if you actively avoid living like that—so of course I am miserable about Valentine’s Day. My misery is dramatic and self-pitying, but no less real for that. AdventureSinCake (formerly known as the lawyer) has just come out (surprising no one, least of all his mother, who merely said, “Oh, I know!”) and he suggests a Valentine’s Day straight out of Bridget Jones. The wallowing aspect of this appeals to me, so we go to Tesco and buy mugs with hearts on them, pink cava (because we’re students), and two boxes of Thornton’s milk chocolate selections. Then we retire to his double set and watch Burlesque, about which all you need to know is that it’s a major motion picture starring Cher and Christina Aguilera. We wake up the next morning on his bed under a pile of duvets and cushions, still in our clothes from the night before. The cava and chocolates are, of course, all gone.

*

Here’s the thing about Valentine’s Day: you’re meant to be miserable about it, either way. You’re meant to be miserable if you’re single, because singlehood is commercial, capitalistic code for “ultimately unloveable and freakish—and nothing will ever make you better, but here, these expensive food and drink and jewelry items might staunch the wound for a few minutes, you pathetic loser.” You’re meant to be miserable if you’re coupled up, because Valentine’s Day for a couple means “make declarations about moving the moon and stars for your lover, then actually do it. Oh, you can’t? Or you don’t want to, or they don’t want you to? Too bad, you inadequate, miserable schlub. This is what Real Grownup Love is about. Go big or go home.” You are meant to be miserable no matter what, because miserable people buy shit.

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2012-2013: I don’t remember these. In 2012, I was probably out somewhere, studiously pretending that it wasn’t Valentine’s Day so as not to weird out the guy I had been sleeping with. I know that a few days afterwards, that other guy, the one from first year, told me he still fancied me really, so we got back together again. We were still together in February of 2013, but not happily, although if you’d tried to dissuade me at the time, I’d have ignored you. In fact, people did try, and I ignored them. The February of 2013 was the February before I sat Finals. Disastrous things happened: my boyfriend and I decided to “take a break”, which didn’t work because we still lived in the same house and were basically codependent. I slept with someone else, a guy he was actually trying to make friends with. He found out, and shook me, and called me a whore. He apologised later. Things were awful for a long time, partly because I thought we could all still be friends. (I was twenty. I should have known better, but I didn’t.) I’m not sure where we were in this timeline by the time Valentine’s Day arrived. I gave him cufflinks. They were made of antique coins from the end of the Roman Empire. I’d bought them in a tobacco shop in Georgetown when I went home for Christmas, and my debit card company had called me to make sure the transaction wasn’t fraudulent, since I didn’t usually spend hundreds of dollars in tobacco shops. He got me a pair of earrings. They were sparkly and shell-shaped and elegant. I still wear them sometimes, but the metal of the posts has tarnished over time.

*

Saint Valentine was an early Christian martyr. No one really knows anything about him. We don’t even know for sure whether he was one person, or more than one. (It would be nicely appropriate were he to have been two people, I think.) He was buried at a cemetery on the Via Flaminia in north Rome on the day he was killed. That’s all we know for sure.

In the Middle Ages, he came to represent courtly love. Courtly love was a type of behaviour which tended to manifest itself thus:

  1. the bestowal of favours (like a handkerchief) by a (noble) lady to a (noble) man, one to whom she wasn’t married.
  2. the chaste but emotional worship of a (noble) lady by said (noble) man, from afar, and without hope of consummation
  3. the writing of poetry all about frustrated desire.

Elements of courtly love are ridiculous, of course, and hedged about with sexism and classism. It’s where we get the idea that “chivalry” means holding a door open for someone. But it’s also the reason we have Petrarch, who is the reason we have Shakespeare’s sonnets; it’s the reason we have Dante, who is the reason we have Milton. Some things are worth saving.

*

2014: I graduated last summer and I’m still living in Oxford. At least I have a job now: I work for my old college’s Development Office, helping to plan the events that will comprise, in April, a weekend of celebrations for the 700th anniversary of our founding. I never thought of myself as a natural flesh-presser or sweet-talker, but here I am five days a week, on the phone to bankers and winemakers and authors and academics, getting donations, arranging tastings, printing out name badges. My coworkers are a small team of highly intelligent, incredibly pleasant people. In retrospect, I’ll probably never work in such an ideal office environment again.

At this point in time, most of us are single, so Emily arranges a Valentine’s Day dinner for us at her house in Jericho. She’s an amazing cook—she makes salmon en croute and chocolate melting hearts in little ramekins, and we eat until our stomachs are distended. She’s bought us things, too: tea mugs, chocolates, tiny tealight candles. We’re all sitting around digesting (Aileen and Will are actually lying on the floor wrapped in a blanket) when my phone rings. It’s my ex. We broke up in May, before graduation, but we’ve maintained a high-stress, high-contact “friendship” which tends to include having sex every time we see each other. I know this is not smart. I can’t seem to help myself.

I hold up the phone. “What do I do?” Every head swivels in my direction. A moment of silence. Then Aileen bawls, “DON’T FUCKING ANSWER IT!” and everyone else chimes in, a chorus of support and defiance and anger. “How fucking dare he?” “Put it down.” “Turn it off!” “Give it to me!” I don’t turn it off, and I don’t let anyone else pick up, but I do put it down, and on silent. For the rest of the night, we put on music and dance in the living room. When I check my phone later, I have fifteen missed calls.

*

You can’t even really win by ignoring the day. It’s a mere Bah Humbug gesture. Getting angry about Valentine’s Day only reinforces the narrative that angry people are losers, or (worse) just jealous. Pretending it doesn’t happen is like pretending Christmas doesn’t happen: it’s not impossible, but you’re swimming against a very strong tide.

*

2015: I’m staying with my grandparents: the school where I work now is on half term. The man I’m currently seeing is unsuitable and the fact that I’m seeing him at all is morally suspect, but it feels safe to me, like a halfway house between unmoored singlehood and actually being in a relationship. You could describe it as a rebound, a way to get over my ex without having to make myself too vulnerable. I don’t tell the man difficult things, like how ill my mother is. I think of this affair as a sort of job, and telling him things is not in my job description. “This will only work”, my friend Roy told me, “if you don’t catch the feels.” I have not caught the feels. I don’t think he has either.

My grandparents go out in the evening to a village dinner they signed up for months in advance. The unsuitable man I am seeing is with his family. I’m alone for the evening. I order pizza, ransack the cupboards for a bottle of wine, reorganise my books, watch Wolf Hall on iPlayer. I’m not happy, I think, but I’m not unhappy about it. The unsuitable man texts me. I wonder what he thinks he wants.

*

Medieval literature figures love as a garden. Your lover at the centre, something pure and secret and confined. You have to penetrate those hedged boundaries, prove yourself worthy of the maze of flowers and trees, meet her at the fountain. It’s about sex (obviously), and it’s about outdated religious notions of purity, too, but you can choose to read it more generously. You can choose to see it as an allegory about trust, about acknowledgment, about letting someone in to the innermost part of you. You can choose to view it as a challenge: to sit, in all of your weirdness and glory, at the centre of your life’s whirling network of people and places, and see who sees you.

*

2016: I met a man. I love him. I moved in with him. A year—three hundred and sixty-five uniform days, a mere eight thousand seven hundred and sixty hours—changed everything: my job, my home, happiness.

He says he doesn’t want anything for Valentine’s Day, except for an almond croissant. I buy him four, each one from a different place, and he tests them all. We discover that the one from Mimi’s, the deli on the corner, is the best. Almond paste, almost liquid, oozes out of its layers of flaky butter pastry. We finish the croissants, one by one, the night of the 13th.

When I asked him what he wanted to do on the day itself, he said, “An indoor picnic. And indoor croquet,” and I thought he was taking the piss. I got so annoyed at him for that, until the look of bafflement on his face made it clear that he was quite serious. “Do you have an indoor croquet set?” I asked him. He just grinned. I assumed that meant yes.

He’s ill today. I was going to make roast chicken for us to eat on a blanket on the floor, in between croquet shots, with prosecco and Guylian. It wasn’t going to be huge, but it was going to be something. Then last night I discovered that you have to defrost chicken for 24 hours, and this morning he woke up with a headache and a sore throat and aching joints. He had to go out to work briefly this morning—he’s a singer, and Sundays are singing days—but overall, I don’t think we’ll be drinking any prosecco this afternoon. Or eating Guylian, or doing anything really. I want to be upset about it: it would have been nice, finally, to do something on the day itself. Just to mark it somehow. Just to say, You are precious to me and today is about telling you so.

But it’s not his fault he’s ill, and in any case, this seems right somehow. It’s a frequent criticism of Valentine’s Day that it fetishizes romantic love and ghettoizes it at the same time: why save up your love and demonstrativeness for one day only? Why not just love fiercely every day? Why wait, since life is so short?

He comes back from work bearing white tulips, and smiling. We have cheese on toast and listen to the radio in bed.

*

If ever any beauty I did see/Which I desired, and got,/’Twas but a dream of thee.

Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish

She was using both hands to hold up the triangular pizza slice, which kept buckling in the middle, like a corpse being carried to a helicopter.

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There are some words that have become meaningless in criticism. Many of the adjectives blazoning my copy of Preparation for the Next Life can be found on that list: “extraordinary”, “compelling”, “masterful”, and so on. There are others, too, though, in the blurbs that preface the book itself, and they’re less common—”superlucid”, “breathless momentum”, “a low centre of gravity”, “heat-seeking precision”—as though the authors of these reviews were trying, consciously or unconsciously, to replicate the power of the prose that had left them so breathless, moving so unstoppably. Perhaps the most overused word of all, in contemporary media at least, is “tragedy”. Preparation for the Next Life is a tragedy too: not the fall of a great man, but the remorseless crushing of an unlucky one. Though our male protagonist, Brad Skinner, isn’t the only one; there’s also his lover, Zou Lei, an ethnic Uighur from northwest China whose dialect is so obscure that no one, in all of the Chinese fast-food joints that employ her throughout the course of the novel, can understand it. She learns Cantonese, English, even Spanish: anything to survive.

Skinner has done three tours of Iraq. He’s twenty-three. The year is never explicitly stated, but from textual clues, we can guess he was serving before the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, which means the novel is likely set before 2006, when the convictions occurred. One of Lish’s greatest accomplishments is conveying a sense of a city—a whole country—skittish and on edge as a direct result of 9/11. Having lived through that time only as a child (an obnoxiously information-hungry child, but nevertheless), I find novels set in the half-decade or so after 9/11 particularly fascinating; they allow me to fit pieces of my personal and social history into a wider context. They let me understand things that I couldn’t understand at the time, the reelection of George W. Bush being only one of them. In Preparation for the Next Life, there’s a sense of simmering rage and hate among native-born Americans that entirely passed me by when I was nine. Zou Lei, briefly in prison on immigration charges, sees the result of that hate:

They showed her what was going on on the top tier, in the cell that no one ever came out of. They had a project they’d been working on. It was a woman lying in a bunk. The deputies gave her to us. We take care of her. Right after 9/11 they put her in a cell with like fifteen guys. She was in Al Qaida for real. I don’t know how they could get it up because she’s so nasty. …Zou Lei looked at the woman. She couldn’t tell if she was breathing. They told her she was Lebanese, a mom.

They’ve both been through different sorts of hell: Skinner through executions and firefights and his buddy’s brains splattering on his boots, Zou through living in one motel room with eight other women, working fourteen-hour days, loneliness, and a language barrier. But whereas hell starts to break Skinner down, Zou pushes back. Lish doesn’t give us much time inside her mind, but he gives us plenty of time behind her eyes: we see what she sees, and her reactions are what we’re given to know of her mental state. The picture that grows is of a woman simultaneously practical and innocent, determined and courageous yet still capable of affection and silliness. Quietly, Zou Lei is a revelation, and revolution, in the annals of women-written-by-men, particularly ethnic minority women written by white men.

She was not the mother type. When she collected their empties one day and took them to the redeemer, it was because she was enterprising, not because she felt she should clean up after him. With the dollar and change she made, she bought a chicken skewer and saved it for them to eat together, half each, the meat cold by the time she had walked there with it through the small houses covered in Spanish graffiti. She was logging all these miles and it was good.

She’s not the mother type, but she loves him, and he doesn’t scare her. This is a good thing, because the shit that has happened to Skinner would scare almost anyone; indeed, it scares him, and it makes him, in turn, someone who gets angry and loud and who has sweating, screaming nightmares. Lish writes these as he writes everything, in a kind of steady, quiet declarative that is all the more affecting for being measured. (There is one particularly bad scene involving Jimmy, the son of Skinner’s landlady, an ex-con whom we know is bad news right from the start. Jimmy commits an atrocity which is reported in this solemn, solid, unflinching style, and reading it shook me up so badly that I had to put the book down and wander around the flat for a while, trying to think of something else.) Yet there’s no sense of the gratuitous. It’s one of the most sympathetically generous novels I’ve ever read; Lish has no stake in the business of judging people. You get the sense that he’s just trying to get down on paper what actually happened, and that sense of precision in reportage makes the whole thing feel that much more real. Zou Lei goes on a nighttime run, near the end of the book, which takes at least three hours—she goes clear out of Queens, all the way to Great Neck—and you just know that Lish had to have walked that route in order to be able to describe it in such unwavering detail.

The detail is the other thing that makes this book so good: there’s an unswerving accuracy to the descriptions of street shopfronts and the details of back-street geography that makes the whole novel feel almost documentary. It’s set during the summer, and you can almost feel the heat and the texture of the air on your skin:

A Mazda with silver rims spun around the corner and drove away under the shadow of the elevated tracks. All down the block, Guatemalans were cooking a hash of gray brains, black sausage and corn on the cob at their generator-powered trucks, the women in aprons and ball caps holding tongs, arranging a ring of pig’s heads turned to leather masks by roasting, black holes where the eyes were or had been before they were cooked out. An inside-the-animal smell.

None of this detail contributes to the plot, but it’s not there for plot. It’s there to give this book a firm anchorage in reality. People sometimes say of a book that you could crawl inside it and live there. Usually they’re talking about epic fantasy, but the idea applies equally to Preparation for the Next Life. The events of this book matter so profoundly to the reader because you know that it’s only this precise iteration of them that’s fiction. Things like this happen all the time in New York City, in America, in Iraq, in liminal mountainous countries.

The fate of Zou’s and Skinner’s relationship is, as you might expect, not a happy one; I won’t go into it, partly because spoilers aren’t necessary to write a comprehensive review but partly because I sort of can’t bear to. We end, as we started, with Zou Lei, following, as so many have, Horace Greeley’s advice: “Go west.” She goes west, to the “next life” of the title—the constancy of migration, moving from job to job, town to town, apartment to apartment, identity to identity. But there’s also the “next life” that Skinner finds. Hamlet’s undiscovered country, after all, was death. Skinner doesn’t seem to have a choice, by the end, but Zou does. She’s a desert woman; she grew up under huge skies. Though nothing about the ending is clear or definitive, you suspect that out there, in Phoenix, she might find something like freedom.

Thanks to Margot Weale at Oneworld for the review copy. Preparation for the Next Life was released in paperback in the UK on 4 February.