March Superlatives

I read thirteen books this month, thanks to panic over my review pile, my eighty minutes a day of commuting time, and the four-day Easter weekend. I’ve reviewed eight and a half of them (one of the pieces I wrote this month, a column for Litro that’ll be published soon, was about a book but not precisely a review of it), which means that Superlatives may be a kind of irrelevance. (I also plan to review the final book read this month early in April.) Still, as Vicky of Eve’s Alexandria has it, it’s good to write about everything I’ve read, and there’s a lot to say about these, so here we go.

most seriously unnerving: Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel Eileen, which features an uncomfortably weird protagonist and a tense noir plot. I found myself uncertain what was going to happen next (unusual) and desperate to find out (even more unusual), but it’s Eileen’s bizarre psychology that really pulls you in.

quietest punch: An odd category, I know, but E.C. Osondu’s short story collection-cum-novella, This House Is Not For Sale, goes down in one sitting and hangs around hauntingly for a while longer. Told through the eyes of a little boy whose tyrannical grandfather is the patriarch of a family house in Lagos, it’s unsparing in its observations of how people wield power in a microcosm.

best Old-Fashioned Storytelling: This, I’ve decided, is a tie between two books. The first is Freya, by Anthony Quinn, which bounds from Oxford to Nuremberg to Fleet Street. It’s not stylistically challenging or innovative, but it’s impeccably written and the plot derives from the complex humanity of the characters and their motives—my favourite kind. The second is Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance, which you’d think wouldn’t qualify at all, since it’s composed of film scripts and voiceovers and advertisements as well as just straight prose. It’s all about storytelling, though, and in its own beautiful, extravagant way, its storyline is Good and Old-Fashioned. I loved them both.

most resonant: I’ve been seeing echoes of Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City ever since I finished it. Exploring artistic representations of, and negotiations with, urban loneliness, it’s a book with incredible contemporary relevance. Even if you don’t like nonfiction (especially if you don’t like nonfiction), I’d really recommend this.

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bit anticlimactic: Reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost right after The Lonely City was probably unwise. It’s a completely different approach to a very similar subject, and I felt as though  Laing had simply managed to get more out of it by virtue of her depth. I did get some interesting stuff out of Solnit’s book, about the captivity narratives of European settlers in  North America who were kidnapped by Native Americans (this is a whole subgenre of American colonial literature), but mostly it felt undercooked. Depressing, as I’d been looking forward to it since Christmas. Maybe I should try another of hers.

possibly shouldn’t have been a novel: Gillian Slovo’s Ten Days, about riots in south London, felt more like a sketch for a miniseries. An excellent idea that read very visually and that lacked the in-depth characterisation that novels are designed to deliver better than any other art form. Would love to see it on ITV, though.

most heartening re: the younger generation: Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff, a feminist fairy tale of a YA book that I’ll be reviewing in Shiny New Books next week. It’s about an isolationist community composed solely of women, and about how they respond when gender-based violence comes to their front door. The writing had the breathless over-eagerness common to a lot of YA novels, but I’m willing to overlook that for the utter organic wonderfulness of what this book is actually saying. (Which is: girl, you are more powerful than you have ever known.)

best time-killer: It seems like damning with faint praise, but I had two and a half hours to kill in Highbury before my singing lesson last week, and I passed most of them in a Thai restaurant with Jason Gurley’s novel Eleanor and some spring rolls. Time travel, intergenerational conflict, shame, bereavement, and alcoholism all get a look in, but Gurley avoids soap opera with marvelous emotional dexterity. I was quite impressed—though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, as the book was apparently in gestation for fifteen years.

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best surprise: I made a start on the Baileys Prize long list with Kate Atkinson’s A God In Ruins, which has been lauded to the skies and will almost certainly win. Was terribly grumpy about reading it and spent a good fifteen minutes muttering about how annoying WWII novels are before actually cracking it open. I was so wrong! It’s not really a war novel, although there’s a lot of exploration of how the war affects those who survived it and the subsequent generations. I was a bit disappointed by the ceaseless authorial hatred for one character whose only crime, as far as I could tell, was that she was an imperfect and selfish mother. Obviously not a role model, but the book seemed surprisingly judgmental of her. Other than that, wonderfully fluid writing and characters that jumped off the page, in a convincing way. Bits of it reminded me a little of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years.

most heartrending:  Hubert by Ben Gijsemans. A graphic novel with almost no words, by a Belgian artist, about a lonely middle-aged Belgian man who visits art museums and barely ever talks to anyone. It can be devoured in a single sitting, or pored over at leisure; Gijsemans’s drawings are plain at first glance but full of detail the longer you look. Hubert is a wonderful creation. His sad little face and glasses do the same thing to my heart that Wall-E’s character design did (i.e. stomp on it). This is also a great book to read in conjunction with The Lonely City, since it’s basically a case study of how individuals medicate their own isolation with art. It’s really beautiful and made me all sad and hopeful at the end.

biggest disappointment: The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild, director of the National Gallery.  It was also longlisted for the Baileys Prize, though it won’t win, and hopefully won’t even make the shortlist. It’s a sweet idea (a down-on-her-luck woman finds a priceless Watteau painting in a junk shop; everyone in the art world decides they want it) but executed in a very Eat-Pray-Love sort of way. The main character’s mother is an alcoholic and the conversations they have are so full of psychological jargon that I wasn’t at all convinced two people would talk to each other like that. Also, Rothschild doesn’t get contractions: all of her characters say things like “I will do this” or “You do not see that”, instead of “I’ll” or “You don’t”. It’s not for emphasis, either, and it happens for 404 pages, first to last. Do trade fiction editors even turn up to work anymore? grump grump Positive aspects include the fact that there are divine descriptions of food in it, and the “mild peril” (as film ratings boards say) is rather fun.

and, getting in under the wire: Relativity by Antonia Hayes, which I finished this evening and can’t think of a superlative for at the moment because it’s still percolating through my head. I have to come up with a few questions for Hayes, whose publicist has kindly granted me a Q&A with her; I think about half of them will be to do with this specific book, and half will be to do with writing (especially as a debut novelist) more generally. For now, you should know that it’s about a twelve-year-old boy who was badly shaken as a baby and who is now growing into his intellectual gift for maths and physics, trying to piece together the truth about his estranged father. The writing is tidy and competent and the plot is pretty good stuff too. More on this soon.

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what next: I’ve borrowed Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North from a colleague (it was published in the UK as The Carhullan Army), and have borrowed the Chaos’s mum’s Kobo, which has The System of the World on it. I also want to get through more Baileys Prize longlist books–maybe The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet next?–and have got a few books from publishers for April, including Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil, which looks amazing. It’s going to be a wonderful spring.

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On J.R. Carpenter’s Gorge, Part Two: Choosing the Words

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This post is the second in a series on digital literature. I’m dissecting the JavaScript code of “Gorge”, an infinite poem by J.R. Carpenter that riffs on Nick Montfort’s program “Taroko Gorge”.  The first post, which defines “variables”, “strings” and “arrays”, is here.

At the end of the last post, I said that we would continue by looking at how to choose a substring from an array, and what happens from there. In order to understand how the program selects a substring, you have to understand something else first: what a function is, and how it works within a program.

It’s hard to meaningfully define a function in non-technical terms because it is so basic a thing that breaking it down further is difficult; at the same time, too vague a definition will be imprecise and therefore meaningless. The best I can do for you right now is to say that functions are basically chunks of code that, as the name might suggest, do something. When you call a function, you’re invoking the code in it. If similes are your thing, you could say that calling a function is like casting a spell: you can have the spell written down, but it doesn’t do anything until you bring it into existence.

Functions have names, arguments, and bodies. This is probably best illustrated by actual code:

 function rand_range(max) {
   return Math.floor(Math.random() * (max+1));
 }

The name of that function is rand_range, the argument that we pass to it is max, and the second line (beginning with the word return) is the body of the function. It is, in other words, what the function will do, when it is called, with the argument max. max, as you may have guessed by now, is just a variable representing a maximum value. If we say that max is 3, the function will execute with 3 taking max‘s place.

What does that mean, practically speaking? What will the function actually do when called? Its name should give you a clue: looking at something called rand_range, it’s a safe bet that it’ll have something to do with a random number that falls within a predetermined range. Add the fact that the argument has been named max, and you can further guess that the value of max represents the top end of that predetermined range. Now all you have to contend with is Math.floor and Math.random. Math.floor is a function (functions can call each other) that returns the largest integer less than or equal to a given number (in this case, max); Math.random returns a pseudo-random (which is to say, more or less random for most purposes but not strictly random, since that’s pretty hard to achieve) integer between 0 (inclusive) and 1 (exclusive). You can scale that up or down; in the event that max is 3, as I suggested earlier, Math.random returns an integer between 0 and 3, not including 3. This is why the function includes (max + 1), which extends our range by 1, allowing us to include 3.

The next function is called choose. It exists in order to produce a random selection from the arrays that we discussed earlier, the ones like above (“appetite, brain, craving, desire”), below (“aroma, bladder, blood vessel, bowl”), and trans (“agitate, attract, bite, boil”). choose looks like this:

 function choose(array){
   return array[rand_range(array.length-1)];
 }

When you insert the name of an array—let’s say above[rand_range(array.length-1)] selects a random value from that array. (The -1 bit is there because the first thing in an array is denoted Thing 0. Computers like to start counting at 0. So -1 just means that you get the whole range of the array from the first (zeroth?) item to the last.) Then return array returns the index that’s been selected. So if we were to do this with above, the index might be, e.g., 3, which would return ‘digestive juice’ (since we’re counting from 0, remember!)

The next function is where we start to get into the actual construction of the poem, and it’s followed by two other functions that are very similar. These functions haven’t been renamed since their inception as part of Taroko Gorge, so they may at first glance appear irrelevant to the content of Gorge, but they’re doing the right things. There’s a section in the middle of this first function that doesn’t work in Gorge, which you’ll probably be able to spot straight away. It doesn’t do anything bad; it just doesn’t get evaluated.

 function path() {
 var p=rand_range(1);
 var words=choose(above);
 if ((words=='forest')&&(rand_range(3)==1)){
   words='monkeys '+choose(trans);
 } else {
   words+=s[p]+' '+choose(trans)+s[(p+1)%2];
 }
 words+=' the '+choose(below)+choose(s)+'.';
 return words;
 }

And breathe.

var p is defined as rand_range(1), which we know means “a random whole number between 0 and 1”. Practically speaking, that means “either 0 or 1”. We don’t know what we’ll be doing with var p yet, so we’ll just put that away for later use.

var words=choose(above), as we know from our adventures with choose(array) previously, means that words is set to a random selection from the list of words in the array above.

The if statement says that if the value of words happens to be “forest”, and if the rand_range value is 1 (with the max value defined as 3, so the value could be 0, 1, 2 or 3), then “forest” will be replaced with the word “monkeys” and a random selection from the transarray. Since we don’t have the word “forest” in any of our arrays, this piece of code will actually never be used. It’s a leftover from Montfort’s original version.

else means “otherwise”, so this is where we can start paying attention again: if the conditions of the if statement are not met (and they won’t be), this is what will happen next.

words+=s[p] is a random pluralizer. It takes a var from earlier up in the program, which I realize now I may have skated over somewhat in the first post. This is s, which is defined as 's,'.split(','). What this means is that s is actually another array, split on its comma, so that the array consists of the letter ‘s’ and nothing, known in programming as ‘the empty string’. Therefore, words+=s[p] means that when p=0, s will be added on to the end of whatever value we got from words. (words+=s[p] is a short-hand for words=words+s[p]. “Adding” a string means that it is glued on to the end of whatever comes before.) As we start counting from 0, that means a letter ‘s’ will be added, making the word plural. When p is 1, the second element of the array s will be added to the end of words, which in this case means nothing at all.

After this will come a space (signified by ' '), no matter whether the value of var words has been pluralized or not. Then a word will be selected from the trans array, which will be pluralized half of the time. This is signified by (p+1) % 2, where % means “the remainder after division by”. Cast your mind back to elemento-primary school! When p is 0, we get 0+1, which is 1, and the remainder of 1 divided by 2 is 1. We’ll add element 1 of array s again, which is empty string. When p is 1, we get 1+1, which is 2, and the remainder of 2 divided by 2 is 0, so we’ll append the first element of array s (remember, the first element is element 0!), which is the letter ‘s’.

The final section has the addition of the word ‘the’ to whatever comes out of words, a random selection from the array below, a random selection from the array s (another choice between pluralizing or not), and the addition of a full stop. return words is the piece of code that will actually return the value for function path(), when it’s called.

More next time, including a couple of other functions that select words from arrays using different criteria, and the beginnings of how the program fits all of these functions together to produce the poem itself.

Capsule reviews: Radiance, by Catherynne M Valente, and Eleanor, by Jason Gurley

Racing to finish the last of March’s books before March bloody well ends, I realized that my last two reads had some interesting thematic similarities, so I decided to present the reviews to you side-by-side, in capsule form. (Also, I’m behind again. That’s probably the more honest reason for using this format.)

Radiance, by Catherynne M. Valente (Corsair Books)

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Someone wrote a review of this recently that commenced with the breathless exclamation, “SPACE WHALES.” And yeah, there are whales, and yeah, it’s in space, and yeah, the whales are actually the most important thing about the mystery that forms the book’s nominal core. The reason I say “nominal” is that, although the catalyst for all the action is the attempts of survivors and the bereaved to work out what happened to documentary filmmaker Severin Unck when she disappeared on the planet Venus, what the book ends up demonstrating at its core is the story-ness of stories. How we frame things and from what angle we choose to tell a tale: these are decisions that absolutely define whatever tale we’re telling. You might think that just saying what happened is fairly straightforward, but Radiance reminds us that it’s not.

Severin makes documentaries. Her father, Percival Unck, is a famous director in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the late 1800s and early 1900s. His style tends towards the Gothic and the noir; he has swooning heroines, unscrupulous villainesses, blood, castles, thunderstorms, the works. The only things we might find unusual are that a) all of these are set, and indeed filmed, on other worlds (The Red Beast of Saturn; The Spectres of Mare Nubium), and that b) they are all silent movies. This is a universe where the European race to acquire colonies has spread to the stars (Neptune is French, the Moon is British, and so on), and where the Edison family hoards patents so that providing sound in films has become prohibitively expensive.

This silencing means that you interpret films solely through your eyes: you can only think about what you have seen, not what you have heard. (There are title cards, of course, as for the silent movies of our own universe.) Acting is about convincing people through your face, your bearing, your very body. It’s not to do with what you say; it’s what you do. Of course, this leads to a profound interest in how people construct themselves—which is one of the main concerns of fiction, full stop. Severin is filmed from nearly the beginning of her life, often having to go back and do things again for a third time or a fourth, until Percival feels he’s got the shot. This includes the “scene” where he finds her in a basket on his doorstep; he makes his assistant, Vince (Vincenza, actually) go back and do it again so that he can film it in the proper dramatic fashion.

Her disappearance is revealed on the book’s third page, and the rest of the book is a series of documents—filming scripts, advertising voiceovers, journal entries, “straight” prose—by people as diverse as her favourite stepmother (she’s had seven), her father and Vince, her lover Erasmo, and the voiceless, traumatised boy whom they found on Venus before she disappeared, whom Erasmo subsequently raised as his own son. It’s a totally flamboyant narrative strategy, and Valente’s style is flamboyant too, as she mimics hard-boiled noir detective, mysterious beckoning omnipotent persona, young but already cynical actress out to make her fortune, and other voices. There’s a sense of exploding colour and drama and texture: sequins and palettes are described in lavish detail. It’s Old Hollywood, after all.

Although the reveal is brilliant, and the sheer verve and vivaciousness of the writing has you racing forward to figure it out, I don’t think that Radiance is making an especially new point, once you strip it right back to its basics. I think it’s a book about storytelling, and although that is beautiful and important and appeals to me, a savvy reader will already be aware of how narratives are contingent: how they depend on who is telling them, how they are constantly incomplete, how death and loss are plot points you can’t get around, how real life isn’t anything like a story anyway. But Valente conveys all of this with exceptional style, and her writing is downright beautiful (not to mention that much of its sly humour had me grinning widely). It is certainly a book worth reading, and I’m already keen to see what Valente, who’s already had tremendous success with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, comes up with next. Her imagination seems boundless.

Eleanor, by Jason Gurley (Harper Voyager)

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Now that I come to the second half of this post, and have to think back to what I said earlier about thematic similarities, I’m worried that they won’t come across fully. Eleanor is a book about mothers and daughters, about the awful repercussions of acts across generations. It is sort of about time travel and sort of about the subconscious. I didn’t emphasize any of those in my Radiance review, but I think it’s important to reiterate that they are present in that book as well, and that reading these two back-to-back was an experience where both texts ended up illuminating one another.

In 1962, Eleanor is married to Hob and has a toddler daughter, Agnes. Hob is good to her, almost incredibly so; he is the man that everyone wants to meet and fall in love with, kind and loving and with an understanding for her foibles that borders on the infinite. And yet Eleanor isn’t happy; she married young, she feels stifled. She was a high school swimmer with potential to be Olympian, but that all changed with the birth of Agnes. Now she’s pregnant again and falling into depression. One morning she wakes early, drives their truck to the nearby ocean, walks into the waves, and never comes back. In 1985, Agnes is an adult now with twin daughters, Esme and Eleanor. A car crash kills Esme, and Agnes’s whole world is destroyed by loss for a second time. In 1993, Eleanor is now fourteen and the primary carer for Agnes, now an embittered alcoholic who hates her remaining daughter and blames her for Esme’s death. But something starts happening to Eleanor: she’s beginning to slip out of time, to disappear from her own world and reappear in another. Slowly, over several years, she starts to piece together what these strange vanishing acts have to do with her family history, and what she has to do to get them to stop.

Much of the plot is guessable, although the identity of Efah (an odd, seemingly male entity who lives in the Rift that Eleanor keeps falling into) took me rather too long to guess. Part of that is the intense immersion that Gurley makes you undertake. The prose is straightforward and doesn’t draw attention to itself, but Gurley’s grasp of emotional beats is impressively good. There is a scene where Eleanor, her would-be boyfriend Jack, and her father Paul find Agnes comatose in her bedroom—but they don’t notice her at first; what’s drawn them upstairs is the sound of home videos, featuring long-gone Esme, playing on the bedroom television. Time seems to hang suspended as you read that scene; Gurley shows you Paul, horrified and grief-stricken and fascinated and longing for his baby back, Eleanor, transfixed by seeing an image of her twin for the first time in eight years, Jack, who doesn’t quite know what to do. In the hands of an inexperienced or overconfident writer, that scene could have been cringingly awful. Instead it bruised me; it made me hurt.

The way that the supernatural is invoked frustrates me in some ways, because I think the heart of this story is in the way that people fail to heal. Agnes is completely destroyed by her childhood trauma and by the shock of losing a child, and her response—to blight the life of her remaining daughter—is indefensibly awful. But it happens all the time, in countries and cities all over the planet. People react to things badly. Many of them limp on through their lives, but many of them never recover. It’s kind of up to you, in some senses, to negotiate a way of continuing to function with the dark scars of bereavement and fuckuppery. What Severin Unck knows in Radiance (aha! here’s a connection) is that you can’t restage the moments that change your life. What Jason Gurley gives us, in Eleanor, is a story where you can. And the curious thing is that (avoiding spoilers here, I think) not much needs to be sacrificed.

Many, many thanks to both Clara Diaz at Corsair and Jaime Frost at Harper Voyager for the review copies. Radiance was published in the UK on 3 March; Eleanor was published on 10 March.

Ten Days, by Gillian Slovo

The attached photographs catalogue the spread of disturbances in the immediate surrounds of the Rockham police station.

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Whenever the word “timely” is used to describe a book, I get a tiny bit suspicious. Without the vantage point of history, after all, it can be extremely difficult to work out whether—timely or not—something is simply of its time, by which I mean something tied so closely to a certain period and political circumstances that it becomes a set piece. How do you write a novel about current events without making your book a ripped-from-the-headlines rehash of the newspapers of the day? How do you balance authenticity with the inherent artifice of fiction?

Gillian Slovo has written many novels, but she’s also the author of two plays, and in writing those plays she dealt with this problem by, to a large extent, ignoring it. Both Guantanamo: Honour Bound to Defend Freedom (2006) and The Riots (2011) are compiled from interview transcripts; every word in them was said by someone in real life at some point. It’s a technique that you might recognise from the astonishing musical-turned-movie London Road. The artifice is in the arrangement, in the way that the playwright chooses some lines and not others, where she puts them and in reaction to what. The thing is that although that works brilliantly for a play, which is, when you strip it down to its skeleton, all dialogue and movement, I’m not sure it works quite as well for a novel.

Ten Days was inspired by Slovo’s experience writing The Riots, which was in turn inspired by the Tottenham riots of the summer of 2011. It’s not verbatim theatre: the borough where it’s set is carefully fictional, as are all the characters, including the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. If anything, that’s the problem; the politicians are venal and stupid in a particularly broad sort of way that only fictional politicians can be. Real-life ones can be just as venal and stupid, as the new budget demonstrates with depressing clarity, but they tend to be more complicated, their motives either less clear to themselves or more murky and nuanced than this novel will allow for. People are already talking about turning Ten Days into a mini-series, which I think illuminates a lot about both the characterisation (politicians BAD; policemen EMBATTLED and COMPROMISED; council estate residents GOOD) and about the pacing (snappy, time-stamped jump cuts between South London, the Met Office, Parliament, and Downing Street.) It’s the same sort of structure as John Lanchester’s Capital and we seem to like that: London in vignettes, diversity in half a dozen lives. See also Love Actually.

To be fair, Slovo does invest the human drama of Ten Days with real poignancy. The catalyst for the violence is the death of a mentally disturbed young man of colour while being restrained by police at a meeting in Rockham community centre. We see the incident through the eyes of Cathy Mason, a single mother living on the Lovelace estate with her daughter Lyndall (who is mixed-race but doesn’t know who her father is, not because Cathy doesn’t know but because Cathy won’t tell her). Cathy’s already witnessed one incident on Rockham high street between the police and the young man now dead—Ruben, who lives with his parents and seems to suffer some kind of paranoid schizophrenia. He’s stopped by the police as part of an initiative to discourage young men from wearing their hoodies up on the street, but the police don’t know the neighbourhood and don’t know Ruben, and they interpret his fear as recalcitrance, and then as aggression. Cathy only just intervenes before they move in on him—and later, in the community centre, she doesn’t get there in time and the worst does happen. Through Cathy’s gentle dealings with Ruben, and through the local pastor, Reverend Pius Batcher, who organizes a peaceful vigil in Ruben’s memory, you see the strength of community in these old city neighbourhoods. It’s this level of connection and understanding amongst neighbours that rising rents and urban renewal programs are steadily destroying. (Search for any East End postcode in Rightmove or Zoopla and you’ll have some sense of what I mean, though it’s not just a London problem.)

There is also a certain level of interest in Slovo’s portrayal of the Met. She has a new commissioner, Joshua Yares, starting on the very day the riots begin (the poor sod. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but that is one hell of a coincidence.) Yares was backed by the Prime Minister, against the Home Secretary’s wishes, which means he is, in the public’s eyes, the PM’s man. His options are simple: get the riots under control, or resign. Of course, the circumstances mean that resuming control is not nearly as simple as it should be, and one of the places where the novel is successfully nuanced is in how it apportions blame for the difficulty in restoring order. The police on the streets are short-staffed, most of them haven’t received enough riot training, and there’s a distinct lack of equipment, all of which is due to budget cuts pushed through by the Government. On the other hand, many of the coppers meant to be maintaining good relations with the community are arrogant, tactless, or just staggeringly incompetent. When Ruben’s grieving parents go with Reverend Pius to ask for answers at Rockham police station, they’re left on a chair in the waiting room for hours with no communication from station staff. It’s amazingly bad politics; it also hardly qualifies as basic human decency.

Where Ten Days loses me is in its political scenes. Peter Whiteley, the Home Secretary, and his rivalry with the Prime Minister, seem strangely cardboard: not only in comparison to the burning and looting going on just across the river, but in their private lives and motivations as well. There is, of course, a grubby extra-marital affair; there is, of course, blackmail; there is, of course, a political career going down in spectacular, flaming style. The problem may be that I’ve seen all of this before, and not too long ago at that, and done with greater flair: in House of Cards, obviously, but also in The Politician’s Husband. (I hope other people remember that show. It starred David Tennant and Emily Watson, and aired in 2013. It was fucking devastating.) It’s suggestive, I think, that both of those instances are television shows. I suspect that this is material we don’t actually expect to read anymore; political machinations and back-room deals are the domain of the small screen now, and a good actor can raise a thinly written politician stereotype to a higher level, whereas a novel…well, a novel has to rely on its writing. The writing is all that a novel has.

Slovo’s writing isn’t bad at all, but it is very utilitarian. Which isn’t to say that it’s ruthlessly efficient or dry; it just does what it does. It sketches the characters, it conveys the dialogue, it advances the plot. All of these are things that you want your writing to be able to do. It’s just that, as a reader, I like it when writing does a little bit more. When I was searching for a quotation from Ten Days to headline this review, I couldn’t really find one; there was no sentence or paragraph that seemed extricable, that stood out in any way or seemed to contain the kernel of the novel in itself. In the end, I borrowed a sentence from one of the police reports with which Slovo punctuates each chapter. That fact alone probably says more about the kernel of the novel than any other sentence I could have selected.

Thanks very much to Jaz Lacey-Campbell at Canongate for the review copy. Ten Days was released in the UK on 3 March.

The Lonely City, by Olivia Laing

“He lived in isolation, but it was a highly populated isolation. There was a circle drawn around him that no one crossed.”

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Olivia Laing’s second book (but her first that I read), The Trip to Echo Spring, was an exploration of how alcoholism affected the life and art of six mid-century American writers. It was, in essence, a mapping of something that can seem abstract (a diagnosis, a condition, an impulse, an addiction) onto the skin of everyday reality: how it feels to experience it, how it manifests, and its ability to both enhance and destroy artistic potential. The Lonely  City is doing something similar, except that the abstraction is loneliness and isolation—particularly in an urban setting—and the afflicted makers are visual artists, most (thought not all) of them centred in New York City.

She also combines the experience of the artists she discusses with her own experience of loneliness. It’s a phenomenon, as the psychologist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann dryly noted, that people do not seem to want to discuss, an aversion that stretches even to psychologists themselves, who tend to avoid asking questions that would lead them to the heart of the nature of loneliness. There is something in us that makes us not only forget what loneliness feels like once we are no longer lonely, but that causes us to be actively repelled by loneliness in others, a kind of cruel self-reinforcing survivalism. (Laing writes of the elderly man she met on a station platform who tried to engage her in conversation. Her responses to him are increasingly terse until, smiling gently, he moves away. She is ashamed of how she has pushed him away, but she almost cannot help herself.) The awful thing about this is that to be lonely is often to feel as though you are somehow, incomprehensibly, repulsive to other people—and the truth, horrible as it is, is that you are right. “It may well be,” Fromm-Reichmann wrote, “that the second person’s empathic abilities are obstructed by the anxiety-arousing quality of the mere emanations of the first person’s loneliness.” Edward Hopper, Laing’s first subject, had this effect on people; a diarist who met him writes, “Should be married. But can’t imagine to what kind of a woman. The hunger of that man.”

Hunger and loneliness go together: the need for connection is as driving as the need for food. It’s no wonder that Laing chooses to focus on outsider artists. Andy Warhol—whom you might consider a consummate insider—was in fact the son of Polish emigrants from Pittsburgh, born Andrej Warhola, an ultimate outsider in many senses. He found himself, the body, mortality, death, physically horrifying; he could not face the reality of his own existence as a corporeal being. He was a sickly little boy, an immigrant, and gay: triply alienated from the children amongst whom he grew up. Laing’s acuity, as a critic of art and of psychology, is in evidence when she examines Warhol’s Pop Art aesthetic:

Starting with a series of Coke bottles, he progressed rapidly to Campbell’s soup cans, food stamps and dollar bills: things he literally harvested from his mother’s cupboards. Ugly things, unwanted things, things that couldn’t possibly belong in the sublime white chamber of the gallery…He was painting things to which he was sentimentally attached, even loved; objects whose value derives not because they’re rare or individual but because they are reliably the same.

As a little boy in industrial urban Pennsylvania in the 1950s, to not be the same as one’s peers was to be freakish, alien, to suffer a profound social isolation. It puts a new, an entirely heartbreaking, slant on those Technicolour silk-screened soup cans, to look at them as a wordless cry of longing for assimilation. “All the Cokes are the same”, Warhol wrote in his autobiography, “and all the Cokes are good.” Inanimate objects, factory-produced, mechanized, do not shun each other, and are not individually shunned by the people who use them. They are part of a tribe. They belong somewhere; they belong together.

Sexuality is a huge part of this feeling of belonging or alienation. David Wojnarowicz is the subject of most of Laing’s attention in The Lonely City; he was a gay photographer and video artist who ran away from home as a teenager and hustled for years before getting off the streets. His life spanned a period of New York City’s history that began with the sexual freedom and liberating anonymity of the gay hookup scene at the abandoned Chelsea piers, and that ended with the cataclysm of the AIDS crisis. It’s not easy, if you haven’t lived through it, to imagine how genuinely apocalyptic the late 1980s and early 1990s must have felt, primarily for urban gay men and the people who loved them, but increasingly also for sex workers and intravenous drug addicts. Wojnarowicz saw dozens of his friends die. The American government did nothing to help. An ignorant and judgmental political elite saw the waves of deaths as the result of “lifestyle choices”, regrettable but ultimately no one else’s responsibility. It must have literally felt like the end of the world. Wojnarowicz lost his friend, the artist Peter Hujar, in 1987. A few weeks later, Wojnarowicz’s partner, Tom Rauffenbart, was diagnosed with AIDS, and Wojnarowicz himself was diagnosed in the spring of 1988. Laing writes so movingly, so beautifully, about his artistic response to these losses:

Later, he made a film for Hujar that was never finished… The camera moved tenderly, grievingly over Peter’s open eyes and mouth, his bony, elegant hands and feet, a hospital bracelet looped around his wrist. Then white birds by a bridge, a moon behind clouds, a shoal of something white moving very fast in the dark. The fragment ended with a re-enactment of a dream: a shirtless man being passed through a chain of shirtless men, his supine body slipping gently from hand to tender hand. Peter held by his community, conducted between realms.

[…] During the AIDS years he kept painting a repeating image of creatures attached to one another by pipes or cords or roots, a foetus to a soldier, a heart to a clock. His friends were sick, his friends were dying, he was in deep grief, thrust face to face with his own mortality. Again and again with his brush, painting the cords that tethered creatures together. Connection, attachment, love: those increasingly imperilled possibilities.

She intercuts these chapters with her own experience of loneliness in New York, a loneliness that feels particularly contemporary because of its existence alongside technology that is designed to bring people together but that often only makes them more acutely aware of how far apart they are. She describes her late-night scrolling through her Twitter feed as being an experience akin to staring out of a dark window into other people’s lighted windows: you can see them, but you can’t reach them. You are very aware of your own solitude, and simultaneously aware of the thousands of people around you. It’s dizzying and not altogether a comfort. She is aware of the myriad wonders of the Internet: she and three friends hold a long-distance film festival, watching from several different continents the documentary We Live In Public, about a social experiment that saw dozens of people living in a complex without any privacy whatsoever. They discuss their responses to the film over Gchat or Facebook Messenger. And yet there’s also that ultimate sense of being alone anyway that is only heightened by the illusion of actually being together. And there’s the rabbit-hole effect:

I was spending increasing hours sprawled on the orange couch in my apartment, my laptop propped against my legs, sometimes writing emails or talking on Skype, but more often just prowling the endless chambers of the internet, watching music videos from my teenaged years or spending eye-damaging hours scrolling through racks of clothes on the websites of labels I couldn’t afford. I would have been lost without my MacBook, which promised to bring connection and in the meantime filled and filled the vacuum left by love.

[…] I wonder now: is it fear of contact that is the real malaise of our age? At the top of Broadway I passed a man sitting in a doorway. He must have been in his forties, with cropped hair and big cracked hands. When I paused, he started to speak unstintingly, saying that he had been sitting there for three days and not a single person had stopped to talk to him. He told me about his kids, and then a confusing story about work boots. …It was snowing hard, the flakes whirling down. My hair was soaked already. After a while, I gave him five bucks and walked on. …What is it about the pain of others? Easier to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

But with this book, Laing refuses to pretend. She follows the gazes of people in pain, people isolated and suffering and making desperate, beautiful art out of desperate, awful emotions. She reads their pictures and their film reels; she finds in their work the voices of artists and writers and makers and humans all calling out to be heard. She doesn’t need any accolades—her first two books have already made it abundantly clear that her talent is huge—but The Lonely City, predictable though this may sound, really does make you feel just a little bit less alone.

Many thanks to Anna Frame at Canongate Books for the review copy. The Lonely City was published in the UK on 3 March.

Freya, by Anthony Quinn

“Did it ever occur to you that I might have different priorities? What about getting my first salaried job, or my first cover story on the magazine – aren’t they milestones?”

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Anthony Quinn came to my attention last year with Curtain Call, which many book bloggers raved about. I still have only a limited idea of its plot, but I gathered that Quinn’s great strength in it was to evoke the 1930s London theatre scene without sacrificing any of the nuances of the historical setting to the murder-mystery plot (something that lots and lots of historically set works do. Lookin’ at you, Downton Abbey.)

His second novel, Freya, does much the same thing for the mid-century world of the highly educated and opportunistic. Beginning on VE Day, when Freya Wyley meets Nancy Holdaway in the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the novel tracks the two women through their Oxford years (or, in Freya’s case, one year; she’s sent down after failing to appear for Mods, her first-year exams) and into their adult years in London during the social upheavals of the 1960s. Robert Cosway, whom Freya and Nancy both meet at Oxford, is a third player in both their lives, while other friends and acquaintances from university crop up regularly too.

It feels a bit unfair to refer to Quinn’s novel as “good old-fashioned storytelling” (in part because prefacing anything with “good old-fashioned” is a great way to convince people it’s worthless, or that you’re a Little England weirdo). Nevertheless, that was the phrase that kept bumping around in my head as I was reading it. It’s not exactly what you’d call a pacy plot, although there are two subplots that could have made novels on their own: one is to do with the outing of a gay civil servant whom Freya was briefly in love with at university, the other to do with the death of a teenage model and It Girl during the London years, whom Freya has been profiling for a newspaper. The fact that Quinn doesn’t make his novel a domestic espionage thriller or another murder mystery is testament to what he’s trying to do instead: anatomize a particular slice of English society at a particular time in (relatively) recent history.  He’s also trying to write about female friendship. Freya and Nancy’s relationship isn’t always the most prevalent strand in the book, but it’s omnipresent; they define themselves through how they relate to one another. I read somewhere recently that books about “female friendship” are usually about how women hate one another. Freya isn’t. It wants to explore the fact that people construct ideas about themselves, how they choose friends who can reflect those ideas back to them, and how the deepest kind of friendship very often results in the recognition that your original self-image was skewed or flawed or incomplete.

Although the book is nominally about their friendship, the title of the book isn’t misleading: it’s really a novel about Freya. The Independent’s review compared it explicitly to William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, the protagonist of which is rather conveniently present (though peripheral) at many of the defining events of the twentieth century. Quinn doesn’t quite do that, but the first third of the book sees Freya chasing an elusive journalist, Jessica Vaux (possibly based on a Mitford sister?), to Nuremberg, where the world’s press have gathered to report the Nazi war crimes trials that are dragging on there. While there, she nearly misses Vaux altogether, but a chance encounter on the last night of the week leads to an exclusive, and she stays on, impulsively, for another three days (missing her exams altogether and consequently being sent down). It’s classic Freya: lucky enough to have had some connections, but also daring enough to make the leap, and arrogant enough to believe she’ll land on her feet.

Nancy, on the other hand, is a vaguer character, an aspiring novelist (and eventually a successful one) who tends to be amalgamated into little more than a series of traits: auburn hair, gentle voice. You could object to this, I suppose, on the grounds that she’s made into a sort of soft-focus “lady novelist”; some reviewers have. On the other hand, you could see that Quinn is approaching her characterisation this way because he’s writing from Freya’s point of view, and Freya is first and foremost concerned with her own appearance to others, her own success. She loves Nancy deeply and honestly, but she doesn’t often pay that much attention to her. When, late in the novel, she reads one of Nancy’s own books after a long estrangement, she’s taken aback by the sharpness, the perspicacity, in her friend’s prose. This is a woman with a gift for observation and analysis, one that Freya finds hard to reconcile with the gentle, encouraging friend that she knows.

There are other marvelous characters as well, including Nat Fane, an actor, playwright and impresario whose arrogance outstrips Freya’s and whose penchant for spanking is returned to several times throughout the course of the novel. Fane is fascinating because he could so easily tip into caricature; in many ways he genuinely is a caricature, albeit a self-created and self-maintained one. What Quinn captures, though, is the fundamental sincerity of self-creation, the deep investment that such a person has in others’ opinions. Fane may be supremely convinced of his own talent, but when he lands in London, his reputation as a “brilliant boy” doesn’t do him any favors. He finds his niche, but it’s not quite the one he expected to fill. There’s also Robert Cosway, whose charisma and coldness in pursuit of a story are also a match for Freya’s. The major crisis of the novel is precipitated by Robert’s betrayal of an old friend for a front-page scoop; Freya, whose judgment is as unyielding as her self-confidence, can no longer work with Robert or even see him socially, and the repercussions of her decision on her relationship with Nancy (who by this time has married Robert) are severe.

In the end, it’s the characters who really run the show. That major plot crisis is indeed significant, but only because we have come to know and care about the people to whom it unfolds. There is an incredible texture to Quinn’s world: colors, smells, architecture, music. Oxford squares and London streets are delineated with a casual precision that makes us feel we are really there, that we can see the golden stone of Banbury Road or the sooty brick of Islington. There is, too, a lovely resilience to the friendship of Freya and Nancy. Circumstances and principles may separate them temporarily, even for years, but by the end of the book, we know that their love for each other is the most important thing. The novel is crammed with incident, but the incidents aren’t as significant as the long, slow process of getting to know and trust another person. Other critics have seen it as a failure of plot; I prefer to think of it as a triumph of scene-setting, and of a subtle, masterful grasp of emotions.

Thanks very much to Joe Pickering at Jonathan Cape for the review copy. Freya was published in the UK on 3 March.