Ken McLeod once said of Neuromancer‘s plot that it was “intricate and forgettable”, a phrase which holds in its depths a clue as to how the entire damn book should be read. Like Pat Cadigan’s Synners, Neuromancer is considered a foundational text of cyberpunk, and one of the core tenets of that particular movement is the refusal to explain anything at all. From the very first sentence, almost as famous as that of Pride and Prejudice – “The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel” – Gibson has pushed us into a world where the measure of the human is the machine. The metaphor that a mind in this world initially reaches for is technological, not organic. The reader, as a human, is responsible not for arbitrating meaning, but simply for keeping up.
Reading this after Altered Carbon is also an exercise in comparison. Gibson’s protagonist is Henry Case, a jaded criminal who’s saved from death by a group of shady individuals who need him to pull off just one more job. He shares a literary bloodline, part of a motivation, and a position of vulnerability with Morgan’s damaged ex-cop, Kovacs. The sense of machinations going on much higher up and behind the scenes is also familiar. There’s even a bad-ass female character whose bad-ass-ness doesn’t quite extend to allowing her to be more than a prop and sexual partner to the male protagonist (though Neuromancer‘s Molly, with retractable scalpels embedded beneath each flawlessly varnished nail, gets a lot of page time: she’s the one who effects the physical break-in that the plot requires).
On the other hand, the more time you spend with Neuromancer, the easier it gets to move through its weird cyberspatial world. Gibson invented the idea of the matrix, and the standard pop-culture visualisation of what hacking looks like from the inside. Once you’ve learned to adjust to that – and to the slangy dialogue, full of abbreviations and redolent with cynicism – everything makes a lot more sense. The plot is intricate, involving a schizophrenic AI whose two halves are known as Wintermute and Neuromancer, but its finer details are entirely forgettable (possibly because Gibson never makes a terribly strong effort to articulate them.) And somehow that’s okay. The point isn’t necessarily what’s happening on any given page, but the atmosphere that Gibson creates. It means that Neuromancer‘s value, at least to me, is more historical than literary; that it matters more for having done things first than for the objective quality of the things it does. But a historically significant book is still a book worth having read, usually, and it is in this case. I might prefer to reach for another Richard Morgan title the next time I want a cyberpunk fix, but what Gibson did is respect-worthy. (And I still want to read Pattern Recognition.)
I’ve read seven books since my last confession reading diary entry, and I can’t keep track of days anymore, and I also can’t write a soooper long review of every single one of them, despite them having been almost universally extraordinary. Here we go with a roundup, anyway.
Our Homesick Songs, by Emma Hooper: I didn’t read Hooper’s debut, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, but I gather that Our Homesick Songs shares with it a lyrical but straightforward prose style. It reads with the simplicity, and the judiciously applied repetition, of a child’s fable—but don’t take this to mean that the book is naive or twee. Finn Connor is growing up in an isolated Newfoundland fishing village in the 1990s; his father, Aidan, was a fisherman, and his mother, Martha, used to make nets. But the fish are gone, the island is dying, and Aidan and Martha must take turns working hundreds of miles away on the mainland, a month at a time. Finn’s older sister Cora tries to feed her thirst for adventure by transforming every abandoned house on the island into a representation of a different country, but it’s not enough and soon she strikes out on her own. Struggling with his sister’s abandonment and the difficulty of his parents’ situation, Finn assigns himself the task of bringing the fish back to his home waters. Our Homesick Songs is suffused with the Irish ballads that Newfoundland fishermen sing, and with a sense of deep melancholy; Hooper comes down firmly on the side of family love as one of the few forces that can withstand so much loss. It’s a book with a core of sorrow, wrapped in gentleness.
Social Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton: Louise is twenty-nine and living in New York, barely keeping her head above water—and her time is running out. Between barista shifts and SAT tutoring hours, she can live, but she has no time to write, or think, or do anything other than survive. All that changes when she meets Lavinia: golden, fabulously wealthy, deeply romantic, alarmingly charismatic. So when Lavinia dies—not a spoiler; we know it almost from the beginning—what’s Louise going to do? Can she…perhaps…keep fooling everyone?
I’ve said on social media before now that the genius of Social Creature is in Tara Isabella Burton’s depiction of someone who is poor, not all that young, without a safety net, and terrified. Louise is the dark side of renter culture, of moving to the city without a dime; she’s all the New York stories you never hear, all the millennials who have nothing and no one. Her characterisation is the bedrock of this book. We need to be convinced by her slide into desperation; her sins need to seem merely venal to us because we understand her. They do, and we do, and that, more than anything, is why people have been comparing this to Tartt and Highsmith: because Burton is at the same level of play when it comes to characterisation, and because she understands that, at bottom, she’s writing a book about money, and about the awful things that people do when they’re afraid of life without it. (Lavinia, incidentally, is a fantastic creation: the pretentiousness of her constant Instagram posts featuring quotes by Rimbaud, and the sinisterness of her history with other young women like Louise, is achieved gradually, but insistently. She’s a wonderfully horrible antagonist.)
Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans: Mattie Simpkin fought for women’s suffrage. She was arrested, imprisoned, force-fed, and maltreated. Now, women have the vote, and she’s rattling around her house in Hampstead with her friend Florrie Lee (known to all as The Flea), looking for something meaningful to do with the rest of her life. The reappearance of an old friend from suffrage days—now married and espousing Fascism—prompts Mattie to start a group for girls that promotes imagination and curiosity (and a bit of self-defense), but not everyone is in favour… Old Baggage is, not to put too fine a point on it, bloody marvelous. The tagline is “What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world?”, and there’s a real sense of frustrated potential in the book, suggested not just by Mattie’s stagnation but by Evans’s delicate outlining of class issues. (Mattie’s first recruit is her young maid, who comes to her after being fired from a job at the first-class ladies’ cloakroom in St Pancras for having a sty, which might offend the ladies. Her feelings about being made to run about in the rain are initially, let us say, mixed.) The downside of Mattie’s forceful character is a tendency to trample, which Evans acknowledges; there is also a ballast of personality in the form of The Flea, who works as a health visitor, tackling poverty and inequality in places that Mattie, for all her fire and dedication, cannot reach. Old Baggage is wonderfully nuanced, both in its rage and in its understanding of who can and can’t afford rage in the first place.
The Sea and Summer, by George Turner: In his Clarke Award-winning novel, Turner imagines a not-too-distant future (2041) ravaged by climate change. In Australia, the social gap has widened into a chasm: on one side, the Sweet, who retain jobs where most employment has been taken over by automation, and on the other, the Swill, the 99.9% who mostly live crammed into tower blocks and at the mercy of the State. The plot, which is slightly too slow-moving for its own good, at least at the beginning, concerns a conspiracy to speed up population control and a family whose fortunes leave them in a curious limbo between Sweet and Swill. But it’s Turner’s vision of the future that really startles. You can see the effect of his own times (he was writing in 1987, and the Swill system of supermarkets and vouchers is reminiscent of Soviet-era department stores; characters talk a lot about “the greenhouse effect”, a term that has mostly gone out of fashion now). Yet many of his imaginings about the medium-term effects of climate change are prescient: constant flooding, toxic groundwater, the aforementioned takeover of most industries by automation, and an offensively huge income gap are issues that we’re all talking about now, with increasing urgency. When Turner was writing, few politicians seemed even to be aware of climate change, let alone willing to talk about it publicly. The Sea and Summer is a less pessimistic portrayal than some (its framing story is set in a future beyond the Sweet/Swill time, when the planet is cooling again and parts of humanity have survived), and its prescription for social healing is education: the development of “new men”, neither Sweet nor Swill, who teach themselves the information they need in order to survive a changing planet. It’s an approach that has something to teach our age.
Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss: A deceptively short book, almost a novella at 150 pages, with a core of menace. Ghost Wall follows Silvie, the daughter of a bus driver whose love for Ancient British history is tinged with racism and nationalism. He has brought Silvie and her mother on a trip to Northumberland to live as Iron Age peoples did, but their campmates—a professor and his students on an “Experiential Archaeology” course—are less devoted to dogmatic historical accuracy, and tensions rise almost at once. We know something terrible is going to happen; how could it not, given Silvie’s father’s propensity towards violence, and the expedition’s growing obsession with the ritual murders that culminated in bog bodies? But Moss takes us there slowly, carefully, building atmosphere (the discomfort of heat without insulated walls or air conditioning; the endless round of finding something to eat, laboriously preparing it, cooking it, eating it, and starting again). It is also a very tightly written book: everything is thematically connected to everything else, which is no mean feat in a text so short, especially one that also includes fine descriptive passages. The first three pages, and the final five, caused a physical reaction in me when I read them: Moss’s evocation of emotional states is that strong, that subtle. I have no hesitation at all in calling Ghost Wall a masterpiece.
Crudo, by Olivia Laing: I adore Laing’s nonfiction, and although Crudo is thought-provoking and up-to-the-minute, her first foray into fiction didn’t have the same effect on me. It follows a writer called Kathy, who, the cover blurb says coyly, “may or may not be” Kathy Acker. The reason for this ambiguity is unclear, and if it is meant to be Kathy Acker, the reason for this is unclear too: she died in 1997 in Tijuana, so is Crudo then meant to be the alternate world in which she lives and marries an Englishman, or is the world the reader lives in meant to be the alternate? Are we perhaps meant to be asking these questions? The action takes place in the summer of 2017; like Ali Smith in her Seasons Quartet, Laing is writing almost immediate reportage of current events. Also like Smith, Laing sometimes doesn’t achieve enough of a sense of distance, so that what we get is simply the bludgeoning effect of last year’s news all over again. (Particularly painful to me is the fact that she mentions, two or three times, last summer’s neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, where I grew up. I happened to read this book in a park in Paris, sitting next to my childhood best friend, who was counter-protesting that day; she was punched in the face by a Nazi, and several people she knows were struck by the car that killed Heather Heyer. The past is not.) If Crudo‘s point is that the headlines are awful and it’s hard to live in the world, even when you’re a critically acclaimed white writer with enough spare cash to contemplate buying a second home in the Barbican Centre, well…that’s not news. I can’t deny that it’s smart, or even that it has heart. I’m just not sure what the purpose of the exercise was.
Melmoth, by Sarah Perry: Few, if any, contemporary novelists are doing as much as Sarah Perry is to make Calvinist thought sexy again. (There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.) Her first two novels, and this one, are all suffused with a sense of the reality of sin, although that word is rarely used: perhaps more in Melmoth than elsewhere. And yet the book is also a Gothic romp; it is disturbing and serious, but it’s scattered with delightful ghost-story tropes, starting with an eminent Czech scholar who inherits some papers from an elderly friend who dies at his carrel in Prague’s National Library. They tell the story of Melmoth the Witness, a woman cursed to wander the earth forever, feet bleeding, clad in black, bearing witness to all of the cruelty that humans are capable of displaying towards each other. Helen Franklin, an expat translator who has been punishing herself for twenty years for some nameless crime, comes into possession of the papers, and develops an obsessive interest in the Melmoth story. The novel is intensely atmospheric: you can almost feel the chill of the wind swirling snow on the bridges of Prague, see the jackdaws tilting their observant heads. It also asks enormous questions about morality: is one good deed enough to offset a dozen bad ones? How much atonement is enough? Is atonement necessary, or productive? What Melmoth offers her victims is understanding, but understanding of a very bleak kind: if you have committed a terrible crime, she affirms, no one will ever love or forgive you, so come away with me, wander the earth, at least we can be damned together. It’s a nice metaphor for the sheer indulgence of self-flagellation, the way that martyring yourself allows you to forgo other responsibilities. Perry’s prose is still sometimes too lush for its own good—it occasionally tips over into a style so swooning and wide-eyed as to feel consciously naive—but the combination of creepy ghost story and philosophical inquiry will make Melmoth the most spectacular fireside book, come October.
Thoughts on recent reading: It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a streak of good books, though none of these are out yet, except for the Turner (hooray for reading one title off my backlist!) The final three (Moss, Laing, Perry) were picked for a long weekend in Paris, and I will never stop congratulating myself on the excellence of that decision.
It took me a long time to read Pat Cadigan’s novel Synners: three and a half days, which is half a week and a timespan in which I can usually dispatch two books. It’s been a while since I read something that forced me to work out its rules as I went along, and the mental stretch felt good, although possibly also ill-timed; by the end of April, I won’t have had a weekend to myself for over two months, and for an introvert in a customer-facing job, that doesn’t put my brain in a happy place. Still, the unmerciful in-your-face-ness of cyberpunk is something I find quite charming. Cadigan’s novel is set in a future LA, a city where big business, entertainment and media conglomerates are even more obsessed with capturing the consumer’s attention than they are now. Into this maelstrom of competing adverts, music videos, and immersive games, Cadigan introduces a technology called sockets, which allow humans direct neural contact not only with the Web (which, fyi, didn’t exist at the time she wrote the novel), but with each other’s brains. The implications, both for business and for things like, you know, human rights and privacy, are huge and not altogether positive. The novel’s final fifth is a huge set piece in which our heroes and heroines – a team of misfit hackers and makers – try to stop the global Internet from having, basically, a stroke. It’s a very exciting book, and incredibly prescient; it was 1992 when it won the Clarke Award, and, as other people have noted, apart from the curious lack of mobile phones, Cadigan’s vision of future tech is not terribly far off where we are now (although I don’t think music videos are quite the cultural force in our world that they are in Synners. It was clearly written when MTV was more of a thing.)
Its major problem is that sense of disorientation. I wouldn’t give this to anyone who was a novice science fiction reader; it asks a lot of you from the very beginning, jumping point-of-view character each chapter for the first five or six chapters while also throwing tech-speak at you with both hands. (There are slightly too many characters, I think, and Cadigan opens with a chapter focalised through someone who turns out to be not very important, which is sort of representative.) The big set piece at the end is hard to visualise, too; it takes place inside various systems, consoles, programs and augmented-reality environments, as well as the “real” world, and the action can get hard to follow. What Cadigan does do very well, however, is achieving emotional roundedness for her characters. Sam, a seventeen-year-old hacker who has emancipated from her parents, has some wonderful moments: pragmatic, with an agile mind, an insouciant attitude, and a crush on someone too old for her, she makes a believable smart teenager. Gina Aiesi, whose lover, Mark, is the reason for the net-wide stroke, is given an incredibly engaging emotional arc—the need to decide between having her own life and sticking around for someone who has never been there for her—and a characteristic rage that prevents her from being a passive figure. In a novel that sees the melding of human and machine as virtually inevitable, the fact that I came to care deeply for the humans in the pages says a lot about Cadigan’s skill as a writer.
Richard Powers is fast making his way into my favourite writers of all time (a permanently shifting category that at the moment includes A.S. Byatt, Sarah Hall, and William Thackeray). The Overstory, his latest book, is maybe his most ambitious yet: it seeks, essentially, to instill in its reader a sense of sympathy and identification with trees. That Powers actually manages it is confirmation that he is one of the most skilled writers currently working that I can think of.
The Overstory starts with a section called Roots, divided into six separate strands that introduce us to our main characters. They range from Nick Hoel, whose family farm houses virtually the only chestnut in America to be spared the blight that kills other specimens, to Douglas Pavlicek, a Vietnam vet whose life is saved by a banyan tree, to Olivia Vandergriff, a feckless college girl who experiences a short period of death (shower, light switch, poorly wired house) and emerges back into life convinced that she has been chosen by mysterious entities to help save the California redwoods. There is also Neelay, a paraplegic video game designer; Adam, an academic psychologist; Patricia, a botanist disgraced by her assertion that trees form communities; and Dorothy and Ray, a couple constantly on the brink of disaster. Over the course of the book, these characters will (mostly) become intertwined with each other’s lives, and with trees: studying them, living in them, trying to protect them, listening to them.
The reason it works so well, I think, is partly because Powers takes his time to establish the stories of each character, and partly because his writing about geological time, and about the biological miracle of plant life, is so stunningly beautiful. It is easy to love and feel for the people in this book, but it is also impossible to come away from it without the understanding that they – and, by extension, you – are the least significant parts of a story that has been going on for a much, much longer time, of which they – and you – can only ever be a tiny fraction. The Overstory doesn’t preach about environmentalism, but it does lay out facts, and those facts reach for you. It has made me reconsider, once again, whether I can in good conscience choose to have children. It is an astonishingly well-written, empathetic, heart-rending, blink-inducing book, and I recommend it without reservation.
Jodi Taylor is, I think, the nearest anyone has yet come to being the obvious successor to Jasper Fforde. Instead of rootling through the backstage area of literature, however, her protagonists jump into the past; her Chronicles of St Mary’s is basically The Eyre Affair for historians. Taylor’s writing isn’t quite as nimble as Fforde’s was at the start of his series: you can generally see the jokes coming from a mile away, although one or two of them are a delightful surprise. In this first volume, we’re introduced to our heroine, Madeleine Maxwell (more often referred to as Max), who embodies a lot of the badass-tough-girl tropes that genre fiction is often guilty of endorsing, but manages also to be sympathetic. Mostly, Taylor achieves this by juxtaposing Max’s relentless up-for-it-ness with another set of tropes: the hopeless klutz. But she has a sense of humour, and it’s not difficult to see why her friends like her, so the reader is pretty much along for the ride.
The plot of Just One Damned Thing After Another can best be summed up by that title; there are at least three natural ends to this novel, and it might have made more sense if Taylor had chosen the first or the second. The main action centers around a jump to the Cretaceous period; St Mary’s is a historical research institute whose employees “investigate historical events in contemporary time.” (They’re instructed not to call it time travel. It’s time travel.) Taylor takes my personal favourite way out of the science-y bit of all this: she acknowledges it before refusing to engage (Max asks how it all works, and is met with stony looks and a sarcastic “Really?” from a tech). It’s as good a strategy as any, and better than either pretending the reader doesn’t know how bonkers time travel is, or going full metal technobabble and over-explaining. The Cretaceous jump is meant to be a simple observe-and-report mission, but Max’s partner betrays her, leading to the discovery of a plot from the future to monetise St Mary’s’ activities and develop a chrono-tourism trade. The rest of it is buddy-adventure with a big old beating heart, a bit of romance (and a surprisingly good sex scene), and a delightful cliffhanger at the end. Great fun, and you don’t have to check your whole brain at the door.
The next book on the Women’s Prize longlist for me was Sight, by Jessie Greengrass, a novel which I’d been anticipating, since Greengrass was shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award back in 2016. If Sight hasn’t quite made me a rabid fan, it’s at least made me understand that shortlisting. Greengrass is at ease with language, and her sentences reflect that ease; she’s never uncomfortable or dull to read.
Where Sight is open to criticism is in its relentlessly autobiographical-seeming and narrow focus. I’m wary of saying this, especially because it is a book about motherhood, pregnancy, daughterhood, and grief: all subjects that women seemingly cannot write about without being asked if they too have experienced such things as their characters experience. But the choice of person and narrative style in Sight pushes us towards such an interpretation: it’s an extremely tightly focalised first person throughout, except for sections on the history of medicine (Röntgen, Freud, and John and William Hunter are of main interest, for their relevance to the protagonist’s physical and mental state throughout the book). Insofar as it has a plot, Sight is focused on the protagonist’s choice (or not) to have her first child, but we know from flashes back and forward that she has a daughter, so her agony of indecision is not especially suspenseful for the reader. What we’re left with, essentially, is a collection of meditations on the body and on grief, but the protagonist’s voice so rarely makes connections between her own experience and anything in the wider world—she doesn’t seem to have a job, for example, or any friends except for her partner; there’s no discussion of how societal pressure might be affecting her decision-making about children—that it reads more like disconnected autofiction. This is absolutely a matter of taste, but the trend towards fiction writing that might have been better off as memoir is not one that I feel very positively about, so although Greengrass is a skillful and thoughtful writer, I’d feel obscurely frustrated if Sight made the shortlist.
The Guardian’s books site wrote a piece not long ago about “up lit”, and cited titles like The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon’s first novel, as examples. Naomi then tweeted about how inaccurate she found this: neither Cannon’s work, she said, nor some of the other examples (Eleanor Oliphant, for instance), are particularly cheery or uplifting, they’re just marketed that way. Opening Three Things About Elsie, I was dubious (look at the cover, for Christ’s sake); closing it, I was in agreement with Naomi. It is not a jolly, Jonas Jonasson-type romp about picturesque elderly people getting into scrapes. It is a book about dementia, and terrible loneliness, as well as about the pasts that people choose to forget. Its ending is, in a strange sort of way, uplifting, but I suspect there will still be readers who are less uplifted than distressed by it.
This means I liked it a great deal more than I was expecting to. The plot is, in many ways, the weakest thing about it: it revolves around eighty-four-year-old Florence’s belief that she has spotted a menacing figure from her past, one Ronnie Butler, in the nursing home where she now lives. His attempts to discredit her are made easier by the fact that paranoia is the one symptom of dementia everyone knows. As Florence remembers more and more about the past, the coincidental connections with staff and other residents of the care home start to seem a little too good to be true, and the comments made in dialogue about the effect of even an insignificant person’s life on those around them are rather heavy-handed. Where Three Things About Elsie absolutely shines, however, is in Cannon’s slow revelation of the huge gap between how someone believes they are perceiving the world, and how the world perceives them. Florence’s narration initially makes her seem a crotchety, but basically sound, old lady. As the book progresses, other peoples’ reactions to her make it clearer to us that she is fairly far gone (which makes it easier for Ronnie to cast doubt on the legitimacy of her allegations), and also that she is painfully lonely: she daydreams about inviting the carers, or the man in the corner shop, round for tea and cake; she stockpiles shortbread for visitors who never drop by. That’s a state of mind we need to be reading more about in fiction, and for my money, Cannon writes about it more effectively and movingly than Gail Honeyman in Eleanor Oliphant, a book touted as being all about loneliness.
Thoughts on this fortnight’s reading: That I’ve read at all, in between a flying visit to Dorset, preparations to move north of the river, and an Easter weekend hen do, feels vaguely miraculous.
One of the fun things about my job is that, as part of the reading consultation that precedes our bespoke book subscription service, a lot of people tell me what their favourite book is. The Secret History turns up frequently. (If you’re interested, so do Sapiens, All the Light We Cannot See, and the works of Jane Austen, these last usually referred to in aggregate as opposed to individually.) Honestly, who can blame anyone for loving The Secret History? Tartt’s signature combination—an almost obsessive accretion of physical and emotional detail, and the distinct intellectual coolness of her phrasing—is seductive and very effective; never mind that she’s not quite managed to replicate it in the years and books since. Perhaps that’s because her setting, in this first outing, is the perfect backdrop for that kind of style: her overanalysing, overprivileged, overeducated New England college kids, with their total inability to recognise their self-centeredness and the monstrosity of what they eventually do in the name of intellectual curiosity. It is almost an anti-intellectual book, in the sense that it shows you so very clearly how easy and how fatal it is to lose sight of consensus reality when you live much of your life in your head. Two things stick out enormously on rereading: one, the extent to which Tana French’s The Likeness is an homage to this book (it’s not exactly hard to notice the parallels, but a reread brings it all back: Henry and Daniel are basically the same character), and two, the pacing issues that somewhat marred The Goldfinch are evident here, too, in utero as it were. The Secret History is a brilliantly plotted book, but it is extremely luxurious, almost languid, in its transitions. In a way that’s what makes it so phenomenal: it manages to be a thriller and a page-turner while looking like exactly the opposite. But with the benefit of hindsight, you can trace that languidness right through to the occasional bagginess of Tartt’s later work.
The Wanderers is actually the second book of a trilogy, but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy Tim Pears’s writing, or to become fully immersed in the world he recreates. This volume is set in Devon and Cornwall in 1913, as Leo Sercombe is cast out of his home on the Prideaux estate in Devon for some crime which remains unspecified. (This is where having read book one, The Horseman, might be handy, but as the plot of The Wanderers doesn’t concern itself overly with what happened in the past, I found it didn’t noticeably dim my understanding of the book.) Pears gives the reader two perspectives: Leo’s, as he journeys across the West Country, making his way slowly towards Penzance, and that of Lottie, Lord Prideaux’s daughter and Leo’s former playmate. Leo’s sections read like slow-motion picaresque in a minor key, with awe and respect at the beauty of the natural world taking the place that humour and the grotesque usually occupy in that genre. He spends time with “gypsies” (Romany travelers), Cornish tin miners, and a vagabond named Rufus who served in the Second Boer War. Lottie’s story, meanwhile, follows a Bildungsroman arc, as her father remarries and Lottie fights to pursue an intellectual fascination with anatomy and dissection. What saves this arc from being a tired “feisty-girl” trope is Pears’s ability to express, sensitively and subtly, Lottie’s deep grief at Leo’s disappearance, and her isolation from her father and from any friends her own age. His writing, both about nature and about the complexities of the human heart, is delicate and precise and always slightly oblique; he is the master of presenting a situation or a piece of dialogue without comment, and letting the reader conclude what she will. I’m shocked that I haven’t read his work before now.
Jamie Quatro’s debut novel, Fire Sermon, does something that I have never seen in a mainstream contemporary novel: it introduces an objective moral dimension to a fairly standard emotional dilemma. In other words, Quatro’s protagonist Maggie believes strongly and passionately in God, and also enters into an emotional affair (which, don’t you worry, becomes very physical) with a fellow writer, James. What saves this book from being another novel about sad white writers in bad marriages (thanks to Roxane Gay for that spot-on category) is precisely the presence of God in it. It’s not a novel that requires its reader to believe in God; it does require its reader to believe that other people can believe in God – intelligent, intellectual people – sincerely and without irony. Quatro’s adulterous lovers are drawn to each other first for the quality of one another’s minds: if your idea of flirtation is verbal sparring about metaphysical poetry and the Western apophatic tradition, then you’re going to find Fire Sermon very sexy. This also allows for a novel where adultery actually matters. The stakes are much higher, and the agony more pronounced, here than they strictly need to be; these people suffer not because society makes them, but because they want to hold themselves to a standard of behaviour and feeling that is incompatible with most of the other things that they want. That kind of suffering, the kind you enter with open eyes, has a very different quality to the more socially-ordained kind; you are not a victim of it in the same way. Faith is a hard habit to shake, and some people are built for it; consider Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” South. In addition to this deep sense of conviction, Fire Sermon is also richly allusive (C.S. Lewis! T.S. Eliot! Jane Gardam! Maggie Nelson! Sharon Olds!) I want more books about Christians like this: confused, fucked-up, questioning, questing.
Thoughts on this week’s reading: It’s nice to have read a book this week that’s just come out (as opposed to one that’ll be out next month), so that I can recommend it immediately. Reading ahead of release dates has its advantages and its disadvantages.
Every couple of years or so, a contemporary publisher “rediscovers” a classic. Most successfully, this happened to Stoner back in 2013. Now it is the turn of The Dollmaker by Harriette Simpson Arnow, a 605-page doorstop that reads like something half its size, about the struggles of hill farmer Gertrude Nevels as she adjusts to life as a factory worker’s wife in WWII industrial Detroit. Vintage has just reprinted it, with their inimitable red spine, and if there’s any justice (which, of course, there rarely is), it will see a renaissance like Stoner’s.
It is essentially a novel about culture clash, and about being uprooted. Gertie Nevels is our point-of-view character and heroine: the book opens with her giving her youngest child, Amos, a tracheotomy by the side of the road, while a US Army officer hems and haws about the propriety of giving her a lift to the doctor’s in town. We thus learn two things about Gertie almost immediately: one, she is fearless, not especially sentimental but a mother to the core and completely certain of her own strength; and two, she is a very good carver. She refers to what she does as “whittlin”, but the Army officer notes it as artistic skill; she whittles a tube for her baby’s throat to complete the tracheotomy, a detailed and fiddly piece of work, without trouble. (Dialogue throughout the book is written in Appalachian dialect. Instead of seeming like authorial mockery, this allows Arnow’s characters dignity whilst constantly reinforcing their identity: we can never forget that these are hill people, country people, people to whom urban, 20th-century America is alien.) Gertie is utterly confident in her own demesne. She is strong; she can dig and plant potatoes on her own, chop and haul wood, milk the cow. Her husband Clovis’s periodic absences hauling coal in his truck are not a problem; she is tall and broad, a farmer’s daughter and a sharecropper, and you immediately understand that she could run an entire small farm herself with little difficulty.
The outbreak of war has had a huge impact on their community. (One of the best scenes in the book comes early, when the women of the settlement gather at the general store-cum-post office to await the mail, delivered by ancient Uncle Ansel and his donkey; Arnow beautifully but quietly conveys the crippling anxiety of a community composed almost entirely now of women, some of whom have already lost sons or husbands, others of whom are desperately praying that today isn’t the day they lose theirs.) When Clovis has to leave for a few days for his army fitness assessment, she’s not too worried—surely the army won’t take a farmer?—but then he disappears for weeks, and when she next hears from him, he’s moved to Detroit and found work in a factory. Gertie’s appalling mother (drawn with the same pen as Gwendoline Riley uses on her character Neve’s mother in First Love, a whining, carping, manipulative horror, only in this case with added God-bothering) guilts her into joining him, so she gives up her hope of buying the Tipton Place, uproots her children, and takes the train north.
Almost immediately, it becomes clear that they’ve made a mistake. Reading the Detroit sections of The Dollmaker while flat-hunting alone in London is an astonishingly resonant experience; Arnow describes cramped conditions, poor ventilation, smells, dirt, noisy neighbours, and—most critically for Gertie—an almost total lack of nature. Living in the city creates other disconnects: their furniture and car, Gertie is horrified to discover, have been bought “on time” (credit), and every month seems to drive them further into debt. A block of wood that she has brought with her from home, which she intends to carve into the image of a Christ, is often abandoned for days or weeks at a time: Clovis thinks she can make money selling dolls to women and children in the neighbourhood, and she gets commissions for crucifixes and jointed dolls from wealthier people—her neighbour’s husband’s boss, amongst others.
Money is so constantly in short supply that efficiency, and profit, begin to take over Gertie’s work. She doesn’t want them to—one of Arnow’s strengths is her ability to convince us that Gertie is an artist through and through, not because of any airy-fairy beliefs about the integrity of creating, but because she was born to it, born with the skill and the need to practice it—but Clovis is insistent. The purchase of a jig saw, which enables Gertie and her children to cut pre-drawn two-dimensional shapes out of wood, speeds up the production considerably, but it comes at the expense of hand-carving, and therefore of art. The Nevels children, most of whom adapt speedily to their new circumstances, delight in their “home factory”; it throws Gertie into despair and depression, knowing as she does that the need to pay the bills will trump, every time, the need to make something beautiful and meaningful.
Gertie’s problem – one of Gertie’s problems – is that she is inarticulate. She’s an artist, but a visual, physical, active one; she carves and whittles, hoes and hews. Words don’t come easily or naturally to her. Nor do they come naturally to Clovis, a mechanic whose “tinkering” is the source of mild mockery in their small community. Gertie and Clovis love each other, clearly, at the beginning of the novel, even though they don’t have the words for it; by the end, they barely speak to one another, and have been changed out of all recognition by the new community in which they live.This inarticulacy combines with inherently patriarchal attitudes to create a code of conduct for women that seems designed for their misery: at one point, Clovis becomes anxious when he thinks Gertie is in pain, mostly because she has apparently never given any indication of being physically hurt or ill throughout their entire married life. Though it’s never stated (like so much else in this book), we can surmise that Clovis’s obliviousness to his wife’s ability to feel pain – despite her having given birth at least five times – is partly down to that female code that doesn’t let you “trouble” your husband.
One of the tragedies of The Dollmaker is that it’s a portrait of a marriage which could, in other times, have ended in divorce, as the two parties realise they are simply too dissimilar in what they want and value in life. As it is, Gertie is stuck. By the end of the book, whether she loves him or not doesn’t even matter: she must keep producing, keep paying the rent, keep her children in shoes. The block of wood that she tries to make into a Christ is sometimes mistaken for a Judas; it’s a fitting uncertainty for a book that shows us so brutally how sacrifice can also be betrayal.
I like to think that I’m relatively widely read – that I will, in the optimistic words of some of my customers, “read anything if it’s well-written” – but there are still some gaping voids in my reading, and one of them is pretty much the entire genre of horror fiction. Partly, maybe, this is because horror is a genre that hasn’t been rehabilitated in the way that science fiction and fantasy has. Even a dedicatedly snobbish reader of literary fiction will be able to find some crossover, in 2017, between their tastes and the speculative writing being produced. Horror isn’t quite there yet; I can’t think of analogous examples in that genre, apart from Let the Right One In, House of Leaves, and maybe The Loney (which might qualify more as literary Gothic), and I haven’t read any of those, let alone the classics and modern classics of the genre. So a Stephen King novel was very unknown terrain, and I approached it prepared for pretty much anything. What I wasn’t expecting was quite how addictive it (or, rather, It) would be, and how much this is a function of King’s frictionless writing. Here is an author who can write sentences that go down as smooth as cream, utterly without pretension, but without the stultifying samey-ness of a Dan Brown or a Paula Hawkins. It’s a much harder trick than it looks.
It flips back and forth between two time periods: 1958, when a group of seven schoolchildren in Derry, Maine first become friends, realise that the string of child murders in their town has malevolent supernatural causes, and band together to destroy the shape-shifting entity known as It; and 1985, twenty-seven years later, when It – not properly destroyed the first time – returns, and the children, now adults, have to return and get rid of It for good. I know very little about horror tropes, but I think the genre works best when the Big Bad is representative of real things, and the shape of this story reflects the real struggle that many (if not most) adults experience in trying to come to terms with whatever trauma shaped their childhoods. The children—who call themselves “the Losers’ Club”—are all social outcasts in one way or another: Eddie Kaspbrak is an asthmatic with an overbearing mother; Richie Tozier wears specs; Mike Hanlon is black, Stan Uris is Jewish, Bev Marsh is both desperately poor and regularly beaten by her father. Ben Hanscom, perhaps the most intelligent of the group, is morbidly obese, and Bill Denbrough, their charismatic leader even at the age of eleven, has a terrible stutter. They would all have been marked by these traumas alone; it’s these, King suggests, that bring them together in the first place, that make their challenge to It possible.
All of this interweaving of childhood trauma with adult reckoning is clever, but the book wouldn’t amount to much without the other half of the equation. The thing that’s killing Derry’s children is unequivocally supernatural (or, rather, extranatural; near the end of the book, several of the characters begin to think of objective reality as a stage set made of ropes and thin canvas, behind which endless other complex machinations are occurring). Bill Denbrough’s brother, George, is the first child to be killed in the 1958 timeline, and it’s through his eyes that we see It for the first time. It appears to him as a clown calling himself Pennywise and offering a bunch of balloons, and although it seems to George faintly odd that the clown is in the sewer, he’s drawn towards it anyway almost against his will. When his body is found, his right arm has been completely torn off. He’s three. As the Losers’ Club begins to form, it becomes clear that each child has already had a close encounter with It, but each describes It differently: It appears to take Its form from the private fears of its victims. Each instance is both clearly drawn from cheesy B-movies, and utterly fucking terrifying: a decomposing leper, a fish-man, a floating eye, a clown with a mouth full of razors, a werewolf, a flesh-eating bird, George Denbrough himself.
This quality leads to some of King’s best and smartest thematic work. I’ve already mentioned that the kids of the Losers’ Club are outcasts in a superficial sense, but several of them also experience wider traumas, and that too affects how they see It. As the book goes on, Eddie Kaspbrak begins to suspect that he’s not nearly as sickly as his mother is determined that he is, and the adult reader can see the sad, awful manipulation that Mrs. Kaspbrak tries to exercise: having lost her husband, she’s damned if she’ll ever lose Eddie to anything—not to childhood illness, but neither to a college education or a girlfriend or a wife or a family or his own life as an adult. At several points in the story, Eddie sees It take on his mother’s face. This works the other way round, too. Beverly Marsh’s father at one point beats her so badly that it’s clear he will kill her if not stopped; she recognises, even as she’s running for her life, that there is real evil present in her father, that It often works best simply by provoking or enabling the innate weakness or cruelty of an adult. Bill Denbrough’s parents, crushed by the loss of their youngest son, become incapable of speaking to each other or to their remaining child. (In one heartbreaking scene, Bill hears his mother crying at one end of the house, his father stifling sobs at the other, and wonders, “Why aren’t they crying together?”) During their 1958 confrontation with It, Bill becomes locked in a kind of metaphysical stand-off, during which he can feel himself moving both closer towards It and further away: closer to Its actual essence, further from being able to stand outside of It as a separate entity and talk to It. He recognises immediately why this puts him in danger—“to pass beyond communication,” he thinks, “is to pass beyond salvation”—and he recognises it because he has seen it happen in his parents’ house.
Historical interludes (supposedly written by Mike Hanlon, who remains in Derry to become the town librarian) suggest that the town has a long and statistically anomalous history of extreme violence coupled with the bystander effect: in one case from the early twentieth century, a woodsman massacres several other men in a public saloon with an axe, while the other tavern-goers continued to drink at the bar. The youngest of them, then a boy of eighteen, is in his nineties when Mike Hanlon interviews him, and his testimony suggests that a pervasive sense of not-my-business settled over the bar while the massacre occurred behind the drinkers. It’s extreme, but not, perhaps, that extreme—recall Kitty Genovese. (After the murderous woodsman is finished, and has wandered up and down the town’s main street for some time, he’s arrested. A lynch mob arrives at the jail; the deputies flee instantly, and the man is dragged out and hanged from a tree. It’s not a story about justice, even of the vigilante sort; it’s a story about bloodlust.) What King is getting at here is a sense of collective responsibility, of how essential that responsibility is to the development of human communities, and how constantly we must be on our guard—be brave, be true, stand—to maintain it. There is no suggestion of nostalgia or that people were more neighbourly in the past; indeed, one of the worst moments in the book is when an old man in 1958 watches a potential homicide unfolding before him, then simply folds his newspaper and turns to go back inside. It’s not the times that make us evil, King wants us to know; we always carry that potential inside us.
The book’s approach to diversity and tolerance is particularly interesting, both because it engages with those issues more consciously than I expected it to, and because King is still hampered by something—perhaps the ‘80s, perhaps wider genre tropes that I don’t know much about—that causes him to make some obvious (from my standpoint) missteps. The fact that he includes a black child, a Jewish child, and a girl in his circle of Chosen Ones is unexpected, and pleasing; yes, there’s only one of each, but he handles it in a non-tokenistic manner; race, religion and gender are rarely dwelt upon. Racism is responsible for one of the worst massacres in Derry history, and King is pretty clear on the monstrosity of small-town organisations like the Legion of White Decency. On the other hand, this doesn’t stop him from giving Richie Tozier—a faintly obnoxious but charming cut-up—a party act called the Pickaninny Voice, a grotesque parody of cringing blackness liable to announcements like “Oh, lawdy, Miss Scarlett! Thisyere black boy’s gwineter behave, don’t you beat thisyere black boy”, and so on. Richie’s regularly told to shut up by the others, but no one suggests that he’s being a racist prick and maybe the black kid that they’re all friends with has something to say on the subject. There are jokes about circumcision and kosher food (though these are tempered by Stan Uris questioning why Catholics eat fish on Friday, which at least makes Richie recognise that all religious strictures are equally arbitrary). Perhaps most damningly, in the 1985 timeline, Stan Uris commits suicide instead of rejoining the others in Derry, and Mike Hanlon is attacked and put in hospital before the final confrontation with It can take place. This may not have been intentional, but it effectively denies both the black and the Jewish man participation in a catharsis that they have most assuredly earned, reinforcing the idea that heroes—in this case personified by Bill, Ben, and to a lesser extent Richie and Eddie—are just naturally white, goshdarnit.
Which brings us to Beverly, because she too is present during the final showdown with It, but you wouldn’t know it. Her role is primarily to take care of Eddie, who’s badly injured early on and spends most of the action bleeding out on the floor. When Bill and Ben and Richie disappear into the metaphysical arena of combat, Beverly’s left behind. Sure, she’s the best shot of them all and was previously given the responsibility of shooting It with a silver slingshot pellet, but that was when they were kids; the adult battle seems to have no place for her in it (except as a caregiver, and as an object of desire to both Bill and Ben). It’s the Susan Problem all over again—girls can only be active agents for as long as they’ll pretend to be one of the boys; once they hit womanhood, they’re no longer of much use—and I resent it.
The biggest problem with King’s treatment of Beverly, though, happens in the 1958 timeline. The battle with It, which leaves It badly wounded but not yet defeated, also leaves the children disoriented. Eddie, an infallible navigator, has lost his touch; they’re in the sewer tunnels, deep below Derry and mostly unmapped. Losing their way means certain death. Something is needed to bring the friends together again, to restore their confidence in each other and their sense of themselves as a unit. That something, it turns out, is for all of the boys to have sex with Beverly, which they duly do, one by one, on the ground. It’s greatly to King’s credit that at the time of reading, immersed in the novel’s world, this makes a certain degree of sense, and he handles it, for the most part, with surprising sensitivity, giving Beverly a kind of detached maturity that doesn’t make her a martyr. (The sex is her idea; only this, and the distinctly non-realist flavour of the story so far, prevents it from reading like a gang rape.) At the same time, the children he’s writing about are eleven, which strikes me as depressingly young to be concluding that sharing a woman is the only way to bring men together. (And what about the woman? How does this logic allow her to reconnect, too? King doesn’t go there.)
For all of these problems, though, It really, really works. The 1958 storyline is perhaps more compelling than the 1985 one, which begins to rely much more heavily on interpersonal melodrama to get its plot rolling. But King’s effortless evocation of fear in his readers is a writerly skill that has to be read to be believed, and the way that he integrates commentary about how humans live together—the best of it, and the worst of it—with his overtly scary monster is clever and compelling. I definitely want to read more of him in future; which of his books should I pick up next?
The difference between stupid and intelligent people – and this is true whether or not they are well-educated – is that intelligent people can handle subtlety.
Further to my plan to read everything Neal Stephenson has ever written, the Chaos, who is a good sort, bought me The Diamond Age for Christmas. Like all of Stephenson’s books I’ve read so far, I found it thoroughly addictive, so much so that I blasted through it in under two days. As I go further into his back catalogue, though, and approach his plots with a slightly more critical eye, I’m also discovering that his earlier work tends to suffer from structural weakness. He gets away with it because his invention is explosive and boundless and entirely seductive; the reader is swept up in a world they don’t want to leave, and so the fact that the whole narrative is curiously lopsided doesn’t matter. But it’ll leave the book vulnerable on rereading.
The Diamond Age is set in a near-future made possible by huge leaps in nanotechnological development. Nation-states are obsolete; people now select their own tribe (or join a “phyle”, a slightly less centralised version thereof). Some of them are familiar: the Jews, the Parsis, the Zulus. Some of them are less so: most of England has become neo-Victorian, while America includes a tribe known as the Heartlanders and China is divided into the Celestial Kingdom and the Coastal Republic. Body modification is most commonly practiced through the use of “sites”, nanobots introduced into the bloodstream that can enhance reflexes, incite pain or pleasure, interface with other objects like spectacles or external weaponry, and much more.
Our heroine is little Nell, a “thete” girl who belongs to no particular tribe and into whose hands falls a copy of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. The Primer is an interactive (or “ractive”) book, programmed with both fairytales and useful instruction, that changes and adapts according to Nell’s responses. It has been designed by John Percival Hackworth, a programmer or “artifex” of great skill, and commissioned by the neo-Victorian Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw. Lord Finkle-McGraw has worked out the fundamental problem with choosing your own tribe: your children will grow up in a society that seems “natural” to them because it is familiar, and will stay in it out of habit, not out of choice. Finkle-McGraw believes, of course, that to be neo-Victorian is the best choice, but he wants his little granddaughter Elizabeth to be raised and educated in such a way that she has the skills and knowledge, eventually, to make that choice. Hackworth is only too happy to build such an education in the form of the Primer, but he makes an illegal copy for his daughter Fiona. And another copy is stolen by Nell’s ne’er-do-well brother, Harv, and finds its way to her…
Add to this heady mix some subplots involving Confucian justice as administered by an inscrutable judge named Fang, a rebellion being led by the Fists of Righteous Harmony and puppeteered by the mysterious Doctor X, and the ractress Miranda Redpath, who, as the voice of Nell’s copy of the Primer, develops a close relationship with this little girl she has never met, and you have some downright addictive stuff. Stephenson’s trademark dry wit is here (I imagine his prose is talking to me with one of its eyebrows lightly arched at all times), as is his entirely unashamed approach to cliffhangers and to proliferating narrative streams. It all makes it very hard to put the book down.
Eventually this becomes a bit of a problem because it also poses a challenge to anyone trying to make the book cohere in their head. About halfway through—roughly, I would say, at the point at which Nell joins Madame Ping’s, though actually I think it starts happening when Hackworth emerges from his ten-year sentence in the realm of the Drummers—the focus of the story shifts from the personal to the political. Technically, I suppose, you could argue that the story has always been political—that the whole thing has been catalysed by Finkle-McGraw’s bid to mass-inculcate subversiveness in the young—but our focus up until now has been on individuals, in whom we have become invested. To see them so suddenly yanked out of one context and thrust into another, and then the battle scenes that follow, is disorienting in the extreme. And, I’m sorry, but I am not satisfied with the ending. It doesn’t need much, maybe another five pages, but I would really have liked those five extra pages.
The star of this book, though, is definitely the Primer. What a wonderful invention; what a beautiful piece of symbolism, using and enriching the trope of a lost child finding solace in books. The Primer isn’t just something you read. It talks back to you; it uses the events of your life as a springboard for the lessons you need to learn; it can zoom in and out on images and stories, showing you both fine detail and the big picture. It contains blueprints, manuals, tales, keys, maps. Had I read The Diamond Age fifteen years ago, I’d have pined away for a Primer of my own. If you love books, you’ll probably love this one just for the way it literalises and takes seriously the deep truth that readers know: a book really can be your best friend.
I did a post like this two years ago, and forgot to repeat it last year. (Don’t worry; there’ll still be a good end-of-year roundup!) These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it. Reach for your TBR lists now, because most of these were great.
January: “Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster.” – American Housewife, by Helen Ellis. This somewhat manic collection of short stories, some very short indeed, tackles domestic femininity, pop culture, and societal double standards. It’s a little like a book version of Lucille from Arrested Development, delivering tart one-liners and clutching a martini. I didn’t love it, but I can respect what it was doing.
February: “Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head.” – Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson. Book one of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle—one of my favourite reading experiences this year—wherein we meet erstwhile member of the Royal Society Daniel Waterhouse, and follow him on the beginning of his mission to reconcile Newton and Leibniz.
March: “I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair.” – Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Nyer nyer, I read it before it was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Highsmith-esque noir plotting meets serious psychological ishoos; Eileen is an unforgettable character.
April: “My name is Sister.” – Daughters of the North (published in the UK as The Carhullan Army), by Sarah Hall. An absolute belter of a book that takes the ideas of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and pushes them further, to more interesting places, than Atwood ever does. Another of 2016’s highlights.
May: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” – My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier. Start as you mean to go on, Daphne: ominous as all hell. This tale of a femme fatale—maybe—and a hapless young man—maybe—is an ideal stepping stone to the rest of du Maurier’s work after Rebecca.
June: “In 1972 Spring Hill was as safe a neighbourhood as you could find near an East Coast city, one of those instant subdivisions where brick split-levels and two-car garages had been planted like cabbages on squares of quiet green lawn.” – A Crime in the Neighbourhood, by Suzanne Berne. What I loved about this book was how adroitly Berne makes us sympathise with a kid who does a cruel and terrible thing: how completely we enter her head.
July: “When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands.” – The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee. I’ve raved about Chee’s book here before. Opulent, atmospheric, full of detail: it’s not only a great summer holiday read, but would make a great Christmassy one, too.
August: “That day I woke up from a dream the way I always woke up: pressed against my mom’s back, my face against her and hers turned away.” – The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill. A raw and absorbing book about Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican teenager, and the world of horse-riding to which she’s exposed during a Fresh Air Fund trip. How Gaitskill inhabits her characters so faithfully is beyond me, but I’m not complaining.
September: “I liked hurting girls.” – Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous. One of the less impressive books I’ve read this year, in all honesty (and perhaps unsurprisingly, given that opening gambit). More on that in an end-of-year post.
October: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” – Beauty Is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan. I was initially bowled over by this book, but Didi’s comments made me look at its use of sexual violence afresh, and I was a bit less pleased with it after that.
November: “On my 18th birthday my Uncle Keith took me to see Charlie Girl, starring the one and only Joe Brown, who I was in love with and was very much hoping to marry.” – Where Do Little Birds Go, by Camilla Whitehill. Whitehill’s words, plus the acting of Jessica Butcher in the production that I saw, combine to make this one-woman show about exploitation and power dynamics in the Kray twins’ London one of the best plays I’ve seen this year.
December: “There is a boy.” – Signs for Lost Children, by Sarah Moss. Moss’s latest novel, The Tidal Zone, was the first of hers I’ve read, but I honestly think Signs for Lost Children is better: in the late 1800s, Tom Cavendish and Ally Moberley, recently married, are separated by Tom’s engineering work, which takes him to Japan for a span of months. While he is gone, Ally, a qualified doctor, works at Truro women’s asylum. In each other’s absence, both of them must face their fears and, eventually, trust each other again.
So! What do these say about my reading this year? (Well, this year so far; December has hardly started.) Two-thirds of these titles are by female authors, though I went through phases of reading mostly men, then mostly women. None of the authors of colour I’ve read this year are represented, which suggests the limitations of this method (showcasing only the first book read in each month). Nor are the genres, which included a little more sci fi, fantasy, memoir and short story collections. What this selection does suggest, though, is that this was a good year for reading. There were very few books I didn’t enjoy at all, and many that I truly adored.
Soon to come: my top books of 2016, or The Year In Reading, to be followed by the year’s dishonourable mentions.
When you come right to it, it’s a lot easier to die than it is to use your head.
This was the very last of my holiday reading books, although I had been back from my holiday for several weeks before I finished it. My friend JonBoy told me to read this years ago—I think we were still in high school when he recommended it—but my first exposure to it was from the movie made in 1997. What most people know is that the film is almost nothing like the book; Paul Verhoeven satirizes the military society that Heinlein describes, where only combat veterans are permitted to vote and the expansion of humanity across the stars is as god-given a right as Manifest Destiny was to the settlers of the American West. The book is still fascinating, though: indeed, its interest lies precisely in its extremely right-wing politics, because the thought processes behind this society are overwhelmingly rational. The problem with them is that they are founded on premises that we now (mostly) believe to be erroneous.
The book follows Johnny Rico, heir to an immense manufacturing fortune, who signs up for military service along with his best friend from high school, Carl. (One of the many things that’s different about the book: Rico barely sees Carl after they join up, and hears later that he’s been killed in action. In the film, the Carl character is played by Neil Patrick Harris and his ability as an empath makes him an increasingly scary rising star in military R&D.) In theory, Rico is being trained as an infantryman, a mud foot, a grunt—almost but not quite cannon fodder—to take part in wars against the Bugs. The Bugs are generally described as being arachnoid, but they’re not:
They are arthropods who happen to look like a madman’s idea of a giant, intelligent spider, but their organization, psychological and economic, is more like that of ants or termites; they are communal entities, the ultimate dictatorship of the hive.
(Spot the extreme manifestation of Communism! This was written in 1959 and you can kind of tell.)
There are workers, warriors, brains, and queens in Bug society. Workers are harmless and infantrymen don’t waste time or ammo on them. Warriors are the terrifying ones; brains and queens are both hidden underground. The ultimate aim of Rico’s final mission—and the primary focus of the 1997 film—is an attempt to capture either a brain or a queen, in order to learn more about them and possibly trade them for human captives.
What’s interesting about the book is the distinct impression you get that Heinlein really doesn’t care very much about his plot. The final mission, which is by far the most exciting section of the novel (apart from the in medias res first chapter), takes up about sixty pages in a book of 275. The vast majority of the rest of it is comprised of two things: detailed writing about life in the infantry and about the army in general, and expository chunks cunningly disguised as discussions in Rico’s History & Moral Philosophy classes. (The technique is a lot like the bits of Nineteen Eighty-Four that are supposed to be from Emmanuel Goldstein’s book.)
Amazingly, Heinlein makes both sorts of section interesting. Infantry training—any kind of military training—is primarily psychological. Heinlein himself graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis and was a naval officer, and although he’s writing about the army (and therefore has his characters evincing a tribal scorn for Navy men), the principles of training members of either service are very similar. When he writes about the techniques used to mould men into a fighting unit, you can see the beginnings of the political philosophy that shapes both Starship Troopers and, I think, the worldview of many right-wing voters:
It was the firm opinion of every recruit that this was sheer meanness, calculated sadism, fiendish delight of witless morons in making other people suffer.
It was not. It was too scheduled, too intellectual, too efficiently and impersonally organized to be cruelty for the sick pleasure of cruelty; it was planned like surgery for purposes as unimpassioned as those of a surgeon. Oh, I admit that some of the instructors may have enjoyed it but I don’t know that they did—and I do know (now) that the psych officers tried to weed out any bullies in selecting instructors. They looked for skilled and dedicated craftsmen to follow the art of making things as tough as possible for a recruit; a bully is too stupid, himself too emotionally involved, and too likely to grow tired of his fun and slack off, to be efficient.
The dogma that being cruel to be kind is effective in areas of life other than military training is what underpins things like “bootstraps philosophy”, harsh prison sentences for relatively minor misdemeanors (i.e. New York City’s “broken windows policy”), and welfare reform that disqualifies all but the most abjectly poverty-stricken from government assistance. The idea that the only people qualified to bring such policies to fruition are those clever enough to be disengaged is what spawns public servants like Michael Gove.
Not that a Gove figure has any place in the world of Starship Troopers, where you cannot even stand for office unless you have served a term of duty in the armed forces.
None of the rhetoric actually struck me as new or particularly horrifying for quite a long time, and given what I knew of Heinlein’s political reputation, I was surprised by this. Much of what he says makes a certain amount of sense even—especially—to the historically oppressed (e.g. non-white, non-male, non-cissexual people). Like this:
Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.
That’s one of Starship Troopers‘ most famous quotations, and if you look at it with thoroughly objective eyes, it is not wrong. Violence is our go-to solution, from the individual and immature (punch our brother for his toy truck) to the collective and political (invade a neighboring country for its oil). It’s not nice, and there do exist other ways of arbitrating disputes, but violence in one form or another is a trump card that either side of an argument always knows it can play.
What did make me flinch, and where Heinlein is pretty clearly working with facts we’d now consider outdated, is his defense of corporal and capital punishment. In a History & Moral Philosophy class, the instructor’s entire argument rests on the legitimacy of a simile between a misbehaving human youth and a puppy that needs training.
“These children were often caught; police arrested batches every day. Were they scolded? Yes, often scathingly. Were their noses rubbed in it? Rarely. News organs and officials usually kept their names secret—in many places the law so required for criminals under eighteen. Were they spanked? Indeed not! Many had never been spanked even as small children; there was a widespread belief that any punishment involving pain did a child permanent psychic damage…
“While a judge should be benevolent in purpose, his awards should cause the criminal to suffer, else there is no punishment—and pain is the basic mechanism built into us by millions of years of evolution.”
I have always found it difficult to handle writing like this, because it feels too much like a free pass for bigotry if I just label it “old-fashioned” and consider it no more. The Chaos, when I mentioned it to him, made a helpful suggestion: that the difference between someone truly being “of their era” and someone being “objectively” racist, sexist, reactionary, etc. is how they react when confronted with contradictory evidence. I suppose you’d have to read interviews with Heinlein at a later stage in his life (he died in 1988) to determine whether his views adapted; I haven’t done that, so I can’t write him off as a libertarian loon just yet. And I would very much like to read Stranger In a Strange Land (themes: culture shock, colonialism, nature vs. nurture) and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (AI sentience, anarchy). Heinlein’s talent for explaining the subculture of the infantry, and the promising nature of his plot in Starship Troopers—even if he doesn’t make the most of it—suggests that his less overtly political novels might be real winners.
To be completely honest with you, I got to book #15, and then shit happened—other books I needed to review, holidays, that pesky novel I need to write—so although I’ve read waaaayyy more than 20 books this summer, I am very unlikely to finish the 20 Books of Summer, if you follow me. Still, it’s a super project, very worth attempting, and I’m definitely going to try it again next year! (Plus, because I’ve decided to DNF one of them—I can’t read Dylan Thomas’s collected poems all the way through, sorry—and to not worry about another—a monograph from the Royal Academy on Jean-Étienne Liotard, which I’ll enjoy reading in snatches but which is too bulky to be practical as an everyday book—I only have three books left to read, and I’m sure I can knock those out before the fall is too far advanced…)
Brief reviews follow.
09. When I Lived in Modern Times, by Linda Grant
Where I read it: Mostly on the Tube, I think, over about two days.
I liked everything about the premise for this one: Evelyn Sert is an orphaned hairdresser, aged twenty, who decides to move from Soho to the new state of Palestine. Once there, she becomes embroiled with a mysterious man named Johnny, who it turns out is a spy and a student militant, and their romance has serious repercussions for them both.
Things that were great about it: The setting is beautifully evoked. Tel Aviv in the 1940s and ’50s must have been an absolute shock to the system for a girl raised in grey post-war London. The Bauhaus architecture, the café culture, the brilliance of lemons and oranges against the whiteness of the houses; it’s all very well done. Equally, the snobbish attitude of the British wives whose husbands work for the protectorate in Palestine is well conveyed. Evelyn’s job at the salon is dependent on these women continuing to believe that she herself is 100% British, and the awkwardness of trying to conceal her Jewish identity in a place that seems designed to celebrate it is a really nice touch.
Things that could have been better: Everything about the espionage plot, really. Evelyn is quite a passive character, so it makes sense that she should do and know so little, but a) that means we don’t really know her, even by the book’s end, and b) it means that the dénouement comes as rather a surprise. We know Johnny’s up to something, but we hardly know what, and the ending feels a bit unearned.
10. Chronicles, by Thomas Piketty
Where I read it: Over the course of a lazy, hair-twirling, coffee-drinking Saturday.
This is a collection of Piketty’s financial columns which he wrote for a French newspaper. They’ve clearly been released on the back of his success with Capital in the Twenty-first Century, which means a lot of them are out of date. What’s interesting about them, though, is how scarily prescient they appear to a reader in 2016. He’s writing from 2012 about Greece and the IMF, but a lot of what he says about the Euro, and how it can best be stabilized, and what will happen if it isn’t, resonates with alarming clarity in the post-Brexit atmosphere. Essentially, Piketty predicted Brexit too, saying that if the situation in central Europe wasn’t changed for the better by decisive action from the European Parliament—mostly France and Germany—and the IMF, lack of confidence in the European project would be the result. And… yep, that’s exactly what happened.
All of which makes me think that we really ought to be paying attention to whatever Piketty is saying now.
11. Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson
Where I read it: On the train to Hitchin, where the Progenitors Chaotic live, and on the train back again.
I read this book too fast. In my defense, it’s hard not to. It’s short, the prose flies by. Robinson is known for the beauty and the quasi-Biblical rhythms of her writing, and that’s certainly true; there’s an eerie luminescence that surrounds my memory of Housekeeping that I think is only attributable to that incredible quality in the writing. I don’t remember noticing it much at the time, but I remember it making an impact on me nonetheless.
It is about two orphaned sisters, Ruth and Lucille Stone, and their lives in the Idaho town of Fingerbone. Their aunt Sylvie comes to care for them. Sylvie is not a domesticated creature, even by the somewhat more relaxed standards of our day; Housekeeping, it’s implied, is set sometime mid-20th-century, and the good men and women of Fingerbone hardly know what to do with Sylvie at all. She doesn’t clean. She doesn’t tidy. She’s a hoarder and a wanderer and a wild-haired sprite, a former homeless woman, a rider in railroad cars. Ruth loves this. Ruth clings to her. Lucille doesn’t; she goes to live with a teacher, a woman who has doilies on her tables and a clean, full, well-lit larder. Fearful of being removed by Child Protection, Ruth escapes with Sylvie across frozen Fingerbone Lake, and they both become travelers. Occasionally they pass through the town again, riding the rails.
It’s basically a novel about family, about what home can mean, and as Robert McCrum puts it, “Robinson believes in family.” This is a good book to have read a few months after reading another of her novels, Lila, which also addresses the question of the families we’re born into and the families we choose, or which are thrust upon us, or which we build for ourselves. While Housekeeping has a more overtly dark edge (I spent pages waiting for something cataclysmic to occur; I was amazed that all of the characters got out of it alive), it too is preoccupied with choosing family, with the statements that your choice makes.
12. The Father, by Sharon Olds
Where I read it: Commuting, again. God, this is getting dull.
Poetry is so fucking hard to write about, it tends to put me off reading it, or at least it puts me off reading it for this blog. In brief: this is a collection of poems in which the narrator is a daughter tending to her dying father. He has cancer. Their relationship has not been a positive or a loving one; as Adam Mars-Jones noted in a London Review of Books essay on Olds’s poetry, “the depth of the poems is inversely proportionate to the richness of the relationship. The poet is so attentive to her father’s dying because in his living he so comprehensively refused her.”
So, yeah, not exactly happy stuff, but supremely, superbly powerful. Olds is one of those poets who writes in a manner that looks conversational and absolutely isn’t. She doesn’t do syntactical inversion, heightened diction, alliteration, any of that bag-of-tricks stuff. She just selects and places words so that their context gives them grandeur. I’d love to be able to do it myself. I will never be a poet that good.
13. Raw Spirit, by Iain Banks
Where I read it: On the bus from Crouch End to Finsbury Park, after a marathon OITNB session with my friend Ella, formerly known on this blog as the Duchess.
This book suffers appallingly from two interrelated things: an excess of privilege, and a deficit of self-awareness. Iain Banks was commissioned to do a tour of Scotland’s single malt distilleries and write a full-length travelogue detailing his search for “the perfect dram” (see subtitle). It’s a great idea. It’s the sort of thing that editors stopped having the money or the free time to do, circa 2003, which coincidentally is when this book was published. And it’s the kind of all-expenses-paid vanity project that you really, really need to be humble about, if you’re lucky enough to land the gig. Banks isn’t humble. He preens. He mentions that he’s been commissioned, that the whisky is all on his publisher, that none of his junkets are leaving him out of pocket, at least once a chapter.
He also doesn’t really seem to take the brief all that seriously. On the one hand, it’s hard to blame him for this: his descriptive skills are good, but come on, it’s whisky, innit. It’s smokey and peaty and maybe a bit salty and occasionally you can throw in some words like “caramel” or “toasted orange”, but on the whole it’s going to be difficult to describe fifty of the buggers in anything like a distinctive fashion. On the other hand, there were times when so very little of this book had anything to do with whisky that it honestly felt like he was taking the piss. Like the five pages about a Jaguar he once had, followed by a cursory page and a half on a distillery’s history and product. Or the long anecdotes about his friends and what they’re like when they’re drunk. Real talk: no one is a hilarious drunk to a stranger. Reading about how they got in trouble (tee hee hee, boys will be boys) for making too much noise in a family hotel after-hours did not make me sympathetic. It didn’t even make me think, “What a legend.” It made me think, “What an arsehole.”
So anyway, long story short is, I’m going to read Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games and forget that I ever took this irritating detour into their author’s personal life/head.
14. The Violent Bear It Away, by Flannery O’Connor
Where I read it: Literally no idea. Perhaps it gave me amnesia?
Tell you what, O’Connor really doesn’t fuck around with her titles.
This is her second novel. Her first, Wise Blood, had already established her thematic interests: evangelical Christianity, confused young men, violence and grace, the human fear and loathing and rejection of Christ and His implacability. It’s fairly serious stuff; you can’t really go into it half-heartedly. Even if you have issues with Christian belief or are simply an atheist, you need to take on board the premise that these beliefs are significant and important for the people you’re reading about. Otherwise none of it makes any sense at all, and even for me – raised in a church tradition, though not a fundamentalist one – it sometimes gets a bit bewilderingly intense.
The Violent Bear It Away focuses on Francis Marion Tarwater, who was abducted from his family home as a baby by his mother’s brother. Determined to make the little boy into a prophet of the Lord, old Tarwater raises him in a rural backwater and keeps him away from school (by getting him to pretend he’s mentally disabled when the truant officer comes around). When old Tarwater dies, young Tarwater moves to the city in search of his other uncle, and has to determine whether to live as his religious uncle raised him or as his secular uncle wants to make him. It asks a lot of questions about freedom: spiritual, intellectual, moral. O’Connor doesn’t really believe in freedom, or at least not in the way that most of the people reading her probably do. She believes in God, though, in the ultimateness of Him. So it hasn’t got what you might call a happy ending, but it has an ending full of conviction. Reading O’Connor gives me a much stronger sense of what motivated a Joan of Arc or a Thomas Cranmer: the solid reality of that kind of belief.
15. The Idea of Perfection, by Kate Grenville
Where I read it: Lying on the bed, the window open to catch whatever breeze was going in southwest London, the week before my holiday.
Kate Grenville won the Orange Prize for this in 2001, and she followed it up with The Secret River, which means I should really have read her by now. It served both for 20 Books of Summer and for my less formal Women’s Prize project, and, like most of the (relatively) early Women’s Prize winners I’ve read, it was a fantastic surprise.
It follows two awkward people (imperfection, you see): Harley Savage, a museum curator who specializes in textiles, and Douglas Cheeseman, a structural engineer who adores cement. Both are in Karakarook, New South Wales, Harley to advise on the development of a heritage museum and Douglas to oversee the destruction of a historic bridge. Obviously, these are conflicting aims, and the townspeople expect Harley and Douglas to be at loggerheads. To begin with, they are, sort of, but both are at odds with the expectations leveled at them by daily life and society in general, and this brings them together.
What’s brilliant about it: the sheer dedication that Grenville puts into her portrayal of imperfect people. Harley and Douglas go on a “first date” to a genuinely horrible rural greasy spoon café, where they manage to misunderstand one another and second-guess their own reactions to a point that is, frankly, painfully familiar to anyone with even mild social anxiety. Also, I love how she deals with the “woman with a past” trope in relation to Harley, who suffers horrible guilt from something that was 100% not her fault but nevertheless pretty horrible. Grenville is so good at not making her a bombshell or a sex object while also not painting her as a gargoyle or a grotesque (though that’s how Harley thinks of herself.) This is counterpointed by the story of a bank manager’s wife who embarks on an affair with the local butcher, pretending that her marriage is perfect while we know it’s a sham. That storyline ends with a twist that is so tame by today’s Gone Girl standards, and yet so perfectly conveyed in the prose, that I actually gasped. It’s emblematic of the lovely balancing act Grenville achieves throughout the book. And the ending is very joyous.