Two Utopias: Thoughts on Walkaway and Naondel

These two books are, on the surface of it, about as different as you can imagine. Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow, is resolutely for adults (with a lot of graphic sex); Naondel, Maria Turtschaninoff’s follow-up to last year’s Maresi, is, despite its girth, a middle-grade YA novel. Walkaway believes in the power of technology to save us; Naondel places its faith in earth magic and the maternal life force. Walkaway is profoundly, almost giddily, optimistic about human nature; Naondel shows us a humanity that is near uniform in its brutality. And yet for all these polarities – sci fi vs. fantasy; adults vs. kids; positivity vs. cynicism – the two books have some striking similarities, and even their differences are illuminating.

9780765392763Both are about the drive, and the overwhelming need, to create utopias. Doctorow opens his book by introducing us to three characters: Hubert “Etcetera” Espinoza, so called because he has nineteen first names; Seth, Hubert’s slightly fratty but basically harmless friend; and Natalie, the scion of a minor branch of Toronto’s wealthy Redwater family. Hubert and Seth meet Natalie at a party (in one of the book’s many delightful coinings, it is a “Communist party”, where enterprising youths use 3D printing and microbial biology to create free dance floors, free speakers, and—crucially—free beer out of “feedstock”, useless industrial leftovers in an abandoned warehouse). At the end of chapter one, the party is crashed by drones directed by the forces of “default” society; one of Natalie’s friends, Billiam, falls fatally from a catwalk; Hubert, Seth and Natalie end up in the house of Natalie’s father, uber-capitalist Jacob Redwater; and the three of them, fueled by Natalie’s disgust over her family’s privileged arrogance and Hubert’s knowledge of other options, choose to “go walkaway”. Apparently, eighty years in the future, this will be a possibility: to join huge communal groups of people who don’t want to live in the wage slavery of late capitalism (where the rulers are not the 1%, but the .001%), and who use advances in 3D printing, network programming, and genetic modification to build lives for themselves.

The other way of living, in this world—the “default” way—is exactly like how we live now, but worse: go into deep hock to acquire degrees that are all but meaningless; reach age sixty-five without ever shaking the word “assistant” from your job title; live in constant terror of eviction or joblessness. Domestic servants in the Redwater household are hired on an ad hoc basis through an app—much in the way that catering and hospitality agencies provide workers now—meaning that the maid or the gardener is rarely the same person twice. It’s not the sort of world that values anyone, other than absolute zillionaires. The appeal of rejecting it is obvious.

34035652Naondel, meanwhile, is set in a country that clearly doesn’t belong to our world but which, judging from linguistics and economy, seems to be an amalgam of Arabic and Japanese culture. (This is a problem in itself, opening the novel up to charges of both exoticising and demonising Eastern cultures and their attitudes towards women. The Big Bad character is a brutal poisoner and rapist named Iskan ak Honta-che, which made me think of nothing so much as the rapey desert warlord in Game of Thrones.) In Karenokoi, very few people are both good and powerful. Power, by definition, corrupts. Turtschaninoff shows us a world where it’s not just the men who are evil, either; Izani, Iskan’s mother, is cold and cruel to her grandsons, while Lehan, the younger sister of a main character, is so infatuated with Iskan that she actually—albeit unknowingly—helps him to victimise another woman.

The whole novel is the foundation story of the Red Abbey on the island of Menos, where the first book, Maresi, was set. In Maresi we saw that kind of utopian, matriarchal society in action, and cheered as it destroyed a threat from outside. In Naondel we see why it’s necessary: the only place for women in Karenokoi is a subservient one. Interestingly, though, Turtschaninoff’s attempts at creating diversity among her characters cause a continuity problem. Several of the women who eventually escape from the dairahesi (harem) of Ohaddin Palace are from other cultures: there’s a woman from a nomadic tribe with strong spiritual connections to the earth, another from a tree-dwelling people who has the power to control others’ dreams. When they escape—as we always know they will—why don’t they make for one of these lands, where women and their powers are revered or at least respected? One suspects that it’s because the mechanics of Turtschaninoff’s plot demand otherwise. They have to settle the island of Menos and establish the Red Abbey; we knew from the moment we opened the book that it would end this way. To make that happen, we get a bit of authorial hand-waving that acknowledges the problem without digging into it, which limits the book’s success.

Anyway. Both of these countries, clearly, are ruled by total bastards. The establishment of a utopia is the only way out of their uncompromising and dehumanising systems. But here Doctorow and Turtschaninoff part ways again. Doctorow’s bastards are, by definition, a minority, and a tiny minority at that. Pretty much everyone whom our hero/-ines meet in walkaway is compassionate, sensible, and positive about their ability to make a difference. They collectively embody the covered-dish principle, which Doctorow explains within the book itself: after a catastrophe, do you go over to your neighbour’s house with a covered dish of food, or a shotgun? If you choose the dish, even a neighbour who chose the shotgun is more likely to put it down and offer you some food in return. If you choose the shotgun, it’s very unlikely that things will end well for anyone. Walkaway is about people who believe fiercely that taking a covered dish is the right thing to do, and who make the right choice most of the time. When an aggressive inhabitant of a walkaway community tries to create a formal hierarchy, he’s stymied because people there simply abandon the place, rather than live under someone again. When police besiege another community near the end of the novel, they’re defeated in part by their own innate goodness: those who are trapped mobilise the Internet to find relatives of the policemen who are also walkaways, then broadcast appeals from police’s siblings, parents, and children, targeted at individual cops. Without fail, this causes them to drop their weapons. You may find this beautiful, or unbelievable, or – as I did – both; but there’s no doubt that it gave me more hope, post-election, post-Brexit, post-Westminster and Stockholm and Syrian gas attack, than anything more overtly political I’ve read in the past year.

Naondel, by contrast, doesn’t allow us to believe in the innate goodness of anyone other than our heroines. They are somewhat complicated, but their morally dubious acts are always implicitly justified: Kabira, the eldest, taunts her mother-in-law with breathtaking cruelty as the old woman lies dying, but she has endured decades of taunts in her turn, and has been denied access to her children. Orseola, the dreamweaver, is exiled from her home for a major social taboo, but her outburst stems from the fact that she is untrained in her craft, and frightened of her own power. Sulani, the warrior, murders people left, right and centre, but she is a warrior and—it’s implied—that’s just what warriors do. Outside of this circle, we actually see very few characters, and the minor ones—like the eunuch guards of the harem—are at best indifferent to the suffering of the women. At worst, they’re either mustache-twirlers (like Iskan, who all but cackles), or—as in the case of Iskan’s other concubines—vain and stupid.

This is largely down to the fact that Turtschaninoff’s gender politics are broad-brush. It makes a certain level of sense. She’s writing for middle school girls, who are just becoming aware of the fact that, yeah, people will judge you for literally anything, and, no, it doesn’t seem to be like that for boys. Unfairness is the engine that drives Naondel—at points I found myself becoming furious—and to be given a book that not only provokes anger, but legitimises it, is a big deal for a twelve-year-old girl. Doctorow’s utopia takes the opposite approach. It is almost post-gender. None of the major characters have long-lasting cishet relationships; they’re all either L, G, B, T, Q, or I, and relationship drama is kept at an absolute minimum. Crucially, cishet identities are most reinforced by people who oppose walkaway culture: by Jimmy, the guy who attempts to create hierarchy in a community by tearing down their best programmer for being female; and by Jacob Redwater, whose wife and daughter live in a world of gilded privilege but almost no real freedom.

I prefer Doctorow’s vision, probably appropriately: I’m an adult, and his gender politics are adult too. Naondel is still a book I’d recommend heartily to middle-grade kids and their parents; it has important things to say. I would just take care to balance it with something like Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet. For all her faults, Pierce at least recognised that women were capable not only of creating their own retreat from the world, but also of engaging with its injustices head on.

Thanks very much to Chrissy at Head of Zeus and Tabitha at Pushkin Press for the review copies. Walkaway will be published in the UK on 25 April; Naondel was published in the UK on 6 April.

 

One of the Boys, by Daniel Magariel

I’d seen him whip my mother with a belt before. The difference was: she deserved it.

32995545

I know—it’s not a very promising quotation to start a review with. Don’t run away. The ugliness of that “she deserved it” is the point; it’s where everything you need to know about this novel is located, and what you need to know is more complicated than simple, shopworn misogyny (although that’s a large part of it.) Magariel’s debut novel is told through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy, whose name we never learn. As the book opens, he and his brother—also unnamed—are driving to New Mexico with their dad. They’ve won “the war”, their father’s name for the divorce and custody battle they’ve just gone through, and they’re about to start afresh. Except, of course, that they aren’t, or rather their father isn’t; he is simply moving the boys to a place where nobody knows them, where they’ll be isolated and easier to manipulate and control, and where he can fuel his cocaine habit unbothered by family or acquaintances. The reader clocks all this within the first chapter. The boy takes much longer, and the book—it’s very short, almost a novella at 165 pages—is about his journey towards understanding his father’s abusiveness and being able, finally, to reject it.

Unsurprisingly, this makes for tough reading. The reason it’s bearable is, largely, because it’s so short; this is no A Little Life, no relentless slog through hundreds of pages of sadism and misery. This is short sharp shocks: like that “she deserved it”, like the bizarre scene where the boy skips school, flirts with an older neighbour at the swimming pool and is nearly indoctrinated by her into the world of sex, like the father’s ability to flip from tender protectiveness to beating his naked child with the buckle end of a belt in the space of a second. The reader learns to be on edge, our constant bracing a mirror image of the permanent strategising going on in the boy’s brain.

The father is perhaps the best drawn character in the book. He is, of course, terrifying: Magariel shows us violent rage in ways that will make people who’ve experienced this sort of thing shake.

I was pulled from my brother’s body by my hair. My father’s backhand sent me staggering across the room. I crashed into the coffee table. Glass shattered around me, which seemed to send my father into a fury. He screamed that this was exactly what our mother had meant to do—divide and conquer. How had we forgotten? Why were our memories so short? Why weren’t we on his side? […] “Tell me you’re sorry. Tell me you’ll never do it again,” he said.

Upsetting though the physical violence is, it is not the most disturbing element of One of the Boys; that’s the last sentence in the quote above. Tell me you’re sorry. Hitting someone is one thing; trying to create a mindset that forces them to apologise to you for having been hit by you is a whole different level of manipulation and—although I don’t often use this word—evil. The incredible thing about One of the Boys is how it complicates that evil, how it acknowledges it and also shows us the father as, essentially, still a child himself. That doesn’t mean that he bears no responsibility for his actions, but rather, allows us to see that he isn’t an undifferentiated Big Bad to his children. “He could be so good to us sometimes,” the boy says, in heartbreakingly wistful retrospect. And he can: he often presents as a classic dad figure, providing fun and mischief and guidance. Even while the reader recognises that the father gets a self-aggrandising kick out of these sorts of performances, the appeal is obvious.

The father’s assumption of the heroic role is dependent on his making a villain of the mother, of course. He’s aided in this by the fact that she’s demonstrably imperfect: a weak-willed drunk whose immaturity apparently rivals his. Magariel makes the same point, with greater punch, that Emma Flint makes in Little Deaths: a woman needs to deviate only slightly from a norm in order to be open to charges of monstrosity. This is doubly the case when approval from a father is the reward for hating the mother; the boy notes that his mother’s approval never even seemed relevant to him as a child. There are some painful flashbacks to a moment when the boy and his brother decide to punish their mother in their own way: they throw water in her face and scream “We hate you! Fuck you!” That they’re doing it to demonstrate their loyalty to a man who repays perceived disloyalty with brutal physical assault doesn’t make it any less horrifying.

All the more of a relief, then, is the book’s ending: the boy has an opportunity to save himself and his brother by presenting himself, purple and bloodied from a recent beating, to a police officer. That’s where Magariel leaves us: blinking into the light along with our protagonist, hoping that this final act of “disloyalty”, this refusal to be “one of the boys”, complicit in his own destruction, will be enough to save him. As readers, we’ve seen the poisonous effects of silence and solidarity, but we haven’t yet, in this book, been taught to distrust the state. Where many books about abuse zero in on the indifference of police, children’s homes, and teachers, One of the Boys gives us reason to hope that these figures of public authority – unlike the private authority figure of the father – will do their jobs.

Which makes Magariel’s book, while definitely about the experiences of one particular child, also about something bigger: the abuses perpetrated more generally by a toxic ideal of masculinity. The boy and his brother are silent for so long because they want to belong to a social unit that is the familial equivalent of a treehouse with a NO GRILS ALLOWED sign. The father’s attempts to mould his children’s lives into a narcissistic male utopia is immature and destructive, but it recalls so much else: the worst of college fraternities. The worst of organised sports, with their “locker room banter” and their internal cruelties. The worst of private schooling. The worst of the military. These are worlds built on hierarchy and loyalty, on creating an image of a family, blood or chosen, allegiance to which is more important than individual lives. In showing the madness of this attitude through the microcosm of a family, Magariel offers a different way to be a man: sometimes the way to step up is to ask for help.

Many thanks to the publicity folks at Granta for the review copy. One of the Boys was published in the UK on 6 April.

The Idealist, by Justin Peters

Knowledge is power. Therefore, free, unimpeded access to information is an inherently political issue.

41cp6wr0vdl-_sy346_

Unless you keep pretty up to date with the tech community and the news that surrounds its activities, you may not know who Aaron Swartz was. On the other hand, if you were paying attention to US news in the early months of 2013, it’s possible that you do. In January of that year, Swartz was found dead in his apartment; he had apparently hanged himself. He had helped to establish the Creative Commons, and was one of the three founders of Reddit, amongst many other projects. At the time of his death, he had been indicted by the FBI under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and was facing up to ninety-five years in prison. His alleged crime involved downloading millions of articles from JSTOR, a database for academic papers. The FBI was convinced that he had intended to distribute them widely, and saw this as an infringement not only of JSTOR’s terms of service, but of US intellectual property law. Swartz, and the people he had spent most of his twenty-six years talking to and working with, believed that his action was a necessary step towards creating open access libraries, so that everyone—not just the people who could afford incredibly pricy journal subscriptions—could benefit from the work of publicly funded academics; that there was, in Swartz’s own words, “no justice in obeying unjust laws”, and that American copyright laws were fundamentally unjust and geared towards protecting corporations instead of empowering citizens. In The Idealist, Justin Peters sets out to explain not only why Swartz’s death was an unnecessary tragedy caused in large part by the state’s determination to hound him, but also the history and the rationale of the ideas he was fighting for in the first place.

It is outrageously informative on that history. Peters starts with the first legal battle over copyright in the United States: that of Noah Webster to protect his spelling textbook of 1783, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, from piracy. Webster wrote this textbook out of a sense of national pride, a desire to eradicate class divisions by giving poorer colonials a set of linguistic standards which would make them sound less like illiterate rustics. By doing this, Webster laid the foundation for arguments both for and against copyright provision for the next two hundred-odd years: the speed and ease with which information can be disseminated and/or acquired was subsequently framed in terms of public benefit. The question, in other words, has almost always been: Is it more or less advantageous to the general public to expand the public domain? Will it cause American creativity to flourish, or decline? Will access to literature and culture inspire people, or make them complacent? And—tacit but omnipresent in these discussions—how do you ensure that the rights of the creator are not simply a proxy for the rights of the corporation that distributes their work?

Amazingly, it has frequently been argued that it is in fact disadvantageous to the public to expand the public domain. Those of us who work, or want to work, as creatives can kind of see the point when it’s expressed the way it was in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing:

“Every time a Napster enthusiast downloads a song, it takes money from the pockets of all these members of the creative community,” Ulrich said, remarking that the “touted new paradigm that the Internet gurus tell us we must adopt sounds to me like good old-fashioned trafficking in stolen goods.”

(That’s Larry Ulrich, the drummer from Metallica.)

As we all know, this attitude served the music industry extremely poorly. One of the great virtues of Justin Peters’s writing is that he assumes his readers are bright but not experts—possibly not surprising given his background as a journalist for Slate—and I found him a particularly effective guide when he was explaining things like why the music industry failed so badly:

…[The] mainstream culture industries operate on a mildly coercive ‘push marketing’ model in which companies use advertising and promotions to create consumer demand for the products they want to sell, and the formats in which they want to sell them. Online file sharing repudiates ‘push marketing’ by allowing consumers to unilaterally decide what they want to consume and how they want to do so. As file sharing grew ever more popular in the early 2000s, bringing with it potential opportunities for new, collaborative models of marketing and production, the culture industries instead focused almost wholly on ways to regain their lost control.

This piece of explanation is equally useful when applied to the large academic and journal publishers whom Swartz was targeting when he started crawling JSTOR. I used to work for one—Taylor and Francis, which has recently acquired Elsevier, the main target of Swartz’s, and Peters’s, frustration—and it is a little alarming to realise just how blithely I accepted the idea that subscriptions to these services ought to be paid for. Consider this:

Tens of thousands of scholarly journals exist, and since the 1970s their subscription prices have risen at a rate higher than the rate of inflation […] but academic libraries are, more or less, compelled to subscribe. Every professor expects to find his specialization’s academic journal on the library’s shelves. Thus, many academic libraries wind up spending the bulk of their yearly acquisitions budgets on journal subscriptions.

That’s assuming that a library has a meaningful acquisitions budget at all. Many of them do not—or, at least, don’t have much of one. This plight is especially common in underdeveloped countries, where librarians have enough trouble keeping their computers on […] The result is an ever-widening gap between rich institutions and poor ones.

(A footnote to this section gives an example: as of two years ago, a print subscription to the journal Applied Surface Science cost institutions $12,471 per year.)

Online content distribution was meant to be a partial solution to this. JSTOR, however—the biggest online database of this kind of academic material in the world—struck a deal with publishers when it was first founded, promising that they wouldn’t lose out on potential profits by allowing JSTOR to collect their journals content. The result is that libraries still have to pay annual subscription fees, which are still prohibitively high, and access has not appreciably widened in any way. Meanwhile, the work of academics becomes commoditised—which really is not the point of academia, where you work on arcane and often expensive projects subsidised by benevolent instutitions and sometimes governments with the tacit understanding that whatever you find out will be freely shared for mankind’s general benefit—and, moreover, that commoditisation works only to enrich their publishers, not the academics themselves. It’s a system that screws almost everyone.

Peters’s book works so well because he spends a lot of time getting the reader up to speed on the debates behind these issues. It is not, however, solely a history; it is also a biography of Aaron Swartz, who conformed in many ways to the stereotypical image we might have of a hacker or a nerd. Though he was a brilliant, articulate thinker, and a talented programmer—he was contributing extensively to mailing lists by the time he hit eighth grade, and was a major player in the launch of the Creative Commons at the age of fifteen—he was also profoundly disdainful of authority. He refused to attend high school past tenth grade, and instead took classes at a local college. He had terrible body image and self-esteem issues, which manifested in eating rituals and a series of “cleansing” diets which terrified his friends. Photographs suggest a sweet, slightly diffident young man, but he was also known for getting straight to the heart of a problem, without anything like tact or diplomacy. He was desperately afraid of being seen as dependent or emotional. Asking for help, of any kind, from anyone, was his worst nightmare. He suffered from chronic depression. And, perhaps most damningly, his convictions led him to make statements about the duty of the hacker-citizen to liberate information. Much of Swartz’s clash with the FBI was exacerbated by this sort of personality baggage; he looked like what the government thought of as a bad guy.

“Looks like he is a big hacker, i googled him,” was one MIT police officer’s response upon Swartz’s arrest. Not Reddit cofounder; not Open Library architect; not computer prodigy or applied sociologist or Harvard affiliate or any of the other lines on his résumé. A big hacker.

And, before the FBI, Swartz’s brilliance and his privilege—he grew up in Highland Park, a wealthy suburb of Chicago; he was exposed to computers from a very young age, having a father in the industry (Robert Swartz eventually worked as a consultant for MIT); he had the wealth and the support to enable him to drop out of schools, universities and workplaces when he found them too restrictive—caused problems too. There’s a reason the book’s title is The Idealist, and reasons why idealism is often, definitively, impractical. If you’re reading this as someone who tries to make a living by writing, you’ll probably already have thought of some good reasons for reasonably strong copyright laws. Another perspective comes from a librarian at UNC Chapel Hill with the splendidly mediaeval name of Bess Sadler, who approved of Swartz’s aims but, like most of the rest of us, had to live in the real world:

“I thought he was ethically right, but I was unwilling to put my own livelihood on the line with such strong statements [as Swartz’s Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto]… A librarian who issued a manifesto like that would be unemployable, and that’s something that should give us all pause.”

Which is not to say that it’s not a good idea, or that we shouldn’t strive for a world where creators and their work are sufficiently valued that they can easily afford to be generous, as people who contribute to free and open-source software very frequently are. (This isn’t to say that all F/OSS contributors are wildly wealthy. Michael Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg, was a mercurial megalomaniac who spent most of the ’80s living on a mattress in Urbana, Illinois, living off the rent paid to him by various lodgers. Modern house price absurdity—amongst other things—has made this strategy difficult for most young creators, though. It’s much more tempting to make your money in start-ups or industry first, and be ethical when you can afford to be.)

I could go on, and I probably will in bits and pieces, because this book is probably the single most important one I’ll read all year in terms of informing and challenging my ideas about power, information, and how technology should be used. It’s currently in vogue to encourage doom-mongering about the Internet: mainstream media reports often imply that it’s causing impotence, or school shootings, or apathy, or obesity, or bigotry, or festering hatred. It does these things, sometimes (hello, Breitbart! Hey there, 4chan! And Gamergate, and Twitter Support; I see you too!) But you don’t have to believe that, ultimately, that’s all the Internet is good for. It was first designed and used by people who wanted to build an infinite library. And that, bookish chums, is an ideal worth hanging on to.

Many, many thanks to Thogdin Ripley (another excellent name) at Duckworth Overlook for the review copy. The Idealist was published in the UK on 23 March.

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 6: Adébáyò

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.

Stay With Me, by Ayòbámi Adébáyò

31349579(Quick note: I tried to put the proper accent marks in Adébáyò’s name, but some of the vowels have marks both above and below the letters, and WordPress’s symbols dictionary isn’t advanced enough to handle that, apparently. I’ve done my best. Of interest to some readers may be that the US jacket for Stay With Me makes no effort at all to reproduce the accent marks, while the UK jacket has all of them.)

Stay With Me is, in its most elevator-pitch description, about infertility. (It actually isn’t, quite, but we’ll talk about that later.) Yejide and Akin Ajayi have been married for several years. It is the early 1990s and both are degree-holding Nigerians living in Ilesa; Yejide owns her own business, a hair salon, and Akin is a banker. Yet they remain childless. Akin’s family is growing restless. As the book opens, Yejide is presented by her in-laws and husband with a fait accompli: Akin has taken a second wife, the much younger Funmi. Though she will be technically of lower rank than Yejide, the hope is that she will be able to bear a son—ideally many—to carry on the family’s name. We also learn, through a flash forward to 2013, that Akin and Yejide somehow become estranged, and remain so for decades. Adébáyò spends the rest of the novel flipping us back and forth between the events of the early ’90s that destroyed the Ajayis’ marriage, and the opportunity for reconciliation that arises in the chapters set in 2013.

The first half of the novel is the strongest, although it is treading on familiar ground. It does not, of course, occur to anyone that the problem might not be with Yejide’s womb but with Akin, and her family and in-laws’ patronising, dismissive, often downright cruel attitudes towards her are painted vividly. Yejide herself is a force of nature: infuriated with everyone who has sanctioned the match between Akin and Funmi, she prepares a meal for the matchmakers and the new bride that is significantly less glorious than protocol demands—which also happens to bring them all down with explosive diarrhoea. Her rage has deep roots: her mother was a nomad whom her father never married and who died in childbirth, and she was raised by stepmothers who considered her the child of a whore. This is rarely played for sentiment or even dwelt upon very heavily, but it explains everything about Yejide that might otherwise seem excessive: her passionate attachment to the ideal of a family, her refusal at one point to accept that she is having a phantom pregnancy, her explosive temper, and her strength of will. Where Akin is mostly passive and rational, often asking her to calm down, she is presented as an active, aggressive, emotional dynamo.

SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD – It is because of this that the book’s twist and development works as well as it does (and whether it works particularly well is another question, but this is why it works at all.) We learn partway through the novel that not only has Yejide’s affair with her brother-in-law Dotun been fully engineered, without her knowledge, between Dotun and Akin—so that she can get pregnant—but that the reason it is necessary is because Akin is impotent. He has known this for decades, but has lied to Yejide (a virgin before their marriage) about what constitutes “normal” sex, and so she has spent their entire relationship believing that Akin’s inability to achieve an erection has nothing to do with her failure to conceive. Whether it’s at all plausible that a woman pursuing a degree in Nigeria in 1985 would be so painfully ignorant about the logistics of sex—and I’m perfectly willing to accept that it is plausible; I simply don’t know—is a potential problem, but the thematic perfection of this twist is in its reversal of that earlier established dynamic between Yejide and Akin. We’ve thought, all this time, that she’s the one making choices (albeit desperate ones, like paying a faith healer and lugging a goat up a mountainside for a fraudulent fertility ceremony). Instead, she has been acted upon, without her knowledge or consent, all this time: not just for the duration of their marriage, but for as long as they have known each other. And by extension, so have we.

After this revelation, which is pretty melodramatic in itself, things get more melodramatic. (Oh, there’s also a sort-of-murder—if I were a prosecuting lawyer I’d call it something like second-degree manslaughter.) When Yejide conceives, the first baby dies, apparently a random victim of SIDS. Her second and third children are both born with sickle-cell disease. There is more death. There is a military coup. There is another coup.

This is the source of my other problem with the book, which is the war. I appreciate that if your novel is set in Nigeria in the early ’90s, you’re going to have to handle civil war; the problem is that reading protocols (at least for literary fiction) prime us to think of civil war as a Big Deal, a Major Theme. We expect civil war either to be the whole point of a book (for which, see Half of a Yellow Sun) or we expect its relatively small impact to be part of a more satirical or nihilistic general flavour (as in Beauty Is A Wound, where atrocity’s commonplaceness dulls individual horrors, and where that’s exactly the point.) Instead, in Stay With Me, we get the coups and the war as a kind of wallpaper; fighting is what prevents Yejide from reaching Akin and her third baby at a crucial point in the plot, but there’s no sense that the conflict is thematically important. In a way this is in the novel’s favour—Adébáyò isn’t writing a political novel, but a domestic one—but under other circumstances, I would have suggested that, if your novel isn’t political, it’s possibly not necessary to introduce a civil war. Adébáyò, however, is trapped by history. You can’t write a novel set in this time and place and pretend nothing happened, but then you have to make the conflict seem relevant to the story you’re trying to tell, and it just isn’t here.

All of this makes it sound as though I didn’t enjoy the book very much, which isn’t the case. It’s a very affecting page-turner about the way that men and women relate to one another, especially in situations where their capabilities are equal but the expectations surrounding them are wildly different. Yejide and Akin struggle to balance tradition and the demands of their relatives and heritage with their own awareness of modernity, in terms both of medical science and of relationships. Their struggle is sympathetic and engaging, and the book’s ending—though a little unbelievably sunny—satisfied. I can’t help thinking, though, that I’ll have forgotten about it in a few months’ time; it will have blurred together with other depictions of domestic turmoil and gendered hypocrisy. That doesn’t make it a bad book; it’s just not enough to shortlist it.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. Stay With Me is published by Canongate and is available in hardback.

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 5: Proulx

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

51qccavjjel-_sx326_bo1204203200_Before we start, let’s be clear about one thing: Barkskins is extravagantly, almost defiantly, flawed. For one thing, it is far too long. Nobody needs 717 pages all at once; I know it is traditional to make exceptions for War and Peace and Clarissa but I am honestly not sure that even they make the most of their unwieldy page count. Barkskins certainly doesn’t need it; it would always have been a big book, mind you, but it could easily have been 200 pages shorter. For another, that length is compounded by Proulx’s tendency to sacrifice depth to breadth, most notably in terms of her characterisation. Characters are introduced, get married, go to seek their fortune, and die choking on river water or crushed by a falling log, all within the space of five pages—not just once, but repeatedly. As the book edges closer to contemporaneity, we’re allowed to focus more on individuals (I think this may also have something to do with the upward trajectory of the average lifespan), but there’s still a lot to keep track of, not least how all of these people relate to one another. (There are two family trees provided, but, for reasons surpassing understanding, they are in the back, so unless you flick through the whole volume first, you won’t know they’re there until it’s far too late.) It is the sort of book that could not have been published without the author being a big enough name to guarantee that it’d be worth it.

And yet, unlike most such books, Barkskins is actually pretty good. Once it settles down and starts focusing for longer stretches on individual characters, we find people who are worth caring about. There is the sexually aggressive Posey, who engineers not only the death of one husband who’s no good to her, but goes on to seduce and marry James Duke, heir to the Duke logging fortune. There is her daughter Lavinia, who from the 1880s onwards runs the business more competently and ruthlessly than any of the men on its board. There is part-Mi’kmaq Jinot Sel, who travels to New Zealand with his employer and patron and is horrified by the naive paternalism shown by whitemen towards the native Maori. (This eventually gets Jinot’s employer killed, which isn’t good news for Jinot either.) Everywhere, for over three hundred years, we are met with two things: the visceral ways in which men (and women) react to forests, and the complacent conviction of whites that they know best, wherever they are, whichever indigenous nation they’re encountering.

Barkskins is a lot like another book on the Baileys Prize longlist, The Sport of Kings, in that it refracts the history of an entire industry in North America through the focusing lens of a family (or two). Barkskins takes a much longer view—it starts in the 1690s and goes all the way up to 2013, where The Sport of Kings only starts in the nineteenth century—but Proulx’s and Morgan’s projects are almost identical. They ask us to see the ways in which racial prejudice is a definitive part of the American identity, and in particular of the business culture that America developed. Where Morgan focuses on the endemic racism of the South created by plantation slavery, Proulx looks much further back: the experience of black Americans is entirely absent from Barkskins, but only because she focuses on the displacement and total destruction of Native American ways of life. Though much of this is achieved through despoiling the natural habitat (I lost count of the number of times characters proclaimed that the forest needed no conservation, because it was infinite—literally too big to fall), a lot of it is also achieved through racial mixing. This starts in generation one, when Charles Duquet and René Sel both have children with Mi’kmaq women in New France (now Canada), and the effects of it continue to be felt for centuries: young men in later generations return to a dying Mi’kmaw village (yes, it’s spelled both ways) headed up by the long-lived patriarch Kuntaw. They’re mixed-race, poor, and looking for a place they can belong, but the old ways are disappearing fast, and there simply aren’t enough Mi’kmaq being born to replace the ones who are dying. It is also interesting to note that the Sels, who never attempt to hide or erase the Native parts of their heritage, develop into a dynasty of lumberjacks: they are professionals and have deep knowledge, but they are the workers. The Duquets, meanwhile—a line which at one point early on seems as though it might run out of boys, prompting Charles Duquet to adopt three from European orphanages—become the Dukes, owners of the greatest logging empire in North America. Their success exists alongside their utter rejection of any whiff of Mi’kmaq in their family’s past. (Proulx also dwells gleefully on the deep irony of a company that prides itself on family ownership and heredity being founded on adoption, a non-blood relationship.)

Proulx isn’t just interested in race fatalism, though; she uses race to comment on environmental choices. Whitemen are baffled by the Native American tendency not to develop and cultivate land, not to “improve” it; most white people genuinely see this as a sign that natives are unfit to live in the country. The Mi’kmaq, meanwhile, as well as representatives of other tribes and nations that we see, cannot understand what whitemen think they are doing: their “improvement” involves slash-and-burn cutting, huge amounts of wasted timber, erosion of topsoil leading to flash floods and landslides, and the total eradication of wildlife, which doesn’t seem much like improvement from an indigenous—or, indeed, sensible contemporary—point of view. Proulx mostly avoids the “magical Indian” stereotypes of inscrutable redmen in touch with the spirit of the forest, but she makes it quite clear that centuries of rapine and our current ecological disaster situation is due to the greed of white people. There’s a grain of hope: near the end of the book, a Duke son begins to take an interest in replanting, and develops a seedling nursery which later becomes a fully-fledged foundation that (in a nice touch) gives a grant to two young Sel descendants to study forestry and participate in a replanting project. And that grain of hope is appropriately complicated by the book’s final page; we want to believe that human ingenuity and determination can fix this problem, but we can’t fix everything.

So, final verdict time. There are awkward parts to Barkskins; quite apart from the length and the often-perfunctory investment in characters, we’re often treated to infodumps in the form of conversation which sounds stilted and silly even for a historical recreation. But overall? It’s surprisingly readable; when we do get the space to care about characters, they’re rounded and vivid; and Proulx’s staggering ambition is in large part repaid by the realism with which she corrals her themes and her loose ends. To be honest, I wouldn’t complain if it ended up on the shortlist. It’s trying to do something immense, and I think that’s worth celebrating.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. Barkskins is published by 4th Estate, and is available in hardback.

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 4: Flint

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.

Little Deaths, by Emma Flint

little-deaths-emma-flint-2017

Little Deaths is based on the real-life murder of two children in 1965, in Queens, New York, and the subsequent police investigation, which focused heavily on their mother, Alice Crimmins. Flint’s character is named Ruth Malone, but everything about her is Crimmins-esque: the fact that she is separated from her husband; her public persona (flirtatious to men; indifferent to most women); and, of course, her identity as a “striking, slender, redheaded cocktail waitress”. We know that she is these things because the newspapers that report on the murders of her children use no other words when they talk about her—and they talk about her a lot. The whole project of Little Deaths is to be a condensed cry of outrage at a police force and a tabloid media that, when faced with a woman who defies their expectations of femininity—and in particular of motherhood—respond by villainizing her, despite the utter lack of evidence against her.

Flint knows her noir tropes, and she uses them with contagious glee: who wouldn’t smirk with recognition at the crusty, cynical newspaper boss Friedemann, or at the fresh-faced young reporter Pete Wonicke, or at slimeball mafioso Lou Gallagher? Like most recognisable character types in genre fiction, these ones function as signposts: they let us know exactly what kind of a book we’re in.For a while, I found this superficially fun but, on a deeper level, a bit wearying. If we’re meant to be struck—as we clearly are—by the poisonous hatred of women that infects head detective Devlin’s campaign against Ruth, and by the more cynical casual misogyny of Friedemann and Wonicke’s newspaper, and by Lou Gallagher’s systematic misuse of women, well, we are; we could hardly not be, given how frequently Devlin spews words like “bitch” and “whore”, and how often we get to see the newspaper stories about the investigation. All of it walks a fine line between convincing characterisation of awful people, and outright caricature. Sometimes it tips over; an overheard conversation between Devlin and his deputy, Quinn, shows us just how much he values the presentation of male control (he rebukes Quinn for having an unironed shirt, not because it’s sloppy per se but because it suggests that he can’t get his wife or mother to take good enough care of him, which, obviously, makes him less of a man and therefore less worthy of respect). The conversation does what it’s meant to— shows us how deep Devlin’s issues with women and power run—but it does that with all the seams showing. The fact that I read it and instantly thought, This is here to show us how deep Devlin’s issues with women and power run says a lot.

Pete Wonicke is where Flint complicates things. He’s presented to us in the way that you present characters whom you want your readers to like: a guy from the sticks making his way in the big city, feeling vaguely guilty about leaving his mother, pursuing his dream of big-city journalism. And yet there are little details that feel undeniably weird: he fixates on Ruth from the start, not as a villain but as a Not Like Other Girls girl. He stakes out her apartment on his own time; when she appears in the window, he is aroused and ends up masturbating when he returns home. When he’s asked, late on in the book, how well he knows Ruth, he says “We’re…close”, though the extent of his interaction with her is one interview, and that one supervised. It’s a moment that throws the reader (are they close? Is there something we’ve missed?), and that serves to massively complicate Pete’s good-guy status. (Assuming, that is, that the wanking and the stalking haven’t already been dubious enough for you.) How we’re meant to feel about Pete is really only clarified by the ending—and I really mean the ending, like the very last page—which serves up a narrative choice that pleased me very much, and was certainly less expected than the eventual revelation of the killer.

In fact, the least successful aspect of the book is the one in which it is a crime thriller. This is kind of ironic for something that identifies itself so thoroughly as noir, but it’s true: apart from the fact that we’re pretty sure Ruth didn’t do it, we get nothing that even remotely resembles the sowing of clues or motive pointing towards someone else. When the killer is revealed, their identity is not that surprising, but only because if you look at the situation objectively—and discount Ruth—there is an obvious answer. The revelation is a problem in another way, too: we haven’t been given enough information about the character who is the murderer to have any feelings about them, one way or the other; we can be neither shocked nor satisfied. The blandness of this character is obviously meant to be a counterpoint to the fact that they turn out to be a cold-blooded child-killer, but I can’t help feeling I’d have cared more if Flint had constructed an actual personality, had pushed us towards actually approving of the character instead of merely being indifferent.

And that goes for the novel as a whole, I think. It’s an admirable project and it fits right into the spirit of our times: to show how, within living memory, women who deviated from a narrow range of accepted normality were treated with breathtaking injustice and real evil was allowed to flourish. But as readers, we always know whose side we’re meant to be on, and it is always clear that the characters who denigrate Ruth are cruel and wrong. If Flint had complicated that—if she had, even for a moment, caused us to feel some of that disgust and rage at Ruth, and then to recognise our own complicity in a brutal system—this book would come much closer to challenging that system. As it is, it’s good, but it’s preaching to the choir.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. Little Deaths is published by Picador, and is available in hardback.

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

“Tell Wind and Fire where to stop,” returned madame; “but don’t tell me.”

619hkb36n2bl-_sy344_bo1204203200_

In an attempt both to write about more of the books I read—not just the ones I get for free off of publishers—and to make that process less intimidating, I’m experimenting with different ways of posting, e.g. not always my usual essay. I’m structuring this review around my Goodreads updates on the book, sharing and annotating them as examples of how my feelings about the book changed as I read. As always, feedback appreciated.

page 38, 8.0%: “I read recently that A Tale of Two Cities was not representative of Dickens, and I can now say that’s pretty much true. I much prefer the fat tomes—Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend. I spent my first reading session of AToTC thinking ‘why can’t this banker arsehole just tell the girl her father isn’t dead? And why does the girl have to be golden-haired? And why do we even care? When does the guillotine come out?'”

Okay, so the opening section of A Tale of Two Cities is kind of weird. It starts with a character whose relevance to the plot isn’t at all clear; Dickens conjures atmosphere, in the meteorological sense, as well as ever (all that mist and mud and darkness on the Dover road! All that fear of being robbed by highwaymen! It’s terribly evocative) but, at least in this section, his prose reads more densely than I remembered it. It’s a little like late-period Shakespeare, where about once a paragraph you go “Hang on, what?” and have to trace the twisted syntax back to its start.

The character we meet first is Jarvis Lorry, a banker on his way to France via Dover. At the port, he pauses in an inn to wait for someone coming after him: a golden-haired seventeen-year-old girl. (In this, Dickens never changes: his ideal woman is always small, physically angelic, disgustingly sweet-tempered, and underage.) The girl, it turns out, is the daughter of French physician Alexandre Manette. Her father, thought to be dead for years, has been discovered alive: he’s been kept for eighteen years without charge as a political prisoner in the Bastille. Lorry, for reasons best known to himself and Dickens, doesn’t come right out and tell the girl (Lucie) this; instead, he fannies around saying things like “If someone were to tell you that there was a girl who thought her father was dead, and then it turned out that he wasn’t…” This is a manner of news-breaking I have never understood, and have little patience for, but it gets the job done in the end.

page 100, 22.0%: “Ok, Dickens wins this round—the trial scene is gripping and I now want to know how Darnay and Carton end up in Paris, since so far they’re still in London. I think the legal stuff has really swayed it for me; why is Dickens so good at it?”  

Having read the Introduction, I think the reason Dickens is so good at legal stuff is because he was a court reporter for a time, in his early twenties. Anyway, things pick up five years later, when Charles Darnay is on trial in London for being a French spy. Lucie and Doctor Manette are witnesses at his trial, since they were also passengers with him on the return boat from Calais five years ago. Sydney Carton, a dissolute young lawyer, saves Darnay’s life by pointing out that there’s a strong physical resemblance between the two of them, so that the witnesses can’t be completely sure it was Darnay they saw. (He isn’t a spy, of course, but that isn’t really the point.)

As seems to happen fairly often in Dickens, people who have come together publicly in this manner end up becoming bosom pals. Darnay and Carton both end up visiting the Manettes frequently, as does Jarvis Lorry. Both young men fall in love with Lucie (of course they do! Of course!), and Darnay ends up marrying her. Before he does, he confides a “terrible secret” about his real name to Dr. Manette, who is seriously disturbed by it but promises never to reveal the truth to his daughter. (Because telling the truth to women leads to all sorts of complications!)

page 185, 41.0%: “I have decided that I quite like Madame Defarge. I’m probably not meant to—at least, from everything I heard about this book in childhood, I think I’m not meant to—but she seems like a pretty boss biddy and a champion of the people, so what’s not to like?”

Okay, so here is where things are actually interesting, because I’ll be honest with you: I don’t care that much about the English party. Like, I don’t want Darnay to die, and I want Carton to stop getting wasted every night and realise his full intellectual potential, and etc., but they’re kind of dull and rich-ish and we’re so obviously meant to like them that I don’t really want to. But Madame Defarge is a Bloody Difficult Woman, and therefore worth our attention.

The thing that got me about A Tale of Two Cities—the thing that I think makes it an astonishing book, as opposed to a basically sentimental tale about self-sacrifice—is the way Dickens handles the Defarges. Around page 185, Madame Defarge is being painted as a leader of her people. The women of her poor urban neighbourhood rally around her as they would around a general. She is an intelligence channel, a node in a network of revolutionary spies, a sleeper cell. Her husband does most of the legwork, and she knits names into her register of the condemned, but basically it’s all up in her head. She carries a pistol and a dagger. She is the brains. And she takes the long view:

“I tell thee,” said madame, extending her right hand for emphasis, “that although it is a long time on the road, it is on the road and coming. I tell thee it never retreats, and never stops. …Look around and consider the lives of all the world that we know…the rage and discontent. …Can such things last?”

“My brave wife,” returned Defarge, “…I do not question all this. But it has lasted a long time, and it is possible—you know well, my wife, it is possible—that it may not come, during our lives.”

… “We shall have helped it,” returned madame. “Nothing that we do, is done in vain. I believe, with all my soul, that we shall see the triumph.”

It’s actually quite stirring rhetoric, quite beautiful and inspirational: I believe with all my soul that we shall see the triumph. It’s the sort of thing that oppressed people, from the slaves of the Deep South to the peasants of Siberia to the suffragettes of England, have said throughout history. And, in and of itself, it is righteous.

The brilliance of A Tale of Two Cities is in how Dickens shows that righteousness spiraling out of control into bloodlust. By page 345, with Darnay condemned to die for the crimes (which are serious and awful) of his aristocratic ancestors, we have this conversation occurring amongst the Defarges and their co-conspirators:

“The Evrémonde people are to be exterminated, and the wife and child must follow the husband and father.”

“She has a fine head for it,” croaked Jacques Three. “I have seen blue eyes and golden hair there, and they looked charming when Samson held them up.” Ogre that he was, he spoke like an epicure. …”The child also,” observed Jacques Three, with a meditative enjoyment of his words, “has golden hair and blue eyes. And we seldom have a child there. It is a pretty sight.”

That, undeniably, is sick. No Revolution’s aims can be achieved by murdering children, no matter who their parents and grandparents have been. And yet, as Madame Defarge says with dispassion in reply to Lucie’s pleas for mercy, “The wives and mothers we have been used to see, since we were as little as this child… we have known their husbands and fathers laid in prison and kept from them, often enough… We have borne this a long time. Judge you! Is it likely that the trouble of one wife and mother would be much to us now?”

A Tale of Two Cities also captures the sense of what it’s like to live in the midst of civil unrest as a foreigner. The English party—Jarvis Lorry, the Manettes’ servants—are basically safe, since they are not French citizens, but the upheaval in the city is so profound that they can never be sure, from day to day, whether their situation has changed. I imagine it’s a little like being a BBC correspondent in a war zone, or a Red Cross worker: your status ought to be enough to protect you, and often, in a formal sense, is; but no one can account for the mistakes, the accidental car bomb or the ricocheting bullet. In the same spirit of constant fear and vigilance, we see Miss Pross, the Manettes’ housekeeper, set out on her errands: a more English woman you could hardly hope to see, but she still wants to buy the tomatoes as quickly as possible and get back inside. I would like to see someone adapt the story to a modern-day revolutionary zone, perhaps the Sudan in the early 2000s.

Anyway, I’ve now read my Annual Winter Dickens (trademark pending) and I’m glad I did, even though it felt in many ways not very Dickensian. I’m entering the realm of the obscure Dickenses now; the ones left are Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Edwin Drood, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and The Pickwick Papers. Any suggestions for which to tackle next year?

My copy of A Tale of Two Cities is published by Oxford University Press, as part of the Oxford World’s Classics series.