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

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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.

What Belongs To You, by Garth Greenwell

How easily we are made to feel, I thought, and with what little foundation, with no foundation at all.

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I’ve done an almost complete 180 on this book. When I first picked it up, I read about twenty pages, then put it down to make a cup of tea or something and realized I wasn’t dead keen on picking it up again. It’s not exactly plot-driven—slightly surprising for a novel that begins with its nameless protagonist picking up a male hooker in a public toilet—and the thoughtful, reflective rhythms of its prose give it a melancholy air that I wasn’t really in the mood for. It’s January, for God’s sake, I thought; reading this isn’t really helping with the whole winter blues thing. But I stuck with it, and halfway through the first of its three sections, something happened: I got into it. Those reflective rhythms became more propulsive, more electric, as the book went on. There was urgency humming just under the surface of the narrator’s seemingly placid existence, and a sort of anger that fascinated me because I didn’t quite identify with it. It was not the rage that I have come to be able to pick out instantly because it hums in harmony with my own. It was something else, terrible and sad, and unspoken.

The book opens with the aforementioned scene: our narrator encounters Mitko, a young prostitute, maybe in his early twenties, in the bathrooms at the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, Bulgaria. The narrator is an American; he teaches English in Sofia’s American College. Over the course of the book, his relationship with Mitko deepens and intensifies, never ceasing to be transactional, but also, as Greenwell has said in interviews, no longer “exhausted” by the transaction, by which I think he means that their relationship pushes  beyond its foundation, that it has the ability to encompass things other than (and less well defined than) a business exchange. What Belongs To You is a very apt title: the book is concerned, in a lot of ways, with obligation, and with what giving to, and taking from, someone can mean. Mitko takes money and gives sex, but the narrator knows he’s taking more than sex. He is taking the satisfaction of economic power, the rush of being the one who can grant wishes, give cash and presents. I wondered briefly if there was an element of allegory here—the benevolent West extending a patronising hand to its post-Soviet Eastern-bloc dependents—but if there is, I don’t think that’s Greenwell’s focus or intent. He’s much more interested in how relationships that are meant to stay simple almost always become fraught with difficulty, just by virtue of the participants in those relationships being human. You can’t have a simple relationship with someone if you recognise them as human; it’s painful:

That’s all care is, I thought, it’s just looking at a thing long enough, why should it be a question of scale? At first this seemed like a hopeful thought, but then it’s hard to look at things, or to look at them truly, and we can’t look at many at once, and it’s so easy to look away.

Looking carefully, thoughtfully, isn’t simple either. Repeatedly, What Belongs To You figures vision and perception as inherently artificial. The narrator, looking at Mitko’s Facebook photos online, thinks how even the most informal and intimate of them are in some way staged: even if Mitko only took them with the intention of looking over them again later by himself, the photographs by their very existence suggest forethought, arrangement, performativity. In the final section of the book, as the narrator is traveling  by train with his mother, he encounters a little boy—barely more than a toddler—with his grandmother, and they pass a pleasant afternoon in the same train carriage. As the narrator and his mother rise to leave, he thinks about the boy, who has reminded him of Mitko in his absolute conviction of his right to everyone’s attention and admiration. It’s not conceit, but a painful innocence, a comfort in one’s own skin that is the result of simply not knowing that not everyone is kind and loving. The narrator thinks that he’ll write a poem about this little boy, and then he wonders whether that would really achieve the artistic truth that he’s always assumed his poetry achieves:

Making poems was a way of loving things, I had always thought, of preserving them, of living moments twice; or more than that, it was a way of living more fully…But that wasn’t what it felt like when I looked back at the boy, wanting a last glimpse of him; it felt like a loss. Whatever I could make of him would diminish him, and I wondered whether I wasn’t really turning my back on things in making them into poems, whether instead of preserving the world I was taking refuge from it.

It’s a worry that I think most writers can identify with, this concern that by turning an event or a person into art through words, you’re somehow obscuring them. There’s that sense of performativity again: even if you intend only to capture the truth of a moment, your intention renders that act a little bit insincere. It’s the observer effect of literature. Writing about a phenomenon changes it.

He’s a very distant narrator and at the same time terribly intimate: the second section is essentially about his childhood, about the betrayals of friends and family that made him feel, as a young boy, as though his sexuality was a “foulness”, something that made him worthy of punishment. We learn all about this, all about the pain of seeing the disgust on his father’s face, and yet at the same time, we know little of his life in Bulgaria, other than his encounters with Mitko and vague references to his work in the American College. He has a boyfriend in the third section, a Portuguese man named R. with whom he seems to be truly in love, but he doesn’t tell us how they met or how they make this long-distance relationship malarkey work. R. doesn’t even appear in the book, never taking a weekend trip to Sofia or hosting our narrator in Portugal—we see him only on Skype, though the implication is that they do visit each other regularly. R.’s absence serves to heighten this sense of the narrator as a solitary man, not in the closet by any means but still lonely, still scared, still basically longing to be obliterated by something.

It’s hard to do justice to this novel because it’s not really about the story. It’s about a man coming to terms with the nature of his own desires, and how desire works in the real world, how it bestows and removes power, how shame and deprivation in youth can cripple us for life. It’s about being lonely, and it’s about intense charisma, and it’s about feelings you can’t really describe. It is, in its own unromantic way, about love, and it’s a love more honest and complex and frustrating than much of the other stuff our culture gives us with that word slapped across the front. Don’t buy it for your lover for Valentine’s Day, but buy it for yourself when it comes out (after V-Day, thank goodness), and read it, and be moved.

Thanks very much to Camilla Elworthy at Picador for the review copy. What Belongs To You was published in the US on 19 January; its UK publication date is 7 April.

This is an ace interview with Garth Greenwell by the Paris Review, in which he elucidates a lot of the things I tried to say here and didn’t manage very well.

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme: Tender, by Belinda McKeon

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme is my new way of showcasing the work I do for Quadrapheme: 21st Century Literature. It’s an online literary review for which I’m the managing editor. I also still write reviews, and compile a monthly two-part list of books being released that month.

Here’s a taster for my latest review, of Belinda McKeon’s superb new novel Tender:

Belinda McKeon’s first novel, Solace, won the Geoffrey Faber prize and established her as an Irish writer to watch closely. Her follow-up, Tender (Picador, June 2015) is an emotionally literate exploration of the ties that bind—delightfully, painfully, never simply—two friends in ‘90s Dublin, and the pressures exerted upon them by their environment. It is also perhaps the most agonizingly honest portrayal I’ve ever read of what it is like to be young and deeply, obsessively, pathologically in love.

I absolutely loved it. You can read the rest of the review here.

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