Young Writer of the Year Award Reading: Conversations With Friends, by Sally Rooney

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Being a series of short reviews of the Young Writer of the Year Award shortlisted titles. Spoilers ahead.

I was really very determined not to like Conversations With Friends. In part this was pure obstinacy—the same sort of thing that has prompted me to refuse to read any Elena Ferrante until the whole furore around her writing dies down and I can focus on it without the background noise demanding that I love it—and in part it was more nastily envious, the self-defensive response of a twenty-five-year-old who’s trying to write a novel to a twenty-six-year-old who already has. And I was worried, too, about the way the book might present the experience of being young: its blankly descriptive title, like still life paintings whose titles enumerate every item in the image, gave the impression of a voice that was clever and ironic but ultimately soulless. It’s so easy to caricature millennials, especially intellectual ones, as brittle, brainy robots; I didn’t want to read that.

Well, I was wrong. Not totally wrong—Rooney’s protagonist, Frances, is often described as “cold” or “aloof”, although as we read further we realise that’s probably a function of anxiety and social uncertainty—but fairly wrong. There is sincerity and feeling here; it’s just very often hidden. As Rebecca notes, for a novel that signposts so clearly its interest in communication, an awful lot of the characters’ conversations fail vitally in conveying information about their emotional states.

The basic arc of the story is that two young women, Frances and Bobbi, who used to date each other and now perform spoken-word poetry together, meet a married couple, Melissa and Nick. Melissa is a writer and photographer; Nick is an actor. When Melissa decides she wants to write a profile of the two younger women for a magazine, they’re catapulted into her and Nick’s orbit. Bobbi is intellectually drawn to Melissa, who seems to dislike Frances, who in turn is mesmerised by Nick, who seems to have lost interest in his wife. Frances and Nick begin an affair, Melissa and Bobbi find out about it, and the rest of the book charts the fallout of that discovery on the complex relationships that bind the four of them.

When Naomi Frisby and I talked about this book, she described it as “very middle class”, which isn’t wrong. Conversations With Friends is intensely interested in money, class, and belonging: those are the issues that especially vex people of my generation. A sense of inheritance and legitimacy generally goes hand in hand with the financial freedom to pursue artistic projects: young writers, artists and actors are very often the ones whose parents can support them after university while they pursue their craft. Bobbi, a political radical who wants to be an academic, has a father who will take her out to three-course meals every few weeks and a family background that gives her the security to take risks. Frances, whose refusal or inability to be so loudly opinionated is generally read by the other characters as poise or self-confidence, comes from a less comfortable situation: her father, who left her mother years ago, is catastrophically alcoholic and financially unreliable. (In one horrible scene, he calls Frances to assure her that he’s just put her allowance in the bank. Since he never calls her to say this, she checks her account, which is, of course, empty.) And yet Frances’s flat in Dublin is owned by her uncle, who lets her stay there virtually rent-free. Privilege perpetuates itself—something that her fellow (unpaid) intern at a literary agency explicitly says during the course of the novel.

The ending, curiously, seems to abandon this relentless realism altogether. Frances has separated from Nick, but at the end of the book, the strong implication is that they recommence their relationship. Why? The dynamic that Rooney has established between her characters means that this ménage à trois cannot end well; either you can have an affair with a married man without his wife knowing, and end it, or you can have an affair with a married man with his wife knowing, and end it, or you can enter into an open relationship with a married couple. The choice Frances appears to have—to be in a relationship with a married man whose wife knows but is ambivalent about it—is fantasy; to sustain it even for a couple of months will be impossibly stressful and probably deeply painful for all parties. Perhaps that’s what Rooney wants us to recognise, but whether the point is that Frances and Nick will be punished for selfishness, or that they are both immature, isn’t clear. The other possibility—that the ending is meant to be happy, or happy-ish—is absurd and romanticises human behaviour in a way that none of the rest of the novel has done.

That aside, though, the dialogue is witty and believable, and Rooney is a canny chronicler of social faultlines, the way people’s insecurities and wants affect how they act in public. My vote is still for The Lucky Ones, but I wouldn’t be sorry if Conversations With Friends won.

The Young Writer of the Year Award winner is announced on 7 December. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Rebecca, Clare, Dane and AnnabelConversations With Friends is published by Faber, and is available in hardback.

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Young Writer of the Year Award Reading: The End of the Day, by Claire North

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Being a series of short reviews of the Young Writer of the Year Award shortlisted titles. Spoilers ahead.

First of all: the protagonist of this book, Charlie, is the Harbinger of Death. This doesn’t mean he actually is Death; Death is something else, unknowable but instantly recognisable. Charlie, as the Harbinger of his boss, goes before. He’s a human. He gets the job in the regular way—application, interview—and, much of the time, deals with other humans who are admin and support staff in Death’s office (which, delightfully and inevitably, is located in Milton Keynes). His job is to visit people—”sometimes as a courtesy”, he says, “sometimes as a warning”—and to bring them things.

His appearance doesn’t always signal the end of a human life, though that often happens in conjunction; we first meet him, for instance, drinking whisky and listening to the stories of an old South American woman who is the last native speaker of her language. Later, he visits an elderly member of the Ku Klux Klan, and a woman who runs an annual debutante’s ball, and an openly lesbian stand-up comedian in Nigeria who escapes dying by the narrowest of margins; what dies instead is her conviction that she can live as her true self in the country of her birth.

There are interesting, intelligent ideas being thrown around here, and North executes them, for the most part, with panache. My problem with the book is its pathological unevenness of tone. Sometimes we feel as though we are reading a literary descendant of Good Omens (that Milton Keynes gag, for one thing; Charlie’s commentaries about his flights and hotel rooms, and his occasional meetings with his colleagues, the Harbingers of Pestilence, Famine and War). Other times, the book feels un-self-aware and portentous: “Charlie looked up through a veil of tears” (interesting, that homophone with “vale of tears”—I’m hoping it’s intentional—) “and at the far end of the field he beheld a pale figure leaning against a blasted tree, and it seemed to him that the land withered beneath his feet, and the sky blackened above his head, and his name was Death, and hell followed him.”

But it’s not clear what that portentousness is in service of. We’re threatened with the end of the world, but it might just be the end of a world, and we never know what that might consist of. For most of the book it seems as though the climax is going to take the form of Charlie burning out, overwhelmed by the job. It’s difficult to feel too bad for Charlie, though, mostly because he’s a completely blank slate. Perhaps that’s the point—we’re meant to be able to see ourselves in him, because North hammers home the fact of his humanity again and again over the book’s 400 pages—but it results in dialogue that veers from the diffuse (Charlie’s speech is marked by a lot of ellipses) to the gnomicly clichéd (“To see life, to honour life, you must know that one day it will end”). That, in turn, means we have virtually no idea of what Charlie is like; his responses to his job are too generic to glean any sense of character from them, and the rest of the information we receive on him is equally hard to add up to a real person. We never hear whether he has parents, for instance, or even really friends.

The End of the Day is, for all that, affecting. North intersperses her chapters of action with chapters of pure dialogue, giving the impression of a crowded, chatty bus or train or restaurant. Those interrupted, overheard conversations, simultaneously absurd and poignant, are there to show the reader what the human condition really is: short-sighted, short-memoried, primarily interested in what’s for dinner, and yet still capable of surprising charm and appeal. It’s a book about living and dying; North wants us to know that the very banality of living doesn’t make it any less serious an undertaking. At the same time, the book’s many little vignettes make it hard to get a grip on the point of the whole thing: where the plot is going and why it might be going there, and by extension, what North wants to say about life and death, and why. There is, after all, very little original left to say about either of those states. It’s a diverting and sometimes disturbing read, but one that could be more coherent.

The Young Writer of the Year Award winner is announced on 7 December. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Rebecca, Clare, Dane and Annabel. The End of the Day is published by Orbit, and is available in paperback.

Dunbar, by Edward St Aubyn

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Back at the energy level where full reviews are hard but I still want to write about what I’m reading, I’ve decided to try—for probably the seventeenth time—just writing shorter ones. Dunbar is the most recent installment in Hogarth’s Shakespeare update project; this time, Edward St Aubyn takes on the monumental King Lear. Of the aging king, he makes a self-made media mogul, Henry Dunbar, who has signed over most of his assets and all of the real decision-making powers to his daughters Megan and Abby. They, in turn, have colluded with the crooked Doctor Bob to medicate Dunbar to the point of paranoid insanity, and after an unfortunate incident on Hampstead Heath, he’s been relegated to a nursing home in the Lake District. Escaping with his roommate, the alcoholic ex-comedian Peter Walker (who bears a personality resemblance to Tommy Cooper), Dunbar must brave a stormy night in the fells, and the good daughter Florence must find him before it’s too late.

Dunbar, like most of the Hogarth series, fails, and like the others, it fails for several reasons. Most particularly, it fails because it entirely lacks a moral component, and—relatedly—any sense of universality. Shakespeare’s Lear is a King, of course, so hardly an Everyman, but the actors who play him have the opportunity to invest him with the most human of fears: “let me not be mad”. Dunbar says this too, but St Aubyn doesn’t give him the chance to be an Everyman; instead he’s an aggressive and deeply unpleasant businessman who’s suffered a drug-induced psychotic break. Where is the tragedy in this? Where is the audience’s self-identification with the fallen man, the terror and the catharsis? Nothing in Dunbar’s state of mental collapse is inherent to him; it is all the result of Doctor Bob’s prescriptions and his daughters’ machinations. By contrast, Lear’s fall comes about precisely and only because he is who he is. A different man would not have made the decisions he makes. That’s the heart of tragedy—the fatalism of it—and St Aubyn misses it entirely. Glimpses of Dunbar’s childhood—a cold and distant mother, a stint in provincial Winnipeg—might have made it possible for a reader to identify the events and experiences that have warped Dunbar from the start, but St Aubyn never does more than glance at them. (The mother, clearly, is meant to explain some of the Lear story’s misogyny).

Additionally, there are technical issues. The characterisation is both tissue-thin and daft. Abby and Megan are psychotic vamps without a shred of psychological realism between them; it’s totally possible to write believably empty characters motivated only by sex and violence, cf. Patrick Bateman, but these women are cartoonish nymphomaniacs, first presented having sex that terminates with the biting off of a man’s nipple. Doctor Bob (that very man) is a helpless, hand-wringing fool without any clear motivations or passions. (He’s also an instance of bad naming; quite apart from the fact that his name is inexplicably bland, anyone who’s ever seen The Simpsons will think of Sideshow Bob whenever the good doctor is mentioned.) Florence, as is often the case with Cordelia, is sweetly dull. Mark, the Albany analogue, could have been interesting given more time and attention—Albany’s horror as he realises what his wife has done is one of the more moving and distressing elements of Lear, like Emilia standing up to Iago at the end of Othello—but in this treatment, he comes across simply as a pawn, doing what he does because that’s what happens in the play. St Aubyn’s much-vaunted prose style, meanwhile, is nowhere in evidence. I’ve read one of the Melrose novels, Never Mind, and am willing to accept that he could write a good sentence in 1992. But this is 2017, and the sentences in Dunbar are, at best, fine. Absolutely none of them stands out. Taken together, they comprise a thoroughly medium-roast reading experience.

I’m left wondering, as always, whether this is an inherent problem of form; whether these stories are so plainly play-shaped that making them into novels is doomed; or whether there is something about consciously attempting to adapt Shakespeare that makes even revered writers choke; or whether (shall we whisper it?) these writers have been ill-chosen, whether they have been selected on the basis of name recognition or other dubious merits, and whether the Hogarth committee ought to have looked further afield for their project. It is clearly not impossible to write an excellent novel that brings the concerns of King Lear into the present day: Jane Smiley did so years ago, with A Thousand Acres, and Preti Taneja has just done the same thing in We That Are Young. But maybe we ought to stop expecting such a thing from established literary names. There have been too many disappointments already.

Dunbar was published in the UK on 5 October, 2017, by Hogarth Press.

Johannesburg, by Fiona Melrose

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I seem to be writing a lot about rewrites these days. Fiona Melrose’s second novel, Johannesburg, isn’t precisely a rewrite, but it takes many of its cues from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: from its life-in-the-day scope to its characters (Melrose’s hunchbacked, homeless protestor September mirroring Woolf’s shellshocked, suicidal Septimus) to its culmination in a grand party. These knowing echoes, and others like them, don’t always work, but when they do, Melrose achieves what Woolf does: she creates a portrait of a city, and of particular moments in time, and reminds us that a moment can contain an eternity.

We start with Gin, an unmarried fine artist in her early forties who has come home to Johannesburg from New York to throw a birthday party for her eighty-year-old mother, Neve. Neve has never apparently approved of anything Gin has done, and the party – as such parties do – has taken on a major weight of significance in Gin’s mind: if Neve likes it, sees that she has worked hard to make it look beautiful and get the details right, then that will prove, once and for all, that her mother loves her. Preparations for the party throughout the day take up much of the book’s matter, though Melrose lets us spend less time picking up food or cutting flowers, and much more time inside Gin’s head, as she worries ceaselessly about being a woman, behaving like a woman, disappointing her mother, having her own space to create.

That obsession – having one’s own space to create – is deeply Woolfian, and should give some hint as to what this contemporary Dalloway is trying to achieve. Woolf is famous for ignoring the servants and working-class women that enable her life and the lives of her creative female characters, but Melrose doesn’t make that mistake: she accords to Mercy and to Duduzile, a housekeeper and a cook/maid, the same longing for agency and independence as she gives to Gin (and to Gin’s now-dead Aunt Virginia, a novelist who drowned herself on her eightieth birthday, all of which I think is slightly too heavy-handed). Still, Mercy has her own thoughts – most of them, fortunately, not about the white family she works for – and, at one point, wonders what kind of cooking she could do if she had a little kitchen that was all her own. It’s a long-awaited way of moving Woolf’s famous “room of one’s own” into the realm of a working-class woman; Mercy thinks she’d buy a table and paint it red, hang her own curtains, cook fritters and pap to sell to stalls all over the city.

Duduzile, meanwhile, is tethered to responsibility by her brother September, a hunchbacked man who used to work as a cook in the kitchens of a large mining company, until the miners staged a demonstration for better pay and conditions. This demo, at Verloren, turned into a massacre, and September – one of the few survivors – was grazed by a bullet that ploughed a furrow through the side of his head. Now, homeless and misshapen, he is animated by the need for justice: every day, he takes up vigil outside the Diamond, the urban headquarters of the mining company, with a placard strapped to his back above his hump: VERLOREN. HERE I AM. Dudu brings him meat and fruit and water, and tries to make sure he gets enough rest; he sleeps on cardboard in an abandoned garden, since living with Dudu is impossible (he reflects that he would frighten her “madam”, and the madam’s children.)

September is the moral heart of the novel. His stand outside the Diamond is only the most obvious instance; throughout the book he represents a silent majority who have been mistreated and underestimated, but who, nevertheless, demand justice and show love. The book takes place on the day that Nelson Mandela’s death is announced, and throughout the narrative is woven a sense of the people of Johannesburg hurrying to the Residence to pay their respects and show their grief. Extra police officers and helicopters are deployed to “keep the peace”, which September views as an insult: South Africans love Mandela; to suggest that they might degenerate into violence upon his death is offensive. His presence in the book serves as a mute instance of passive resistance, a technique that has fallen in and out of favour with political activists (particularly Black activists, both in Africa and in the States), but which nevertheless has a long and distinguished pedigree. HERE I AM.

September’s outstanding act in the book is to return Neve’s runaway dog, Juno, thereby salvaging Neve’s mood and Gin’s planned party. He doesn’t hang around for long enough to receive the cash reward that Gin wants to give him; when she returns to the front door with her wallet, he’s already walking away. Later (no spoiler, this, if you’ve read Dalloway) September is killed outside the Diamond in a standoff-cum-misunderstanding-cum-suicide by cop, a tragedy which Gin’s former lover Peter is helpless to prevent. When Gin hears the news, and realises that the dead man is the very man who brought her dog back (and saved the evening by restoring Neve’s good mood), she is horrified to realise that when he left her door, he was walking to his death. Up to this point in the book, very little has been able to get through Gin’s carapace of self-pity, shame, and fascination with mortality; it is only the actual death of a person she saw mere hours before that shakes her. Here Melrose both hews closely to Woolf’s original – where Clarissa Dalloway is upset by news of Septimus’s suicide – and writes with a broader social awareness than Woolf manages. Gin, death-obsessed, is a well-off white woman with every conceivable liberty – artistic, financial, romantic. When death does enter the novel, it doesn’t come for her, but for a poor, crippled black man; she is forced to decentralise herself, to understand that while she may see death as “an option”, for others it is so much more.

There are some missteps: the story of Aunt Virginia, for instance, who doesn’t contribute much to the narrative other than a way for the reader to nod knowingly, and some of the dialogue between Gin and Neve, which is probably meant to be painfully adolescent but possibly not meant to be quite so annoying and banal. Ultimately, though, Mrs. Dalloway and Johannesburg are both – at least through Melrose’s lens – about a particular city, and what it is like to live there, and how the city becomes more than the sum of its parts. The scenes in Johannesburg where Gin drives through town – always driving, always separated from the street and the noise and the heat – are intelligent counterpoints to September’s view of the overlapping freeways that soar above his traffic island. Both characters feel embedded in the city; neither sees it whole. In that fragmentation, combined with the sense of unity provided by communal grief at Mandela’s death, Johannesburg rings wonderfully true.

Many thanks to the kind folk at Corsair for the review copy. Johannesburg is published in the UK on 3 August.

Tench, by Inge Schilperoord

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Tench occupied a curious space in my brain while I was reading it, a space that makes it extremely difficult to review. I accepted it from Pushkin Press’s superb publicist Tabitha Pelly, who has form for sending me things that are both very worthwhile and challenging to sum up. The problem, or one of the problems, is a common one: when someone asks you what you are reading, the follow-up question is usually “What’s it about?” In the case of Tench, the answer is “A paedophile”, which, understandably, tends to dampen any further conversation. And the experience of reading it is not unlike that exchange: it is a very brave, very sad book about a lonely and conflicted man with fatally weak support networks, and as such, it is not the sort of thing that one “enjoys” reading. On the other hand, Schilperoord’s grasp of emotional beats in the soul of someone trying hard to be good and do the right thing is superb, and moving. This book will cut you. That’s a recommendation, I promise.

Inge Schilperoord is a Dutch criminal psychologist, and her experience with men like her protagonist, Jonathan, goes a long way towards explaining why he is such a convincing character. As the book opens, he is being released from prison. Something happened to put him there – something involving the neighbour’s daughter Betsy, who seems to suffer from a developmental disability – but the evidence to keep him there is apparently insufficient, and so he is let go. There isn’t much for him to return to: his mother is a well-meaning provincial naif who suffers from asthma and needs Jonathan’s care and attention almost every hour of the day. In a way, this suits Jonathan just fine. He creates a strict daily schedule for himself built around his shift at the fish gutting factory, his daily walks with the elderly family dog, Milk, and keeping house for his mother. Built into the schedule are “exercises” from his workbook, designed to help him control his own thoughts and actions.

His days are so regimented that we know from the beginning, with sinking hearts, it can’t last. Just after moving in, Jonathan meets Elke, a prepubescent girl who lives next door with her single mother. Elke is often left alone in her house, and while Jonathan’s been in prison, she’s been walking Milk for his mother. When they meet, disaster is inevitable.

Partly, Tench is an indictment of silence. Jonathan has no one to help him in his efforts to steer clear of Elke because he doesn’t tell his mother anything. He’s not even sure that she knows precisely why he went to prison: she didn’t come to his trial and he has asked his lawyer not to talk to her about the case. For her own part, his mother never tries to find out; there’s something in her son that she doesn’t understand, and though she loves him, she fears that part of him more than she can admit. So she tries to banish Elke from their house, but she doesn’t ask him anything outright, doesn’t discuss prison or the past with him, and is therefore unable to help him change his future. It’s an understandable attitude, but a useless one: pretend it’s not happening and everything will be all right. “That’s fine, son,” she says often, of his coffee-making or his omelette-flipping. These little finenesses can’t make up for the huge not-okay-ness of most of Jonathan’s life, but she tries to make it seem as if they can.

Schilperoord marshals the symbolism of the natural world to emphasise Jonathan’s constant discomfort: the story is set in a freak heat wave, and the tench of the title is a fish – thought by medieval peasants to have healing properties – which Jonathan tries to keep alive in his bedroom aquarium. It becomes the focus of his interactions with Elke, who loves animals and seems to be just as lonely as Jonathan himself, though where she is desperate for his company, he is terrified of hers. Slowly, as the care of the fish becomes their mutual concern, Jonathan’s flimsily constructed self-discipline begins to erode: first he promises himself he won’t allow the girl within a few dozen metres of him, then within five, then within two. He is constantly trying to maintain boundaries, but also constantly self-justifying.

And all the while, the relentless hot weather: humid, oppressive, and omnipresent. It’s a perfect metaphor for Jonathan’s own thoughts. His exercises tell him that these can be unlearned and rebuilt in a more acceptable image, but although he tries, it’s difficult to do the hard work on your own, without an external force holding you accountable. Schilperoord makes very sure that we see that: that we witness him trying, that we witness him backsliding not because he’s an evil kiddie-fiddler but because he’s human, in the same way that an alcoholic might try hard not to drink but end up reaching for a beer because, dammit, they’ve had a bad day.

Throughout the book, the climactic catastrophe looms. Something is bound to happen, but it’s hard to imagine how Schilperoord will engineer it without boxing herself in: either Jonathan gives in to his impulses, in which case the novel holds out no hope for individual goodness or effort at all, or he doesn’t, which, given the amount of time Tench spends destabilising Jonathan’s resolve, seems dramatically unsatisfying. The third option – the one Schilperoord finally takes – avoids these problems, but is tripped up by its sheer unlikeliness. But that, I think, is the danger inherent in writing a story with such high stakes; on one side or the other, melodrama lurks, and the fact that Schilperoord avoids it for as long as she does is impressive.

What this book most reminded me of was Ian Parkinson’s The Beginning of the End, which I reviewed about two years ago. Parkinson too writes from the perspective of an anti-hero whose lack of sympathetic qualities are due not to a Byronic, rebellious nature but to being repellent and heartbreakingly lonely. But Parkinson’s book does not hold out hope, and while Schilperoord’s book doesn’t really either, it feels by the end as though we’ve moved beyond hope. Jonathan has done nothing, but he will probably be punished. In a way, he’ll be safer back in prison – where at least a support system of psychologists and social workers exists – than out in the wide, terrifying world of flat shores and unpredictable children.

(It is also worth reading Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich’s book The Fact of a Body in conjunction with Tench. Both give windows onto the almost insurmountable difficulties of living with paedophilia in a society where you are more likely to be reviled or ignored than offered help, and onto the painful struggle not to hurt anyone when, to you, it doesn’t even feel like hurt.)

Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly of Pushkin Press for the reading copy. Tench was published in the UK on 27 April 2017.

April Superlatives

April was a good month in numbers (seventeen), a decent month in quality, a month that I have decided I should not attempt to repeat. I got a lot of proofs from the bookshop, probably too many: there were piles on my desk at work, piles on the desk at home, and a kind of grit-my-teeth determination to get through them all before May. The vast majority of them were very good, but that still seems, in retrospect, like an awfully joyless way to read. It also meant that I burnt out on reviewing less than halfway through the month. In May I’ll be reining it in. Which is handy, since I’ll have friends and family visiting, some singing to do, and zero free time.

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most essential: If you like books or use the Internet—and, since you just read that on a website devoted to books, this means you—you need to read The Idealist, by Justin Peters. In part it’s an intellectual biography of data freedom activist Aaron Swartz, in part a tour of historic attitudes to copyright, freedom of information, and open access to literature and other works of culture. If you’re a writer, a reader, a citizen, this is fundamental, and it taps into every other contemporary political issue that there is. (review)

best exposition of little-known history: The fact that there are true things we don’t know about because they’re too weird or peripheral to make it into school history curricula is a source of neverending fascination for me, both as a reader and as a writer. Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots follows a young, idealistic American woman who moves to the USSR in the 1930s, and tracks the life she lives there, all but abandoned by the US government, as purges start to get worse. It’s a compelling, if somewhat overlong, exploration of choice, dogma, and what it means to be free. (review)

best punch to the stomach: Almost literally; One of the Boys, by Daniel Magariel, is under two hundred pages and focuses on the interactions between an abusive father and his two adolescent sons. Magariel compassionately illuminates the pressures and pitfalls of “being a man” in a world that prioritises violence and loyalty above all else. (review)

best application of essential thoughts: Cory Doctorow’s new novel, Walkaway, is dedicated in part to Aaron Swartz. Set eighty-odd years in the future, it speculates about a wholesale rejection of late-stage capitalism enabled by 3-D printers, widespread tech smarts, a communal mindset, and the fact that the 1% has become the .001%. When a walkaway group discovers a technology for cheating death, all hell breaks loose. Doctorow believes we’ll create the world that we imagine, and he wants us to imagine a cooperative one. It made me feel very hopeful. (review)

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sheerest fun: Volume 2 of Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s barnstorming space opera graphic novel. In this one, we get more of The Will and Lying Cat—two of my absolute faves—beautifully rendered interactions between Alana and her father-in-law, a planet that hatches, and (finally) the appearance of Gwendolyn. It’s slick, funny, and superb.

most fuck-the-patriarchy: Maria Turtschaninoff’s YA fantasy novel Naondel, the follow-up to last year’s Maresi. Men in general don’t come off well—they’re all evil, weak-willed, arrogant, or all of the above—which does its young readers a disservice; Maresi took care to state that men aren’t inherently bad, a more nuanced approach that showed more respect for an adolescent’s intellect. Still, Naondel is full both of badass women and of women who’ve been badly hurt but not broken. That’s a great big middle finger to oppressive tyrants everywhere. (review)

most self-aware memoir: Admissions, English neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s second book. Marsh is completely honest about his personal faults, which largely neutralises them; he is forthright about the problems that beset the NHS, and clearly fiercely proud of his colleagues, and of the institution as it was originally conceived. He writes a lot in this second volume about aging and death, too, without either sentimentality or cynicism. His voice is wry and utterly unique. Highly recommended.

most diffuse: Sympathy, a debut novel by Olivia Sudjic, published by ONE Pushkin. I liked it well enough, but I finished it unsure of whether Sudjic had actually done anything particularly interesting with her major theme—the ease with which one can stalk and create a false sense of intimacy, using the tools of social media—or whether she had simply used it to tell a fairly conservative story of the need for origins and belonging.

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most unexpected pleasure: That derived from Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Going in with no expectations was probably wise; it’s a surprisingly wistful novel, full of marital affection that is no less honest for being presented side-by-side with selfishness and existential terror.

best retelling: Colm Toibin’s reclamation of the Clytemnestra/Agamemnon/Orestes story from ancient Greece, House of Names. Toibin nails the bare-bones, primeval nature of the story and simultaneously brings us into the heads of absolutely single-minded characters. My only query is whether he gives quite enough weight to religious belief: the younger characters are convinced the gods are not there, but Agamemnon must have thought they were, and we don’t get enough of that (or a good reason to decide that he’s merely a nihilistic child-murdering monster.)

best murder: Two, actually—the deaths in Sarah Schmidt’s historical novel about Lizzie Borden, See What I Have Done. And by “best” I mean “most horribly described without being gratuitously gory” and “motives for which explored with the greatest delicacy and surprising artistry”. Turns out Schmidt can really, really write, and she cleverly resists the temptation to pinpoint the nature of Lizzie’s mental health problems, making for a gloriously uneasy reading experience.

most wasted opportunity: Queer City, subtitled “a history of gay London from the Romans to the present”, Peter Ackroyd’s latest. To paraphrase what I said in an earlier discussion, Ackroyd fails on two counts: a) to provide much in the way of sources (there’s a bibliography in the back, but he usually just recounts an anecdote without saying where or who it comes from, and without appearing to analyse the source), and b) to create anything like a narrative or a sense of development around the history of gay London. It’s all just event, event, event—court case, scandal, ballad, gossip, hanging—with no framing of these events in a wider context, no attempt more than cursory to explore social and political currents that might suggest why things changed when. And although the book purports to be about the city, it doesn’t really convey a sense of why or how gay culture flourished specifically in London.

best insults: To be found in The Blood Miracles, Lisa McInerney’s follow-up to The Glorious Heresies, which won her the Baileys Prize last year. In this volume, we follow one of the characters we met previously, Ryan Cusack. A few years down the line, he’s twenty and dealing drugs, and his girlfriend Karine, who means everything to him, is starting to lose patience. McInerney ties in many of the characters we met in Heresies, but this time the atmosphere is darker: there are more beatings, a mock-execution. There’s still humour, though, and the insults are fabulous (“his head is just something that keeps his ears apart” being one of my favourites). I’m just not sure it rises to the heights of Heresies, but I can’t put my finger on why.

The Fact of a Body

hands-down favourite: I liked a lot of the books I read in April, but none of them are going to stay with me like The Fact of a Body. Written by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, a qualified lawyer with an MFA, it’s part true crime narrated in flawless novelistic prose, part attempt to exorcise the ghosts of Marzano-Lesnevich’s own abusive past. She does this by facing their echoes in the case of Ricky Langley, who admitted to killing a little boy called Jeremy Guillory in 1993. It’s a stunning piece of work: never sensationalistic, never sentimental, always sharply intelligent about the law and human nature, and yet full of understanding. I absolutely adored it. I want it to be huge.

most unabashed comfort reading: Turns out these days, when I need to recharge my brain, I go for spies and murder. (This is why I think I’m getting old. Isn’t this what old people do? Curl up with a cosy mystery and a crossword? At least I don’t do crosswords.) Fortunately neither of these were especially cosy: not Mick Herron’s Dead Lions, the second in the Slough House books, nor Tana French’s The Secret Place, one of her Dublin Murder Squad books, this one set in a girl’s school. Dead Lions isn’t quite as good as Slow Horses: the wisecracking humour starts to wear thin, and the plot is, frankly, farcical and unnecessary (no one cares about the Cold War anymore, and trying to revive it – especially after Herron put his finger on the pulse in terms of real national security trends in his first book – seems like a misguided attempt to cash in on Le Carre comparisons.) But The Secret Place is, I think, one of French’s best books, because it is so explicit about the things that interest her as an author: friendship as an almost mystical force, and what happens when that force is subjected to outside influences, what happens when loving people isn’t enough. Reading it almost felt like relief: she’s a writer I trust implicitly.

most unexpected surprise: Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor’s new novel, which I’ll be reviewing very soon. It starts with the disappearance of a young girl in a Peak District village, and promptly fails to fulfill every one of our expectations about stories that start with the disappearance of a young girl. It’s also the best evocation I have ever read of modern English village life.

up next: I’m currently reading China Miéville’s The City and the City, with almost equal measures of enjoyment and mild confusion, as Miéville’s fiction tends to make me feel. For the rest of the month, I’ve got some fantastic proofs, including Tench by Inge Schilperoord, Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson, and The Things We Thought We Knew by Mahsuda Snaith.

The Idealist, by Justin Peters

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

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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.