The Idealist, by Justin Peters

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


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.

Sand, by Wolfgang Herrndorf

“Are you entirely sure that you don’t know who you are?”


Let’s start with what I put on Goodreads, five minutes after finishing Sand:

Excellent and horrible. Parts of it are reminiscent of what James Bond might have been like if Fleming had been a decent writer; parts of it are like desert Le Carré; quite a bit of it is like surreal, blackly-comic Greene. You have no idea what’s happening for the first hundred pages and then it all clicks, the characters’ relations to each other make sense, and you’re off. Gloriously, there are no good guys, except perhaps for our amnesiac protagonist, who takes his name (Carl) from the designer’s label inside his suit. The ending laughs majestically in the face of narrative justice. It’s incredible.”

Now let’s back up. Sand does not start with amnesiac Carl. It starts with Polidorio and Canisades, two post-colonial policemen in Morocco circa 1972. The Olympic Games at Munich have just been defiled by the abduction and murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. The world is hot and nervous. Polidorio and Canisades are called upon to investigate the murder of four people at a hippie commune, apparently by a Moroccan national of seemingly boundless stupidity by the name of Amadou Amadou. Something about the case feels not quite right, but the evidence all adds up and Amadou is on his way to be hanged—until his prison truck is involved in a traffic accident and he is sprung free. The police seem incapable of finding him again; Polidorio is summoned to his chief inspector’s office and informed that, due to the wishes of important people, Amadou will not be found at all, full stop, end of story.

Interspersed with this are chapters following American Helen Gliese, who supposedly works for a cosmetic company but whose sample case was mysteriously and conveniently lost on the docks as she disembarked in Morocco. Helen, who has what the back cover describes as “a talent for being underestimated”, picks up Carl at a desert petrol station; he is wandering aimlessly, covered in blood, having just extricated himself from a scene of distressing violence at a barn in the middle of nowhere with no memory of who he is or what he was doing there. Helen is also acquainted with one of the residents of the commune, a dippy woman called Michelle who reads tarot cards but tends to cheat the deck by removing the Hanged Man.

Once Helen and Carl come together with Michelle, it’s clear that there are wheels within wheels. Up to this point, it hasn’t been at all clear; because Herrndorf starts us off at a point so peripheral to the main action (and, perhaps not coincidentally, to the description on the back of the book), we’re left completely disoriented for quite a long time. Being thrown off balance at the start doesn’t always impress me, but it does here because Herrndorf so obviously knows what he’s doing, even though we don’t. On he marches through the setup of his plot, unspooling authorial confidence behind him, and we follow. By the time Carl meets Helen, you’re in it for the long haul.

Carl is an innocent, and not only by virtue of being unable to remember anything. His actions and reactions (and inactions) are often inexplicably odd. Briefly captured by a white-haired crime lord named Adil Bassir, he has his hand nailed to the table by a letter-opener but does not take the opportunity to explain that he has lost his memory. Helen is baffled: “If I’d been nailed to a desk with a letter-opener I’d have told him a thing or two.” “I had the feeling,” Carl says helplessly, “that I didn’t know what he didn’t know. He just didn’t know that I didn’t know. If I had told him, what would he have done with me?” He panics at the wrong times, is calm at the wrong times. He cries a lot. He is simply, undeniably goofy. And yet we can also feel terrible pity for him, because we can project onto his blank exterior: is there anyone more deserving of kindness than someone lost and vulnerable who doesn’t understand what’s happening to them?

But it’s precisely Carl’s amnesia that also complicates his character. Late on in the book, he is captured and tortured for information that he doesn’t (of course) have. In the course of this unpleasantness, one of his tormentors pinpoints the problem with creating sympathy for the unknown:

“You have something that belongs to us. That we discovered. Our scientists. And that’s why we are the good guys: we built the bomb and wreaked havoc with it. But we learned from that. We’re the adaptive system. Hiroshima shortened the war, and you can argue about Nagasaki—but it’s not going to happen a third time. We will stop it from happening a third time. In our hands the bomb is nothing more than an ethical principle. Put the same bomb in your hands and we’d be heading toward a catastrophe that would make everything else look like nothing more than a minor headache by comparison.”

Whether this rosy picture of American military morality is legitimate or not isn’t the point of this passage; the point of the passage is to awaken uncertainty in the reader. Who, after all, is Carl? We know nothing about him. He knows nothing about himself. Can we be so certain that he isn’t—or wasn’t—involved in hideous plans? We only know what we’ve seen of him, in a very particular, impotent context. What is the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? One’s point of view. And the difference between an innocent man and a guilty one, Herrndorf seems to be saying, is sometimes just the same.

Readerly investment in Carl increases as the book goes on. He is made to suffer a great deal, and by the end of the book our perspective is confined almost entirely to his experiences, so that we can’t help but identify with him. Whether he was or is a terrorist or not, Herrndorf clearly shows us a human: one who fears and tries and clings tenaciously to whatever scrap of a chance is held out to him, one who wants more than anything else to live. So when I say that the ending laughs in the face of narrative justice, what I mean is that it leaves the reader with a sense of wall-pounding noooooooo-ness that you might recognise if you’ve read Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions or watched the film There Will Be Blood. It’s an ending that looks sideways at your high school lit class and everything you learned there about the blueprints for fiction, then smiles wryly, puts out its cigarette on its tongue, and kicks the shit out of teleology. It is, in other words, an ending as true to true life as anything I’ve ever read, and it makes the point that Friedrich Durrenmatt is trying to make in The Pledge about falseness in genre narrative with significantly greater raw grace than Durrenmatt manages. (Sorry, Durrenmatt.)

Wolfgang Herrndorf died of a brain tumour in 2013, at the age of forty-eight. He wrote an earlier book, translated in English as Why We Took the Car, but Sand will be his last. It alone ought to assure him a place in twenty-first century literary history: it’s bold, anarchic, blackly funny, and completely unafraid.

Many thanks as always to the publicity folks at Pushkin for a review copy. Sand is published in the UK on 30 March.

Two New Books From Pushkin Press

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, by Dorthe Nors

the place you come from is a place you can never return to


Sonja is forty and has never learned to drive. Now, living in Copenhagen and working as a translator of Swedish crime fiction into Danish, she’s going to learn. But the project doesn’t start out well—her instructor, Jytte, barks instructions and makes her anxious—and when she asks to switch instructors, she’s landed with the driving school owner himself, Folke, a man of disconcertingly present sexuality. Nor is all going well in other parts of Sonja’s life: her sister, Kate, won’t return her phone calls; her parents are rapidly aging in a rural part of Denmark that seems to be dying along with its old farming inhabitants; and her oldest friend, Molly, is drifting further and further away from her.

If that makes this sound like a romantic comedy or a fluffy piece of relationships fiction, it’s not. It isn’t full of gloom, either, though: the prevailing mood of Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a kind of gentle melancholy. Sonja constantly drifts back in her thoughts to the safe place at the centre of her parents’ rye field, where she loved to hide. She fantasises about the huge skies of the countryside, the whooper swans. She tries to find green spaces in Copenhagen that will satisfy her need for landscape: “it looks like a piece of wilderness, but it isn’t, it’s Valby Park.” What the book seems to be trying to explore is how a woman—a person, really, but Sonja’s womanhood is important, I think—can come adrift. It’s not dramatic; she isn’t drinking too much or spending too much money or wandering around talking to herself. But she is very, very lonely nonetheless.

Nors works at showing us that loneliness through clean, clear, present-tense sentences. She isn’t verbose, though we get no sense of superhuman restraint in the prose either; it doesn’t feel minimalist, although it sort of is. In a way this makes it difficult to write about: I can sense the details of the book slipping from my memory, though I read it less than a week ago. The ending, though, is perfect: hopeful without sentimentality, allowing for love but not equating love with magic. And the love comes from a most unexpected place, one that made me smile with surprised delight. You’ll have to read it to see what I mean.

For A Little While, by Rick Bass

as much grace in the laying down as in the building up


Rick Bass is all but unheard of in this country. In America, when I worked as a bookseller in high school, we would sell a couple of his books every month or so, but it has taken his name a long time to reach these shores. Pushkin Press’s collection of selected and new short stories from his pen is one of the best books I have read for a very long time; I’m hoping that it helps him make his name here, and I’m also going to be tracking down more of Bass’s work, for the beauty of his writing on the sentence level as well as the beauty of his ideas.

He writes mostly about people in the South and West and Southwest: the deserts of New Mexico and Texas, mountainous or forested regions where hunting and logging are part of daily life, Alabama during the oil boom. These are places where people live near to the earth. Bass stands out, as a writer of such places, because he does not allow for despair or tragedy to intrude into a story where it has no right to be. Again and again, he creates situations where people are vulnerable—lonely, desiring love, reaching out for something, asking. Many of them reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s setups, but whereas O’Connor will inevitably tip the story into scorn at grotesquerie and what seems like a kind of mean-minded divine punishment for presumption, Bass’s touch is gentle, generous, loving.

In “Field Events”, one of my favourite of the stories, two brothers who excel at the shot put adopt an enormous young man called A.C., intending to train him to greatness. Their sister, Lory, is a miserable schoolteacher: her students are disinterested and often cruel to her, and she is chronically depressed. She falls in love with A.C., and he with her: his hugely muscled body cradling her tiny frame in a sitting room armchair when she can’t sleep. If this were O’Connor, you would be bracing yourself hard, waiting for the point at which A.C. mugs Lory and abandons her, crushing her heart. But that point doesn’t come. Bass is more interested, I think, in observing the strangeness of reality than in creating a philosophical structure, and that makes his stories more beautifully, lopsidedly convincing.

And he can imbue his prose with a weightiness that, somehow, does not embarrass. He describes the natural world—trees and game and snow—in vivid, serious detail. “Her First Elk” is a story about a young woman named Jyl whose first solo hunt kill is an elk stag. Hunting, for her, is tied up with the memory of her beloved father, now dead. She is helped to skin and cure the elk by two elderly brothers, Ralph and Bruce. There is a mythic element to this story that would not feel out of place in a Cormac McCarthy novel, but look how much less irritating Bass is than McCarthy:

Bruce poured a gallon jug of clean water over Ralph’s hands and wrists to rinse the soap away, and Ralph dried his hands and arms with a clean towel and emptied out the old bloody wash water, then filled it anew, and it was time for Bruce to do the same. Jyl marveled at, and was troubled by, this privileged glimpse at a life, or two lives, beyond her own—a life, two lives, of cautious compentence, fitted to the world; and she was grateful to the elk, and its gone-away life, beyond the sheer bounty of the meat it was providing her, grateful to it for having led her into this place, the small and obscure if not hidden window of these two men’s lives.

The prose uses some of the same tricks as McCarthy’s, but uses them sensibly (the mild archaism of “anew”; the faint ecclesiasticism of “into this place”), and we feel not daunted or halted but let in, like Jyl, to a small and obscure window. I am so grateful to Rick Bass for writing these stories, I cannot tell you. He has written novels, too; I will be seeking them out.

For A Little While was released in the UK on 2 February; Mirror, Shoulder, Signal will be released in the UK on 23 February. Many thanks to the publicity folks at Pushkin Press for the review copies!

Hold Back the Stars, by Katie Khan

“It’s not your job to save me.”


When I was little, I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but my best friend Kendall wanted to be an astronaut. Even at seven, I knew the Best Friend Rules—you support and encourage at all times. She’d talk about going into space, and I’d nod along, but there was a constant undercurrent of fear that I couldn’t shake or share with her: I was terrified she would die there. I’d never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I had read the Tintin book Explorers on the Moon, and I remembered the bit where one character, a stowaway on a rocket ship, sacrifices himself by stepping out into space when it becomes clear there isn’t enough oxygen for everyone else. Nothing—not monsters under the bed, not Voldemort or Sauron or the White Witch—was as frightening to me as the thought of dying alone in an infinite darkness, floating thousands of miles from Earth and light and love, suffocating slowly.

Hold Back the Stars is about that. As the book opens, Carys and Max are free-falling through space. Their severely damaged ship, the Laertes, is behind them and receding every minute. And every minute counts: they have ninety left in their oxygen tanks. After that, if they can’t get back to the ship or get the AI to direct a satellite drone their way, they will suffocate.

Most of the story is told in flashbacks, showing us how Carys and Max came to know each other and to fall in love. Their world, the back cover of my proof says, is one “where love is banned”, which isn’t strictly true but is close enough for marketing copy. Katie Khan has created a near-future, semi-familiar world, suffering from nuclear fallout as the result of a war between the US and “the Middle East” (never clear which bit). Europe has become Europia, a collection of regions known as Voivodes through which citizens are shuffled every three years in a programme called Rotation. It’s meant to discourage individuals from becoming overly attached to one place; how better to combat xenophobia, jingoism and the various dangers of nationalistic pride than to make sure that everyone is from everywhere, or nowhere?

The catch is the Couples Rule, which stipulates that no one can enter a marriage or a civil partnership—preferably not even a serious relationship—before the age of thirty-five. Carys and Max are in their mid-twenties when they meet each other. (It’s a technological meet-cute, wherein she asks the MindShare [which does what it says on the tin] where to get hold of goose fat to roast potatoes; he answers; they flirt in multiple languages and eventually bump into each other in meatspace.) It’s not the smoothest of romances: Max is from one of the founding familes of Europia, people who believe firmly in the rightness of the rules, and Carys wants a demonstration of commitment that he finds hard to give. Eventually, however, wanting to prove his love for her, he not only introduces her to his parents, but asks the Europian government for an exemption to the Couples Rule. The legislature agrees to give the pair a trial run as a couple, but not within Europia; instead, they’re “volunteered” for a space mission to try and find a navigable route through the asteroid field that has inexplicably surrounded Earth since about the time of the nuclear war.

Hold Back the Stars, you will probably have gathered by now, is a kind of sci-fi-lite. All of the trappings are there: global political catastrophe, new world order, environmental changes, altered names for familiar objects or phenomena, increased levels of domestic technology, grand and impersonal government. It is, at least, an actual dystopia. I get very fatigued when people throw the word around imprecisely, but in the case of this novel it’s almost too apt: the population of Europia believe themselves to be living in the best of all possible systems on the benighted Earth (they’ve even incorporated the word “utopia” into their new name), but it doesn’t work for everyone, and isn’t as impartial it seems. However, if you’ve read more than even the tiniest smattering of mildly speculative fiction, or seen more than three episodes of Doctor Who, you will probably find the book’s atmosphere a bit dull. The MindShare, for instance, is not what you’d call a groundbreaking concept. Nor are the Wall Rivers, indoor text and video feeds that echo ideas found everywhere in the genre, from Fahrenheit 451 to the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits”. (Also, Khan’s description of the Europian government’s debating chamber reminded me so strongly of the way the Galactic Senate is portrayed in Star Wars: Episode II that I almost giggled.) It’s not that searing originality is the most important thing; I’m not demanding that everyone be a Joanna Russ or a China Miéville. It’s just that if you’re going to use building blocks that lots of other people have used before you, it would be nice to at least give them a fresh coat of paint. <eyes strained metaphor; abandons it>

Anyway, the sci-fi is lite because Hold Back the Stars isn’t all that interested in its own theoretical implications; it’s much more interested in being a love story, and in this it succeeds. Carys and Max are irritating but fundamentally likeable people; they fuck up because of relatable human things like pride, fear, loyalty to family. They’re not deeply characterised, but they are at least clearly so: Carys does things we recognise as being Carys-like, Max does very different things that are classic Max. And as Khan carries her story along, we see the value of this, because of the nature of the plot twist.

Actually, there are two. The end of part one seems to answer the question of what will happen to them as they fall through space, and the reader, saddened and bewildered, reads on to discover the repercussions of their actions in later years. Until a point at which that answer is suddenly shown to be malleable: a different ending could happen, and then the future would look like this. Or…another possibility altogether.

I like the options that are revealed to us; I like that they are revealed in the first place, that Khan is open-ended and open-handed with her characters’ fates. I like somewhat less the fact that the device enabling these twists is never explained or even hinted at. Is there reincarnation? Time travel? Are these parallel universes? Are we, at any point, simply inside someone’s head, and if so, whose? It seems odd, in a book that adopts a speculative or science fiction-y air, to completely ignore this. Unless the point is a meta one (any ending is possible because all is invented), but if so, the book doesn’t draw attention to its own fictionality in its earlier stages, so it’s a bit sudden.

Hold Back the Stars is an evocative, solidly written love story hung on a futuristic framework. The hook is terrific—the opening pages absolutely dare you not to read on—and it’s easy to become invested in what happens next. I probably won’t reach for it again; I’m not its ideal reader. But if you’re looking for an absorbing, fast-paced, and rather charming love story, pick it up. You’ll have a hard time putting it back down.

Many many thanks to the publicity folks at Doubleday for my review copy. Hold Back the Stars is published in the UK on 26 January.

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

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


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.