Monday, December 22, 2008

Lush life by Richard Price

Lush Life by Richard Price has been very highly praised. Michiko Kakutani has it in her New York Times top ten books of the year. In the UK, it has featured heavily in the broadsheets’ reviews of the year. In particular, it is widely praised for the sharpness and veracity of its dialogue, the way it picks up the sounds of the streets.

And very true, too. The dialogue is outstandingly good. It feels like a realistic slice of New York life and I, who have never visited it, feel I have gleaned some vicarious understanding of the place. It is tight, well written, the characters realistically and consistently drawn, the plot credible and satisfactory. But does that make it a good novel? To be honest, no.

Lush life is a cold, soulless exercise in mimetics. It is a polaroid snapshot of a city and a time. It is a stark representation of the surface of daily life in America in 2008. In that, it is superb. In one hundred years people will read this novel to discover what it was like to live in the old days. Indeed, it will make a far better historical document than it does a contemporary novel. The problem is that it is shallow. In trying so hard to depict the reality, it says nothing. I guess, going back to the old show and tell debate, what I’m saying is that on a macro level this novel is all tell. There is nothing beneath the surface. There is no depth. Ultimately, there is no point. None of the characters change and I am not changed after having read it.

I feel myself teetering on my usual tightrope above Coetzee Falls here. Although I consistently decry Coetzee and his ilk for the tricksiness of their writing, the way they weave every plotline and reference into an ever tighter, ever dense mass of meaning, I do accept that, to be a genuine novel, it does have to have some meaning. And that’s what seems to me to be missing in Lush Life. It has nothing to say. It’s like a parrot, cleverly repeating the words of its master. You can admire the skill of its mimicry, but you aren’t persuaded to engage it in conversation.

It actually puts me in mind of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. Admittedly, the connection may not be immediately obvious: Lush Life is, as I say, all in the dialogue, while Main Street is famous mainly for its lengthy descriptive passages. But, although they are approaching it in different ways, each author is straining primarily for verisimilitude. Each is trying to portray a precise moment, evoke a time and a place. And each, to my mind, takes the process of exactitude too far. And so, while in Lush Life we have endless witty and acute conversations between the characters which combine to change precisely nothing, in Main Street we have description after description which, again, reveals what it was like to live in 1910s America but which does nothing to peer into the souls of the people who inhabited it. Take this passage, for example:

Under the rolling clouds of the prairie a moving mass of steel. An irritable clank and rattle beneath a prolonged roar. The sharp scent of oranges cutting the soggy smell of unbathed people and ancient baggage.

Towns as planless as a scattering of pasteboard boxes on an attic floor. The stretch of faded gold stubble broken only by clumps of willows encircling white houses and red barns.

No. 7, the way train, grumbling through Minnesota, imperceptibly climbing the giant tableland that slopes in a thousand-mile rise from hot Mississippi bottoms to the Rockies.

It is September, hot, very dusty.

Now that is lovely. The first sentence in particular captures that eternal American conflict between the pioneering spirit and the march of progress. It says so much in so little. You immediately understand time and place, you know that this is a society undergoing the growing pains of industrial expansion and you sense the ambivalence of the author and, by definition, American society in general. It is a superb piece of writing.

But then it goes on, for page after page, describing in ever denser detail the occupants of the train carriage and the landscape through which they are travelling. Every description is, in itself, interesting enough, but the layering of more and more detail becomes, in the end, self-defeating: the reader stops paying attention. And this is what I found with Lush Life too: lots and lots of dialogue, but in the end it goes nowhere and I find I have stopped listening. Ultimately, I realise, it has nothing interesting to say. A mirror only reflects; it does not allow for deeper understanding. It is akin to those austere Dutch paintings of the sixteenth century – portraits of large groups of men, all looking sombre and worthy: wonderful historic records, but not especially appealing, and they don’t linger in the memory. Compare them to Vermeer or Fabricius or Steen, who teased us with stories untold – a woman reading a letter, a glimpse of another world through an open doorway – and challenged us to enter into their world, the reader as participant. Richard Price, in Lush Life, seems to me to care so little about his characters that he is barely participating in the story himself, far less inviting the reader to do so.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Sinclair Lewis said: America most of us — not readers alone, but even writers — are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues.

It strikes me that this is even more telling of American writers today than it was in 1930, and that the ‘glorification of faults’ is becoming something of a national pastime. It is a curiosity of the age that America gives the impression of being brashly, even arrogantly self-confident while, at the same time, demonstrating a curious but destructive lack of love for itself. I’m not talking about Rousseau’s amour-propre, a sense of vanity which America demonstrates in spades, but amour de soi, that tender self-love which is, or should be, innate and which informs humanity’s dealings with itself. I read novels like Lush Life and wonder where that love has gone.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The voice of Flannery O'Connor

Now here's a fascinating historical record. This is Flannery O'Connor herself, reading A Good Man Is Hard To Find, probably her most famous short story, and one of her famous essays on Southern literature and the grotesque. This is actually the essay I've quoted before, here and here. It sounds as barking mad as it reads.

She has pretty much the voice I expected - perhaps a little softer and younger, but with that rich, fascinating southern accent. It definitely adds something to A Good man.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Nephew by James Purdy

The Nephew was James Purdy’s follow-up to Malcolm, but the two novels are radically different in style. Where Malcolm was eerily surreal, with an uncanny edge to it, The Nephew is almost pastoral, a slow, reflective look at small-town America and the pain of living in a world that moves too fast. ‘Exits and entrances’, a character tells us, that’s what mid-century America has brought, resulting in people ‘never being anywhere’.

But while, stylistically, the two novels are very different, this theme of life runing too fast reveals a definite commonality between them – and, indeed, it appears to be a theme which runs through Purdy’s entire oeuvre: we are again in the territory of disconnection, of a crucifying inability to communicate, of silent suffering and mutual incomprehension. These are people who understand each other not at all, and who struggle even to recognise their own stunted emotions. They are greatly to be pitied. In the hands of a lesser writer than Purdy, they would be self-indulgent, or bathetic, or ugly, or unpleasant. The characters Purdy creates in this novel, particularly the mains, Alma and her brother Boyd, are real people suffering real pain, being destroyed by real grief.

This was a controversial novel in its day (published in 1961), telling as it does the story of a (possible, never explicitly proven) homosexual love affair between a young man, Cliff, who subsequently goes to war in Korea and is posted missing in action, and another young man from his home town, Vernon. What makes it astonishingly powerful is that this is not the principal theme of the novel; indeed, it is only late in the novel that this theme emerges. There is no didacticism here; the homosexuality is not being written about as an “issue” with the characters only existing because they are homosexual and the novel only existing for the reason of debating it. Nearly fifty years later, writers still cannot routinely create characters who just happen to be gay (or black, or Muslim), and which state is not the crucial element of the plot. It is the same problem Percival Everett bemoans when he says he wishes to be read as a writer, not as an African-American. Purdy recognised this and dealt with it as early as 1961. He is a writer to be admired, for this alone.

And for much more. This is a powerful novel of loss and pain. At its centre is the inability of the main characters, Alma and Boyd, who are Cliff’s aunt and uncle and who looked after him as a child when his parents were killed, to deal with the depth of emotion they feel when he is posted missing in action. They cannot communicate. They sit in the darkness in silence. Alma refuses to accept that he is probably dead. Boyd cannot talk to her about it. Their neighbours learn quickly not to raise the subject.

Purdy uses tears as a powerful metaphor for communication in the novel. Throughout, in conversations with the stoic Alma, characters are reduced to tears. Her friend Faye’s tears fall ‘ostentatiously to her cheeks and lips’ while Anna ‘dry-eyed’, looks away. Professor Mannheim weeps in ‘short almost animal-like sobs’. When news finally arrives of Cliff’s death, we are told:

As if to make up for Alma, who would not cry, the short controlled weeping of Mrs. Van Tassel broke the silence which had come after Alma’s speech, and then came the sudden broken sobs of Faye, and the quiet tears of Clara Himbaugh.

It would be easy to feel no sympathy for such a character, but she is deftly handled by Purdy. She understands her weaknesses:

Since Alma had retired from teaching and no longer spent most of her day with children, she had become increasingly dissatisfied with her understanding and knowledge of adult problems and lives. She did not understand, she supposed, as she had heard her mother say many years before, “the main things about life”, and she had come to attribute this to her being an old-maid schoolteacher.

She imagines a horrible conversation with her friend Mrs Barrington, in which she attributes to the older woman a cruel opinion about herself. From this, a level of self-loathing is revealed. We can only feel sympathy later, when Faye’s mother, troubled by Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, tells the unvarnished truth about Alma, who has ‘made a mess’ of her life, and her brother’s too, and her nephew’s who got himself killed in order to escape. It may have been the truth, but it is a painful truth. And so Almas is a woman whose frosty exterior becomes increasingly fragile. ‘You have so much composure, Alma,’ she is told. ‘No,’ she replies, ‘I’m afraid to let go is all.’

Thus, when Alma finally cracks, while relaying to her brother the truth about Cliff, it is heartbreaking:

“There was nothing of our Cliff left.”

Violent sobs, long suppressed, of almost inhuman grief broke from her breast, then quickly subsided into the stunned silence of accustomed pain and, as she had so often remarked in herself, old age.

In this way, Alma slowly comes to understand about herself and about her pain. She learns to communicate it. She becomes human, joins the band of humanity who manage their emotions as best they can by expressing them. Her final salvation comes, near the end, in a moving scene with her old friend, Mrs Barrington, who is confiding in her some long-held and painful secrets of her own. ‘Alma wept now, silently, not for the nephew and herself this time, but for someone else.’

And in so doing she become alives. The truth she has uncovered about Cliff’s homosexuality no longer matters. Nor, in a sense, does his death. What matters is that he lived and that he loved her, and that she loved him.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Learning to learn

Haven't had a quote from Mr V for a while, so here goes:

There is this thing calle the university, and everybody goes there now. And there are these things called teachers who make students read this book with good ideas or that book with good ideas until that's where we get our ideas. We don't think them; we read them in books.
Kurt Vonnegut

Of course, John Stuart Mill was warning of this a hundred plus years ago. And even before him, I suppose, Rousseau was saying the same thing. Plus ca change.

But it's an interesting time. Learning is changing. Young people are changing. They don't learn in the way we learned. We haven't come to terms with that yet. We just assume they are wrong because they are not approaching learning in the same way we did. But experts all the way back through Mill to Rousseau have been telling us that our way is wrong anyway, so maybe we should cut the kids some slack and let them learn in their own way?

Davy Graham 1940-2008

Davy Graham (and Bert) are the reasons why I stopped playing the guitar. With genius like that, what was the point of me trying to play? Much better to spend my time just listening.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Malcolm by James Purdy

Malcolm is a novel which, because of its measured simplicity, is extraordinarily complex. It is a highly stylised fable in which the surreal is presented as entirely conventional. There is an extreme sense of disconnection, of alienation. This is a depiction of a society where the individual has lost his sense of belonging and where meaning has become arbitrary. It is also extremely funny.

The story begins in picaresque fashion, with Malcolm being introduced in successive chapters to a range of unusual individuals. Malcolm is first presented to us sitting on a bench day after day, waiting. Just waiting. He has lost his father – literally so, as he doesn’t appear to have died, he simply isn’t there – which one would ordinarily take to be symbolic of the end of childhood or reaching maturity, but this clearly isn’t the case with Malcolm. Paradox is at the heart of this novel. Malcolm is an innocent who cannot engage with the world. He is taken in hand by the peculiar Mr Cox, who arranges for him to meet, in turn, a range of his acquaintances. First there is Estel Blanc, a mortician who seems unaware that he is black. Then there is Kermit, who does not realise that he is a midget, and who is married to a prostitute, Laureen, who subsequently runs off with a Japanese wrestler. Girard Girard and his wife are billionaires. Eloisa and Jerome Brace are an artist and a jazz musician respectively. Each of these extraordinary characters is introduced as coolly as though they were merely a range of everyday functionaries.

Malcolm orbits these people’s worlds and everything shifts. Everything, that is, except Malcolm, who remains throughout impervious to the dramas building around him. Marriages disintegrate. Feuds and fights emerge. People fall out, break down. Yet all of this is told in a deliberately flat style, almost banal, and the characterisation is strictly two-dimensional. The characters are established as stereotypes representing different aspects of American culture – philistines and aesthetes, revealing greed, neuroticism, irreality – and through their responses and lack of responses the hopelessness at the heart of American society is revealed. To each of them, Malcolm displays a lack of tact that could either be described as na├»ve guilelessness or downright rudeness. He calls Blanc an Abyssinian, repeatedly refers to Kermit as a midget even when it is clear that he hates this. He accuses Mme Girard of being drunk. He rebuffs offers of friendship. And so we have another paradox in this highly paradoxical novel: this child, this symbol of innocence who is bamboozled by adult society, is in every respect as discourteous and problematical than it.

And yet each of them becomes besotted by Malcolm. He is described as royalty. Girard Girard seeks to assume the mantle of his father. Kermit sees him as a kindred spirit. Eloisa paints him, Mme Gerard adores him. Only Blanc the mortician repels him, finding him too immature and telling him to return ‘in twenty years’. The adoration of Malcolm reaches its zenith with the introduction of Melba, the world-famous chanteuse, who immediately decides she must marry him. And so Malcolm, the innocent, the child who has remained impervious to the adult machinations around him, is thrust into marriage and adulthood. It is a disaster. The novel ends with him dying of ‘alcoholism and sexual exhaustion’. Life, Purdy is telling us, is meaningless. Existence is absurd. It consists of events and happenings, all unavoidable, all simultaneously significant and meaningless. They touch you, wound even, ultimately kill, yet somehow existence appears to obtain in a bubble outside of the self. As Thomas M. Lorch describes it, ‘the novel portays humanity revolving about an abyss’.[1] What is real is not real, and what is not real becomes real. Malcolm describes himself as a ‘cypher’ and, in the end, his death affects no-one, least of all him.

Yet, through this, Purdy presents us with the final, and greatest, paradox. In presenting us with nothingness, and in deliberately describing the action in such bland and emotionless language, Purdy actually creates a sense of loss: there is nothing to lose, he is telling us, and yet we feel the loss greatly. What he does is to create a world of genuine nihilism, where nobody communicates, nobody connects, so that we can, in negative, imagine what a world in harmony might be like.

[1] Thomas M. Lorch. Purdy's "Malcolm": A Unique Vision of Radical Emptiness. Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Summer, 1965), p. 212.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Why write when you could fritter your time away

Go on, be honest - how often have you said 'I'd love to write/paint/read/anything but I don't have the time.' And how often have you heard others say it, especially aspiring writers? You know as well as I do that it's bullshit. We all have the same twenty-four hours in every day, and we make time for anything we want. We just don't bother, and we hide behind this pretence that we're phenomenally busy.

I was prompted to write this by the following quote:

Being genuinely close to death, seeing death, wondering about death, changes one's attitude to the use of one's life.
For that reason I hate waste, hypocrisy. I hate the way we cruise, wasting time. I believe that most of us only LIVE for 1% of our time. That's a tragedy.

This is taken from an interview on Vanessa Gebbie's blog with Alex Keegan. AK taught me everything I know about creative writing. This quote refers to the Clapham rail crash, which happened 20 years ago today. Alex was injured in it and it completely reshaped his life, as you can read in Vanessa's excellent interview. The interview goes into more weighty matters but I was struck by this quote because it sums Alex up so well. Through him, I learned the philosophy of write, write, write. Get the words down. Keep practicing, keep trying. That is why I get irritated with aspiring writers who produce maybe three stories a year and waste their time re- and re-writing them, or talking about writing or being a writer, or complaining about how little time they have. And I haven't got a fraction of Alex's passion. Reading the interview, you can see why, and you can understand why he is so driven to create.

His new collection, Ballistics, is out from Salt Publishing soon. Do yourself a favour and buy it.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Erasure by Percival Everett

Erasure, published in 2001, is a wildly funny novel that works on a number of levels and is so playful that one feels constantly there are little jokes and references that are sliding by and will need a second reading. But much, much more than that, it is an immensely brave novel that is challenging some of the shibboleths of American culture and literature.

At its heart is a biting satire on the way race is handled in the US and, in particular, the constant stereotyping of black people that obtains – not only by white people but by black people themselves. The narrator, loosely based on the author himself, is Thelonius “Monk” Ellison a writer of avant-garde novels that even his agent thinks are challenging, brave, but ultimately unreadable. Monk despairs of a modern culture that puts his novels in the African-American section in bookshops, even when they are about Greek myths. In particular, he despairs about a culture that celebrates novels like We’s lives in da ghetto by Juanita Mae Jenkins, with its stereotyped depiction of black culture, hackneyed plots and over the top use of black idioms. This is false, he rails, it perpetuates the myths that black men are either sportsmen, musicians or drug dealers. And yet it is feted. Jenkins is interviewed gushingly on the Kenya Dunston Show, in a hilarious parody of Oprah Winfrey. Its paperback and movie rights sell for six figure sums. Meanwhile, Monk cannot find a publisher for his latest novel. ‘The line is,’ his agent tells him, ‘you’re not black enough’.

In a rage, Monk thrashes out a novella, My Pafology, into which he crams all the stereotypes he can muster. The protagonist has fo’ children by four different mothers, to none of whom he pays any maintenance. We see him indulge in casual sex that borders on rape. He turns quickly to violence. When a helping hand is offered to him by a wealthy individual who takes him on, he spurns the opportunity, and ends up raping the man’s daughter. The violence spirals into murder and he flees in an OJ Simpson type car chase, live on national television. My Pafology is included in its entirety in Erasure, running to 70 plus pages, and such is Everett’s skill that, while laughing at the parody, one still becomes caught up in the drama.

And this, of course, is exactly what happens in the novel. Monk pitches it to his agent who pitches to a publisher under the pseudonym of Stagg R. Leigh, and Monk is astonished – and appalled – to discover that his angry parody is immediately snapped up. He changes the name to Fuck in an attempt to put the publishers off, but they agree. It becomes a bestseller. It is nominated for a national award. It becomes the talk of the literary world and Stagg R. Leigh is the most sought after author in the country. This, naturally, causes Everett considerable difficulty, particularly when, under his own name, he is asked to be a judge for the award for which Stagg’s novel is nominated. He is the only judge to argue against it. ‘I should think as an African-American you’d be happy to see one of your own people get an award like this,’ one of the other judges says to him.

All of this is brilliantly handled, and through the wonderful humour there are still uncomfortable truths about race and perceptions of race in America today. Much of the stereotyping is perpetuated by black people themselves and, at the very least, they are complicit in perpetuating those stereotypes. In a culture where African-American writers from Alice Walker and Toni Morrison onwards have been celebrating blackness as something to celebrate in itself, Everett is brave in standing aside and saying ‘no, the mark of the person resides not in his or her skin colour, but in their morality.’ Through Monk, he expresses his exasperation at being defined by the colour of his skin. Monk is asked by a taxi driver, ‘Are you Ethiopian?’ ‘No,’ he replies. ‘I’m just Washingtonian.’ But as the novel progresses he is in danger of being swallowed by his own stereotyped invention and becoming that which he despises.

There is much more at play in this novel. Everett pokes playful fun at the American publishing scene, with the crazy deals being offered to flavour of the month writers, the outrageous promotion of junk novels and the mutual back-scratching of award judges. Erasure also memorably takes on academia, with a brave and funny parody of Barthes’ S/Z in the second chapter (if I hadn’t been warned about it in advance I would have been completely flummoxed by it) and deliciously cruel pen pictures of those postmodernist authors who subsist by publishing each other often enough in their journals to qualify themselves for professorships. That Everett himself plays some delightful postmodern tricks in the novel – for example conversations between, amongst others, Rothko, Hitler, de Kooning and Rauschenberg – merely adds to the sense of enjoyment.

At the novel’s heart, and this is what transforms it from a good into a great novel, is a series of erasures from which it gains its title. Monk’s mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is slowly having her mind erased; Monk himself is being erased by his alter ego. His sister, who works in an abortion clinic – itself another form of erasure – is killed, erased, by pro-lifers. His brother, a married man with children, comes out as gay and is thrown out by his family, his past erased. And so on. In this way, Everett takes on many of the issues that form the faultlines of current American society and offers a humanist response. Take me as I am, he says. Reward ability. Do not judge by appearances. Do not take a binary, yes-no, black-white approach to life. In the deliberately ambivalent ending, we are left wondering which way Monk will turn. I have no doubt, though, that he will turn to the good, to the moral. A flawed character, for sure, but a good man.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Excess baggage

This is an American writer called Percival Everett, writing in Callaloo journal:

I was invited to Charleston's Spoleto Festival [in South Carolina] by my dear friend Josephine Humphreys to participate in a writers' protest over the Confederate flag [flying in the State Legislature], but I could no longer generate enough concern. There were two things at work. First, the flag probably ought to be there - in the same way that a big sign saying "Land Mines!" ought to be set at the edge of a field containing land mines. If it is so hard for the government of the stte to decide to remove the stupid thing, then there must be a reason and that reason can't be good. Second, who gives a rat's ass. It's a waste of energy to fight over it. It's an ugly flag with an ugly history...

Excellent! I know I bang on about Nietzsche's need to be able to let go of the past and release all bitterness, seek an accommodation with history in order to embrace the future, but this is a lovely example of doing just that. The inability to do this has blighted my country, Scotland and, to an even greater extent, Ireland over the course of our recent histories. Such a level-headed, pragmatic response as Everett displays here is clearly the way to deal with the problems of history. He wrote this in 2001. Seven years later, Obama has been elected President. Has something been happening, quietly and unnoticed, in the American spirit? It would be good to think so.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Feeding Ducks

Feeding Ducks by Norman MacCaig

One duck stood on my toes.
The others made watery rushes after bread
Thrown by my momentary hand; instead,
She stood duck-still and got far more than those.

An invisible drone boomed by
With a beetle in it; the neighbour’s yearning bull
Bugled across five fields. And an evening full
Of other evenings quietly began to die.

And my everlasting hand
Dropped on my hypocrite duck her grace of bread.
And I thought, ‘The first to be fattened, the first to be dead’,
Till my gestures enlarged, wide over the darkening land.

Lovely. It feels a typically Scottish poem. Partly, it is in the way it conflates the personal and the global - from a duck standing on his toes in the first line to his enlarged gestures wide over the land in the last line. Also the turn from quaint, almost cute observation of nature into cold reality. There is no silly anthropomorphism here - the duck is going to be eaten. Scots practicality.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The age of the individual

This is John Barth, in conversation with Joe David Bellamy in around 1972:

One of Robbe-Grillet's points, which I believe he borrows from Roland Barthes, is that the novel of character, such as Madame Bovary, for example, or Tolstoy's work, belongs to the age of character, to the age of the individual. And in mass society, for example, when individualism as a philosophy is historically discredited, the novel of character is a kind of anachronism.

So, in 2008, is individualism still discredited as a philosophy? I don't know what philosophers would say on that subject, but for my part I think we are living in a curious world, decidedly split, where there is a terrible homogenisation going on, but also where people are thinking on such an individual basis it is almost solipsistic. I suspect Barth may have been premature in killing off the age of the individual. It's an important point, in terms of literature, because one of my complaints about current literary trends is that there is a peculiar emphasis on the personal over the global. The war on terror, or 9/11, for example, can only be seen through the prism of an individual's experience.

But if we are back in a Tolstoyian era of character then that may not be entirely unexpected.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Richard Price

I'm reading Lush Life at present - review to follow - and came across this neat comment on the writing process, in an interview he did for the New York Times:

Another reason the book took so long is that Mr. Price felt obligated to the neighborhood — he wanted to get it right, all the chaos, all the texture — and wound up writing far too much. “I threw out 300 pages,” he said. “Not voluntarily.”

When he finally, reluctantly, showed the manuscript to his editor, he explained, it felt less like a submission than an intervention. “There was just so much here,” he said, “and I fell in love with everything. I had two novels. It was as if my novel had had a novel. Congratulations, you’ve just had a nine-and-a-half-pound novel!” He shook his head and added, “You never really learn how to write a book, because every one is different.”

It's hard enough excising a sentence from a short story. I can feel for the man, having to cut 300 pages...

Even so, it's a bloody long book. Americans write a lot of words, I find.

Monday, December 01, 2008

If I was an inventor

If I was an inventor I would invent a food supplement that turns dog shit fluorescent so you can see it in the dark and not step in it - a mishap, you won't be surprised to learn, that happened to me this evening.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Passing the graveyard

Well, it's St Andrew's Day, so here's a typical Scottish memento mori. This is part of another poem by Andrew Young (see post below), and although the sentiments are fairly well-worn, it seems to work here. You get a sense of mixed regret, love and trepidation. Typically Scots...

Passing the graveyard

These living bodies that we wear
So change by every seventh year
That in a new dress we appear;

Limbs, spongy brain and slogging heart,
No part remains the selfsame part;
Like streams they stay and still depart.

You slipped slow bodies in the past;
Then why should we be so aghast
You flung off the whole flesh at last?

Let him who loves you think instead
That like a woman who has wed
You undressed first and went to bed.

There's a wonderful economy to that phrase 'Like streams they stay and still depart'. I've used that image often myself, and have never managed to get such precision. Seven words that say so much. The last line, and the idea of the last stanza, is lovely. I think it's the old-fashionedness of it, and the quaintness that results, which makes it such a resonant image.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Melissa Benn - One of us

One of Us, by Melissa Benn, was described by Rebecca Adams in a Guardian review as ‘unashamedly a novel about politics, a damning indictment of New Labour and the fatal erosion of moral discernment in political life.’ I’m not sure which parallel universe Rebecca Adams inhabits but to call this a novel about politics, or to ascribe any moral weight to it, is impossibly charitable. This is a shallow little potboiler masquerading as signficicant.

It has been a constant complaint of mine for some time that literature simply cannot contend with the War on Terror and the current global situation. Where, as with the sixties counter-culture, there is a need for writers and artists to rise up and rebel, our current crop take the events of today and use them as backdrops for trivia. Melissa Benn is a staggering example of this.

She invents a fictional world where one of her main characters, Andy Givings, ascends the political ladder to become Foreign Secretary and later Prime Minister of Britian during the New Labour years and the Iraq War. She invents another family, whose lives are inextricably linked with that of the Givings. One of that family becomes Givings’ spin doctor/media master. Another sets fire to himself outside Parliament on the day of the start of the Iraq war. Explosive? Certainly? What fantastic material.

And what do we get? A witless parade of womag flummery, affairs and deceit, hackneyed scene after hackneyed scene, cardboard characters with featherweight motivations. Jack, the human torch, begins his slide into oblivion because he is spurned by Lucia? Really? Credibility flies out of the window early in this novel and never returns.

There is a real story here. But it is only ever reported to us second hand. We get:

To everyone’s surprise, Matt [advisor to Andy, the Foreign Secretary] had been uneasy about the strikes in Afghanistan, America and Britain’s response to the Twin Towers disaster, was firmly against the invasion of Iraq; unthinkable, he insisted, without a second United Nations resolution. Increasingly, he was a lone voice among Andy’s circle at the heart of government.

If you are really going to write a novel about politics and a damning indictment of New Labour, wouldn’t it have been useful to have some of those exchanges dramatised? Instead, we get turgid pap like this, from the viewpoint of the main character, Anna, at her father’s deathbed:

What is this thing called life or death? Consciousness, here, now, perhaps total, and then, all dark; the brain such a beautiful, sophisticated instrument, in service for such a short amount of time.

That’s about the level of insight in this novel. It has the emotional resonance of a sixth form essay. Meanwhile, Benn seems to be careering around in search of something profound in which to root her message. We get references to Antigone, so that we understand that it’s a Greek tragedy and Anna is going to be made to pay for going against the family. And, of course, she is, although sadly for us this passive doorstep of a woman isn’t locked up in a cave.

But Benn seems to worry that a bit of Sophocles isn’t enough and so she also tries to thread some WB Yeats in as well, with references to The Second Coming. ‘Things fall apart’: good stuff, a pretty decent peg to hook a story about current morality and the world situation. Alas, we get:

Things fall apart: the centre cannot hold. These words of old return to her as she squats on the cool seat, tearing off pieces of soft toilet paper – a pale bluey-green to match the walls – trying to dab at her eyes, without smudging her mascara.

Honestly! I think it’s the description of the bog-roll's colour that does it. The epitome of bathos. Yeats must be spinning beneath that Sligo soil. After that, even Benn seems to lose heart and the ending, which surely must have cried out for a reprise of the poem, instead limps quietly away.

This is a fairly vituperative review, but I am seriously irritated by this shallow nonsense. Near the end, there is an exchange between Andy, the Foreign Secretary, and Anna. He says to her:

“Anna, the choice we face is simple. Could you live with what happened in New York? Could you forgive yourself if that – a 9/11 scenario – were to happen here? Your family destroyed. By madmen.”

Now seriously, wouldn’t that have made a fantastic novel? Here we have a government trying to use moral and emotional blackmail and the natural fears that are provoked by 9/11 and 7/7 and Mumbai. We have the steady erosion of civil liberties. We have the police arresting a member of the opposition for doing his job. We have lies and deceit and dissembling. All of that is happening in this country today and needs to be examined, challenged. Melissa Benn assembles the cast of characters who could have led that examination but, having done so, she has simply told the wrong story. What a waste.

Sudden thaw

We had snow here the other day. As ever, it didn't last long, barely after midday in fact. It's easy, after twenty years of living in England, to think it is much the same place as Scotland, but there are differences, little differences, shades of meaning and understanding, the hidden, unbidden understandings that people from the same place and same background can have. Whenever we get snow here, and it disappears so quickly, it reminds me of where I am and where I come from. Back home, snows last. They can hang around for days, even weeks.

This, though, is a lovely poem by Andrew Young about a sudden thaw

When day dawned with unusual light,
Hedges in snow stood half their height
And in the white-paved village street
Children were walking without feet.

But now by their own breath kept warm
Muck-heaps are naked at the farm
And even through the shrinking snow
Dead bents and thistles start to grow.

Well! That transports me thirty years and more back, to a Sunday afternoon, mother and brother and sister and me walking along the Laggan, everything snow covered and frozen except the dung heaps outside the main barn, standing black and steaming against the blankness all around; and cold, the biting, living cold that scoured your face and froze your muscles, and the warmth, almost painful, almost too much, when you got back home and into the sitting room and the roaring open fire. And a game. And tea. And the weekly bath, an American film, then off to bed.

Blue in green

I wrote a while back about how a certain piece of music may suddenly hit you, long after you first heard it. The piece in question was Van Morrison. Here's another. I must have listened to Miles Davis's Kind of Blue album any number of times, but it's always been the first track, So What, that has appealed most.

Listening to it again today, I was just blown away by the third track, Blue in Green. There is something timeless about this. It is neither happy nor sad, it just floats, and I imagine it must wrap itself around whatever mood the listener is in. This is something that literature cannot do. There is a fluidity to music that makes it the perfect artistic medium.

The Science of reading

Here's Flannery O'Connor saying something sensible - not an everday occurrence, so worth noting:

People have a habit of saying, “What is the theme of your story?” and they expect you to give them a statement: “The theme of my story is the economic pressure of the machine on the middle class” or some such absurdity. And when they’ve got a statement like that, they go off happy and feel it is no longer necessary to read the story.

It seems to me that readers, at least at an academic level or on an educational basis, read from a stilted, stunted position. They are reading with the brain, purely analytically, and forget to engage their emotions. It becomes a technical exercise. But literature doesn't work that way. It insinuates itself into you and alters your thinking without you realising. All these poor students who are being forced to study 'racism in Heart of Darkness', instead of reading the bloody book for themselves and working out what it's about - something greater, grander, deeper - are missing the point entirely. It's like gettting them to look at picture of an orange and asking them to describe its flavour.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Nick McDonell - The Third Brother

Nick McDonell is twenty-one years old. The Third Brother, his second novel, is remarkably assured and well written. It’s inevitable that this sounds patronising, but nonetheless I think it’s a point worth making. It would be easy to focus on the faults of this book and underestimate its strengths, and I think that would be an injustice to a writer who I believe has tremendous qualities. The Third Brother is uneven: the first section is relatively weak and the third becomes a touch too obscure, but the main second section, which depicts the 9/11 attacks, is extraordinarily good, easily the best depiction of those events that I’ve so far come across.

The first part, which I believe to be integral to an understanding of the later depiction of 9/11, intersperses the contemporary visit of a young man, Mike, to the seedy drug- and prostitute-ridden parts of stoner-tourist Bangkok with scenes from his early childhood. Mike is working as an intern for a friend of his father from Harvard days, Elliott Analect, and is asked to go to Bangkok, ostensibly to write up the stoner experience for Analect’s travel magazine in Hong Kong, but primarily to find another of his father’s and Elliott’s friends, Christopher Dorr, who has fallen out of contact with the world. Dorr, Analect and Mike’s father formed a youthful triumvirate, self-styled ‘three brothers’ who, along with Mike’s mother and Dorr’s sister, formed a close-knit group. Their experiences, largely sexual and revolving around the two women, grow increasingly dark as the first section progresses.

Unfortunately, the whole Bangkok set-up in this section feels thoroughly implausible. Initially the action is subdued and, frankly, uninteresting to anyone but aspirant stoner kids reading it as travelogue. The darkness, when it comes, feels cartoonish because the narrative hasn’t set us up for such drama. This is particularly the case with the ludicrous Heart of Darkness type meeting with Christopher Dorr, who is revealed as a kind of Kurtz character, ensconced among the natives (he even says ‘I walked into the jungle’) and chatting gnomically to Mike while, in the background, a dog is giving birth to puppies that then suffocate in their own afterbirth. In the end, I am still at a loss as to what the author was trying to suggest by this scene. The character never reappears.

What works much more satisfyingly in this section is the depiction of Mike’s childhood. His parents are baby boomer liberals, and McDonell drops several hints about the way they bring up their children and the impact this has on them. It is clear that this is a dysfunctional household, with the parents arguing violently and the mother a drunk and the father on sleeping pills. When Lyle is arrested for urinating in public, his father worries only that the experience might have scared him. His mother smiles. ‘Don’t worry,’ she tells Lyle. ‘Your father went to jail for drunk driving last night.” And so, it transpires, did she, because of her belligerent response to her husband’s arrest.

Lyle, in particular, seems troubled by their lifestyle, and his problems grow as the story unfolds. He manages to burn his face with a bottle rocket, he smashes a mirror and runs away for two days, and never reveals what happened. One senses that trouble awaits him. And so it does.

Finally, while Mike is still in Hong Kong, Lyle is the only survivor of a terrible fire which destroys the family house and kills their parents. He is badly burned and suffers post traumatic stress disorder, in which he invents a ‘third brother’, an evil sibling who he blames for the fire. This event forms the bridge between the first and second sections of the novel and it is at this point that it truly to life.

The main narrative of the second section occurs during the attacks on the World Trade Center. Both Mike and Lyle are in New York, and Mike is searching desperately for his ill brother. This section is tautly written, in sparse language with minimal detail, and yet it gets to the heart of the madness of that day. There was basic goodness – New Yorkers famously pulled together and helped one another – but there was also (understandable) selfishness – Mike at one stage leaves a man who has been knocked down and has broken his leg, although they cannot reach 911 to contact an ambulance, because he needs to track down his brother. He eventually makes contact and they meet up and return home but, on this day of global tragedy, further personal tragedy awaits them.

The final section, effectively a short coda, is ambitious but ultimately doesn’t quite work. It tries to get into the psyche of Mike, who has been much damaged by the death of his parents and the events of 9/11, and is an interesting examination of twenty-first century angst, but in the end style triumphs over narrative and it falls into an elliptical, opaque collage of moods and emotions through which it is impossible to attain any sense of empathy. It falls into a cod mysticism that it appears to be, at once, embracing and satirising. It is not quite clear what the author is trying to say. Take, for example, this soliloquizing conversation in the head of Mike:

“I want that girl,” I said.
Will you go to church with her?
It’s not important, to believe in God or not.
“I know.”
It’s no longer an abstract question. If you want that girl you have to go to church.
“I can’t go to church. I don’t believe in church.”
You can follow her on Sunday morning.

No matter how often I read that, I cannot work out precisely what it is trying to say. And that is a shame, because I think this novel is straining to say something interesting.

However, it remains a good novel, and the depiction of 9/11, in particular, is excellent. Where it succeeds over other attempts to depict 9/11 is that it attempts to map some context. Some previous efforts, for example Julia Glass’s The Whole World Over or Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (apart from the misjudged ‘terrorist’ interludes) have effectively ignored the context and simply used it as a backdrop for domestic dramas. Others, like Stephen McAuley’s Alternatives to Sex, try to establish some moral context but end up with nothing more than glib ‘aren’t we corrupt, aren’t we terrible’ navel gazing.

Here, McDonell uses the first section of the book in two interesting ways. Firstly, the depictions of Bangkok, although ultimately trite, do seek to examine the issue of American-induced global homogeneity and the importing of American beliefs and behaviours to countries around the world. (Transcendental spiritualism, for example, is bastardised into a cheap ‘yoof experience’.) However, McDonell doesn’t moralise – not much, anyway – and his occasional barbed comment about American culture feels reasonably in context and not shoehorned into the text.

Secondly, and probably more interestingly, in the depiction of the baby boomer generation and the children they bring up, McDonell makes some telling observations about the nature of American society. Mike’s parents, sixties liberals, die (possibly) because ‘the Ambien and whiskey’ made them such heavy sleepers they slept through the fire. Their response to Lyle’s arrest is shockingly complacent. Their Christmas presents to the boys are a guitar from “Robert Johnson” or a camera from “Margaret Burke White” rather than from Mom or Dad or Santa. But the result of such liberalism is two boys, and Lyle in particular, who are deeply unsettled. Whether or not one agrees with McDonell’s prognosis of the effects of sixties liberalism, it is refreshing to see them, and American culture, examined liked this.

And this is important, because aspects of globalisation, of the homogenisation of society, of American self-satisfaction and western permissiveness are pertinent to any study of 9/11. McDonell has brought these into his novel in a clever, organic way. Some of the thoughts of the central character are a trifle didactic, a touch overblown, but nothing like as much as other 9/11 novels, some of which appear to evince what can only be described as a deep self-hatred. Overall McDonell has found a way of dealing with the context of 9/11 which is far more successful than DeLillo or Foer or anyone else I have so far read. It conflates the global and the personal in a satisfying way, and through the prism of each, the intensity of the other is increased. This is a novelist with a bright future.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Julia Glass - The Whole World Over

I accept I must be missing something with Julia Glass’s The Whole World Over. It is fairly universally highly regarded and yet it fails to do anything for me.

It is, at heart, a study of relationships, in particular that of a couple, Greenie and Alan, ten years married and with a four year old son. It deals with those moments, those decisions which shape our lives, both those in our control and those outside it. To that end, it invokes the ultimate in unbidden moments, the 9/11 attacks, as a dramatic device with which to develop the action. This has been widely admired and applauded but, to me, it feels insubstantial and unsuccessful.

Greenie is a chef whose culinary skills come to the attention of the governor of New Mexico. He immediately offers her a position as his personal chef, which requires her to move from New York to Santa Fe. She is a Greenwich Village liberal and he is a right-winger – cue hackneyed, dull and pointless ‘debate’ about abortion – and she has a husband and child in New York, but she agrees to take the job. From such decisions lives are changed. Her relationship with her therapist husband, already strained, comes under severe pressure. He becomes resentful of her success and refuses to join her in Santa Fe, despite running down his own list of clients. In Santa Fe, Greenie meets a face from the past, a shy, decent lawyer with whom she has unfinished romantic business which now inevitably flares up again. Meanwhile, Alan still feels guilt over a one-night stand five years before, which may or may not have resulted in his fathering a second son. (Children and procreation are major themes of this novel.) Thus, as the story reaches its climax the question is whether or not Greenie and Alan will separate.

Running alongside this narrative are a serious of subplots featuring a variety of characters, some of whom are more successful than others. Some appear to be hangovers from her first novel, like the Scottish bookseller, and it may be that familiarity with that novel would help, because here the character, described by some reviewers as ‘central’, feels extraneous to me. The inter-relationships of these various characters gradually become revealed but not, for me at any rate, in any cohesive manner. Glass is clearly trying to suggest how inter-connected we all are, this human breed, and how vulnerable we remain, and how, sometimes, random acts of kindness and thoughtfulness can transform lives, as well as acts of chance or ill-will. This is an honorable theme, but I don’t honestly feel it comes off here. The characters and plotlines don’t cohere. There are characters who I still cannot really place and whose role in the novel seems wholly unclear. The only character who genuinely engages is Saga, a young woman still recovering from a catastrophic brain injury as a result of being hit by a fallen tree branch some years before which has resulted in memory loss and confusion. She is a delightful character and, since Glass clearly returns to old characters in subsequent novels, I would dearly like to read something devoted entirely to her.

But it is the decision to include the 9/11 attacks in the novel which most seriously undermines it. I think the problem is that, although there are the minor moments and decisions and actions of daily life which bring some of the characters together, it is not until the intrusion of the 9/11 motif that the full integration of the characters becomes clear. But this does not happen until well into the final fifth of a five-hundred page novel. As with the attacks themselves, this plot device comes out of a clear blue sky. And just as, in real life, that day felt too much, like a hideous mistake, so it feels unsatisfying in this novel. Ordinary life isn’t tidy, and little and major tragedies abound. Things happen out of nothing. Fate intervenes. Randomness abounds. But – at least, not since Thomas Hardy tortured poor, darling Tess – this does not make for decent literature.

I appreciate that I’m in danger of talking myself into Coetzee territory here, which is something I generally criticise. I don’t like novels where everything is tightly connected and any single piece of action or conversation appears to need to work on multiple levels. But here there is no apparent thematic connection at all, other than that life is random and the choices we make can have unanticipated consequences. The 9/11 attack just happens here. There is no context. There is no history, or politics, or attempt at understanding. Perhaps the author is saying this is how it affected the American people, who are notoriously inward-looking, but it is not really an acceptable answer. The fact that Glass herself has a character observing the attack and blaming the “A-rabs” tends to dilute the argument. (And the child’s ghastly conflating of the names of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein as ‘Ossadam’ was a clever-clever contrivance too far, especially since Glass then goes on to explain exactly what she has just done – ‘out of the mouths of babes and innocents’ – in case we’re too thick to figure it out for ourselves.) The point is that, for good or ill, the 9/11 attacks may have come out of a clear blue sky, but they were not entirely without forewarning. But in this novel the plot twist of 9/11 feels pointless. For this to work as a novel, the attack would have had to be threaded in more carefully through the preceding narrative. It would need to have a meaning, in the novel as well as in real life.It doesn’t and, therefore, in purely literary terms the novel fails.

And, too, as an examination of 9/11 and how it has affected America, it achieves precisely nothing. The novel does avoid the usual 9/11 cliches but, because it occurs purely as a random act of malevolence, it says precisely nothing about its impact on the American psyche. All that has happened here is that a domestic drama has been framed by an international event. It is difficult to say which, as a result, is trivialised more.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Christmas present

Here's what I want for Christmas. Hamish Henderson was a great man, and his poetry, drawn from his experiences in Africa in the second world war, is deeply moving. He writes about humanity - their poor bastards as well as our poor bastards - and what comes across is love and warmth. He was no starry-eyed idealist - he was a Captain in the Intelligence Corps - but nor did he ever lose sight of the tragedy of killing.

I borrowed a signed first edition of this collection from the library and it grieved me to have to return it. I'm delighted it's now back in print.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The show and tell police (2)

In my entry a couple below this one, plus the useful comments from Jim and Vanessa, we talked about show and tell, and the way it has been taken to extremes in current writing. Vanessa suggests the tide may be turning which, if true, is good news indeed. She mentions Jhumpa Lahiri, who I haven’t read, but I’ve ordered her story collection from the library and I’m looking forward to reading that.

The novel I mentioned was Edna Ferber’s Fanny herself, a glorious feminist saga from 1917 which works because you actually care about first Molly Brandeis and then her daughter Fanny. In my original comment I gave an example where Ferber didn’t bother with the tiresome show rather than tell which besets modern novels.

A chapter on, we get a fine example of show at its best which, I think, demonstrates how to use show and tell, and gives further proof why the example I gave wasn’t worthy of the elaborate set-up it would be given in today’s writing styles.

The scene is a rally for women’s suffrage, when 40,000 women marched through the streets of New York. The watching Fanny has become highly successful in commerce, but at the cost of her artistic and humanistic sensibilities. This scene, of course, turns her back towards her true nature.

All predictable enough, but it’s very well handled. A common show and tell device, to which I alluded in the previous post, is the creation of deliberate similarities with a previous scene to show how a character’s responses differ. Allied to that is the careful set-up, where a comment or action early in the story comes back to haunt the character later. That’s what happens here but, in doing it, Ferber manages to link to no fewer than four separate scenes.

What happens is that Fanny is so struck by the parade she rushes to buy paper and pens so she can draw it. This goes straight back to an early scene when Clarence Heyl scolds her for stopping her artwork, and tells her that one day she will be compelled to take it up again. But as she is doing the drawing now she becomes animated, almost agitated, as though she is herself extracting life from the drawing she is creating. She lets out an involuntary cry, exactly as she had that very first time, back in Winnebago when she was a child and drew someone for the first time. So, Ferber has linked this action to two vital scenes, one from when Fanny was a child and her character was forming, and one when she was a mature woman being warned that she was taking a wrong turning. Thus, it is delving deep back into the narrative for its sustaining power.

But there are two further connections. When it is finished, Fanny rushes to a newspaper office and sells her drawing, because both she and the newspaper editor realise that the picture she has drawn, of an ordinary working girl waving a banner defiantly, is more powerful and more distinctive than the pictures the other papers will use, of the leaders of the march. This action is predicated on two previous scenes in the story. Immediately prior to this episode, Fanny’s boss, Fenger, says of the march that it is impressive but it is too sprawling to have an effect and it needs something specific to encapsulate it. This is, of course, what Fanny does with her picture, and it is only in retrospect that we realise that Fenger’s words were the ones that finally spurred her into action. But this could only happen because earlier in the story Clarence Heyl sews the seed, when he tells Fanny that her drawings, because they seem to capture the human spirit, have a way of telling a unique and complete story without the need for words.

And this is important, because Fanny, who is conflicted between commerce and art, is being shown to be driven by the words of her gurus of commerce and art, Fenger and Clarence Heyl. Each is important to her, so it is entirely right that what finally drives her comes from words spoken by each. It adds a layer of complexity to her character which is completely credible and does not feel manufactured. We are being shown a moment of change, and everything before has been leading up to it.

And thus, this is a very powerful scene. It feels organically linked to the preceding narrative, entirely character-driven. And it is given space to breathe, so that the reader can immediately understand its import. Had that previous scene I referred to, in which we were simply told that she had, effectively, lost her artist’s eye, been drawn out into some protracted “show” scene, it would have seriously detracted from this important turning point in the novel because we would have felt that, far from being a turning point, it was just more of the same.

Fantastic writing. Detail where detail is necessary. Exposition where it helps drive the story.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Poorhouse Fair by John Updike

A circadian novel, in which the action all takes place in a single day, The Poorhouse Fair relates the story, set some time in the 1980s (but published in 1959) of the annual fair of the Diamond County Poorhouse, which is threatened for the first time in living memory by bad weather. The future setting is important. Updike, according to Norris Yates, is telling us that even if nuclear annihilation – a concern of the time – could be averted, the fate for mankind – a secular vacuum – might not prove spiritually uplifting.[1] This is a reasonable, albeit narrow, interpretation: such is the complexity of The Poorhouse Fair Updike’s conclusion may be interpreted in either a religious or a humanist way. God may indeed have been abandoned but, equally importantly, man’s love of man may also have been lost. Buddy, the assistant to the manager of the poorhouse, is in his twenties: he would therefore have been born around the time this novel was written; thus, for Updike’s original audience, he was literally “the child of today”. And in a telling passage, we are told: ‘Buddy’s mechanical generation had never learned how to laugh’.[2] Life, Updike is suggesting, will become darker, harsher.

The Poorhouse Fair was Updike’s first novel, and for a new, twenty-something novelist the choice of subject matter – the travails and beliefs and worries and lives of a group of old people – is extraordinarily bold. Although set in the future, there is no posturing or hiding behind fanastic or sci-fi constructs here: these characters are wholly human and, in their frailty, their irascibility, their hope, their mischievousness, they are all too recognisable. (Consider, too, that Updike’s second novel, The Centaur was a brave mixing of Greek myth and modern Americana, this time centreing on a middle-aged teacher who considers himself a failure, and it is easy to see how fresh and distinctive Updike’s voice was at the turn of the sixties.)

In The Poorhouse Fair, Conner, the poorhouse manager, is a decent man who is ‘devout in the service of humanity’,[3] but is nonetheless bored. He is ambitious, anticipating promotion in two years, but along the way he genuinely wants to help the inmates. He introduces innovations which he thinks will make life easier for them, such as putting nametags on the chairs in the main sitting room, and cannot understand the scepticism and mistrust these actions instil in the residents. In his mind, he is helping; in theirs, he is controlling. In the central incident of the novel, Conner is stoned by a group of residents, led by the aggressive Gregg and, although he cannot understand what has driven them to such anger, thinking it ‘unjust’, he nonetheless ‘forgives’ them.[4] (That Conner, the rationalist humanist, should respond in such a way, clearly evoking Christ, is of course deliberate, part of the constantly shifting points of view of the novel.)

Granville Hicks, in a contemporary review, calls The Poorhouse Fair a parable of the welfare state.[5] That is so, but it is much more than that. It is the welfare of the mind as much as the body that is Updike’s subject matter here. The novel debates the existence of a God who can sanction seemingly capricious suffering and pain and, whether or not he does exist, what the consequences of that might be for humanity. Thankfully, though, there is no didacticism here. Characters have their viewpoints – Conner the humanist, Hook the believer, Gregg the unbeliever, Buddy the spiritless, Heinemann the hopeful – but each interacts, scores points, wins or loses arguments, and the debate circles restlessly, never – quite – reaching a conclusion. Indeed, the novel ends with a question – “What was it?”[6]

This, an immediately wistful recall of the past, takes us into typically Updikean territory – a lament for the loss of traditional values. Such themes, for example, suffuse the Rabbit novels: indeed, these inmates of the poorhouse are, one senses, the future of a mankind composed of Harry Angstroms. Hedonistic, solipsistic, shallow, not forward thinking, not especially bright, they will live a twilight existence of small frustrations and petty rebellions. It is a sad prospect but, unlike a writer such as Flannery O’Connor, who would have flapped her moral indignation around them like a settling shroud, Updike allows us to share the sadness of these people, and even to see their nobility, some innate goodness, the final flowerings of their once youthful ambition. It is impossible not to be moved by Mrs Mortis, still making her intricately sewn quilts for sale each fair day, hoping to enjoy an afternoon of steady selling and being disappointed every year when a “sharper”, who both we and Mrs Mortis know is taking advantage of her, buys them all in a job lot at a knock-down price. Giving one of the blankets away free to a young couple who liked it but could not afford it is her final, quiet, moment of triumphant rebellion and even though she subsequently suffers further indignation at the hands of the “sharper”, who renegotiates down his price for the rest, we quietly cheer her spirit. As with Harry Angstrom, even people with failings need not be complete failures.

Thaddeus Muradian observes four recurring themes in this novel and the other early works of Updike: childhood memories or the past; pain and loneliness; death; and ‘the Hope’.[7] It is not so much memories of the past that matter, however, but their great distance, or as Hook, at ninety-four the oldest resident, observes, ‘the small condensed grief – that the past was so far, the end so near’.[8] He further laments:

“[I] have outlived those that were stronger by nature. The penalty I’ve paid for this has been burying all of my kin, until there is none living who remembers me as I was before.”[9]

That is not to say that Updike paints childhood as some form of Rousseauian natural idyll, a perfect state to which we all yearn to return. In the middle of a highly charged debate between Conner and Hook on theology, there is the following exchange:

[Hook said:] “And who is to say how the ailments of my childhood may have been the fruit of my father’s shortcomings, or of his before him.”

“You believe that too?” Conner was sincerely surprised.

“Indeed and double… If the size of a mouth is passed down, why not the burden of wrongdoing?”[10]

Even so, Updike, although pessimistic, is not hopeless. There is a beautiful inversion of this ‘sins of the father’ motif near the end of the novel, where he opines: ‘The old continue to be old-fashioned, though their youths were modern. We grow backward, aging into our father’s opinions and even into those of our grandfathers.’[11]

But essentially the past, one’s childhood, one’s upbringing, is not so much a theme of Updike’s as the canvas on which his themes are laid down. It is the latter of Muradian’s themes – pain, loneliness, death and hope – that are integral to a reading of Updike.

Pain certainly suffuses The Poorhouse Fair, from the odd but trivial habit of Gregg deliberately irritating his ear with a wooden stick to keep it infected, to the diseased and dying cat which Conner has Buddy shoot to put it out of his misery, to the stoning of Conner which results from that act, and to the difficult and tormented discussion between Conner and Hook about the nature of pain, arising from Buddy’s story of the slow and painful death of his brother from cancer. But pain is only part of the story. As Hook observes: ‘“it is an error now to believe that the absence of evil will follow from the elimi-nation [sic] of pain.”’[12] Pain is only a part of this tapestry.

Loneliness is also an essential feature. In the way the point of view of The Poorhouse Fair slides into different characters in turn, it seems, at times, to be meditating on a life outlived and left to run dry. It reaches the stage where life is decried and death, that ‘third participant in every conversation’,[13] is almost to be desired. Hook, who has been ‘old a third of his life’,[14] can ‘picture no job he would ever be ready again to do’.[15] Mrs Mortis knows she will make no more quilts and is resigned to loneliness. Death will come next. And in this way, just as pain elided into loneliness, so loneliness now elides into death. Everything in Updike is connected.

In a peculiar interlude, wrongly characterised by Bryant N. Wyatt as ‘forced and discordant’,[16] we are given a reprise of the preceding comic scene when Lucas tries to recapture his wife’s escaped parakeet, this time told through the eyes of a man dying in a bed, with Lucas being hallucinated into the form a bear and the parakeet a green flower. This is a beautiful scene which captures the essence of Updike’s worldview. It is worth quoting in its entirety:

The green flower had sprouted unsurprisingly; the appearance of a bear seemed to follow from that. Now the bear growled. It seemed sorry for something, but then he was sorry too, and though there was no need to say so he smiled. The bear pointed; the flower leaped; the flower skimmed over the ceiling, and at a command from the bear the door dosed sharply, saying "Idiot." The bear lifted its black arms and sank from view, and the flower bloomed on the bed, its bright eye frightening. He was glad when the bear came again. A chair fell lazily, and the bear was of course sorry about that, and ashamed. Then the bear grew very clever and plucked the green flower from a picture on the wall. He was so proud, he tried to show it, but of course if he opened his hands too wide the flower would leap again. It occurred to him that it all had been arranged to amuse him, and he laughed obligingly, so they would not feel sorry, and continued laughing when they had gone through the door, for them to hear, thought curiously he was not sorry when they had left him alone again.

There is a mysticism in this scene which is fundamental to Updike’s essentially religious worldview. The whole novel, and indeed much of his career output, has debated matters of religion; and so atheism, Deism, humanism and Christianity all have their beliefs aired here; but ultimately Updike’s view, albeit pessimistic, is that essentially there is, or should be, a supernatural, mystical element to humanity, that this is essential to its wellbeing, and that without it civilisation will stagnate in the manner of the lives of these poor inmates. It is Elizabeth Heinemann, the blind woman who lives in hope of being able to see in heaven – literally, “blind hope” – who best articulates Updike’s vision, in her description of heaven:

[I believe] we live in a house with a few windows, and when we die we move into the open air, and Heaven will be, how can I say, a mist of all the joy sensations have given us. Perfumes, and children speaking, and cloth on our skin; hungers satisfied as soon as we have them. Other sometimes will make themselves known like drops of water touching our arms.[18]

And so these themes merge and inter-relate to form a more powerful sense of emotions – more than pity, or sorrow, or admiration, or impatience, or anger, although all of those are present. They combine to form something powerfully human, something which can truly connect. And it is in the ending of the novel when this comes most brilliantly to the fore, in a bravura display which leaves the reader simultaneously awestruck by the quality of the writing and humbled by the plight of the characters. Gradually, as the day of the fair comes to its end, the old residents who have been our companions throughout the book retire to bed. In their place comes a host of new characters, young families with strident voices and proud hopes, the outsiders who have arrived for a day out at the home for its annual fair, and now it is they who begin to take centre stage. New stories abound, new concerns, new priorities. Almost without being noticed, the residents slip into silence, as the past, their past, is eclipsed by a present being towed relentlessly forward by the future. In their place, the chatter becomes more shrill, but it means less and less to us. Finally, from those voices of the past, from Hook and Gregg and Lucas and Mrs Mortis and Elizabeth Heinemann, there is nothing. Time has moved and the mortals have been left in its wake.

Finally, in assessing this novel it is important, too, not to forget the atmosphere of the times in which it was written. The fear of nuclear war and the annihilation of civilisation was strong. By setting the novel in 1980, Updike is telling us that we will survive, but at what cost? In the novel, there is a consistent conflation of the natural and the man-made, of nature and warfare. ‘”Perhaps the weather is more variable than it used to be,”’ one character says. ‘“Yes well: the bombs,”’ another replies.[19] The noise made by a lorry knocking down the poorhouse wall is compared to ‘thunder from a clear sky’ – the phenomenon that convinced Horace of the existence of the gods. [20] And Hook, recalling Matthew 24:27, observes: ‘“I wonder, now, if the lightning Matthew mentioned, as running from east to west, might have referred to the a-tomic [sic] bombs.”’[21] The corollary is clear: the future is as much in our own hands as in God’s. We fashion our own futures. This is why Norris Yates, in his assertion, quoted at the beginning, that Updike is telling us our futures will not be spiritually uplifting, is only partly correct. That may be so, but it is not Updike’s underlying message, which is that the tools with which to defeat spiritual decline are in our own possession.

This is also where Updike differs from fundamentalists like Flannery O’Connor, who see man as defenceless against the will of the almighty. Destiny is in our hands, too, he is telling us. Where O’Connor debates how to accommodate man in God’s world (her answer being to submit to God’s will), Updike considers the more useful question of how to accommodate God in man’s world: God and man are a partnership. Whether or not one agrees with this assertion, it at least leaves a fresher, more hopeful taste in the mouth than the religious nihilism espoused by O’Connor or, more recently, Cormac McCarthy. Characters are free to think and to act, and each possesses elements of honour. Donald Barr, in his contemporaneous New York Times review of The Poorhouse Fair, sums it up best: ‘No one is morally annihilated in this brilliant book. No one is a mere convenience of argument.’ Instead, the argument is the novel, and the novel is the argument, and the debate continues, fifty years later.

[references removed to deter plagiarism. If you wish to know a particular reference, email and ask me.]

The show and tell police

As an aspiring writer, I have to deal a lot with the old 'show and tell' debate. There's more bullshit talked about this than any other aspect of creative writing. 'Never tell,' we're told; 'always show'. And as a result writers go to ridiculously convoluted lengths in order to 'show' their reader some perfectly unexceptional point.

Anyway, here's a quote from Fanny Herself, an engrossing book by Edna Ferber from 1917. It tells the story of Fanny, a very determined young woman who has a vision and gift for art, but who is gradually losing sight of it - and her underlying humanity - as she goes in search of greater and greater success in commerce. She has always done beautiful character drawings of people in the street, somehow drawing their souls on paper. The quote:

She rarely prowled the city now. She told
herself she was too tired at night, and on Sundays and
holidays, and I suppose she was. Indeed, she no longer saw
things with her former vision. It was as though her soul
had shriveled in direct proportion to her salary's
expansion. The streets seldom furnished her with a rich
mental meal now. When she met a woman with a child, in the
park, her keen eye noted the child's dress before it saw the
child itself, if, indeed, she noticed the child at all.

Now, in the hands of a Coetzee, or a creative writing acolyte, that would never have done. 'It's all tell,' they'd squeal. We need to be shown. So we would have had to have two scenes here, one early in the book where she draws a picture of a woman and her young daughter, and the child is showing off her brand new frock or something touchingly poignant. Probably she'd give the picture to the woman and there would be tears. Move forward to the next scene, where, let's say, a child falls and makes a rip in her nice new dress, but Fanny is too busy talking to someone about the cost of fabric to even notice it.

Hammy? Yup? Boring? Yup. But we've been 'shown', so it's okay. Instead of that crap, Edna Ferber just tells us what has happened to Fanny's thinking and carries on with the story. We have that fact now, and the true emotions behind it will now be neatly shown in the remaining sections of the book.

That's show and tell. Tell is as important as show - in context.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

And on, and on

Having spoken to my mother tonight, who is inexorably turning into her mother, despite protesting for years that she never would, this, from John Updike, is extremely poignant:

The old continue to be old-fashioned, though their youths were modern. We grow backward, aging into our father’s opinions and even into those of our grandfathers.

Indeed, it's true. I hated my father, and yet I become more like him with every passing day.

John Barth on literature

John Barth, interviewed by Joe David Bellamy:

I'm impressed more all the time by what seems to me the inescapable fact that literature - because it's made of the common stuff of language - seems more refractory to change in general than the other arts. I think this is true most specifically of prose fiction, probably because of its historical roots in the popular culture. Tchaikovsky would have a great deal of difficulty digging John Cage or any other serious composers since the first World War - much more trouble than Dostoevsky would have understanding Saul Bellow or even, for that matter, Nabokov. Dostoevsky would have trouble understanding Finnegans Wake, but then we who come after Joyce do, too.

He goes on to cite major novelists of the period - Heller, Ellison, Roth, Bellow, Updike and point to the fact that they are not especially innovate in terms of form and technique. I would agree in broad terms, although only broadly. Think of Updike's The Centaur, for example, or The Witches of Eastwick. He then qualifies his own remarks by referring to the stylists - Robbe-Grillet, Calvino, John Hawkes, Gass, Barthelme - but even these writers, he argues, show differences in sensibility and attitude, rather than means. I don't know, I think Barth is having his cake and eating it here. He rightly points to the irrealism of these latter writers as a break from the realism of the pre-modernist era. Surely that is a major shift in literature, within a generation?

And I think that literature has changed again, too, in the near forty years since Barth said this. Literature today is very different from that of the sixties, or the early sixties at any rate. The metaphysical has been replaced by the psychological, nature by the individual, externalism by internalism. There is a shift going on in literature.

I think the difficulty is - and it's one we didn't have in the sixties and seventies - that there are comparatively fewer good novelists. What may be thought of as lack of innovation nowadays is actually more a reflection of lack of ability.

Monday, November 17, 2008

William Styron - Set this house on fire

William Styron’s first novel, Lie down in darkness, published in 1951, examined Southern degeneracy in a world seemingly without values and approaching ruin. Partly because of this, critics initially considered Styron’s work to be typically Southern, in the tradition of Faulkner, whose experimentation with structure he imitates, and Robert Penn Warren, but as early as 1963, Louis Rubin was pointing out this was not the case. It was this misapprehension, Rubin, suggests, that led to the hostility with which Set this house on fire was received on publication: expecting a Southern novel, critics and readers reacted badly when it did not deliver.[1]

Nonetheless, there remains a distinctly Southern flavour to Set this house on fire. It is unmistakably about redemption and salvation, wrought from violence – a familiar Southern theme. Even though it is largely set in Italy, its focus remains Southern, and the novel speaks – not always approvingly – of the Southern outlook. Of the narrator’s father, for example, we are told: ‘To be [a liberal] in New York is childishly simple; to be one in the South surpasses all ordinary guts.’[2] And more than anything it is an examination of change, of that process of modernisation which was gripping America in the 1950s and which, for traditionalist Southerners, was as much a threat as an opportunity. We are told, for example:

Nothing in America remains fixed for long, but my old home town, Port Warwick, had grown vaster and more streamlined and clownish-looking than I thought a decent southern town could ever become.[3]


In America our landmarks and our boundaries merge, shift, and change quicker than we can tell: one day we feel rooted, and the carpet of our experience is a familiar thing upon which we securely stand. Then, as if by some conjuring trick, it is all yanked out from beneath us, and when we come down we alight upon – what?[4]

There is a sense here of juncture, of the past slipping away, and not into some form of Updike-like idyll, but into something more nervous, impermanent, lost. The narrator observes at one point:

Perhaps one of the reasons we Americans are so exceptionally nervous and driven is that our past is effaced almost before it is made present; in our search for old avatars to contemplate we find only ghosts, whispers, shadows: almost nothing remains for us to feel or see, or to absorb our longing.[5]

But in structure and tenor it is different from traditional Southern novels. Rather, it is typical of an example of the new approaches to American fiction which emerged throughout the fifties and into the early sixties, what Mailer called ‘American existentialism’, a mirror of the European fiction of Sartre and Kafka, Camus and Robbe-Grillet. Rather than traditional chronicles – the unfolding of a life in considered and chronological detail, fifties novels began to explicitly examine characters, and in particular their response to a particular event or crisis.

Set this house on fire was published in 1960, and is a densely written work which fuses Southern preoccupations with modern sensibilities. Peter Leverett, the narrator is drawn into events which he cannot control and does not understand. He is a conventional man – a self-confessed ‘square’ – out of his depth amongst friends who defy convention. Nonetheless, he doggedly tries to understand, and the novel follows him in the process of uncovering the series of events which led to the death, foretold at the start of the novel, of his friend, Mason Flagg.

Flagg is an extraordinary character, one of those enigmatic charmers whose flirtation with excess is not controlled by any sense of moral duty and consequently spirals out of control. As a child he rapes a girl and has incestuous feelings towards his mother; as an adult he develops a Sadean interest in degenerate sex. He is a pathological liar and seeks to control everything and everyone around him. His complex character is unfolded in the narrative as Leverett seeks to uncover the course of events which led to the rape and murder of a peasant girl, Francesca, in the Italian village of Sambuco – crimes which are assumed to have been committed by Flagg – and Flagg’s subsequent death, after his body is found at the foot of a cliff in what is presumed to be a suicide.

The second half of the novel, in which Leverett gradually makes sense of the story, centres on a third American, an artist called Cass Kinsolving; and indeed, although the narration is still effected through Leverett, it is largely Kinsolving’s thoughts which are shared, even to the extent that some of his diaries are embedded in the narrative.

It is to Styron’s credit that, in a story in which the core event – the murder of Francesca and subsequent death of Flagg – is told immediately, interest in the outcome is sustained until the end. Throughout, it is not entirely clear what happened and it is only in the last few pages that the truth is revealed. Unfortunately, that truth – that although Flagg did rape Francesca, it was the village idiot, Saverio, who subsequently murdered her – is not wholly satisfactory, or even plausible. Melvyn Friedman suggests it is a deliberate parody of detective novels, ‘almost a caricature of the straight, unpretentious murder mystery.’[6] That may be so – Styron is undoubtedly a stylist who likes to play with form – but this novel is more than a parody and, therefore, the unconvincing nature of its ending is unfortunate.

The second half of the novel focuses on Cass’s and Leverett’s search for the full truth about the past – each knows elements of it but not the whole. This search, however, is essentially a representation of their desire to understand about themselves: they are seekers of a greater truth. As the novel unfolds it becomes more and more Cass’s story, in which he seeks redemption and understanding. It finally emerges that Cass murdered Flagg, erroneously believing him to be the murderer of Francesca, with whom Cass was romantically engaged. Subsequently, he has become an alcoholic and is unable to do any painting. His marriage falls apart. He has fallen into an existential black hole of nothingness. Dan Via, in a religious interpretation of the novel, is clear that, throughout, Cass is in search of redemption, and he convincingly explains a number of occasions when false opportunities for redemption are offered to him.[7] Whether Cass’s crisis is religious in basis or existential is open to question but, whichever, it is not easily resolved. His sense of guilt remains – after all, he murdered Flagg on the false premise that he was responsible for Francesca’s death – and with it a sense of self-loathing which is all encompassing.

Redemption, when it comes, comes when he is finally allowed freedom from that self-loathing. Luigi, a policeman who knows the truth, could have revealed it to his superiors but chooses not to. He lies for Cass, thus putting himself in a highly dangerous position. You can confess, he tells Cass, and I will be ruined. That is your choice, and I leave you to make it. This act of kindness finally breaks through the barriers of self-hatred which Cass has built around himself and he finds equanimity. ‘And the blame is my own to bear,’ he says. Nonetheless, this is not a full-frontal epiphany. There is no glib moralising in this novel, and Cass is still left as a complicated, uncertain man. Evil remains in the world, we are being told, and each must seek an accommodation with it. That, indeed, may be the central message of this novel.

Talking of Set this house on fire in 1979, at the time of the publication of Sophie’s Choice, Styron made an intersting observation:

Let's face it- we're no longer innocent. Set This House on Fire, whatever value it had, was more or less an attempt (I see it retrospectively) at a description of the fact that Americans were evil in that particular case, not Europeans. I do think that what happened at Auschwitz [the subject matter of Sophie’s Choice] was a European thing, not an American thing. But we're not really innocent; now we have Viet Nam, and we're as dirty as the rest. You can stretch that Hawthorne- James thing about being innocent Americans a little too far.[8]

It is mildly anachronistic to talk of Vietnam in the case of Set this house on fire, as it was published in 1960, before Vietnam had escalated into the bloody conflict it would become by 1963, but that underlying sense of evil is strong throughout the novel, as is the struggle to contain it. Kinsolving says near the end:

“But to kill a man, even in hatred, even in revenge, is like an amputation. Though this man may have done you the foulest injustice in the world, when you have killed him you have removed a part of yourself forever.”[9]

In the end, he is reconciled that he has, in killing Flagg, stood up to evil and, while evil remains in the world, he is not, in himself evil. In his final speech, he says:

“But to be truthful, you see, I can only tell you this: that as for being and nothingness, the one thing I did know was that to choose between them was simply to choose being, not for the sake of being, or even the love of being, much less the desire to be forever – but in the hope of being what I could be for a time. This would be an ecstasy. God knows, it would.”

“As for the rest, I had come back. And that for a while would do, that would suffice.”[10]

It is a moment of awakening, of release.

[References removed to prevent plagiarism. If you would like details of a particular reference, email me.]

Thursday, November 13, 2008

New York Sunday morning

This is such an evocative piece of writing, just beautiful.

Anyone who has ever lived alone in a New York apartment knows or remembers the special quality of a Sunday. The slow, late awakening in the midst of a city suddenly and preposterously still, the coffee cups and the mountainous tons of newspapers, the sense of indolence and boredom, and the back yards, sunlit, where slit-eyed cats undulate along fences and pigeons wheel about, and a church bell lets fall its chimes upon the quiet, hopelessly and sadly.

William Styron. Set this house on fire. p. 7