Thursday, January 29, 2009

John Martyn, 1949-2009

Oh dear, what a bad week.

John Martyn has died. One of the most extraordinary voices in popular music, and a truly irascible, one-off human being. He was an extraordinary mixture of sensitive soul and rumbustious rough-houser. He wrote and sang beautiful, delicate love songs and lived a life of complete outrage. When he lost his leg, basically because of his lifestyle, in 2003, he shrugged. "It's my fault," he said, and refused to be bitter or self-pitying.

I only saw him live once, in the middle of a torrential downpour which was threatening to wash away the whole speaker deck. That was nothing compared to the temper John was in: it was monumental. Certainly the most bad-tempered and one of the most memorable performances I've ever seen. Magnificent.

My favourite John Martyn story is of the time he woke up and found he had been nailed under the carpet by Danny Thompson. Google it, the story is all over the place on the web.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike, 1932 - 2009

John Updike has died. He was a great writer, whose early works will remain outstanding works of literature. In particular, The Poorhouse Fair is as ambitious and interesting a first novel as it is impossible to imagine. In it, the young Updike settled himself into the characters of a host of old and dying inmates of a poor house, and discussed life and death, Christ and and humanity, with a wisdom which is simply extraordinary in one so young.

I've written on this blog before that I feel Updike lost his way in latter years, and that those novels, with their relentless focus on sexual relations, lost something of that essential human beauty that occupied his earlier works. I will remember him for The Poorhouse Fair, The Centaur and Rabbit, Run. A more extraordinary trio of novels with which to begin a career it is difficult to imagine.

This is his character Hook speaking in The Poorhouse Fair. As an atheist, I can't accept these words, but I suspect they were close to the views of Updike himself, and I quote them now in the memory of a man who believed, not only in his God, but in the goodness of humanity, too:

There is no goodness, without belief. There is nothing but busy-ness. And if you have not believed, at the end of your life you shall know you have buried your talent in the ground of this world and have nothing saved, to take into the next.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

One of Roland Barthes’ ‘codes’ for understanding a work of literature was the hermeneutic, that enigma or puzzle which is, through narrative and character and theme and those various other devices of literary fiction, gradually revealed to the reader so that he or she finally comes to a state of awareness, a moment of cognition.

Over the years, the tyranny of plot and the overwhelming need for comprehension have become such that no mystery is ever really allowed to obtain at the end of a novel or a story: it is considered a failure unless every last strand is cleared up and unless the reader is satisfied in his or her understanding of it. Ambiguity is frowned upon. Readers become fixated on the material, not recognising that often it is only there as a symbol of the immaterial. Critics of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example, debate at length the reason for the apocalypse, as if that makes any difference. I remember once reading aloud one of my own stories to a group, and afterwards the first, baffled response was: ‘But why was the cat ginger?’ It is not necessary to have read the story to understand that the question is irrelevant. One amateur reviewer of Percival Everett’s social satire, American Desert, thought the book was spoiled because the author did not explain exactly how the main character came back to life after being decapitated. Talk about missing the point... Going back to Barthes’ codes, what such readers are hankering after is an end to mystery. What they want is an excess of signifiers from Barthes’ Proairetic code, all those sundry actions and behaviours and causes-and-effects that constitute a plot, neatly tied up and explained.

This is what happens when we read fiction as a commodity, in which the initial puzzle must ultimately defer to the great god plot. We treat the act of reading as a process of gaining knowledge rather than coming to understand. Fact rather than truth. And yet the two are entirely different things.

There is a shallowness in the former approach that informs much of the way people now approach reading. For such people, Herman Melville’s Barteleby the Scrivener must be the cause of virtual apoplexy. ‘Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!’ indeed, but what was the point of it all? Who was Bartleby? Indeed, what was he? Why did he behave like that? Why did he always ‘prefer not to’? It was an act of great bravery on Melville’s part to simply refuse to explain. As a consequence, the reader is on his or her own. Not surprisingly, therefore, Bartleby the Scriver has about as many explanations as it has readers. And what an entirely good thing that is.

The plot is brief to the point of non-existent. The narrator employs a new scrivener – a copier of legal documents – but over time the new man, Bartleby, withdraws from all useful interaction, saying that he ‘would prefer not to’ do whatever he is invited to. He ends up in prison, where he dies of starvation because, simply, he would prefer not to eat. And that’s it. But tied up in that bare, stark plot are questions of freedom, of conformity, of love, hope, selfishness, delusion, of all the grimy matter and emotion that makes us human.

Of course, one must remember the historical context in which the story is placed. It was written in the 1850s, in a period of great tension which would culminate in the Civil War of 1861. Therefore, it is not difficult to ascribe to the story some form of allegorical meaning: it is certainly possible to articulate a theme of freedom versus slavery in the actions and symbols of the story. And certainly that is part of it. But only part.

It can certainly be read as a condemnation of the sterility and conformity of modern business and modern society. Technological progress has always had a dual impact on the American psyche, channeling its energetic optimism but at the same time alarming its innate conservatism. The fact that it is set in Wall Street, that symbol of the ‘system’, would clearly seem to suggest such a reading is appropriate. Bartleby is employed in a role of total conformity - the work of a scrivener is simply to copy the words of others, not ever to initiate his own ideas – and he is taken on in the role precisely because he appears not to possess much in the way of character or free will. Thus, it is a complete paradox that, in doing nothing, Bartleby shows himself to be the ultimate non-conformist. And, for that reason, the story must be about more than mere conformity. The theme runs deeper than that: it is a part of the message, but not its whole.

The story can also be read as an analysis of nihilism, since Bartleby is the epitome of inaction. This, however, is to misunderstand both the text and nihilism. Bartleby, whatever he is, is no nihilist. On the contrary, it is clear that he believes in something: he has distinct preferences, even if they are usually voiced in the negative. It is simply that he prefers not to be led: this, then, could be construed as passivity (albeit to an extraordinary degree) but not, I would suggest, nihilism. There is nothing in Bartleby’s behaviour to suggest that his life, if he were to follow his preferences, is intrinsically purposeless. He is a deeper man than that.

There have been many attempts to understand the psyche of Bartleby. He may be some form of autist, or a manic depressive, or a schizophrenic. He is even considered by some to be Christ himself, shunned by humanity, unable to communicate his vision to an incomprehending horde. Given Melville’s metaphysical bent there may be some mileage in this, but such a negative view of humanity seems unlikely in a man who once, in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote: ‘We mortals astonish Him as much as He us.’ Others suggest the narrator is, like Roquentin in Nausea, exhibiting the symptoms of an existential crisis. Again, there is some validity to this argument, although what such commentators usually mean is that negative, virtually nihilistic form of existentialism that is ascribed – more or less correctly – to Sartre and – quite incorrectly – to Camus. There is nothing of Camus’ depth here: this is not a Rambert, responding to his existential crisis by turning towards humanity and opting to help save the plague town of Oran.

In some respects, Bartleby is closer to the Underground Man in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, albeit in a more passive, less self-hating way. Each shares a disconnection from the flux of society and an otherworldliness that may or may not be rational. But the comparison does not fully convince. Dostoevsky’s work is almost a polemic, and in his Underground Man he establishes essentially a straw-man, someone of such violently nihilistic and modernist views that he comes across as repulsive: he is created by his author in order to be knocked down. Bartleby, on the other hand, for all his blankness, for all his silence, is more real than the blustering Underground Man.

And so there is much debate on the pyschology of Bartleby and his relationship with the world, but none of it quite reaches a true understanding of him. Nonetheless, despite their relative failures to understand his character, these commentators are correct in supposing that the key to Bartleby the Scrivener lies not in the outside, in the wider world of commerce and progress, nor even in the small and stilted communication of that scriveners’ office. No, this is a story that looks inwards, a story of the mind, of the self. It is a story of complete and utter disconnection, the loss of contact of one human being with the mass of humanity. Bartleby is surrounded by walls. In a sense, of course, he is a wall himself. And at the story’s conclusion, imprisoned, he lies facing a wall, unseeing, in a very deliberate echo of those moments, throughout the story, in which he stands passively in the office in a ‘dead-wall reverie’. What he is doing is building walls around himself, for do we not all, to some extent, build walls around ourselves? It is a defence mechanism, a back-up should the binary options of fight-or-flight prove unattainable. And because Bartleby has built his walls so high and so thick there is no prospect of communication.

The narrator, in his own small-minded, utterly conformist way, is moved to pity for Bartleby but is constrained by his conception of propriety and fears for his status. Thus, Melville is telling us, it is possible to feel sympathy for another human being, as the narrator clearly does for Bartleby, but for that to still not be enough. It doesn’t save Bartleby, just as our human sympathy for people in distress, or enduring illness, or undergoing suffering, cannot do anything to impinge on that suffering. Meanwhile, the other scriveners, subsumed by their own ailments which leave them so disagreeable for half the day – one in the mornings and one in the afternoons – make no effort to understand him. Bartleby himself is incapable of compromise: to do so is not an option, he would ‘prefer not to’.

In this way freedom is lost. Freedom, that most precious gift of humanity, is gradually eroded, and it is impossible to say whether this is caused by society in general or by Bartleby himself – outside or inside. This is the ambiguity at the core of the story, and it is ambiguous because it must be: there is no answer, not in Bartleby the Scrivener nor in real life. What we have instead is a symbiotic relationship between the individual and society, between present and past and present and future, between ambition and need, between intention and ability. To each action and each moment there is an unknowable and unresolvable tension. We all of us want to be free; we want to be happy. Utilitarians speak simplisticaly of the moral worth of an action being determined only by its contribution to overall utility, and of happiness consisting in that which does the greatest good for the greatest number, but to say that is to look, once more, on the outside, not the inside – the general, not the personal. Bartleby the Scrivener shows what it is to be alive and to have one’s own hopes and aspirations, so deeply felt that they surpass even one’s own understanding, and so important that they cannot adequately be communicated. It is a tension that cannot be resolved. Rousseau has it right – we could only attain that freedom by reverting to a state of complete innocence, and innocence is not something that can be regained. Therefore, if it cannot be resolved the biggest challenge facing us as a society is to at least begin to understand it.

That is what Bartleby the Scrivener is trying to teach us: it shows us a way to succeed by showing us failure. Life is full of mystery, and more so, of course, is death. We understand less than we realise. That is why the literary novel, in its current form, with its insistence on explication and understanding, its focus on Barthes’ hermeneutic code to the detriment of all else, fails to engage with the central strangeness of our existence. Bartleby the Scrivener defies easy answers. I don’t know what Melville meant. I don’t know what this story really means. But I know what it means to me, and that meaning shifts every time I think about it. That is the mark of great writing. It has been implanted in my head: the outside has forced its way inside.

Time and the self

Any true self is not only the result of a vital relation with a community but is also a development in time, and if there is no past there can be no self.

Robert Penn Warren

This seems to me an intractable problem. I alluded to it the other day, in my post about the christ-haunted Cormac McCarthy. We understand the past only in the context of the present; but, conversely, because our present is so wholly shaped by the past, if we are not careful we can become prisoners of our own history. This is what happens in places like Northern Ireland or Turkey, where people find it impossible to relinquish the memories and pain and arguments of the past. Nietzsche characterises this as ressentiment, and identifies it as the biggest blockage to our development as a human family.

So, while I agree entirely with Warren, I see dangers in his words, because men tend to fundamentalism, and fundamentalism tends to violence.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The human hoose

Robert Burns' 250th anniversary is today.

Then let us pray that come it may
(As come it will for a' that),
That Sense and Worth oer a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree an a' that.
For a' that, an a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That man to man, the world, oer
Shall brithers be for a' that.

Sadly, there's no sign of it coming yet. It's not so much the wars and killing that separate us. They're discrete. Ultimately resolvable. Even Northern Ireland is well on the road.

It's the little things that still separate us. I won't do something for you because you're not like me. You will do something to me because I'm not one of you. And so it goes. No-one attempts to bridge those little differences. And they're the ones that lead to the big differences, and the war and the killing. The human hoose has oer mony rooms and nane o them connect.

President Obama, speaking before his inauguration, said:
While our problems may be new, what is required to overcome them is not. What is required is the same perseverance and idealism that our founders displayed. What is required is a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives — from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry — an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels.

Leaving aside the angels and all that they entail (at least his inauguration speech referred to atheists, a major step forward), this strikes me as just the right model to take us forward to Burns' ideal. Fancy words, some will say. Can't happen, others will decide. It's cynicism that will see for us all.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A jolly night out

Back from London, where I was at the launch of Alex Keegan's short story collection, Ballistics (see post below). A very enjoyable evening indeed, with AK reading from his work (plus assistance from his daughter and her friend). But probably more than anything it was a great opportunity to meet some old colleagues from Boot Camp. Some I've met before - Dan, Ralph, Caroline, Lexie - but others have always just been names in the ether - Margot, Cally, Nancy - so it was great to put faces to the names, after all this time. Good food, good chat. And a few wines and beers were downed...

Earlier, taking advantage of the day out in London, I went over to Tate Modern for the Rothko exhibition. (En passant, what's with all this jogging in London at the moment? There's always been a fair bit of it, but it's bloody near impossible to walk down the South Bank without being mowed down by fat, middle aged men sweating out last night's Pinot Grigio and shambling along without lifting their feet off the ground. Is it this season's must-do activity?)

Anyway, Rothko. Hmmm. I do like to think I connect with modern art and can appreciate even the most esoteric, but with Rothko I have to admit I'm struggling. Sure, they're impressive, and, as always, it's much better seeing them in the flesh than in reproductions. There's definitely more depth to them - both literally and metaphorically, and with some of the black ones in particular there's something almost mesmerising in the way the density of the blackness seems to shift the more you look at it, so that at first the painted border seems darker than the main body of the painting, and then vice versa, and then the main bdoy itself seems to change.

But, in the end, they still feel like big blocks of repetitive colour, and I struggle to take anything from them. Yes, the moodiness of the atmosphere in the main room with the red and maroons is good, the dark lighting adding something to the effect, but I still got the feeling it was a large, dark room full of red pictures. I'm not usually so philistine, but these just didn't do it for me.

I guess I like some form of narrative. I'm not talking purely figurative art. I don't mind abstraction, not in the least, because I have a vivid imagination and even through abstraction I can usually start to conjure up some sort of meaning. With Rothko it didn't happen.

Later, however, wandering round the main galleries, I came across a painting and a painter I've never encountered before, Meredith Frampton, and I was blown away. This painting, Portrait of a young woman, from 1935, is simply gorgeous. It definitely says something. The woman has such a strong face, and there is such an enigma about her expression. This woman demands - positively demands - to have a story written about her, and so she shall have one.

Today was rounded off by the Renaissance Faces exhibition at the National. Good stuff, though it felt a bit familiar, because half of the paintings are from the National's own collection, so I've seen them lots of times before. But worth a wander anyway, and I discovered another elegant, enigmatic woman, this time by Lorenzo Lotto, Portrait of a woman inspired by Lucretia. Again, there is such strength in her expression, and so much unsaid which would be truly fascinating to uncover. This painting is also in the National's collection, I understand, but I've never spotted it before. It'll be a favourite from now on.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Plot Against America - Philip Roth

The Plot against America is a chilling work because it is so undemonstrative. It never goes over-the-top, never chases drama, never descends into didacticism. Instead, it posits a chillingly simple thesis – what if America had turned towards fascism in the 1940s? – and examines, coldly, soberly, what might have been the result. The answer is frightening, all the more so because – until a less than satisfactory ending – nowhere does Roth lose control of his narrative. It all feels real. It could have happened.

By extension, it could happen.

The alternative history that Roth creates builds around the election of Charles A. Lindbergh to American President in 1940, following a tubthumping and virulently anti-Jewish speech in which he called for American neutrality in the European war. This speech was genuine, but for Roth’s narrative the date shifts from 1941 to 1940. Lindbergh beats Roosevelt in a landslide and so begins a train of events which threatens to turn America towards fascism. Non-aggression pacts are signed with Germany and Japan. Von Ribbentrop is invited to a special dinner at the White House. The Orwellian-sounding Office of American Absorption (OAA) is established. A ‘Just Folks’ programme sends young Jewish children to live with gentile families. A malevolent government uses parochialism and homeland security fears to quash civil liberties (and how resonant does that sound today?) And so the descent begins.

What is most disturbing about the novel is the blandness of it all, the ease with which a civilisation can slip into barbarism. The depiction of America’s Kristallnacht is terrifying precisely because of the lack of over-dramatic build-up. What we see are ordinary people whose views are changed subtly because of the polished, persuasive oratory of Lindbergh, and from that there are further gradual shifts rightwards. Comments about ‘loud-mouthed Jews’ become more strident. Divisions are created. The slide into violence is slow but even so, when it comes, it feels like a natural conclusion. And yet think about it, and think how unnatural and repulsive it actually is: this dichotomy between the nature of the act and the way in which the act is reached is what is truly disturbing. We saw it in Nazi Germany in the thirties, a slow decline into monstrousness, and Roth shows us clearly how it could happen again, almost without our realising it. Because when the shops are attacked and the people are relocated and the riots begin it is already far, far too late.

The heroes of this novel are, I suppose, Joe and Josephine America, those ordinary men and women who are quietly seeking the American dream and who see in America a way of life that is important and worth cherishing. The main family in the narrative are the Roths, a Jewish family who live in a Jewish neighbourhood which, nonetheless, is not that different from any other neighbourhood in Newark. Those bearded Jews who visit door-to-door seeking donations for the ‘homeland’ are a mystery to young Philip Roth: ‘We'd already had a homeland for three generations,’ he tells us. ‘Our homeland was America.’

But their homeland is soon to be riven. Under the auspices of the OAA, the Homestead 42 scheme seeks to disperse Jewish communities and Jewish families are ‘selected’ for relocation into rural areas like Kentucky where there are few Jewish traditions. This is absorption as means of elimination: Jews are accepted, even welcomed, as long as they conform to ‘American’ – ie WASPish – ways. Its mirror is the Good Neighbor Project, in which the homes vacated by Jews are filled by non-Jewish families, further diluting their separateness. Jewishness is under attack. The certainties that Herman Roth holds dear, and tries to instil in his family, are washed away. His world suddenly becomes hostile. Drama ensues.

The genius of this book is the way that Roth invests meaning in the wider, political and social drama by examining it through the prism of the private dramas of his young character, the youthful ‘Philip Roth’. Philip is seven years old and understands the world in the way that seven year olds do – focused on himself and his own immediate concerns. And so we have his obsession with his stamp collection – a symbol of all that America stands for – and his wide range of childish fears and his irrational responses to crises, such as running away from home to a Catholic orphanage with only his beloved stamp collection for company. The young Philip has no understanding of what is happening in America, and yet he sees the destructive impact it has on his family, the way their close-knit unit comes close to unravelling under the pressure, the tragic, painful consequences, the danger. And, above all, the fear.

It is not a faultless book. In particular, the last quarter feels rushed and incomplete. Lindbergh disappears in his aircraft somewhere over the ocean and, from that moment, the grip that the narrative has had over the reader begins to loosen. Instead of being driven by each horribly plausible narrative turn, one starts to question the plausibility of what one is reading and, from then, the strength of the book weakens. The ending, in particular, a typically American everything-is-resolved, everyone-is-happy sort of ending, feels flat.

But for all that, this remains an important and fascinating book. It casts a mirror on our society – then and now – and the reflection we see is not one with which we might be entirely comfortable. In rewriting history, Roth confronts us with today. Writing of this novel, he said:

And now Aristophanes, who surely must be God, has given us George W. Bush, a man unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one, and who has merely reaffirmed for me the maxim that informed the writing of all these books and that makes our lives as Americans as precarious as anyone else's: all the assurances are provisional, even here in a 200-year-old democracy. We are ambushed, even as free Americans in a powerful republic armed to the teeth, by the unpredictability that is history.

Precarious indeed but, in exactly one week’s time, the world may begin again. Unpredictable though it is, history has now, suddenly, lurched towards truth and honour. There is to be a new President and the hope of a new future. Let us hope that nothing derails it.

Ballistics by Alex Keegan

Now published and available from Salt Publishing here.

I haven't got my copy yet - will do so tomorrow evening at the official launch in London. However, I've been lucky enough to go through many of the stories included in it with Alex on a number of occasions, both online and face-to-face, and this is a collection of very, very fine short stories. There is a depth to this work which is remarkable. Some stories warrant re- and re-reading. Some positively require it. Such is the case with Alex's work.

If you buy one short story collection this year, this is the one.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

William Zantzinger

William Zantzinger has died at 69. He was made infamous by the Bob Dylan masterpiece, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, which told the true story, from 1963, of how Zantzinger killed a black woman. He was convicted of manslaughter and given a six month jail sentence, a penalty so weak it left only 'time for tears'.

Zantzinger argued that the song was a misrepresentation. Perhaps it was, but it was a highly charged political work, part of the then nascent counter-culture, and it helped to inform a generation of young people about fairness and inequality.

Zantzinger was convicted in the 90s of fraud relating to real estate.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The point of the novel?

This is something I’ve quoted before, by Terry Eagleton, in the wake of his spat with Martin Amis over Amis’s remarks about Muslims.

I have no idea why we should listen to novelists on these matters any more than we should listen to window cleaners. I don't know where their status comes from. When someone like Ian McEwan stands up and says, "I believe in individual freedom," you know, it's like: "Hallelujah, put up your hands all those that don't," but such words do not respect a much larger problem.

I disagree with Eagleton profoundly on this. Novelists – good novelists – have something to say, and whether or not you agree with them you can still learn something from reading them. But Eagleton does point to a malaise within literature, and within novel writing in particular. There is a sense that, today, it is going nowhere. It is drifting in its own sea, remote from the reality that each of us is confronted with, and when it does try to connect, as with the series of 9/11 books I have reviewed in this blog, it does so in a shallow and ephemeral way.

This is not a recent development, however. Here are some quotes from a collection of interviews brought together by Joe David Bellamy in The New Fiction in 1974. Bellamy himself was optimistic. In the preface, he wrote:

Fiction, until recently that most arriere-garde of contemporary art forms, may suddenly be in the process of catching up with painting, music and film – may suddenly be in the process of catching up with the age.

John Barth also saw something reflective about the nature of literature, finding it ‘more refractory to change in general than the other arts.’ Dostoevsky would have less difficulty understanding Saul Bellow than Tchaikovsky would in understanding John Cage, for example. And so, to his way of thinking, literature was still well placed to both reflect and lead cultural change.

Other interviewees, however, disagreed. William H Gass noted:

I distrust people, including artists, who make pretentious claims for literature as a source of knowledge… I see no reason to regard literature as a superior source of truth, or even as a reliable source of truth at all. Going to it is dangerous because it provides a sense of verification (a feeling) without the fact of verification ( the validating process).

Now this is subtly different from what Eagleton was saying. Eagleton, good Marxist that he is, is simply refusing to place one group of people above another; in other words his complaint is against the individual, not the medium. Gass, however, is complaining that the novel – the medium – should not be considered to be a holy grail of truth. He mistrusts the art, not the artist.

Ronald Sukenick takes this further, with an assault on the substantiality of the novel form itself. He suggests:

Well, how can I put this? – one of the reasons people have lost faith in the novel is that they don’t believe it tells the truth anymore, which is another way of saying that they don’t believe in the convention of the novel. They pick up a novel and they know it’s make-believe. So who needs it – go listen to the television news, right? Or read a biography… Nobody is willing to suspend disbelief in that particular way anymore, including me.

Because of this, he suggests, students do not ‘go to novels now in the same way that they used to in the fifties – with the sense that they were going to learn something about their lives, the way that people used to read Hemingway, say. I think that in its realistic forms it’s just lost its credibility.’

Again, this is not the same as Eagleton’s argument. Again, it is a fault of the novel, not the novelist. In other words, it can be put right, if the novel adapts.

And this is the crux of it. What is the role of the novel today? What form should it take? How can we overcome those stale debates about postmodernism and post-postmodernism which have overtaken literary criticism and ensured that debate on the novel takes place in a rarefied, impossible atmosphere, far removed from everyday existence? How can the novel come to mean anything?

People have, of course, been lamenting the death of the novel for fifty years or more. It isn’t dead. But it’s not in good shape. Take another look at that New York Times list of the best of the past twenty-five years. Be honest: firstly, the list is absolutely not a list of the best novels in the past twenty-five years so much as a summary of the output of the grand-hommes of American literature in the past twenty-five years; and secondly, it is a list that says remarkably little about what it means to be alive in 2009.

So who is going to step forward? And how? After all, Eagleton has to be proved wrong. To finish with another quote from Vonnegut – a different one from my favourite canary-in-the-mines one, but the same sentiment:

My motives [for writing] are political. I agree with Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini that the writer should serve his society. I differ with dictators as to how writers should serve. Mainly, I think they should be – and biologically have to be – agents of change. For the better, we hope.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The whim of a hat

Well, the end of Dubya's presidency is so closed you can almost smell it. Glorious day...

Nonetheless, he will be remembered, if for nothing else then for his Bushisms. There's a brilliant selection here:

My favourite:

"Free societies are hopeful societies. And free societies will be allies against these hateful few who have no conscience, who kill at the whim of a hat."

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The public and the personal

The complex, strained relation between public and personal life was also being explored in other ways; it was during the Kennedy Presidency that Roth noted the stupefying unreality of contemporary American history, and Bellow a massing of public life so great that ‘private life cannot maintain a pretence of its importance’ – with complex consequences for the novel. It was not far from this thought to the suspicion that history itself was an absurd fiction, a massive plot commanding the individual yet dissolving all stable reality. American fiction at the beginning of the Sixties was enlarging its themes and looking historically outward; it was also reappraising the forces loose in the world, and the question of the individual’s power to face them. The history novelists now explored was something beyond individual existence and the measure of reason; it was a history of distorting power plays, large consipiratorial structures, huge technological systems, apocalyptic threats to survival.

Malcom Bradbury. The modern American novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, p. 157

What strikes me about mainstream American fiction today is that it is now beginning to look historically inward. The history being explored by contemporary novelists is - directly contrary to their 1960s counterparts - purely directed through individual experience, such that personal emotion becomes somehow of greater significance than historical event - history as solipsism.

American desert - Percival Everett

Percival Everett doesn’t particularly regard himself as a writer of satire, citing only Glyph as a truly satirical novel. However, if American Desert isn’t satire, I’m not sure what is. It is also high octane farce, a study in psychology and a surprisingly deep analysis of love. More of that later.

The bare bones of the novel are striking enough. Theodore ‘Ted’ Street, a man desparately unhappy with his home life, decides one morning to kill himself. Fortunately or unfortunately, on his way to do so he is killed in a car accident, his head being completely severed from his body. At his funeral three days later, to the consternation of the congregation, he rises from his coffin and looks around. A riot ensues, followed by a media maelstrom. But for Ted Street, neither alive nor dead, the trouble is only beginning.

From the start this is high pressure farce, told in a light, cartoonish manner. But don’t be fooled, because Everett is no two-dimensional farceur. Depth emerges gradually. The story takes in kidnap, religious fanaticism, execution (failed, since it is impossible to execute someone already dead), abduction by shadowy government bodies, vivisection, the cloning of Jesus Christ, escape, more religious fanaticism and finally redemption. And that’s only the half of it. I forgot to mention Roswell, and incest...

You get the picture? We’re not talking high realism here. But nor are we talking shallow nonsense, for in satirising contemporary culture – the media, the government, the church – Everett does begin to ask questions about what it is to be human and the nature of love. For all its high-energy fantasy, this is a novel with some weight.

At the start of the novel Ted is about to drown himself because he sees no value in his life and is essentially in a living death. He is failing at work (a university professor struggling to obtain a tenure), he is unfaithful to his wife and remote to his children, particularly his daughter. He is bored. He comes to believe ‘that life [is] over anyway, that he made no difference to anyone’. He has reached his nadir, or so he thinks. But by being thrust into a literal living death, by being brought unwillingly back to life, he is given a second chance and is forced to confront both the world and, more problematically, himself.

In his new, limbo-like state, he gradually comes to feel more alive than when he was really alive. When he returns to the family home after the riot at the church, ‘[t]he house felt more comfortable than ever’, different from the ‘cold tomb’ it had seemed before the accident. Later, as he lowers himself into the bath, he cries for the first time since he was eight. He re-reads novels and finds more resonance and joy than he ever had before. When he makes love to his wife, we are told:

Then, he felt genuinely good about himself, realizing that the old Ted could not have been so selfless, that the old Ted would have worried about his manhood and passive-aggressively taken his feeling of inadequacy out on her. Ted closed his eyes and drifted, he hoped, only into sleep.

A by-product of his life-in-death status is that he can read other people. He observes them and can see episodes from their past playing out, those moments of deceit and dissembling of which we are all guilty. In this way, Ted begins to understand life, and in so doing, he starts to uncover the truth about himself. Gradually, he finds meaning. Late in the novel we are told, ‘Ted had new resolve in the matter of protecting life in general.’ This is very different from the Ted to whom we were introduced two hundred pages earlier. The climax of the novel occurs when Ted turns that resolve into action by attempting to rescue twenty-seven children from a murderous religious cult who have blockaded themselves deep in the desert. ‘I am finally, in this life, a decent man’, he tells the watching world in a media interview afterwards, and the novel concludes with Ted having found a very human redemption. It is, I suppose, an 'It's A Wonderful Life' for our times.

This is a fine work. It operates at two levels – high farce and serious drama – but does so in a natural and unaffected way. This is a difficult trick to pull off. The slapstick quality of a farcical narrative makes it difficult to imbue any depth in the characters – even the master of the genre Vonnegut only really manages this with Slaughterhouse 5 – but here Everett succeeds impressively. He is often criticised for taking pot-shots at easy targets – the media, the lunatic religious fringe, the government, they are all so bizarre they are beyond parody, we are told – but while that may be so it is hardly Everett’s fault. What he does is isolate them in the cold, hard light of reality and confront us with the vacuousness at the heart of so much contemporary culture. But, ultimately, this is shown not in the farces that attach themselves to the shallow media practitioners or deranged religious cultists. That would indeed be too easy. No, instead Everett allows us to see their vacuousness through the basic decency of Ted Street. That is why this novel works as a piece of satire and that is why, for all its madcap inventiveness, it is also a remarkably subtle piece of writing.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Villages - John Updike

In presenting a retrospective of one man’s life from his current old age back to his naïve youth in the 1940s, John Updike is trying to say important things about America and about humanity, that ‘wise village’. Unfortunately he doesn’t say them very well.

The novel begins in the 1940s when Owen Mackenzie is a child and life progresses calmly in Willow, the first of a series of villages which form the backdrop of the narrative. It is a time when family quarrels on hot summer evenings might result in shouts and door-slamming, but divorce remains unthinkable outside of New York or Hollywood. It is a naïve time and Owen is a naïve child, but there are portents. The country is at war because ‘the world was full of destruction and evil, and only the United States, it seemed, could put it right.’ Against this background Owen, a timid boy, has a typical small-town childhood, complete with stereotypically fluffed first sexual encounter, and eventually meets up with his future wife, Phyllis, at MIT.

The novel progresses into the sixties, and the times begin to change. Away from the small villages (such as Middle Falls) and enclosed communities (MIT) that Phyllis and Owen inhabit, there is a counterculture emerging which they, straight-laced and provincial, appear to be on the edge of, on the outside, looking in. Still, one feels there is a connection. Describing the person-type to which she thinks she belongs, Phyllis suggests they are ‘accepting. They’re non-disruptive. They don’t hurt anybody’. People, that is, rather like those innocents from the early days of flower-power who revelled in their freedom, who spoke honestly, who used words like ‘fucking’ without embarrassment.

Gradually, then, the counterculture and its new order pervades the world of Phyllis and Owen. Stacey, the wife of Owen’s business partner, introduces them to the delights of pot. Within ten pages, and apropos nothing at all, she then introduces Owen’s cock to her mouth and despite Owen declining this unexpected gift, he undergoes a kind of epiphany:

Polymorphous life beckoned. The dark gods were in fashion. Everyone was sinning, including the government. He resolved in his heart to become a seducer. He would never treat his poor prick that cruel way again.

Epiphany is not too strong a word because, in Updike’s world, sex becomes transcendent, it is part of the stuff of life, it is something to be pursued and relished and nurtured, to the exclusion of feeling or empathy or natural emotion. It is a ‘programmed delirium that rolls back death with death’s own substance; it is the black space between the stars given sweet substance in our veins and crevices.’ There is ‘no mystery’ about it: sex is what we are programmed to do. And Owen, once he develops his taste for it, cannot refuse it. He becomes a serial adulterer and the novel descends into a catalogue of his lovers (Faye, Alissa, Vanessa, Jacqueline, Antoinette, Mirabella, Karen and Julia) and their pecadilloes (oral, anal, you name it, only three-in-a-bed eludes him).

In all of this, Updike is seeking to say something about the nature of the modern world and the way America has progressed from the sixties onwards. This would be fine. Updike has always, from The Poorhouse Fair onwards, sought to understand the global through the personal, to see life through the prism of individual experience. And so we see the idealism of the sixties gradually hardening. ‘Everyone’s becoming strident,’ Owen says at one point. 1969 is summed up thus:

The last summer of the ‘sixties brought more news than comfort: Nixon and Kissinger trying to bomb their way to an acceptable surrender in Vietnam, Ted Kennedy drowning a starry-eyed young campaign worker at Chappaquiddick, the first man on the moon looking like a Puppetoon. Judy Garland dead, Bishop Pike gone missing, a pregnant Sharon Tate stabbed to death in Los Angeles, everywhere in the United States defiance and hatred of the government.

So far so good. But the next sentence following this description reads: ‘But in Owen’s vicinity the news was Alissa Morrisey’s pregnancy.’ And herein lies both the underlying theme and the overriding fault of this novel. The world progresses, Updike is telling us, and it carries us all with it, but only to the extent that we poor mortals can do nothing to stall the march of time. Through it all, what really concerns us is sex and ourselves and the ceaseless conjunction of cocks and cunts. The world is becoming a nastier place: America ‘wind[s] up dropping napalm on a lot of Indochinese peasants and children’. The young are rebelling in order to ‘break the shell of everybody’s stupidity’. Smoking pot leads to snorting cocaine. The rise of technology means that ‘everything that made us human is going by the boards’. But for Owen – and, by extension, Updike and everyman – all of this is relegated beneath the need to fuck.

This could be significant. It could be an indictment of our narcissistic society, the way we have come to fetishise our own need for gratification. And yet I’m not clear that this is actually Updike’s message. On the contrary, the ending of the novel is a piece of typical optimistic Updikean humanism:

Such a surface order makes possible human combinations and moments of tender regard. It is a mad thing, to be alive. Villages exist to moderate this madness – to hide it from children, to bottle it for private use, to smooth its imperatives into habits, to protect us from the darkness without and the darkness within.

As ever, there are no easy answers with Updike, and it is not easy to see exactly what message he is trying to relay in this novel. There is much in Owen’s worldview that is repellent and yet there is also an inevitability about it. And Updike’s view of ‘villages’, those communities we establish to accommodate our human family, is ultimately a thing of beauty, possessing a wisdom and a moderating force that permits something as alluring as ‘tender regard’. This has been the stuff of Updike’s fiction for forty years: humanity in all its fallible foibles. It should, then, offer us insight. But does it?

This is where we return to that overriding weakness in the novel. The focus on sex is unrelenting and unedifying. It is – and this is something that should not be said of Updike’s work – shallow. His usual ability to define the universal through the individual appears to have deserted him on this occasion. Instead, we have a series of sexual interludes with reflections on society grafted on. Take this passage, for example:

Until Vietnam ended and Nixon resigned, the ‘seventies were an extension of the ‘sixties, of the rebellious fever inflicted by irritation from above. But the new decade was more shopworn and hard-eyed. Female bodies were hardening, as exercise and diet became a mode of feminist assertion. Drugs and promiscuity had catered to spiritual health; now physical condition’s turn had come. Owen could not help admiring, as he kneeled on the San Jose hotel’s shag carpet to pull down Jacqueline’s pantyhose, the flat tendony knit behind her knee, the calf-bulge modulating upward into the biceps femoris and the gluteus maximus, so firm to his touch; he had to pause to kiss the dear adductor longus on the inside of her thigh, and she, halfway out of her pantyhose, had to cluth the hair on his head to steady herself.

It’s a kind of bathos, the ludicrous shift in the space of five sentences from Vietnam and Nixon to Jacqueline’s firm gluteus maximus. Updike is trying to tell us about humanity but cannot in the end raise his gaze from a nice piece of ass. It is hard to recognise from this froth the man who, in 1959, debated destiny and mortality with a range of beautifully drawn characters in The Poorhouse Fair, each with their own sets of beliefs, each prepared to listen and accommodate and change. In the intervening years Updike has returned again and again to his familiar themes of loneliness and fear and the lure of the past but, increasingly, his powerful vision has been watered down by his obsession with sex. In Villages that obsession reaches its nadir. It is interposed between the writer’s vision and the reader’s understanding. Updike has tried to use sex to shine a light on human nature. Instead, he has merely obscured it further.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Best American fiction of the past 25 years

Here's an interesting list of the top 25 best American novels of the past 25 years, as selected by a couple of hundred people in the literary business.

Beloved Toni Morrison (1987)

Underworld Don DeLillo (1997)
Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy(1985)
Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels John Updike
Rabbit at Rest(1990)
Rabbit Is Rich(1981)
Rabbit Redux(1971)
Rabbit, Run(1960)
American Pastoral Philip Roth (1997)

A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy Toole (1980)
Housekeeping Marilynne Robinson (1980)
Winter's Tale Mark Helprin 1983)
White Noise Don DeLillo (1985)
The Counterlife Philip Roth (1986)
Libra Don DeLillo (1988)
Where I'm Calling From Raymond Carver (1988)
The Things They Carried Tim O'Brien (1990)
Mating Norman Rush (1991)
Jesus' Son Denis Johnson (1992)
Operation Shylock Philip Roth (1993)
Independence Day Richard Ford (1995)
Sabbath's Theater Philip Roth (1995)
Border Trilogy Cormac McCarthy (1999)
Cities of the Plain(1998)
The Crossing(1994)
All the Pretty Horses(1992)
The Human Stain Philip Roth (2000)
The Known World Edward P. Jones (2003)
The Plot Against America Philip Roth (2004)

Apart from the winner, it is overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white. Now I'm not interested in polls (or competitions) that feel compelled to include women or black writers just for the sake of balance, and I think that this list is probably a fair reflection of the best of the best known writing in the US in the past 25 years. But doesn't that suggest a problem? I would suggest there must be other writers in the US who are producing equally good work, but they cannot break through into the cabal of old, white men led by Roth and Updike and McCarthy. They are not becoming well known.

It's an important point, because it feels to me that current American literature is not reflecting current American culture, nor is it leading it, in the way that my old mate Kurt Vonnegut insisted it must.

It is also noteworthy how few books have come from the 2000s. This, I would suggest, is related to the previous point: no matter how fine late period Roth is, for example, there is still a stasis in American fiction that will not be remedied until it allows some fresh blood to flow into its veins.

Step forward, for example, Percival Everett.

Samuel P. Huntington

Samuel P. Huntington has died. I guess he will be most remembered for the Clash of Civilizations thesis. At first it appeared seductive, even prescient, but in the end it didn't bear scrutiny.

In his 1993 essay, The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington articulated a new paradigm to replace an outmoded Cold War world-view predicated on a tripartite arrangement of the Free World, Communist bloc and non-aligned Third World. The fundamental source of conflict, he suggested, would no longer be ‘primarily ideological or primarily economic’, but cultural. There will be a clash of civilizations and ‘the fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.’

His 1997 monograph of the same name expands on the original hypothesis. Contrary to the neocon belief in unipolarity, he suggests the world is now multipolar and multicivilizational. A civilization-based world order is emerging and the balance of power is shifting. He considers a clash of civilizations inevitable. Civilizational differences, the ‘product of centuries’ , are more fundamental than those of political ideologies. Fundamentalist religion has revived and Sinic societies are advancing. The West’s belief in its universality – that is, the primacy of democracy and liberalism – antagonises the rest and, at the ‘peak of its power’ it is faced with ‘non-Wests that increasingly have the desire, the will and the resources to shape the world in non-Western ways.‘ He warns of the perceived connection between universalism and imperialism and, while this there is an element of reductive fallacy about this, it contains a germ of truth. Muzaffar, for example, suggests: ‘it is the US and Western dominance of the planet, and not the clash of civilizations, which is the root of global conflict.’ Accordingly, Huntington concludes that ‘the dangerous clashes of the future are likely to arise because of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance and Sinic assertiveness.’

Huntington understands what neocons and even cosmopolitanists overlook – that Western attempts to promote global liberal democracy are often seen as arrogant. Lowry, for example, notes that neocons ‘[assume] a universal admiration for America that does not exist.’ And cosmopolitanists do not always understand that the NGOs and IGOs they believe are the bulwarks of globalizing democracy are often seen as being dominated by the West and mandated, as Archibugi notes, to defend very narrow economic interests.

Nonetheless, it would be quite wrong to suggest that Huntington’s thesis gives an accurate depiction of the world today or a reliable forecast of its future. For example, he is unable even to articulate how many civilizations exist. There are ‘seven or eight’, he suggests (in the later monograph he explains that a discrete African civilization is only a ‘possibility’.) Moreover, it is clear he is only interested in three of these – the West, plus Islamic and Sinic civilizations. And in his doomsday scenario he sees the latter combining to form an alliance against the West: in effect, as Edward Said notes, he basically reformulates the Cold War paradigm of West against the rest. Far from articulating a new paradigm, Huntington simply refuels old paranoia.

Global war, therefore, becomes his first future scenario, although he concedes this is not inevitable if world leaders cooperate to ‘maintain the multicivilizational character of global politics.’ He is not especially confident that such cooperation will occur: the West’s universalism is bringing it into conflict with ‘the rest’, who are becoming increasingly belligerent. ‘Kin-countries’ are bonding and alliances – most frighteningly, in Huntington’s eyes, a Sino-Muslim one – are being formed.

His second and third scenarios are of the decline of the West, and its mirror, Western resurgence. Unsurprisingly, it is to the latter that Huntington devotes his greatest attention. The West remains the most powerful civilization but is already in decline. Suggesting it will deteriorate further, he now articulates his theories on cosmopolitanist-inspired multiculturalism, which he considers to be a considerable threat to American, and indeed Western civilization. These arguments, shallow and borderline racist, emphasising the apparent dangers of different cultures within the US, begin to give the impression that it is not different civilizations that Huntington decries, but different races. Indeed, this point was noted by many observers at the time of the original essay. Ali Mazrui, for example, asked whether the clash of civilizations is no more than a euphemism for a clash of races. Kalam, too, suggests that Huntington’s paradigm appears ‘as a veiled attempt to conceal his racial face,’ while Edward Said likens Huntington’s depiction of the West and ‘the rest’ as ‘a cartoonlike world where Popeye and Bluto bash each other mercilessly.’ In a world where cosmopolitanists are advocating cultural cohesion and even neocons talk of benevolent hegemony, Huntington’s thesis feels uncomfortably sectarian.

Huntington’s is an essentially antagonistic model, suggesting a future of either cold or active war, where civilizations grow and are kept apart. Is this appealing? In the sense of desirability, clearly it is not: the world has known prolonged global tension for over a century and an extension of this state is undesirable. In terms of likelihood, there are two considerations. Firstly, there is a considerable fear of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy: his original thesis has been welcomed by extremists in both the West and the Islamic world. On the other hand, it contains profound weaknesses.

Firstly, it fails to take account of economic drivers. His suggestion that the West faced no economic rival but Japan was wrong even in 1993: today, with the rise of China as an economic superpower, it is nonsense. Further, there is no evidence that China is aligning itself with Muslim states: indeed, in conflicts such as Bosnia it took the opposite side. To identify Confucian states as potential enemies, but exclude Japan from such a description, is perverse, and it appears that Huntington does so only because it better fits his thesis. The multiculturalism that he criticises so heavily begins to unpick his assertion that there is a single, cohesive ‘Western’ civilization. Similarly, it is impossible to look at the array of Islamic states, from semi-secular Turkey to fundamentalist Iran, as a unified whole. As a vision of the future, Huntington’s is neither desirable nor likely.

The trouble is, with the world in its current situation, it remains seductive. The greatest fear is a self-fulfilling prophesy.