Monday, January 31, 2011

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

In a lengthy letter to Cormac McCarthy during the drafting of Suttree, McCarthy’s editor, Albert Erskine, cautions that a number of scenes are unnecessary and repetitious. They are peopled, Erskine warns, by meaningless characters who add nothing to the story’s depth that has not already been explored elsewhere. McCarthy, an iconoclast if ever there was one, is not a man to be overly concerned with editors’ comments, but he did listen to Erskine on this occasion. Not only whole scenes, but entire characters are excised from the final version of Suttree. And these excisions are not, whatever Erskine’s reservations, examples of inferior writing: on the contrary, one scene, in particular, is a viciously funny depiction of the dangers and violent aftermath of excessive drinking. It is hilarious. But Erskine was right: funny as it is, the scene only replicates what McCarthy had already provided elsewhere. So it was deleted, and the version of Suttree that was finally published is a masterpiece. Of course, in McCarthy next novel, Blood Meridian, he comprehensively forgot the lesson that less is more and gave us slaughter after slaughter, each bloodier than the last, each less lingering in the memory.

And so to American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. American Pyscho is one of the few books of the past twenty-five years that could claim to be on a par with Blood Meridian in its depiction of violence. Not in the scale of violence, perhaps, but judge Holden did have a handy genocidal war to call on for a supply of unwilling fodder, while Patrick Bateman was a pyscho alone in pursuit of his deadly ambitions. American Pyscho is a gripping novel which would have been well-served by an Erskine-like editor pointing out duplication and concomitant lessening of impact through a number of repetitive scenes. It is, in truth, in great need of some judicious culling of its extraneous material. Too many set-pieces are too similar, the progression into full-frontal insanity is too slowly realised, too frequently exposed – as though Easton Ellis couldn’t trust us to work out for ourselves that feeding a starving rat up a tube into a woman’s vagina is not the action of a wholly rational being – and the whole feels a good fifty to seventy-five pages too long. I do not suggest this on grounds of taste, but purely in terms of writing craft. The violence is, indeed, excruciating, but there is just too much of it: the point is made, then re-made, then re-made.

On the subject of taste, however, I have a confession. When it was first published, in 1991, I was a young and idealistic stock librarian, who read all the fuss about American Pyscho (though not, of course, the book itself) and persuaded the powers that be in my authority that the book should be banned. This was long ago, when political correctness was more important to me than free speech, and before I understood it is not the duty of librarians to censor books or judge what people should and should not read. When one frustrated reader had the temerity to point this out to me, I replied tartly (and on the basis of no evidence whatever) that American Pyscho was not a good book and would not be even be remembered in twenty years time.

So, twenty years on, let us consider the modern classic American Psycho. Now that the initial furore has died down it is possible to have a more objective discussion of the book. Is it a great novel? Perhaps not. But it is a very good one. It might be argued that it has major flaws – plot development or characterisation, in particular – but these are, it seems to me, almost certainly intentional. And it also has great strengths. The chapter in which the private detective interviews an increasingly spaced-out Bateman is magnficent. It is handled to perfection. The little reveals and gradual unfoldings are perfect. You get the sense of watching someone being slowly reeled in, someone who is all the time aware of the fact but unable to do anything about it.

Above everything, though, American Psycho is extremely funny, one of the most laugh-out-loud books I’ve read in a long time. In its central character, Patrick Bateman, we have an excoriating critic of the shallowness of modern times. Some of the set-piece scenes are masterclasses in comic writing, timing and dialogue. The sheer monstrosity of its ensemble cast, their insular self-centredness and inability to perceive anything other than from their own shallow viewpoint, is reminiscent of Wodehouse at his best, with his cavalcade of Drones Club buffoons and chinless wonders. The running gags – the mind-boggling banality of the features on the Patty Winters show each morning, Bateman’s paranoia about returning his rental videos – add a humorous counterpoint to the ever-growing horror.

Much of the outcry about American Pyscho when it was first published centred on the extremity of the violence against women. It was deeply misogynist, the claims went. It was disgusting, perverted, wallowing in a pit of pornographic violence and excess. Yes, if you take certain passages out of context and read them in isolation, all of those criticisms might apply. But consider the novel as a whole, consider the messages and themes that lie beneath the extreme violence of the plot, and American Psycho is a serious attempt to chronicle the dead-end that certain aspects of American culture had come up against at the end of the last millennium. Anyone who thinks this novel is anti-women, or pro-violence, or condoning a cartoonish approach to sexualisation, simply hasn’t read it properly. Patrick Bateman is a psychopath. He is spiralling out of control, hallucinating, growing increasingly dependent on a cocktail of drugs and alcohol, requiring ever-more gruesome fixes of violence to overcome his fin-de-siecle ennui. He is, then, the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. For any sensible reader to interpret his words literally is really inexcusable. It is lazy reading, pandering to one’s own prejudices, reading what one wants to read, not what is actually in the text. American Psycho is a rallying call against the sort of violence and mindless self-gratification that so suffuses its pages. It establishes a monstrous world of privilege and careless disregard, and slowly, completely and perfectly inflicts on it the destruction it so richly deserves.

I checked my old library authority’s online catalogue earlier. American Psycho is now in stock. There are only two copies, which is a shame, but it's two copies more than they had in my day. I’m very pleased about that.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Faulkner on character

This is William Faulkner, speaking at the University of Virginia on The Sound and The Fury, specifically the character of Quentin Compson:

...every time any character gets into a book, no matter how minor, he's actually telling his biography- that's all anyone ever does, he tells his own biography, talking about himself, in a thousand different terms, but himself.

Ask yourself - are your characters doing that? If not, you may have names in your stories, not characters.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Oor New Makar

Liz Lochhead is the new Makar, following on from the late, beautiful Edwin Morgan. A very good choice, I would say.

Here's a poem by Liz. I'm not a great fan of writing about the writing process - too much like mental masturbation for me - but this is a good one, and it speaks eloquently of the minds of the Scots in the process.

Poets need not

be garlanded;
the poet's head
should be innocent of the leaves of the sweet bay tree,
twisted. All honour goes to poetry.

And poets need no laurels. Why be lauded
for the love of trying to nail the disembodied
image with that one plain word to make it palpable;
for listening in to silence for the rhythm capable
of carrying the thought that's not thought yet?
The pursuit's its own reward. So you have to let
the poem come to voice by footering
late in the dark at home, by muttering
syllables of scribbled lines -- or what might
be lines, eventually, if you can get it right.

And this, perhaps, in public? The daytime train,
the biro, the back of an envelope, and again
the fun of the wildgoose chase
that goes beyond all this fuss.

Inspiration? Bell rings, penny drops,
the light-bulb goes on and tops
the not-good-enough idea that went before?
No, that's not how it goes. You write, you score
it out, you write it in again the same
but somehow with a different stress. This is a game
you very seldom win
and most of your efforts end up in the bin.

There's one hunched and gloomy heron
haunts that nearby stretch of River Kelvin
and it wouldn't if there were no fish.
If it never in all that greyness passing caught a flash,
a gleam of something, made that quick stab.
That's how a poem is after a long nothingness, you grab
at that anything and this is food to you.
It comes through, as leaves do.

All praise to poetry, the way it has
of attaching itself to a familiar phrase
in a new way, insisting it be heard and seen.
Poets need no laurels, surely?
their poems, when they can make them happen -- even rarely --
crown them with green.

Liz Lochhead

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Home by Marilynne Robinson

Home provides an alternative point of view to much of the action in Marilynne Robinson’s previous novel, Gilead. It is told largely from the point of view of Glory, a woman approaching disappointed middle-age, a former teacher cheated by her lover who has returned to the stultifying family home in Gilead, Iowa, in 1956. It is a story of death and dying, actions and consequences, guilt and forgiveness, communication and silence, redemption and doubt. It is an intensely serious, deeply thoughtful book and, on the level of writing craft, an astonishing example of the power of restraint in story-telling. It operates simultaneously as an analysis of spirituality, of modern American society and, most brilliantly of all, of the melancholy relationships of flawed families.

Home is told loosely from Glory’s point of view of, although it is not her story and we are not taken inside her mind. The use of third person in this novel – both Robinson’s previous novels are first person narratives – is perfect. It allows Robinson the distance that is required to explicate what the characters themselves can barely understand, and it allows that explication to be only partial but, ironically, through that partialness, it still permits us to see more than the poor characters ever could. This novel simply could not have been written in the first person; it wouldn’t work.

Glory is the daughter of the dying Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton, and the sister of John Ames Boughton, known as Jack. The novel begins with Glory returning to the family home after being abandoned by her fiance. There are intimations that Jack, too, after years of silence, now wishes to make a difficult return. Jack is a man with a past (fully explained in Gilead, but only partially revealed here), the family black sheep who disappeared twenty years before, after a childhood of dissipation ended in fathering a child to a local girl. All connection was subsequently lost – he even missed his mother’s funeral – although his father never ceased praying for his wellbeing and return. After some false starts, Jack finally arrives home hung-over, apparently an alcoholic, seemingly desperate but uncommunicative, and the novel revolves around the subsequent interplay between father, daughter and son.

The secrets within families, the stories that dare not be told, the emotions that must remain checked, the opinions unaired, these are the remarkable moments which inform Home. This is a small-scale drama which reveals large-scale truths. Its damaged protagonists, each silenced by memories of their own and each other’s scarred pasts, circle around one another, seeing in each other a desperate need. But they are barely able to help themselves, far less offer anything concrete, any genuine support to their family. Time and again, they rebuff one another; given the options of release or pain, forgiveness or judgement, they choose to extend their private pain even although that pain must, inevitably, spill over and harm those they love and care about but cannot find a way to care for. At the heart of it is misunderstanding, and an inability – or refusal? – to attempt to understand from another’s perspective. For anyone brought up within such a stark Calvinist milieu it is excruciatingly difficult to read. For anyone else it must be completely alien. Near the end, the dying father says to his son, apologising for his behaviour towards him, ‘I promised myself a thousand times, if you came home you would never hear a word of rebuke from me. No matter what.’ Such confessions do not come easily to men like Boughton, they speak of a deep truth; but even now, when this confession of weakness – failure – is finally made, this promise of connection between kin, the opportunity is lost. ‘I don’t mind,’ Jack tells his father. ‘I deserve rebuke.’ And so father and son remain mysteries to one another. Boughton queries why his son always greets him with an impersonal ‘sir’ but, late in the novel, when Jack does call him “dad”, he reacts:

“Don’t call me that.”
“I don’t like it at all. Dad. It sounds ridiculous. It’s not even a word.”
“I’ll never use it again.”

Glory and Jack are two of eight children. The other six have all, in their ways, become successes. Glory and Jack, in their ways, are failures. For Glory, there is something inevitable about this:

[they] were the unexceptional children, she thought – slighted, overlooked. There was no truth in this notion. Jack was exceptional in every way he could be, including, of course, truancy and misfeasance, and yet he managed to get by on the cleverness teachers always praised by saying “if only he would put it to some use.” As for herself, she was so conscientious that none of her A’s and A-pluses had to be accounted for otherwise than as the reward of diligence. She was good in the fullest and narrowest sense of the word as it applied to female children. And she had blossomed into exactly the sort of adult her childhood predicted. Ah well.

This is the first of two uses of “Ah well” in the novel, and it is clear that, in their almost bashful informality, they represent key moments. For Glory, this is the acceptance that the accumulation of disappointment she has known in her thirty-eight years has been, is and will continue to be inevitable. This is her, and this is her lot. Had she been a boy she might have entered the ministry. As a girl, bright, conscientious, caring, na├»ve, irresolute, she is resigned to being the one charged with maintaining the family house after her father has died, the core to which the family – the others – may return should or when they choose. She has no future, other than as a means of preserving the family’s history, the curator of the ghosts of the past. It is a desperate submission of a woman’s vitality, heartbreaking.

The second “Ah well” comes late in the novel, and also comes from the perspective of Glory, but this time referring to her father:

He loved to reflect on the fact that grace was never singular in its effects, as now, when he could please his son by forgiving his friend [Ames]. “That is why it is called a Spirit,” he said. “The word in Hebrew also means wind. ‘The Spirit of God brooded on the face of the deep.’ It is a sort of enveloping atmosphere.” Her father was always so struck by his insights that it was impossible fo him to tell those specific to the moment from those on which he had preached any number of times. It had made him a little less sensitive than he ought to have been to the risk of repeating himself. Ah well.

The significance of this throwaway remark, this shrug of a sentence, should not be underestimated. This is not a novel, and these are not characters, where failings are easily forgiven or even understood. If forgiveness and judgement are twin prongs on which the Christian faith is built, in Calvinist Christianity the latter has greater weight than the former. Boughton’s promise not to rebuke his son is lost. When money disappears in Gilead he immediately believes his son to be the thief and seeks to make reparation: this, a well-intentioned but thoughtless response, a failure to observe the man in front of him other than through the prism of the boy he had been twenty years before, seals the divisions which have always existed, creating a vacuum across which father and son have no means of communicating. Glory, with her simple “Ah well”, discerns another such flaw in her father and dismisses it. Ah well.

The fourth character in the novel is Reverend John Ames, a Congregationalist minister and long-time friend and theological sparring partner of Boughton, after whom Jack is named. Ames is the central character of Gilead, which relates the same basic story as Home but does so on a more theological level. And it is largely through Ames that the telescoped nature of Home’s analysis of familial crisis is broadened into a wider study of spirituality, an analysis of faith and trust, hope, redemption. Ames, also dying, is mistrustful of Jack, fearful that he will once again bring pain upon his father and suspicious of his motivations. A manifestly good man, but afflicted by a tendency to judge in absolutes, he is responsible for the novel’s most damaging event, when Jack, seeking absolution and aiming to proclaim publicly his belief in God, attends Ames’s Sunday service, only for the old man to extemporise a sermon on guilt which is clearly, shamefully aimed directly at Jack. Jack, one feels, would inevitably have broken before the novel’s conclusion, but this rebuff entirely ensures his failure. The balance of forgiveness and judgement tilts again towards judgement. The capacity to change, to shift long-established beliefs, is rendered impossibly hard for men in whom rigid sense of duty and propriety is all. Boughton, similarly, is unshakeable in his faith, blind to its failings. He tells Jack:

“I hate to think that any trouble might have come to you because your father was a tight-fisted old Scotsman!”
“I can reassure you on that point, sir.”
“Good. That’s fine. But there is that other vice of the Scots, you know. Drink.”
Jack smiled. “So I understand.”
“It is a plague amnong them, my grandmother said. They have no defense against it. She said she had seen many a good man wholly destroyed but it.”

This is a remarkable passage. Drink is, indeed a curse of the Scots, and it is, specifically, the curse of the alcoholic Jack. And yet, in this one-dimensional caricature of their shared Scots heritage, Boughton misses the one, overwhelming inherited characteristic that has brought their family to this pass: their Calvinist need to judge, to weigh the measure of forgiveness on the unforgiving and intolerant scale of religious rightness. Robinson, a committed Congregationalist herself, is impressive in the way she allows the faults of the Congregationalist Ames and Presbyterian Boughton to stand in such stark relief.

Late in the drafting of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, upset and bemused by the lack of success of his career, wrote into the beginning of the novel a key passage in which Father Mapple speaks to the men before they embark on their whaling voyage, in a church surrounded by memorials to their dead predecessors, men killed or lost in action. It is a lengthy oration, brilliant and unifying, drawing together a room of individuals into a single congregation. In it, Melville released some of his frustrations at the lack of response his novels were eliciting from his own congregation of readers. Father Mapple succeeded where Melville, despite his best efforts, was failing. He was using words as a tool to draw people into a greater consciousness. Ames and Boughton, fine ministers both, have a similar ability to use the power of words to shape an audience, draw it into their world view. And Robinson, too, another genius with words, allows herself her pulpit moments, but this is no blinkered, didactic sermonising. Her characters’ flaws are all too evident.

Robinson understands human failings and foibles. None of her characters are irredeemably bad, none saintly in their goodness. The ostensible rotten apple is clearly in search of understanding, both his understanding of others and others of him; while the pair of dying ministers struggle to forgive or forget or to ascribe to Jack anything other than ill-intent or recidivism.

Meanwhile, the true sin occurs outside the family, in the community of Gilead itself. The novel is set in 1956, the year of the Montgomery bus boycott, the start of the Civil Rights movement in America. Civil rights is not a subject old Boughton considers to be of any import: whenever Jack raises the subject it is rebuffed. The ‘colored’ people are creating the trouble by themselves, his father says. ‘It will soon be forgotten.’ There is no problem in Gilead, he insists. Perhaps not, but the only black church in town was burned to the ground, in what Ames describes as a ‘little nuisance fire’, many years before, since when no black families have lived there. Racism can just as easily be discerned by absence. This is the third great theme of Robinson’s novel, the structure of American society, and it is deftly handled. It is through Jack, the flawed individual, that it is presented, time and again. A plot development brings it to the fore as the novel reaches its conclusion, and we are left with the message that secular matters, as well as spiritual, are not as clearly beneficent in the sleepy town of Gilead as its aged and paternalistic ministers may care to believe.

Home is undoubtedly a melancholy novel. It’s characters are damaged people. It offers no major hope of transformation, only small glimmers. Glory, for example, despite her crushing emotional reticence, does achieve a breakthrough, a glimmer of understanding. She and Jack finally come closer – not close, but closer. It is a small triumph in a book where small triumphs are not to be overlooked. Near the end, there is one paragraph which is haunting in its perfection. Boughton is rapidly approaching death, his mind wandering; Jack is preparing to leave; Glory is soon to fulfil her role as custodian:

Glory was aware suddenly that the weariness of the night and day had overwhelmed her, and her hope of comforting had not had anything to do with the way things really happen in the world. Her father was crouched in his chair, with this chin almost in his plate, drowsing and speaking from what she could only hope was a dream, and her brother was withdrawing into utter resignation, as if the old incandenscence had consumed him before it flickered out. But he brought her a tea towel for her tears, and then he helped his father to his room.

Everything is contained within that brief paragraph. It is a beautiful study of loss and connection. It leaves nothing else to be said.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


My earliest memory of a library is a stereotypical one, but it is clear enough in my mind for me to be sure it is my own and not some confabulation. The Taylor Trust Library was at the top of East High Street, a small, dark, drab, old building curiously positioned between some tenements and a block of terraced houses. Immediately at the entrance there was a towering issue desk and behind it stood a formidable old woman. I suppose the issue desk wasn’t really so high, and I doubt the librarian was especially fierce, either, but I was of a generation and a class and a religion which was brought up not only to respect elders, but to fear them. 1960s working class Calvinism: it’s taken me half a lifetime and I haven’t escaped it yet.

I suspect I can only have used the old building a few times before it was closed and the library was moved into the centre of town, in a lovely, spacious, light building with a separate children’s area. I can distinctly remember visiting this library as a very young child, looking at picture books, sitting on the floor and reading them with my mother. There is one series in particular that entranced me, and I would love to be able to find it now. The first one I borrowed was so exciting I remember insisting my mother take me back up to the library immediately to find another. Fortunately, there were another couple in the series, stories about a boy and a group of animals, in one story on a boat, in another in the jungle, one in the desert. That’s all I remember, but I know I adored those stories. And from that a love affair was beginning.

I never went through the usual boyhood phase of wanting to be a policeman or a fireman or something adventurous and exciting. No, for as long as I remember I wanted to be a librarian. I’ve always joked that the reason was that our town librarian, the man who came after the fierce old woman, wore a kilt to work and I wanted a job where I could dress like that, but I suspect the real reason is something deeper. It’s about books. It’s about order. It’s information. Learning. Knowing that, whatever you need to find out, the answer is there somewhere, and you’ve got the key to locating it. I watched the library staff rifle through the old Browne tickets in the issue tray, walk round the shelves with books in their hands, look after the knowledge and words in their possession, and I knew it was what I wanted to do.

As a child I would stop off at the library on the way home from schooI. I went through the easy readers, one a night, sometimes more. Bobby Brewster was my friend. And Flat Stanley. PC Goon was my favourite enemy. Vikings with Henry Treece, Romans with Rosemary Sutcliff, football with Michael Hardcastle. I sailed on the Dawn Treader. I was in wartime Otterbury, at school with Bunter, running wild with the Gorbals Die Hards. I lived down in the dump, I roamed with Tom Sawyer, I misbehaved when the Wind was On The Moon, hoping, just hoping, to be turned into a kangaroo and be swept off to live in a zoo and escape and have fabulous adventures. I asked the librarian for books on ancient Egypt, on sharks, on Scottish football, this year’s new enthusiasm, and he would take me to the shelves and quietly feed my curiosity. A love affair blossomed. Libraries, words.

Learning. My father was an autodidact. We have more in common than I care to recognise, since I didn’t speak to him for half my life. He would sit in the evenings with his library books, mainlining facts. He would learn. He was a man of no education, left school at eleven, lied about his age to fight in the war at fifteen. He knew stuff. He learned it. He just wanted to know. He tried to write books but he didn’t have the patience. There was always something else to do, to learn, to absorb, no time for writing about it. The man was a dreamer, a foolish dreamer, a selfish dreamer, an outsider with no discipline who couldn’t be educated, couldn’t be straitjacketed like that, but who knew how to learn, who did it by himself, for himself, in the only university that would have him and the only university he could stand, his library, his local library.

Roll on. His father’s son, restless in the search for something, another dreamer, with all that entails. A librarian, once, qualified and practicing. In the early days, the brutalising Thatcherite philistine days, it was hard, but you lived on your successes. Jenny, a young girl from a rough family – somehow making a connection with her during a school visit, watching her come in every week for the next three years, read, grow up, move on. Researchers who would sit in Local Studies day after day and finally get their books of local history published. The children reading their picture books, early readers, Harry Potters, Tracey Beakers, playing their computer games, talking to friends over the internet.

Because by the time I became a librarian – wearing neither kilt nor wellies, alas – the Browne trays had been replaced by computers, books were making way for videos, CDs, online packages, but the point remained. Libraries – learning, inclusion, regeneration. There were exciting times in the first heady rush of New Labour, with money and profile and promises: the People’s Network, New Opportunities Fund, digitisation, community access to community learning, librarians not only as gatekeepers, but providers, creators of content, too. Whole new opportunties emerged for spreading learning and the capacity to learn, for getting involved, for reaching out to those it is most difficult to reach. Teenage mums with teenage stories for other teenage girls, a thousand times more effective than dry old textbooks. Excluded kids making movies, proving they had attention spans longer than a goldfish, if you could just inspire them. Technology offered such wonderful opportunities.That old dreamer, my father, he would have loved it. A whole new world of informal learning was emerging, and libraries were at the centre of it.

Somehow, in the past few years, it’s all gone wrong. Librarians have lost their way. Up to 400 libraries are threatened with closure and campaigns are erupting all over the country in order to save them. Nearly all of them are being led by readers and authors, not librarians, who seem to lack a coherent vision or any notion of what to do other than bemoan a lack of leadership within their own ranks. Wonderful acts of cultural insurrection are springing up, such as the library where the residents borrowed every single book from its shelves to stop it being closed.

It’s all very worthy, very well-intentioned, but I’m fearful that in trying to preserve a thing they love, these campaigners may unwittingly hasten its demise. The Taylor Trust Library that both frightened and excited me as a pre-school child was not the same as the library I visited every night when I was growing up. The library I started working in after I qualified was different from that. The library I worked in when I left the profession was different again.

Libraries are not buildings with books in them.

Libraries are the link between learners and what they didn’t know they wanted to know. Libraries are the information and the key that releases that information. Libraries are the place where such a thing can happen. Libraries are the resources that allow it to happen, they are the information that makes it happen. Libraries are the result of what happens. Libraries are not passive. Nobody who enters a library does nothing. A conversation isn’t nothing. Reading a book isn’t nothing. Listening to music isn’t nothing. Watching a film, talking on a webcam, ferreting out a long-lost piece of information, feeling free and safe and warm, all of that is something, is part of the human fabric, all of that is what a library is.

Libraries are traps cunningly – lovingly – set to catch the autodidact, the shy young boy whose friends are mostly in his head, the girl who feels different but doesn’t know why, the person reacting against a stereotype – age or class or religion – in which they have been placed, the young mothers who write up their experiences in a language that other young mothers will understand, the retired researchers who regain their self-esteem, the children excluded from school but capable of creating a sustained piece of work, the pensioners who come in to chat because it’s the only conversation they’ll have all day, the people like you, with your own reasons, your own passions, your own values.

Libraries are a love affair.

400 of those things may be lost in the next year.

Libraries, Maggie May of my youth – who is looking after you now?

Voices of the Library

Public Libraries News

Alan Gibbons

Sunday, January 16, 2011


I haven't had a chance to finish my review of Home yet, but this is one of the most beautiful paragraphs of writing I've ever read. The novel has built up, over 280 pages, to this moment of utter melancholy. Glory's father, an ageing minister, is succumbing to Alzheimer's or something similar. Her brother, a man out of place in this world, is preparing to take his leave once more. Glory is resigning herself to a life of quiet capitulation. It is stunning:

Glory was aware suddenly that the weariness of the night and day had overwhelmed her, and her hope of comforting had not had anything to do with the way things really happen in the world. Her fateher was crouched in his chair, with this chin almost in his plate, drowsing and speaking from what she could only hope was a dream, and her brother was withdrawing into utter resignation, as if the old incandenscence had consumed him before it flickered out. But he brought her a tea towel for her tears, and then he helped his father to his room.

Robinson's writing is a search for redemption. That is why I'm drawn to it, and why I hate it and love it at the same time, in the same way that Flannery O'Connor's writing simultaneously mesmerises and appalls me, the same way that I throw Cormac McCarthy across the room and immediately pick it up again. There is something horrific in this Augustinian obsession with sin and guilt, with the need to assauge that guilt, reconcile yourself to it. There is something comic about the way, in Christian faith, it seems always to resolve itself into denunciation of lust and fear of sex. But to dismiss it for its failings is to overlook its depths. Marilynne Robinson reaches into the depths.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Home for Robinson and Conoboy

I've just finished reading Marilynne Robinson's Home, and I'll hopefully get a proper review of it up by the weekend. I suspect, though, that I'm not the right person to review the novel because in too many ways I am Jack, the novel's central character (though certainly not its hero). It's a very painful book.

A few years ago I wrote a story which got the interest of a decent publication, who wanted to work with me to polish it to publishability. It didn't happen in the end - I couldn't quite work out what they wanted and they couldn't quite work out what I was saying - and I set the story aside, meaning to come back to it one day when I was ready to do it justice.

I probably don't need to now, because that story was Home. I hadn't read Home at the time I wrote my story, or any Marilynne Robinson, and chances are I hadn't even heard of her, but nonetheless my story and hers are essentially the same. Not in matters of plot, the incidentals, the events that unfold - those are completely different. But in the claustrophobia of familial relations where no relationship exists, in the incomprehending nature of love without emotional attachment, or connection without comfort, or compassion without understanding or home without hope. In the clash of characters who each want the best for the other but have no earthly understanding of how to achieve it, who can't even fabricate the best for themselves.

Home is an extraordinary novel. Partly, I hate it, and I am even more determined to write my own, secular version of it. But I know that it will be vastly inferior because mostly I think Marilynne Robinson is a genius.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Gerry Rafferty

Gerry Rafferty has died. Like John Martyn, another Scot who died last year, he had his battles with drink. He lost. A fantastic talent, a beautiful singer, a great writer.

To quote another heroic drunk, Malcolm Lowry:

And this is how I sometimes think of myself, as a great explorer who has discovered some extraordinary land from which he can never return to give his knowledge to the world: but the name of this land is hell.

I guess you found your ship, Gerry.