Saturday, August 27, 2011

The new atheism

Interesting article by James Wood in today's Guardian about the way fiction can be used to examine questions of religion and God. It makes the point that Dawkins et al are so strident in their atheism there is no place for nuanced discussion. Fiction, meanwhile, allows more complex debate on some of the issues. I don't think Woods says anything particularly new or striking, to be honest, but it raises some decent questions.

I'm amazed that a run-through of writers who use fiction to air religious debates does not include either Flannery O'Connor or Walker Percy, both of whose work is shot through with a Catholic analysis of modernity and the difficulties of redemption and grace therein.

For me, the article really gets interesting when discussing Rowan Williams' suggestion that religious metaphors (the Virgin birth etc) allow an "event" or "space" in history in which man can pause to understand the hidden truths. I'm not a believer, but I think this is a powerful argument and there is much to commend it. Frustratingly, the article ends here and doesn't go into more detail. Whether you believe in God or not, or any other deity, or any other supernatural explanation of our existence, it is still true that there is a "beyond", about which we cannot ever know anything. In narrow terms, that would encompass the time before your birth and after your death: you will never be able to understand what happens beyond those poles. And, in broader human terms, the same poles exist, for the time before time and the time after time, whether that is the Christian eschaton or something different. The metaphors, or myths, that Williams alludes to are the only possible way we can ever explore these questions. The sterility and dogmatism of the new atheists' stance allows for no such contemplation, which is unfortunately blinkered.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Most overrated books

Here's another summer filler, Slate's look at the most over-rated books. Not really any great surprises - the ones people usually think are over-rated are the difficult ones that take getting into, hence Ulysses, Under The Volcano, The Sound and the Fury et al.

I don't know, it's difficult. I think I'd have to go for the collected works of Ian McEwan. He started out as a dazzling stylist, but with the suspicion of more style than substance. Latterly, he's descended into middle-aged dreariness. And for a single book, I'd have to say Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, in which he tried (bravely) to do something different and made a complete hash of it. But when he sorted the technique, in When We Were Orphans, it works brilliantly.

As a school, I find the current crop of Irish literary types insufferable. Anne Enright, Sebastian Barry, John Banville - all that florid language, all that horrible over-writing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


A full review of Don DeLillo's Point Omega is below, but here are another couple of examples of, frankly, sloppy writing. Remember, this is a 117 page novella. You could proof read it in a couple of hours. How did these slip through?

There was an element of austere drama in the music, it placed Jerry outside the moment, in some larger surround, ahistorical, a man on a mission from God.

On a mission from God? That's Elwood in The Blues Brothers. DeLillo is reportedly a film fan, so he must surely know the line - it's repeated enough in the film - "We're on a mission from God."

It was like hearing that the earth had shifted on its axis, spinning night back into budding day.

The earth shifting on its axis is a monstrous cliche. A quick google of the phrase - the earth had shifted on its axis - brings up 19,000,000 hits. Even putting it in inverted commas - thus only bringing up hits with that exact formulation of words, including the pluperfect tense, brings up over 1000. Good writers shouldn't be using cliches like that.

The more I think about it, the more I get the feeling Point Omega is a quickly trotted-out piece of flimflam. Editors, you see, whatever happened to strong editors?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Point Omega by Don DeLillo

What happens to a writer as he ages? His style, his preoccupations? Philip Roth, of course, is famously enjoying an indian summer. In music, Johnny Cash did it, too, with his American Recordings I-IV, and Ali Farka Toure’s stupendous final album, Savane, recorded while he was enduring his final illness, is transcendently life-affirming. Beryl Bainbridge got better and better. Others? Bellow pared his style down. We will need to see, from Cormac McCarthy’s next novel, The Passenger, whether the transition into sparseness seen in No Country For Old Men and The Road is the result of the waning of an old man’s powers or the opening of a final, great chapter. And Paul Auster, as I’ve said before on this blog, is a man from whom we enjoy diminishing returns with each passing novel. Don DeLillo may not be quite in that state of terminal decline but I wonder, with Point Omega, whether we have seen a decisive turning point.

The basic plot, as you would expect from a 117 page novella, is slight. Jim Finley, an experimental film-maker, wants to make a single take movie focused wholly on one man talking uninterruptedly. That man is Richard Elster, a neoconservative academic recruited into the Bush administration to give it some well-needed intellectual rigour. In that, he singularly fails, being inadept at politics and proving an ineffectual yes man. The two men retreat to the Californian desert to discuss the project. Or perhaps not. After some weeks no decision has been made and the film looks increasingly unlikely to be made. Interrupting the men’s isolation is Elster’s daughter, Jessie, a mysterious young woman who soon equally mysteriously disappears. This narrative is bookended by an unknown man’s visit to an exhibition in MOMA in 2006 of Douglas Gordon’s 24-hour video installation of Psycho, in which Hitchcock’s original is shown at two-frames per second. In the middle of this section, although we don’t know it then, Finley and Elster make an appearance, and further linkages between the main narrative and the bookends, more subtle, emerge as the novel progresses.

The two men’s sojourn in the desert mimics the slowed-down action of Psycho. They are removed from the rest of world, almost from reality itself, and work themselves into an almost intimate routine of slowness and deliberation. They discuss the Iraq War. They medidate on time and reality, on Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point, that moment when consciousness reaches its highest level of material complexity. They do all of this very slowly. In crisp, clean prose. “With lots of dialogue.” “Much of it sophistic to the point of meaningless.” “Indeed.” “Slowly.”

DeLillo has been in the process of paring down his style ever since the sprawl that was Underworld. Succeeding novels have been getting shorter and terser. The Body Artist was another novella, and another meditation on ageing. Cosmopolis revolved largely around a massive traffic jam. Falling Man was a (too) short evocation of 9/11. With Point Omega DeLillo has surely reached the end of the line, unless he aims to become a short story writer or a poet. What’s left out in minimalist writing, of course, is often what is most important. Think Beckett, think Godot. But for that to work the words that remain have to lead the reader/viewer, however obliquely, to the source of the missing words. The suggestion must be given of a hidden mass behind a screen, and not only that, but some sense of its potential meaning. In Point Omega there is a plethora of intellectual winking and nudgery, suggestions that in the careful elision just made resides the true message of the story. Nonetheless, the feeling persists that, unlike DeLillo’s previous works, this time there is really nothing behind the screen. Undoubtedly, there is form and style and elegant philsophising, beautifully rendered, but does it mean anything? And if it does, does anybody care?

This becomes increasingly apparent in the first Psycho scene. All is uncertainty. Some examples: “In the time it took for Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was just seeing too much.” And: “How long would he have to stand here, how many weeks or months, before the film’s time scheme absorbed his own, or had this already begun to happen?” The message is clear: we are in unreliable narrator territory here, his point of view deliberately vague. But still the hints keep coming. “Did he imagine himself seeing with the actor’s eyes? Or did the actor’s eyes seem to be searching him out?” Or “He understood for the first time that black and white was the only true medium for film as an idea, film in the mind. He almost knew why but not quite.” And: “He didn’t know if this made the slightest sense.” And: “The meaning of this escaped him. He kept feeling things whose meaning escaped him.” All of these examples come within six and a half pages. We get it, Don, we really do. But no, there’s more: “The original movie was fiction, this was real. Meaningless, he thought, but maybe not.” By this stage, it is hard to ignore the gnawing suspicion that the emperor is naked. At some point, all of this literary fooling has to lead somewhere, but, alas, it never does.

I get the feeling, reading reviews of this novel, that critics are frightened of DeLillo’s reputation and of Point Omega’s slightness. The most common word in these reviews is “but”, that little get-out conjunction with which critics can point out the novel’s faults – “little happens”, “in keeping with the new aesthetic of incompleteness”, “hypnotic, if sometimes baffling”, comedy that “deliberately removes the laughs”, a character who is “flat, and yet like us”, a “a forlorn counterattack against plot, cause and effect, and the near-universal sense that tiny moments matter less than grand narratives”. What we have then are negatives immediately turned into positives. They’re like the over-eager school teacher writing scrupulously fair and wholly inaccurate report cards on the dim children in class. They are furiously justifying what, in the work of a different writer, they would be criticising. BUT this is DeLillo, they're saying, so it’s deliberately stylised, it’s “devastating slow motion”, it’s art, it’s intellectual, it’s philosophy, man, “the action is in the dead spots”. Well, I don’t care who wrote this next passage, it is simply juvenile:

“Time becoming slowly older. Enormously old. Not day by day. This is deep time, epochal time. Our lives receding into the long past. That’s what’s out there. The Pleistocene desert, the rule of extinction.”

Further, these critics delight in taking quotes from the novel and using them to justify their own cleverness in sticking with the novel. James Lasdun, for example:

"The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw." The line, from Don DeLillo's new novel, is about a man watching Psycho slowed to a 24-hour running time, but it could also serve as a fairly accurate description of how it feels to read DeLillo himself these days, now that he has entered what appears to be a definitively "late" period in his work.

Hermione Hoby, in The Guardian, gives us:

"It takes close attention to see what is happening in front of you. It takes work, pious effort, to see what you are looking at." It's a neat description of the novelist's task, too – to scrutinise those things that "shallow habits" overlook.

Matthew Sharpe, in the LA Times, invents a criticism and then invents dullards who would make it, suggesting they would criticise Point Omega for not being Underworld – and then dismisses these straw men for missing the point. He goes on:

"Suspense is trying to build but the silence and stillness outlive it." This could describe the methodology of "Point Omega."

A magisterial turning of a negative into a positive, simply because – well because it’s DeLilllo, ain’t it?

This is the sound of critics applauding what they dare not criticise, for fear of being thought not to have tried hard enough, or suspected of being careless, even – whisper it – a bit stupid. Well call me lazy, call me careless, call me stupid, but Point Omega is the emperor’s new clothes, a meditation on time that reveals precisely nothing except that – hey, things happen and you can’t stop them and then you die. If Cheech and Chong made those same points they would be treated with the contempt they deserve, but because it’s DeLillo, because it’s served up in beautiful, limpid prose, nobody dares to mention to the emperor that we can see his ass cheeks quivering.

What is particularly galling is that all this stillness and silence and lack of suspense is served up to provide an analysis of the US government’s use of extraordinary rendition, that bland, almost meaningless neologism designed to shield us from the truth of state-sponsored, outsourced torture. The emotional intensity of Point Omega is incommensurate with the activity it is critiquing. I’m not calling for table-thumping anger, but an old man contemplating his navel as his daughter disappears is simply inadequate. No account as bloodless as this will ever come close to presenting the true horror of extraordinary rendition or the intellectual bankruptcy of the Bush administration. It’s like trying to put out a fire with a fart. And on that scatalogical point, let me conclude with a typical Point Omega-type paragraph:

Fundament. A basic tenet, base, support, understructure. Eerie depths. I am transcending all direction inward. I am tunneling, upward, a mass, coiled, wet, moist. Somehow comforting. Warm, rustic, sustaining. Teilhard de Chardin sat in this very spot once. He wrote a haiku. He saw the complexity of consciousness here. He saw the cyclical beauty of life through death, alchemical aliment, perception of transmutation. He tried to understand time and motion. And indeed the whole of my consciousness is here and now present in this brown peristaltic motion, ideas in transience. The slow rush of history as we approach one another. Some kind of meditative panic. And by the time I reach past the colon into the small intestine, the large intestine, I am acutely aware I am slightly older. And rather smellier. But it is vanity to imagine otherwise. I am reaching that terminal point. Who knows how far we are from perfection. It may take a long time but one day we will see the ideal turd. Because this is the story of the artist and his solitary journey up his own perfect, puckered ass.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The March by EL Doctorow

The march in question in EL Doctorow’s fascinating novel is that taken by 60,000 men of the Union Army led by General William Tecumseh Sherman in November and December 1864, on which he laid waste parts of Georgia, destroying Atlanta, then turned seaward, leaving behind a trail of devastation as he marched through South Carolina and into North Carolina, ending with the capture of Savannah on December 21st.

The novel is strong on character, driven as it is by a series of interlinked narratives featuring a wide range of individuals. Will and Arly, condemned men given an unexpected pardon, appear initially to be there to provide some comedic interludes but their stories become gradually dark, ultimately poignant. Southern gentility is represented by contrasting women, the grieving, Alzheimer-suffering Mattie Jameson and Emily Thompson, a prim but vibrant young woman who is a much better human being than she seems to realise. General Sherman himself is a major character, a man of irascible nature and restless movement but, increasingly, someone beset by guilt and the nature of goodness and the need for small acts of humanity amid the great act of war.

The two most important characters, for contrasting reasons, are the army surgeon, Colonel Wrede Sartorius, and the miscegenate daughter of Mattie Jameson’s landowning husband, the slave girl Pearl. Pearl, as her name suggests, is almost white and, indeed, passes as such through most of the narrative, although to do so affords her considerable angst: can she really be free, she argues to herself, when she is living such a lie. Nonetheless, Pearl is the moral compass of the novel.

Accordingly, it is only really Pearl and her husband-to-be, Stephen Walsh, a somewhat naive but likeable Irish-American, who really seem to have any future at the novel’s end. They are seen moving towards Washington, to a new life. The remaining characters, in contrast, are either dead or (in the case of Emily Thompson, who departs the narrative half-way through and doesn’t return) unresolved, or, like General Sherman, have reached the zenith of their existence and are condemned only to live out their final years in a nothingness of regret.

If a negative is to be directed at this novel, it would be that, perhaps, Pearl is just too good. There is about her characterisation the whiff of white liberal guilt. It isn’t exactly patronising, as it can be in some of the more insufferable works of leftist revisionism, but nonetheless it feels over-compensatory. No-one is as perfect as Pearl.

Certainly not perfect is Dr Wrede Sartorius, a fascinating, complex, troublesome character. He seems to be much misread by many critics of this novel, such as Stephen Amidon, who believes Sartorius is close to representing its authorial voice. Absolutely not. Or John Wray in the Washington Post, who suggests Sartorius is “almost incidental”, or Walter Kirn, who dismisses him with the single adjective “stoic”. On the contrary, Sartorius is central to the narrative, and he is a dazzling creation, neither good nor bad, but demonstrating strong characteristics of each pole. Not for nothing does prim Emily Thompson fall for him (and endure perhaps the most peculiar loss of virginity in all literature). Not for nothing does, first General Sherman, and then Abraham Lincoln himself, see in Sartorius something great. For he is great, a truly great surgeon, a man who has turned the butcher’s craft of limb amputation into a fine art. But once he has finished his work he turns, the patient is forgotten, coldness subsumes the moment. In his quest for knowledge, Sartorius becomes something other, some cold simulacrum of a man. He is a man of science, a rationalist. Notably, he is European, one of the old civilisation, a product of the Age of Reason. He finds the barbarity of war is compensated by an enriched opportunity to practice: “Apparently he was alone in considering this American Civil a practicum.” Most significantly, he takes a patient, Albion Simms, on the march although he knows it is not ethical to do so and will certainly result in his death, because he wants the opportunity of learning something about the brain. Perhaps the most telling summation of his character comes through the thoughts of the infatuated Emily: “Wrede Sartorius, the man to whom she had given herself, was not a doctor. He was a magus bent on tampering with the created universe.”

In this, there are powerful resonances with judge Holden in Blood Meridian. Sartorius is no monster, let us be clear, but he is from the same stock as the monstrous judge. Just as the judge seeks to improve his esoteric knowledge, reading “news of the earth’s origins” in ore samples or carefully drawing a Spanish suit of armour and then destroying the original so that no-one else may see it, so Sartorius seems bent on knowledge for the sake of knowledge. He is frustrated that his improvements and suggestions are ignored by the army, but still he seeks to further advance his rationalist gnosis. In so doing, without even realising it, he becomes increasingly distanced from those he is working to protect. Thus, disconnection, the removal of society from society, becomes a major motif in the novel.

This motif is most powerfully portrayed, however, by Sherman’s march itself. A massive, vital, awful thing, it is conjured in visceral detail. It is a “floating world” that consumes as it advances, leaving behind detritus and despair. It becomes a unique entity, a lifeforce in itself, the conjunction of war and society, man and death. “War is God,” said judge Holden, but in The March, war is all – life, death, love, community. War is history, the future, the present: and it is especially that, especially the everlasting present. And it is this which gives remarkable depth to the novel.

But if the march portrays the implacable universality of war’s horror, it is the fate of Albion Simms which illuminates its personal tragedy. Albion Simms is the patient whom Dr Sartorius will not leave behind because he wishes to study him. Simms is a Union soldier with a spike through his brain but apparently unaffected by it in any way other than having no absolutely no residual memory. By the time he finishes a sentence he has forgotten how it began. Take this excruciating passage:

What did you call me?
Albion. That is your name.
That is my name?
What is my name?
Albion Simms. Have you forgotten?
Yes. I have forgotten. What have I forgotten?
You knew your name yesterday.
Is this yesterday?
I have forgotten yesterday. My head hurts. What is this that hurts?

Simms becomes agitated. “Are you crying?” Sartorius asks. “Yes,” he replies. “Because it’s always now. What did I just say?” Sartortius ponders this and muses to himself, “it’s always now for all of us... But for you, a bit more so.” And this takes us to the crux of the piece: this eternal now, this hellish moment from which there is no escape. And, crucially, it is the man of science, of the enlightenment, the man who tends his patients with extreme care and skill, yet shows no emotion towards them, who elucidates this monstrous point.

Simms’ is a truly desperate situation, a living hell of the immediate present. And this is mirrored, in fact, throughout the novel, in which, unusually for a historical novel, there is sparse context: the causes of the war and the implications of slavery are loosely touched upon, but it is the catastrophe of the moment which is all-important in The March.

And this gives the chilling metaphysical drive of the novel: people, in this instance the soldiers of both armies, plus the civilians caught up in their assault and the slaves freed into a void of uncertainty, are forced to live in a perpetual moment. There is no possibility of reflection, no option to the future, no comfort of the past; only a relentless, uncaring, unwielding march of the present into the present from the present. Aboriginal Australians talk of an everywhen, a concept alien to the western, chronologically-tuned consciousness. In it, each and every moment exists concurrently. In their mythology, it is a wonderful thing, a connection through time and space between ancients and the living, something to be cherished and nourished. In The March it is Hell.

It is the same hell as that endured by the Joads and the Wilsons in The Grapes of Wrath, by Suttree in the depths of his Knoxville despair, by Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, or Dr Thomas More in Walker Percy’s Love Among The Ruins. And if that suggests a strangely ecumenical hell, so be it. Haze and More were driven by their respective authors’ strong Catholicism, while Buddy Suttree is an existential man in crisis in a world where religion exists but God does not; and the Joads and Wilsons, for all their desire for Casy’s preaching, ultimately stand aside from Christian dogma. It is hard, perhaps, to see more different characters than these. Nonetheless, they are, indeed, all bound for the same hell, to that place in human existence where the strict metre of time triumphs over the human spirit and where circumstance prevails over hope to such an extent that it might have been better never to have hoped at all. This is the trouble with eschatology: it either ends in something or it ends in nothing, and neither option seems especially desirable. In order to understand religion you have to be able to pull out from the personal into the perspective of the eternal; but to understand humanity you have to telescope straight back in, observe close up those inevitable moments that shape us, that form our own, personal eschatologies; but be able to observe, too, the memories of the past and the hopes of the future that make us what we are. This is when everywhen can become a beauteous thing. Common eschatology, meanwhile, offers nothing but a linear progression from genesis to eschaton, whatever that may be. It is the monster of Haze Motes’s madness, the Joads’ poverty, Suttree’s isolation, General Sherman’s brutal March, progressing through moments of the present, on and on, onwards, onwards, infesting the whole of the psyche until nothing exists but that brute truth, leaving no culture, no love, no memory, no hope. It is human beings losing touch with their humanity. Albion Simms, with his doleful fate, is an astonishing literary creation, and a portent of what might befall us if, in a drive for perfection, either human or divine, we lose touch with our essential humanity.

War is hell, war is god, war is all, war is what? General Sherman, at battle’s end, as he pitches his tent in the woods one last time before the journey to Washington for the victory parade, realises that their civil war, “devastating manufacture of the bones of our sons, is but a war after a war, a war before a war.”

Moments then: moments proceeding, never ceasing, driving us to the end.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Sartre on Faulkner

Jean-Paul Sartre on William Faulkner, 1952:

This "man" we discover - in Light in August - I think of the "man" of Faulkner in the same way that one thinks of the "man" of Dostoevsky or of Meredith - this divine animal who lives without God, lost from the moment of his birth, and intent on destroying himself; cruel, moral even in murder; then miraculously saved, neither by death nor in death, but in the final moments which precede death; heroic in torment, in the most abject humiliations of the flesh: I had accepted him without reservations. I had never forgotten his proud and threatening face, his blinded eyes. I found him again in Sartoris. I recognized the "somber arrogance" of Bayard. Yet I can no longer accept the "man" of Faulkner: he is an illusion. Just a matter of lighting. There is a certain formula: it consists in not telling, remaining hidden, dishonestly secretive, - telling a little.

Hmm, I think there's something in that. I'm reading my way through Faulkner slowly - he's not a writer you can read quickly, after all, and I'm finding it very rewarding. But, equally, I'm finding the fierce pull of blood is just as often a push of blood.

And, a propos another writer, for "the man" read "the kid".

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Jargon of the novel

Here's an interesting article, looking at the way novelists use certain phrases or configurations that aren't common in spoken language. A new variation on the cliche, I suppose. They're using computers to track the use of phrases such as "bolt upright" or the proximity of various nouns - hair, teeth, lips etc - to "brush" and so on.

No surprises, I guess: it's the first thing you have to train yourself out of when you start writing, the mimicking (consciously or unconsciously) of other writers, the careless grabbing at stock phrases, descriptions etc.

Using the "search programs and files" function on my PC I've just searched for "bolt upright", and I'm appalled that it appeared in no fewer than five stories, although all of them were early attempts, mostly before my time in Alex Keegan's Boot Camp, where such mistakes are picked up quickly. Interestingly, though, it also picked up a mention in the screenplay for No Country For Old Men, which I have a copy of on my hard drive, plus Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil and James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

Then I checked "lips brushing". It's difficult to be precise because there were a few stories with different drafts, but I counted NINETEEN different stories. I'm appalled at that, I have to be honest.

So, have a go. See how you do.