Smith-How to be bothjpg“Which way around is the Ali Smith you got?” I was asked on Twitter when I announced my purchase of How To Be Both (I do this a lot: look out in the near future for tweets heralding my acquisition of a bunch of bananas, a new key fob, and a small pony). There are few writers working in literary fiction today more clearly associated with the kind of amicable experimentalism that occasions questions of this sort than Ali Smith. In her latest novel’s case, its two parts are interchangeable, and editions have been printed with one or the other coming first; how the reader experiences the novel, then, will depend – if they are ignorant of the choice or willing to get into the spirit of things – on chance. There is, in a more literal fashion than the usual, more than one way to read this novel.

How you respond to this sort of structural playfulness depends very much upon your characteristics as a reader. That response is further complicated in Smith’s case by her showily undemonstrative prose: even when, as in The Accidental, her text is in fact oblique and fragmented, Smith works hard to make it appear unthreatening. There is none of the obvious prosodic wanderings of a Will Self or a Nicola Barker; Smith’s interest is in structure rather than style. One function of style, however, is the way in which it cues the reader to expect difficulty. In Smith, the reader is very often sucker-punched. The Accidental begins as a fairly straightforward bourgeois-in-peril novel, but, almost imperceptibly, the off-key notes begin to proliferate into structural atonality, the novel’s various voices collapsing into each other.

It’s hard not to forgive those readers and reviewers who bounce off Smith, then. Reader, I have been one.What’s interesting about How To Be Both, though, is that in one of its two printed configurations it puts its more classically ‘difficult’ part first, reversing the trick of The Accidental. My own copy, however, features not the time-slipping Renaissance painter known as Francesco del Cossa, but a twenty-first-century teenager named Georgia – or, as she prefers, George. George’s voice is contemporary and conversational, and despite her grammatical pedantry – “You won’t say that when you see them shooting so beautiful over your head,” George’s mother admonishes her daughter’s cynicism about meteors, receiving only the reply, “Fully” [pg. 16] – she is engaging and rather charming company.

George is also, however, in mourning. Her mother, despite being a primary presence in the narrative, is already dead as George’s section opens, and much of her story is essentially about coming to terms with this absence. George has a gift for storytelling, and to this end she comes to doodle elaborate marginalia around the facts of her mother’s foreshortened life. An economist, George’s mother was also a guerilla digital artist, creating and distributing subversive political cartoons across the internet. In this way, George comes to be convinced that her mother was under surveillance by the British state, and that her death was probably something other than the random act of pointless and impersonal cruelty it appears on the surface to be.

“People like things not to be too meaningful,” George harrumphs early on [pg. 5], and she almost aggressively eschews this easy satisfaction. George’s therapist, despite an incredulity about the spy theory, tells George that “we live in a time and a culture where mystery tends to mean something more answerable” [pg. 72], and How To Be Both emerges as a sort of antidote to that reductive turn. When George and her mother visit Italy to view the latter’s favourite artwork, a frieze by del Cossa, George is struck by how “everything is in layers. Things happen right at the front of the pictures and at the same time they continue happening, both separately and connectedly, behind that, and again behind that, like you can see, in perspective, for miles.” [pg. 53]

This form of seeing – of watching, perhaps – is at the core of the novel. George’s mother has a theory that technology has put people in the Western world at one remove from themselves, and there is a sense in Smith’s structural play that she thinks the novel, too, has become too mired in capturing a character – and, in so doing, inevitably flattening what in reality would be a contradictory, fragmented self. Her straightforward prose is the surface, and the unusual shapes beneath it deliberately catch us out, asking the reader to question their assumptions. When George’s mother begins a sort-of-affair with an artist she meets, the artist, too, emerges as an uncertain character: like George’s mother, she has a hinterland, a well of experience and insight that seems in some way out of reach. George, of course, assumes the artist is a spy; her mother simply likes the way she makes her feel. “The being watched,” she semi-explains. “It makes life very, well I don’t know. Pert.” [pg. 123]

How the observer understands the observed – and how the subject, if at all, affects the object – is the novel’s main question. (The novel’s two parts each begin with a glyph: a CCTV camera and two eyes sprouting from a shared stem.) When George sits in a museum looking at a painting by del Cossa, she is in turn being looked at by the ghost of the painter: “the best thing about a turned back,” it says a few paragraphs into its own half of the novel, “is the face you can’t see stays a secret” [pg. 191]. Del Cossa assumes that George is a boy – there are no signifiers of gender about her that the painter can recognise – and this impression is confirmed by the way George reacts, in the museum, to the approach of the woman she knows was once her mother’s lover. “Boy in love?” the ghost ponders. “The old stories never change.” [pg. 223]  They do, of course: if nothing else, we learn in contradiction to the interpretation plaque in the museum, del Cossa was in life a woman, breasts bound and sex life secret, encouraged by her widowed father to act the male in order to make the most of her talent for paint.

In so doing, del Cossa learns how to render “things far away and close [so they] could be held together, in the same picture” [pg. 219]; this, of course, is also Ali Smith’s project, demonstrating in her novel that everything is connected, but never simply. The power of properly capturing every aspect of a person or an object is most clearly seen in the sketches del Cossa makes of the prostitutes a friend insists she visit: they have such subtlety, and capture the women so fully, that the brothel’s Madam begins to experience trouble. “They look at your pictures,” she tells del Cossa. “They get airs and graces. They come to my rooms and they ask me for more of a cut. Or they look at your pictures. They get all prowessy. They decide to choose a different life. And all the ones who’ve gone have left through the front door, unprecedented in this house which has never seen girls go by anything but the back.” [pg. 275]  Later, del Cossa will paint the Graces with the features and fashionable hair-dos of these women.

Or will ‘he’? There is a very real possibility held out by the text that the del Cossa we meet in either the first or second part of ‘our’ novel is a construct that features in the school homework of George, whom we meet in the first or second part of ‘our’ novel. George is interested in the absence of female painters during the Renaissance and, conveniently, her mother’s favourite artist turns out to be one; the painter also loses her mother at a young age, and the schoolgirl watches pornography in order to give witness to the degradations imposed upon sex workers; most pertinently given Smith’s careful prose, del Cossa’s catchphrase is the distinctly twenty-first-century formulation ‘just saying’, and shortens ‘because to ’cause’ as a matter of habit. This secret – this mystery – is left unresolved, as is the identity of the artist-lover. “Cause nobody’s the slightest idea who we are, or who we were, not even we ourselves,” remarks del Cossa, encapsulating the understanding which powers Smith’s Cubist kind of novel.

“I’m so, so sick of what stories are meant to mean,” George sighs to her therapist towards the end of her narrative [pg. 179]. How To Be Both, titled as it is appropriately, does not distil itself down to an essence, refuses to solve or summarise its characters. It isn’t perfect: del Cossa’s voice feels a bit less rounded than George’s, and some of the stuff about the digital aspects of modern life are dicey (there’s a lot of malarkey with del Cossa calling iPads “votive tablets”); but these are tiny quibbles in a novel which delivers on quite intricate levels. It might be Smith’s best book, and it will be hard to beat for the Booker, because it makes a powerful argument both for what a novel should be and how it can be that: “it’s a picture, which means the flowers can’t die.” [pg. 347]

j_jacobson_coverIn Howard Jacobson’s Booker-shortlisted dystopia, one of the novel’s two main characters, Kevern Cohen, pauses to reflect on dystopias:

At school he had read descriptions of the Necropolis written by post-apocalyptic fantasists of a generations before. They were published as an anthology intended as light relief for the pupils, a propaganda joke showing just how wrong people could be when they let their imaginations – and their politics – run away with them. But the anthology was later withdrawn, not because the post-apocalyptics had been proved right, but because the truth was not quite the resplendent rebuttal of their vision it should have been. [...] Kevern couldn’t remember what they were like, only that everything was like something else, as though what destroyed the city was not disease or overpopulation or an asteroid but a fatal outbreak of febrile fantasy-fiction metaphor. [...] There weren’t any powerful similes to be made. Nothing was like anything. [pp. 132-4]

There’s a lot in this passage which seems of intimate relevance to J, a novel set in the indeterminate future of what seems to resemble Britain, following a cataclysmic event referred to by all the characters and the stealth-totalitarian state in which they live as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. It is hard to discuss the novel in depth without revealing the nature of this Armageddon, about which the novel is at first rather coy: so let me linger briefly on some of the more general implications of the paragraph above before moving, with warning, onto the more specific elements. That is, dear reader: you’re safe to continue, for now.

Jacobson has never been shy with his opinions about genre fiction. “I’m contemptuous of genre things,” he said to the Guardian’s Elizabeth Day around the publication of his last novel, Zoo Time. That is a certain stripe of science fiction has surprised many, then. That it resembles in some ways the vagueness of Christopher Priest’s future Britain in The Adjacent, or that the Necropolis visited by the characters of is a fairly obvious London analogue in the style of China Miéville, however, does not suggest conversion – and we can see that in the assumptions Kevern – and Jacobson – make about ‘apocalyptic’ literature: that it is all about analogy, that it is driven by ideology or authorial fiat, or that its purpose should be in some way to predict the future. Writers of literary fiction (“I hate the phrase “literary fiction”. I write fiction. The others write crap.”) are often accused of genre tourism, and the extent to which Jacobson seems ignorant of the rather deeper levels of thinking that have been reached in his chosen mode (let us avoid “genre” for his sake) does not help him avoid at least these accusations.

On the other hand – and this is true throughout - there is also a keener wit at play in that passage. That is, it is not Jacobson or Kevern who believe these things about dystopian fiction: it is the state, a state which has also banned jazz and most other fiction (though not, for reasons that become plain, Moby Dick). Or rather, books have been gently encouraged out of existence, “the principle of group attitude” [pg. 14] carefully leveraged to ensure a sort of self-policed disinterest in questions and in alternatives (“in ignorance,” we read in deliberately sub-Orwellian mode, “is safety” [pg. 7]). That nothing is like anything is a rebuttal not of science fiction, perhaps, but of a soft-headed future which is primarily characterised by fear, by “the need to apportion responsibility” [pg. 108], and of intellectual inquiry (for example, the practice of history is discouraged, every household is allowed only one item older than a hundred years – although I wonder how many households outside Jacobson’s rarefied circle own antiques today).

Which brings us to the part where readers who would like to approach as open to surprise as possible should stop. Because, in fact, perhaps some things are like other things (“saying what things were ‘like’ went with the apocalyptic territory” [pg. 133]). The state in which Kevern and Ailinn Solomons. the woman with whom he unexpectedly falls in love, live is a bankrupt one in every sense: its capital city is policed by a sort of undead elite, a moneyed class caught in the Necropolis at the time of the crash, and unable to leave without hollowing out their assets-in-stasis. They live in a world defined by  a catastrophe which began on “Twitternacht”, and proceeded from a “hatred [that] exists outside of people” [pg. 158]; everyone has taken new names (“Call me Ishmael. Life had begun again” [pg. 149]), and refer to what happened, which some deny even did, in the passive voice – one character comes to insist that it should not be “WHAT HAD HAPPENED by WHAT HAD BEEN DONE” [pg. 225]). The “J” of the title is the letter Kevern’s father wouldn’t speak, putting fingers over his lips as he said the words jazz, Sammy Davis Junior, or joke. That is, of course: there has been a second Holocaust.

How much you believe succeeds, then, may well rely on how much you agree that WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED could happen – or, more properly, whether it could happen in the way Jacobson describes. reads like a warning, a shaking of the complacent: “When they come to get you,” one character sighs to another less anxious, “they won’t be making subtle distinctions. They won’t spare you because you’ve changed your name and happen to think differently from us on a few points. They won’t release you with a kiss because you think it couldn’t ever happen here.” [pg. 264]  Nothing is indeed like anything, and the paradox of Holocaust studies – that they accentuate the local context of the Shoa, as if it could only have happened in Nazi Germany in the mid-twentieth century – does serve to offer Jacobson some considerable room to argue that it ain’t so. Science fiction, it emerges in the course of J, may well be the best way to apply a corrective: that a post-apocalyptic state bent on forgetting thinks otherwise is an argument in the genre’s favour.

Alas, Jacobson’s novel reads at times rather like, er, fable or allegory. His future lacks the kind of grit which makes it tactile: the village in which Kevern and Ailinn live is ostentatiously disconnected from the rest of the world, explicitly apart from it, and whilst this enables the events of the novel – which revolve around an oversight by the authorities one might assume a culture obsessed with forgetting might not make – it also makes the scenes which take place in the capital city feel entirely disconnected from the bulk of the book, as if taking place in a parallel world. That is, Jacobson’s chain of future events doesn’t quite hang together in a coherent way; it is hard to see how his cataclysm happened, and that makes it appear more like a device than the kind of allegedly over-specific apocalyptic fiction the novel’s authorities disparage. Jacobson is not a tourist – as far as he is concerned, he is not operating in any genre other than his own – but he is here inhabiting a space not quite the right shape for the activity in which he is engaged whilst there. That is, I believe in “the long history of torrid engagement” he sketches [pg. 81], but not the particular instance of it he posits.

In a writer of less assured a style, this would fatally undermine the whole project. But I rather think Jacobson is acutely aware of this irony. Certainly boasts some fine writing and, in minimising some of Jacobson’s more egregious comic impulses, even some of the author’s most powerful passages. Many of the novel’s chapters proper are separated by short, italicised sections which appear to convey the events of WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, and here the absence of fully-constructed history is made irrelevant by the immediacy of the prose: “where have all the hooks and crowbars appeared from? If the riots broke out spontaneously, how is it that these weapons are so plentifully at hand? Do citizens of K sleep with crowbars by their beds? They bring them down with gusto, however they came by the, on the head of a man whom others have previously rolled in blood and feathers. A ritual bath.” [pg. 105]

The potency of all this is hard to ignore, but so too is the way in which the novel falters on the details, is even ambivalent about them: its first part, all allusion and silence, is much more unnerving and effective than its second, when we are given more explicit knowledge. “Ahab is tailing us,” says Ailinn. “Ahab’s always tailing us. That’s what Ahab does.” [pg. 104]  That feels more generalised than the German-speaking guards, Wagner enthusiasts or snow-bound trains of the later sections, and despite the apparent purpose of - or perhaps because of the absence of the techniques we might expect to be used to meet that purpose – it is those more abstract sections which feel conversely more confident or certain.

In Jacobson’s defence, he knows all too well that the specific and the general are in a tug of war: “You let them win once you decide it’s immutable,” we read close to the end of the novel. “They have won already,” comes the reply. “They won a long time ago.” [pg. 326]  That is, is both allegorical and particular, and anti-semitism both universal and local. J walks a tightrope, and it stumbles without quite falling. In all this toying with the unusual and the specific, it unexpectedly ploughs similar ground to The Finkler Question, which emerges in the process as the more complete and convincing work. J is ultimately, and not entirely successfully, a novel interested in types – the pedantic professor, the lonely detective, the troubled collaborator are all present and correct – and yet it is also one engaged, with a little more bite, in arguing that they are dangerous. It is therefore confused, but not without purpose, and sits uncomfortably amongst any generic company you may wish it to keep, but rather knowingly.

Should it win the Booker for this awkward balancing act? Perhaps not – it may not even be as dexterous in its philosophy as Siri Hustvedt’s sadly over-looked The Burning World. But J is never what you think it is – it is never like anything – and in that way it is an intriguing fiction.



IMG_0150.JPGIn the first week of my undergraduate Old English, our German-born lecturer tested our facility with the language. Presenting us – I think – with the text of Ælfric’s Life of St Edmund, she asked us to read it aloud – no preparation, no previous exposure to the words, just read it. “Sum swyðe gelæred munuc com suþan ofer sæ fram sancte Benedictes stowe,” we stumbled, “on Æþelredes cynincges dæge to Dunstane ærcebisceope, þrim gearum ær he forðferde; and se munuc hatte Abbo.”

For reasons unrelated to anything, the phrase “se munuc hatte Abbo” remains my most solid, if not quite my most versatile, bit of Old English. But I recall our lecturer being surprised by how much of the language the class could get its collective tongue around. Perhaps the German in her had a suspicion of our Frenchified tongue – all that Latinate infecting our brains – but we placed the stresses on the right syllables, pronounced many of the words correctly, and even had a sense of rhythm as we read. We understood nary a word, but the sense we could grok. Ælfric’s was – perhaps! – not an entirely lost world.

This was an illusion: the slightest mutual intelligibility aside, much of Anglo-Saxon culture is now alien to us. Thus to Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, self-published and now Booker-longlisted, but rather an unusual entry in either of those categories. It is the story of Buccmaster, a freemen of the Lincolnshire fens, who in 1066, like the rest of his countrymen, loses his entire way of life when, on the far-away fields of Hastings, William the Bastard defeats King Harold. The aftermath of what was a – for once no hype here – seismic event (not for nothing is the novel billed as post-apocalyptic) is conveyed in a pseudo-OE, a dialect which draws its grammar from modern English but its personality from Anglo-Saxon: those filthy Latinates are banished, foregrounding the extent to which Buccmaster rejects and resents the French interloper (or, in Kingsnorth’s vocab, the ingenga). Here’s a sample:

well this fyr has cum now it has cum and it has beorned high and strong and for many years and it has eten all angland in it and now angland is but a tale from a time what is gan. if thu can thinc on what it is lose efry thing thu is thinc on this and if thu belyfs thu would do sum thing other than what i done if thu thincs thu wolde be milde or glad to those who wolde heaw away thy lif from thu then thus is sum dumb esol who lifs may be in sum great hus with all warm fyrs and rugs and sum cymly wif and has nefer suffered naht

A few remarks about this, aside from the obvious fact that Kingsnorth has fairly successfully recreated the mouthfeel of OE whilst also writing prose that is comprehensible to the modern reader: his choice to eschew capital letters and much other punctuation, as well as his preference for run-on sentences and restricted diction, certainly promote the sense of archaism that he is after, but they also contribute to the reader’s impression of Buccmaster’s own stubborn, even slow, personality. In a first-person narrative the prose must necessarily take on some of the character of the narrator, but here the trick doesn’t quite serve to paint Anglo-Saxon culture in all its richness. This undermines one of Kingsnorth’s main projects, the revivification of a pre-Norman England.

Kingsnorth is an ecological activist, and a central element of The Wake is an enthusiasm for the Anglo-Saxon world, which it imagines as a sort of libertarian pre-feudalism. At one point, Buccmaster boasts that “we macd good this land what had been weac and uncept and was thus ours by right”: that is, he who works the land earns the land, a sentiment quite at odds both with the Conqueror’s assumption that all of England must literally belong to him, and to our own late capitalist model in which the majority of wealth is located with those furthest from the labour which produces it. On the other hand, Buccmaster is referring to the “weac and uncept” land of the Briton – which the Angles, Jutes, Uncletomcobleighs and other Germanic invaders of the fifth and sixth centuries took for their own and farmed in a more settled, formalised fashion. Buccmaster’s society is not perfect, then, but it is different: his own position as a “socman”, a free tenant farmer, gives him a freedom and a stakeholding unfamiliar both to the Normans and to us; nevertheless, it places him, like Conqueror above Englishman, above many in the village (most especially the women); that this arrangement works for him, and that Kingsnorth leads us to see the value in social relations alternative to our own, does not rob his novel of complexity.

This is, then, no The Quickening Maze, that wonderful Adam Foulds novel in which enclosure is roundly and unambiguously demonised; it is, rather, an unreliable narrative in which we can nevertheless perceive how power is exchanged. When the Normans dismantle Buccmaster’s world, an indentured peasant “specs lic he too is a socman”; other villagers argue that “thy harald cyng he did not cepe us safe yet this frenc cyng does not what does thu … say to this”; Buccmaster’s scepticism about Christianity, meanwhile, is powered by his belief that “the biscop of the crist … tacs his orders from his cyng not from his heofon”. Regime change, we see, is primarily about who gives the orders, and how those orders parcel out the goodies: how, the novel asks with its authentically Anglo-Saxon focus on things, might we better divvy up the geld, so that “the fuccan preosts” don’t have the right to lecture every Sunday on the basis of salaries paid by tithe? “it is bocs that does yfel,” complains Buccmaster in one of his characteristically ignorant moments, “all bocs the boc of the crist the boc of the cyng all laws from abuf mor efry year”. This is the cry of the Tea Party, but Buccmaster’s refusal to give fealty to an overlord is the cry of Occupy.

If all this analogy, however pleasingly textured and complicated, doesn’t quite fit the Anglo-Saxon world as well as Kingsnorth believes (his novel is predicated on an acceptance of an older historiography of the Norman yoke), it is beautifully conveyed in the novel’s preternatural control both of its diction and its viewpoint character. The language never stumbles, and in this it contrasts wonderfully with Buccmaster, who begins his story as the central hero figure, a Beowulf or Byrtnoth; but who in the course of his ramblings reveals himself to be much less than that. He rails against the French and the slowness of his fellow villagers in understanding something is afoot, but insists his sons not go to war so they can bring in the harvest; he clings to his grandfather’s frowned-upon belief in the power of the “eald gods”, and in the magical power of the sword he holds to be forged by Welland, despite all evidence to the contrary; and at times Kingsnorth, with a wonderful facility for timing in his pseudo-OE, allows us even to laugh at him (“in triewth the ealu has slowed my tunge a lytel though of course i is still cwic”). As the novel proceeds, the gap between Buccmaster’s self-perception and his actions grows so wide as to be comparable to the chasm that separates Anglo-Saxon from Norman England.

The generic slippage that accompanies this rupture adds a pleasingly disorienting aspect to proceedings. There is in the aerial portents observed by the Anglo-Saxons an element of the alien invasion story (“this is no thing of the grene world”), and the Normans are akin in their alien and implacable nature to Wells’s tripods. Likewise, the “eald gods and eald wihts and free folcs” of Buccmaster’s imagined pantheon hang over events like fantasy creatures, the petrified forests under the waters of the fens gazing up like Tolkein’s Dead Marshes. Finally, of course, the post-apocalyptic echoes of Riddley Walker are obvious and pimped in the back cover copy. All this emphasises the destruction of Buccmaster’s world, but also the otherliness of this society which the Conqueror is replacing, and indeed the one he is in turn imposing. Systems, and those with their hands on its levers, change: if Buccmaster’s increasing cult of personality in the novel, with which charisma he attracts a band of murderous “grene men” to his banner in the style of one of Kingsnorths many wakes, Hereward, turns sour, there is in this vivid otherness still a sense of optimism about The Wake: leaders should not be trusted, but everything can still change.

A lot of this would be in no way as entertaining or as noteworthy without the language (which, in Kingsnorth’s defense, and as he emphasises in one of several author’s notes, was his primary focus). There are longeurs in the plot, during which Buccmaster doesn’t do much but wander around; there’s not a lot new to this particular iteration of the unreliable narrator; and we are not currently at a loss for novels which croon that it’s been a long time comin’ but change is gonna come. On the other hand, The Wake succeeds so triumphantly on its own terms that it seems miserly to poke holes. If it doesn’t end up on the final Booker shortlist, Buccmaster might have a word or two to say about the fuccan esols.

keysIn writing this post (the first on here in many months), I’m hoping that I may be able to externalise some angst that will help me alleviate my occasional boats of Zoopla or Rightmove addiction.  In the midst of the world news and the horror of world violence that infiltrates our everyday lives, the issue of first time buyers and the ‘generation rent’ movement seems somewhat trivial, yet the social injustice that is currently being meted out onto generations of young people in the UK does deserve some mention.  The reality of the current housing situation is that more and more people are facing debt (and once interest rates rise, risk of serious financial hardship), increasing rents are crippling many individuals and families, low numbers of decent social housing and increasing rates of homelessness mean we *are* in a housing crisis.  And I do think that, whilst many aspects of the housing market (increasing prices, problems with government policy) are well reported, others are less well heard – and a lot of these problems rest with poorly regulated estate agents and even vendors themselves.

There’s been a lot in the press over recent months about the well-documented problems in the current housing market.  The government’s ‘Help to Buy’ (also termed ‘Help to Buy-to-Let’ by some commentators) hasn’t worked as well as previously hoped.  Shockingly (please sense my sarcasm here) fewer than expected numbers of young and first time buyers have entered into the scheme (where you can now buy a home with a mere 5% deposit, the government adds some more and then the buyer clobbers an extortionately high rate of interest on the rest).  According to the Telegraph, over the past year, only 3% of buyers have been aged between 18 and 30 (down from 12% the year before), so the government’s plan has not really made it easier to buy your first home.  Or perhaps potential first time buyers (like us) have just lost confidence in the market.  This is Money reported earlier this year that the majority of traditional first time buyers (typically aged between 25-36) are driven to make use of the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ to help them buy their first home, and those who can’t fall back on such help don’t expect to own their home before the age of 35.  Then there’s the Generation Rent crowd, young people and families generally in their 20s and 30s who have been completely priced out of the market – who are demanding a fairer deal from the rental sector, based on the European model of longer term tenancies, and better rights for renters.

All these stories are well and good – and they deserve reporting.  Yet, from my own (admittedly small) set of experiences, I can identify other factors relevant to these discussions which often go underreported.  We have spent many months looking for our ‘perfect home’ (then we gave up on perfect, and went for ‘home’), we’ve spent years saving our deposit, hours looking around houses, nervously placed offers, met with the bank – before deciding that, ultimately, we are priced out of the market.  Actually, perhaps ‘priced out of the market’ isn’t the right phrase – it’s more a case of no longer being prepared to play games with estate agents, pay over the odds (or quite simply, way over the asking price), or to utterly cripple ourselves to live in a home about three times smaller than we can rent.  We’ve lost trust in the market.

Despite my occasional urges to paint a room yellow, to thump a nail into the wall to put up a picture, or to rescue hoards of cats, I do consider us lucky.  We have a home (albeit owned by someone else), fairly low rent and our letting agent does (most of the time) make the repairs we ask it to.  Unlike many renters, we do feel it is our home.  But it is frustrating.  The press reports the young buyers who can’t save deposits (and this is a genuine problem, especially when you end up spending your earnings on rent) – but they report less the potential buyers who have saved, but who meet a set of different difficulties.  For us (and many of our friends) what we’ve come up against is a market that is dictated by unscrupulous estate agents, buy-to-let landlords, vendors who bought when prices were cheaper and now want to make a profit and this unsquashable drive to see houses as ‘property’ and ‘investments’ – not the homes that we are looking for.  This is especially true in towns and cities considered desirable and expensive, where the significant demand for housing leads to a booming rental market.  Estate agents will accept the offers of those who are in the best position (often landlords, with higher deposits) – first time buyers who are looking for a home just aren’t as desirable to them.

We have a few friends who are in similar positions, and we share stories which are remarkably similar.  Offers refused, landlords outbidding us, ‘best and final offers’, ‘sealed bids’, accepting offers only to withdraw them later and demand more money, houses removed from the market and then added again six months later £20,000 more expensive.  Then on top of that, landlords who refuse to maintain their properties – despite asking for high rent.  We have friends who have bought ‘shared ownership’ houses, only to find that the council regularly puts up the rent, but refuses to help with maintenance costs, or to deal with cheap fixtures and fittings that inevitably break.

So, this leaves us all as ‘generation renters’.  And in the circumstances, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.  If we can campaign for better rights for tenants, and a situation closer to that in Europe (where renting is common) this will provide future individuals and families with expenditures that they can more easily afford and with the security of a home (and homes are important, as many people with children now rent – so being able to ensure children can continue to attend the same school is essential).  As well as the flexibility to adapt to the ever changing job market.  In the meantime, perhaps campaigners should lobby MPs and the government to crack down on estate agents who have no desire to help to contribute to a sustainable housing market, and see no problem with outstripping young peoples’ budgets.  Also, perhaps current and future vendors could think twice before selling to a landlord.

So, yes, ‘Generation Rent’ may (as one paper recently reported) walk through front doors owned by landlords each day after work.  But that doesn’t mean that that these doors don’t open into our homes.  And yes we should have greater rights.  And I do genuinely check my occasional desire to ‘own my own home’ with the realisation that, in the violent and increasingly uncharitable world we now live in, having a roof over your head makes you fortunate – you don’t have to own it, and the walls don’t need to be painted yellow.  But, if we’re still renting (as are many of our friends) who is buying?  And if we stay renting, and the rental market continues to grow, if it goes unregulated, and the numbers of social housing don’t increase and improve, things can only get worse for renters (as well as buyers, and most importantly those who can’t afford either).

The_goldfinch_by_donna_tartI found The Goldfinch a decidedly odd experience: for starters, it is fairly explicitly written in the Dickensian mode (the viewpoint character is ballsy enough to read Great Expectations and tell us all about it), and one of my literary blindspots, dear reader, is good old Uncle Chuck; so this book may indeed not be For Me, and therefore my reaction to its odd mixture of farce, thriller, bildungsroman and romance should be taken with a pinch of NaCl. What Donna Tartt has written, however, will, I wager, discombobulate reviewers other than me.

The novel starts as it means to go on: within thirty pages, our narrator Theo’s beloved mother has been killed in a terrorist attack on an art museum, and a mysterious old man has, with his dying breath, instructed our hero to rescue – or steal, depending on your perspective – one of the gallery’s priceless exhibits. All this, of course, powers the rest of the novel’s plot – or it would were the narrative not so attenuated and discursive, and rather uninterested in its own increasingly hyperactive resolution.

The book’s first part begins with an epigram from Camus: “The absurd does not liberate; it binds.” There is very much a sense that The Goldfinch does not take place in our world, that it is at one troubling remove from our own experiences. On the first page, we read that Amsterdam “gave
a keen sense of Northern Europe, a model of the Netherlands in miniature: whitewash and Protestant probity, co-mingled with deep-dyed luxury”. Is this really Amsterdam? And doesn’t Fabritius’s eponymous canvas hang in a city other than New York? And why does Tartt pretend it’s such a mystery why Fabritius painted a goldfinch, when it was a well-used symbol for the soul and salvation during his lifetime?

Putting aside the softness in the novel’s philosophy that this might suggest, I’m not sure how happy I am about such inexactness in a novel which makes such a virtue of its peripatetic plot: events move from New York to Las Vegas and back again, from Istanbul to Amsterdam. Some places are captured better than others – “What do people do?” Theo asks of a Las Vegas native, receiving the accurate response, “They drive?” – but none of them really stand out. The same is true of the novel’s characters: although there are many, none move beyond their starting Cliff notes. Boris, the Russian friend of Theo’s tearaway teen self, is a bit shady and a bit impulsive; the granddaughter of that doomed old man is a bit flighty and a bit unattainable; our narrator himself is a bit reflective and a tad passive. Repeat for 800 pages.

In this context, even Tartt’s telling asides – those loquacious details which in a narrative such as this aim for richness and depth – turn out apparently irrelevant and lightweight. At one point, we learn about the narrator’s childhood cleaner, Cinzia, who, when threatened with redundancy, “cried, and offered to stay and work for free; but my mother had found her a part time job in the building, working for a couple with a baby; once a week or so, she stopped in to visit my mother for a cup of coffee, still in the smock she wore over her clothes when she cleaned.” Other than emphasising the remembered characteristics of the narrator’s improbably nice mom (a bit saintly, a bit boho), how does this additional story help any? There’s no centre around which it can orbit, no mass towards which it can gravitate.

My negativity is not the response of this book’s average reviewer. Many have called it a great achievement, and in a sense it is: the novel abides, it perseveres, it does not collapse under its own considerable weight. Its sheer array of details works to inspire in the reader something of the archivist, of the collector – and in a novel about loss, about the irretrievability of things, this is clever. (“I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle,” says the narrator’s mother moments before her death.) In this, then, The Goldfinch seems arch and deterministic, rather than flabby and random. When in its second half the book descends into a prolonged chase drama, there’s a sense that Tartt is poking fun at narrative itself, that its apparently split personality is in fact a satire of extremes held in opposition, of the false pleasures of popular authors like JK Rowling (Boris nicknames Theo ‘Potter’), but also of the sort of fractal authors Adichie refers to in Americanah as packing their novels with “with things, a fascinating, confounding accumulation of brands and music and comic books and icons”. The old man’s dying words might set things in motion, but they’re not where the story is – the satisfaction is not in being barrelled along or forced into a particular pattern, but in experiencing whatever we can sift from whichever of all those extraneous details we can recall.

Towards the end of this compendious book, the narrator confesses that it is compiled from capacious notes he has made since he was thirteen. This entirely artificial note strikes exactly the right tone for Tarrt’s unlikely novel, equal parts postmodern pun and earnest explanation. “The historical significance deadens it,” the narrator says of Fabritius’s painting, and here is a novel which asks us to give up on getting from point A to point B and finding any satisfaction in the resolution; it asks us to enjoy its single moments, its grace notes and individual scenes. They don’t even make much sense when placed together, or move in any particular direction. Those fragments of the past we save are just that: moments, cast in amber.

Whether or not the novel works in this way will be down to personal taste: I didn’t feel its fusion of the nineteenth- and twenty-first-century novels did much for either form. Others will disagree, even find its layer-caking profound. Whatever your judgement, however, the novel feels rather harder to describe than the Baileys shortlist, which by and large is straightforward enough, rewarding novels already noted elsewhere. Lahiri, McBride, Tartt, Adichie and Kent have all been garlanded and promoted already. In that sense alone, part of me rather hopes that Magee wins the prize for the discipline and emotional depth of her rather less heralded effort, though it’s the slimmest and simplest of the lot.

I think, though, that on this safest of shortlists the previous winner might have an advantage, and Americanah is an important, fully-realised and well-written novel that on an aggregate basis bats off its competition with ease. McBride’s is the other novel I would be pleased to see take the prize: it may even beat the Adichie on invention and score-draws it on boldness, yet at the same time it has a warmth and energy absent in the Lahiri, Tartt and Kent. Those latter three novels in one way or another seem lumpy even where they are, in each case, in spots and often long passages rather wonderfully written. This, then, is a very strong first shortlist for the Baileys, one which rather deserves more press than it has got. Perhaps reviewers have already written enough about its six much-noted contenders; perhaps next year the Baileys should cast its net further. But, for 2014, this is a strong stable of novels, all six of which, it seems to me, have a credible chance of winning. (Compare that with this year’s Clarke award, and one can see David Hebblethwaite’s point: “contemporary sf published in the UK is punching well below its weight.”)

My hemming and hawing is over: the winner is chosen shortly.

Iimage‘m sitting in a coffee shop with time to spare, and writing about Audrey Magee’s The Undertaking. Here’s the catch: I left my copy of the novel packed neatly in one corner of Anna’s parents’ home, where we stayed last night. That’s bad news in terms of direct quotes in this piece, but it’s good news for Anna’s mom and dad, who have just scored a pretty excellent novel. Indeed, The Undertaking is written with such clarity, economy and depth that many of its scenes and passages are even now emerging from my memory. I don’t need my copy of the book; it’s in my head already.

The Undertaking begins outside of Kiev, where Peter Faber, a soldier in the German army, is getting married to Katharina Spinell, a young woman with an ambitious set of parents. The odd thing about all this is that there is no bride – or rather, the bride is hundreds of miles away in Berlin. Two priests, with synchronised pocket watches, are prompting Faber and his new wife to say their vows at the right time, but in different spaces. They have photographs of each other, Faber picked from a catalogue by a good Nazi family eager to reproduce for the glory of the Reich. Faber, meanwhile, gets leave as soon as he is wed. Russia, as we now all know, is only going to get worse.

Indeed, almost everything gets worse in this novel, as you might imagine of a novel that begins with optimistic Nazis and ends at the same moment as the war. When Faber arrives at the Spinells’ apartment in east Berlin, he receives a lecture from Katharina’s father about all the wonderful things that will happen once Germany has won the war: farming will be better, schooling will be better, marriage will be better. There is a sense already that Herr Spinell knows the Reich is a never-never land, but that he must continue to believe in it for want of any other option. His family’s benefactor, the shadowy Dr Weinart, expects and accepts nothing other than wide-eyed enthusiasm. Whilst on his conjugal furlough, Faber, too, takes part in assaults on Jewish property.

It is here that the novel finds its teeth: Faber is no Nazi, indeed when we briefly meet his father we find a resolutely free-thinking provincial schoolteacher, a man who knows hokum when he sees it. His son begins the novel in much the same mould – a reluctant soldier deeply sceptical of the war. With a wife and in-laws to protect and impress however, he quickly shifts his own ideological goalposts. At the same time, when their shell-shocked son is sent back to the Eastern Front to die – Weinart cheerleading all the way – Katharina’s mother moves away from the commitment to Nazism which sees them swap their east Berlin flat for a grand central apartment. Increasingly, Faber’s new-found enthusiasm for the war once he returns to fight at Stalingrad peels away from the narrative back in Berlin.

In this way, The Undertaking is a fascinating study in moral relativism. Magee answers that occasionally spiteful old question, “Where did all the Nazis go?”, with a simple shrug. They shifted and they changed. One of Faber’s army buddies is a Russian-speaking German of Slavic descent, whom he suspects of Communism: not only do Faber’s accusations drive the soldier to kill two Russian women in order to prove his loyalty; in the depths of the Russian winter, with the Germans surrounded by Russian forces and slowly starving, he comes to believe in deliverance by the Fuhrer more than Faber – in so grim a context, he feels he has no choice.

Ideology is plastic, in other words. When Katharina is caught in East Berlin at the end of the war, she accepts the new Stalinism of the state which provides her with bread and medicine. The only character who does not adopt this pragmatism, Katharina’s father, is a monster, failing to protest when his son is sent to die, and when his daughter is taken away by Russian soldiers. He is treated with some sympathy – he is a scared man with no choice but to bow to the powerful – but the consequence of his terrified inflexibility is a sequence of catastrophes. Faber, too, survives only by again abandoning his values and embracing the role of traitor. This venal lack of character is no more laudable than Spinell’s Nazism, of course: we end the novel with characters as bankrupt as the Reich, pulled apart by a history they did not or could not stand against.

No character avoids the horror of their comeuppance, though there is no pat moralism in the grim fates of Magee’s characters. The Undertaking is sparsely written – there is a good deal of well-captured, differentiated dialogue – but its depth of feeling is borne from precisely the discipline with which it depicts a man ruined by a mine, a woman’s slow descent into madness, or a shell-shocked soldier cowering in a hole in the ground. Magee writes with such unflinching precision that her details need no filigree or elaboration; they simply are, all the more dreadful for their lack of adornment. In this the novel possesses some of the blankness of Peter and Katharina’s moral vacuity (the Jews of Berlin or the women of Russia have no voice, and do not survive), but in inhabiting the inner life of its central characters The Undertaking somehow captures evil with memorable venom.

At the heart and in the title of the novel, however, is something rather purer: the undertaking between Peter and Katharina, which the latter keeps all the while he is gone, even when the Sixth Army is presumed entirely lost. There is, of course, no great romance in this story – but there is a sense that, in a different, less violent time, these characters might have lived better lives. This makes The Undertaking a subtle, careful book, never descending into relativism yet attempting to understand, withholding forgiveness but offering wisdom. It is not the most experimental, original or even expansive novel on the Women’s Prize shortlist. But it may be the most purely moving.

americanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel, Americanah, is vital in every sense of the word: it is full of life, teeming with a range of experience and character quite dazzling in its proliferation; it is itself a beating, pulsing thing, with supple and endlessly refreshing prose; and it feels important, the result of and response to a range of literary and extra-literary stimuli which demand – but all too often go without – this kind of elegant reply. Americanah is a book to admire, and one that we should be glad exists. Here is a wise, witty, heavily promoted novel by a woman of colour and talent that is acutely relevant, unapologetically romantic and undeniably complicated. Americanah is a good thing.

It is also baggy, potted and occasionally mean-spirited. I hesitate to point out any of that, if for no other reason than previous critiques of Adichie’s work have been of a poor and disingenuous quality. In the New Inquiry, Aaron Bady has already and with some aplomb filleted the tone of many of these agenda-peddling knee-jerks:

as she becomes a big deal, she becomes a problem—to be blunt—for male writers who prefer that big deal writers be male. Folks who have no problems with Wole Soyinka—for whom the word “abrasive” would be a very diplomatic way to put it—are suddenly appalled at her lack of propriety, her unseemly disregard for the egos of other writers, her astonishing lack of civility to writers who lack her solid personal achievements.

That is, Adichie has mountains enough to climb without my adding further to them. Indeed, it is in many ways churlish and tone-deaf to criticise a novel as expansive as Americanah for the imbalances in its wheeling structures. The story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two middle-class childhood friends in Nigeria who first become lovers and then emigrants – in Ifemelu’s case to the USA and in Obinze’s to Britain – Adichie’s novel struggles to square its migrant politics with its central love story. This isn’t to say that its romance is corny or unsuited to the issues of race, gender and identity which are its thematic focus; rather, it is that Ifemelu’s increasingly prominent role in America as a blogger on race – she writes the much talked-about and trenchat Racteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black – gives her part of the novel a clearer utility than Obinze’s strand of illegal immigrant poverty in London. Ifemelu dominates the novel, her voice and thorough imperfection flavouring and focusing the narrative. In this way, one half of a love story about which we are meant to care deeply – the novel’s final climactic pages deal with it, not with blogging – fades away.

This is in many ways small beer, however. I’m inclined, as always but in this case even more so, to put a lot of store by the words of Aishwarya Subramaniam: “While reading this book I mentioned on twitter that it was like being among brown friends. The book itself seems to get that, and get how comforting, and how important it can be.” In large part, this is the feeling that Americanah is most interested in evoking. It wants, like Ifemelu’s blog but without the reactionary posing, to show us Western civilisation from an angle different to that taken in most middle-brow, middle-class novels about star-crossed lovers going to university. In this, it is both more or less successful, for instance, than Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, a campus novel which focused on race in America from the inside. On Beauty is minutely structured, very evenly written, and at times integrates its themes more organically with its form: characters discuss race more subtly, have conversations less avowedly About It. This renders Smith’s novel a better crafted novel in most of the usual senses, but Adichie has an answer to this argument: one of Adichie’s writing friends (herself not entirely likeable, but at the same time someone with whom it is hard always to disagree) groans about the literary fetish of subtlety. “‘Nuance’ means keep people comfortable so everyone is free to think of themselves as individuals and everyone got where they are because of their achievement.”  That is, Adichie is writing a different kind of novel – and she is doing so deliberately to rub prim Western noses in it.

Ifemelu herself becomes rather prim within months of arriving in America – she dates white boys, straightens her hair – but by the time we meet her, and indeed for her around half the novel, she is sitting in an African hairdresser having her ‘do painfully braided. Ifemelu’s hair is “black-black, so thick it drank two containers of relaxer at the salon”, and for her it is a political act to allow it to grow and be dressed in ways natural to it. At the same time, however, she is disparaging of her hairdresser, a woman who says she is from ‘Africa’ rather than from a particular country and to whom Ifemelu condescends about her own Princeton fellowship: “the sort of place Aisha could only imagine, the sort of place that would never have signs that said QUICK TAX REFUND”. Indeed, Ifemelu is prickly about and defensive of her achievements, and for the reader this does not always come across well. Adichie successfully ensures, however, that we understand – indeed, share – those experiences which have led Ifemelu to adopt this stance as the best available to her. “You know it was love at first sight for both of us,” gloats her professor boyfriend. “For both of us?” Ifemelu retorts. “Is it by force? Why are you speaking for me?” If Ifemelu’s blog is at times the over-generalised victim of its own need to declaim, we understand the ways in which Ifemelu must fight for her voice.

This is Americanah‘s great project: to refocus the novel reader’s sympathies. Early on, Ifemelu disparages the novels of “youngish men … packed with things, a fascinating, confounding accumulation of brands and music and comic books and icons, with emotions skimmed over, and each sentence stylishly aware of its own stylishness.” It’s hard not to think of Chabon or Lethem. Likewise, and as Aishwarya also points out, when Ifemelu joins the Nigerpolitan Club – “a bunch of people who have recently moved back, some from England, but mostly from the U.S.” – we notice the nod to Taiye Selasi’s concept of the Afropolitan, a privileged set of African internationalists whose foibles Americanah seems particularly intent on highlighting. For Selasi, “Most Afropolitans could serve Africa better in Africa”; for Adichie, they are cereal bar-chewing, organic food-eating dilettantes who are no more or less suited to pulling their country up by its boot-straps than anyone else. Americanah is a romance, but it isn’t always romantic. Obinze returns to Nigeria and does not help improve it; he is instead enmeshed in the corruption Adichie suggests is endemic. America is no paradise, either, of course: as in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, Nigerians in the US refer to themselves in ways different than they did before, sit with other children and laugh about things they do not necessarily understand, and limit their public pronouncements, all in a bid to fit in:

During her talks [to corporations and schols] she said: “America has made great progress for which we should be very proud.” In her blog she wrote: Racism should never have happened and you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.

Ifemelu was not black before she reached the US, she says; Obinze was a scion of the comfortable bourgeoisie before he was reduced to cleaning toilets in London. Americanah is not a story of culture clash, but of culture change; its trick is in seeking to do to the novel what is done to her characters, but in reverse: adapt it, change it, make it talk to and about different constituencies. “To be a child of the Third World is to be aware of the many different constituencies you have and how honesty and truth must always depend on context,” says that writer friend at one point. Like every other character in Americanah she is seen occasionally to wear feet of clay; but she is also shown occasionally to be right, and in this her emphasis on context is demonstrably important. No one person, no one country, no one form or style or mode of representation should be seen always to be the best, the most appropriate, the default. Ifemelu is sometimes awful, but she is sometimes worth emulating; Adichie’s structure is sometimes disciplined, and it is sometimes baggy. So what? That is rather the point, and I can’t imagine any other book on the Women’s Prize shortlist being this scattershot ambitious, this intermittently expansive and this imperfectly precise. It is not for nothing that another synonym for vital is necessary.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 90 other followers