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.

 

burial-rites-hannah-kentAt what stage did Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites muscle out Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries from the Baileys Prize’s shortlist? The Booker-winning New Zealander was present and correct in the Baileys longlist, but those final six books, it seems, had room for only one murder mystery set in a remote nineteenth-century wilderness. That this slot went to Kent’s competent novel rather than Catton’s baggily inventive effort might say something about the new Orange.

I’ve already written about two of the Baileys contenders: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, also featured on the last Booker shortlist, was a sometimes moving, sometimes lumpy, always classy family saga potboiler; Eimear McBridge’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, meanwhile, is astonishingly bold, a work both estranging and engaging which captures a voice and holds it in a unique, rarely writerly way. Kent’s entry feels to me to slip behind both these efforts, and yet it has already won several prizes and been shortlisted for many more. Indeed, there’s little doubt that Burial Rites packs a punch: it has an unerring sense of place and of atmosphere, and its Icelandic setting is convincingly, memorably rendered. It also has at its centre a potent figure: Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a woman convicted of the 1828 murder of a man named Nathan Ketilsson. She spends the entirety of the novel awaiting her execution, and it is in her voice that the novel comes so effectively alive.

Indeed, this is also the source of the novel’s greatest weakness: it is imbalanced. Agnes only narrates roughly a half of the novel; the rest of the story is told by an omniscient third-person narrator who skips between the supporting cast. Some of these characters – such as Margrét, the farmer’s wife who finds herself playing host to the condemned murderess – are relatively full-blooded, capable of challenging Agnes’s charisma; and others, such as Thorvadur Jónsson, the priest assigned to Agnes as her confessor, tread a relatively bloodless and predictable path, in his case from passive observer to slightly-less-passive participant. There is a sense that Kent’s inexperience – this is her first novel – has led to a hedging of the bets, and Burial Rites suffers every time she steps back from Agnes’s fiery, but not entirely inviting, voice. It’s hard not to compare this caution with McBride’s courage, and find for the latter: a single, uninterrupted, compelling voice, consistently and unsparingly rendered, might have made Burial Rites more of an invigorating prospect.

On the other hand, the deep winter of Iceland freezes the action – several times there are concerned conversations about the practical implications of the weather for the date of Agnes’s execution – and there is a cold calmness to an awful lot of Burial Rites which might not have been best-served by focusing on Agnes. Here, for instance, is the convicted murderer on her personal eschatology:

You will be lost. There is no final home, there is no burial, there is only a constant suffering, a thwarted journey that takes you everywhere with offering you a way home, for there is no home, there is only this cold island and your dark self spread thinly upon it until you take up the wind’s howl and mimic its loneliness you are not going home you are gone silence will claim you, suck your life down into its black waters and churn out stars that might remember you, but if they do they will not say, they will not say, and if no one will say your name you are forgotten I am forgotten. [pg. 321]

Here, meanwhile, is the confessor, rendered by that omniscient narrator, huddling in the Icelandic terrain, his thoughts reported to us:

Hunched against the smattering of rain and wind, Tóti inwardly chastised himself. What sort of man are you if you want to run at the sigh of damaged flesh? What sort of priest will you be if you cannot withstand the appearance of suffering? It had been a particularly vivid bruise upon her chin that had disturbed him the most. A ripe, yellow colour, like a dried egg yolk. Tóti wondered at the force that might have birthed it. [pg. 49]

You’ll hopefully perceive the differences here: the relative thinness, the sudden reliance on cliché, the more measured, familiar prosody of the third-person sections. Much of these parts of the novel pass by in extended dialogues, direct speech which whilst fairly well differentiated is also – again, dictated by that rigorous attachment to environment – mean and bitten-out. Here’s Margrét in conversation with a friend about the more wayward of her two daughters: “Is Steina making up stories again?” “Only the good Lord knows. I don’t remember. Actually, I’m a bit worried about her. She smiles at Agnes.” [pg. 117]   This sort of thing does the job, but it doesn’t set pulses racing.

What it does do, however, is emphasise the centrality of Agnes: how people react to her, how she sparks questions in their minds, how the force of her charisma knocks widely accepted verities out of joint. Margrét begins the novel entirely hostile to her guest – “What sort of woman kills men?” she asks, on behalf of her entire community [p. 51]. By the end of the novel, inevitably, she is telling Agnes that, “You are not a monster” [pg. 323]. Agnes is aware what people will think when they hear her story: “They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt” [pg. 29]. Over the length of the work, however, Kent naturally paints a more complicated picture – a woman abandoned by her family, sent working as an itinerant house-servant, falling in with Ketilsson, a man who abuses her and all the women around him, and who becomes the focus of a plot by others to exact revenge upon him. Kent has protested against suggestions that she is anachronistically crafting a proto-feminist icon out of Agnes; I think she does so fairly, since Agnes has none of the agency associated with those kinds of effort – she is trapped by the system, literally her fate is sealed by it from the moment we first meet her. Nevertheless, Burial Rites is a story of understanding, an exercise in excavation: “I am a woman,” Agnes tells us, “not a book”, and Kent is engaged in imagining a life for a woman who is often simply a name on a commemorative plaque.

Thus again we come to the difficult issue of why, then, Agnes does not narrate the whole novel: in part, perhaps, so that her effect on others can be demonstrated (“how other people think of you determines who you are” [pg. 108]). In this case, however, why third-person omniscient and not several other first-persons? It is not as if the environment of Iceland could not be painted in the same way: “Autumn fell upon the valley like a gasp” [pg. 198] might be the kind of literary bon mot that pokes out of Kent’s prose a little too sharply, but it could be fashioned into Tóti’s voice just as well. I am criticising a novelist here for not writing the book I wanted to read, and in that I walk over – ho ho – thin ice. But I’m trying to indicate the way in which Burial Rites is simultaneously exciting and familiar, vivid and pedestrian. It captures the imagination, but doesn’t do a great deal with its hostage. It might be optioned as a film to star Jennifer Lawrence, but never once extends the effect of Agnes on those who surround her to its readers – by altering our conceptions of what a novel might look like. In eschewing Catton for Kent, then, the Baileys Prize has, like Burial Rites itself, played things safe.

 

There is at least one not-very-good reason for considering Ramez Naam’s Nexus and Philip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise together: the announcement of the winner of this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award takes place tonight, and I wanted to publish some thoughts on all six novels before that happened. There are also, however, several better reasons. This is counter-intuitive on one level, because at first blush the volumes could not be more different: Naam’s technothriller is a debut novel dealing with the near future, and is a self-professed forward-thinking piece of work, all transhumanism and singularities; The Disestablishment of Paradise, meanwhile, is an almost wilfully old-fashioned planetary romance, whose further-future setting has very little interest in the ways in which technology or culture have changed in the last fifty years, much less how they might do so over the next few centuries.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that Naam and Mann have more in common than the scant three letters which can be used to spell both their names. In large part, their similarities revolve around lazy assumptions: about gender, about human psychology, and about the workings of narrative. Nexus begins with what I assume is meant to be a humorous scene in which Kade, the novel’s hero, uses one of the software hacks he and his plucky group of hippy scientists are plugging into the consciousness-linking nano-drug Nexus to seduce and then have semi-consensual sex with a young woman, before it goes wildly wrong and “his still-clothed crotch was banging into her face on every pelvic thrust”. Oh, how we laughed. Mann, meanwhile, is more well-meaning but just as flat-footed: “it is women’s logic, as old as time,” his novel sighs at one of its many essentialist junctures, during which even its high-flying, high-achieving female protagonists are wont to opine, “What fools we women are sometimes!”

nexus-naamThat is, the Clarke judges appear to have rewarded two writers who have entirely ignored all the many tools and techniques science fiction offers for exploding and questioning our most limited and limiting behaviours, and who prefer instead to chase down their favoured hobby horses. Nexus in particular reads primarily like an amateur lecture, with the insistent earnestness and dulling monomania that implies. Naam is a debut novelist (although Nexus‘s sequel has, horrifyingly, now been published), and writes in his acknowledgements that “this work transformed from a lark to an actual attempt to write a novel”. It bears all the hallmarks of this uncertain progress: structurally unsound, its prolonged prologue features an inevitably attractive female spy infiltrating Kade’s group of bioscientists before forcing him and his friends to accept a bargain with the US agency responsible for frustrating the transhuman potential of technologies such as Nexus. In Kade’s (and Naam’s) vision of the world, Nexus will connect people to each other; in one of Naam’s few attempts to texturise his novel with countervailing views, however, its villain sees it as a tool for totalitarian oppression of the masses. All this drags on, the middle third of the novel drained entirely of tension as clunky action set-piece follows deadeningly similar clunky action set-piece:

Wats countered her superior speed by giving ground, step by step. Sam stayed in close he did, neutralizing his advantage in reach. They moved in a blur of strikes, dodges, and blows, almost too fast for any onlooker to follow.

She could see him coming up now, see the adrenaline hitting him, making him a more dangerous foe. Behind her she felt flashes of courage and anger. Partygoers thinking of joining the fray. Before long, they would mob her.

End this now, then. A gambit. A sacrifice. She let him create a foot of space to get his comfort, parried three more blows, threw feints at groin and eyes and plexus, then came in wide and sloppy, hole in her guard at mid-section.

Wats saw the opening and threw a brutal fist at it, low and under her nearly unbreakable ribs. She accepted the fist, twisting to mute it, felt the pain blossom inside her as he connected. As she twisted, she brought one hand down like a vice on his wrist, yanked him off balance as she planted a leg behind his knees and slammed her other hand into his shoulder to bring him down.

Wats saw it coming, but it was too late.

If you can find it in yourself to forgive me for quoting at such length, you’re a better person than I. Nevertheless, the above passage captures both the micro and macro problems with Naam’s writing: he cannot structure a scene, finds it impossible to imbue one with tension in an organic or earned way (hence all the fragment sentences and forced repetitions); whilst this weakness translates to his novel as a whole, on a sentence-by-sentence level, too, the reader finds Naam dull and obstinate, unsubtle and regularly incompetent (who has a brutal fist that one might twist to mute?). This is the prose of an accidental novelist, a writer uninterested in the craft of fiction. Indeed, Naam’s day job is as a futurist and emerging technologist, and quite explicitly Nexus is a vehicle for his vision of the posthuman future. If the novel’s ideas were interesting and elegant, then, perhaps we might forgive their leaden expression. In fact, Naam’s at-times Pollyannaish certainties and optimisms (“all that we have accomplished, and all that we will accomplish, is the result of groups of humans cooperating”) are most often communicated in lifeless dialogue which presumably aims at qualities Socratean but instead hits network TV personal dilemma:

“I’m not more important than the hundred people out there,” Kade said sharply.

“Your work is.”

Ilya cut in. “Wats, we can’t let the ends justify the means.”

The novel’s transhuman Bond villain has no more complex a vision of reality than Kade’s half-soaked sidekicks, apparently culled as it is from some of the poorer-written issues of X-Men: “The humans are the enemies of the future. They hate us. They hate our beauty and our potential. Either they hunt us down and kill and enslave us, or we rise above them and take our rightful place in this world.” The intelligence community’s response to this threat is depicted in a stilted round-table: “CIA Director Alan Keyes threw up a hand in exasperation. Senator Engels chuckled in amusement. Maximillian Barnes just learned back and watched it all, impassive.” If I tell you, dear reader, that one of the novel’s few close-to-moving moments comes when one of the faceless, paper-thin attendees of that meeting realises his daughters will live on fatherless after these men politely request he commit suicide following a failure to contain some troublesome Buddhist monks who give Kade shelter, you might get a sense of how deeply cloth-eared this unfortunate novel can be.

Science fiction surely exists not to predict the future but to trouble our present. It is in part the ghosts both at the feast and in the machine, the queering literature which serves not to advocate but to equivocate, to look history in the eye and say it ain’t necessarily so. Nexus is a soap-box of a novel, a bar-room bore which pretends to profundity. It has been warmly welcomed in some quarters (here, for instance, are the thoughts of the tech journalist Simon Bisson); perhaps, after all, I am missing something. Perhaps, it is true, the fiction of a lecturer at Singularity University is worth reading for its futurological analysis. The novel’s premise, however, is pure Hollywood hokum, and it is in these clichés – reverted to on almost every page and in every scene-short chapter – that Naam’s science fiction swaps speculative vision for commercialised swagger, betraying the potential of his chosen genre and professed technological passions in favour of a dead black sidekick and overly telegraphed UST. The Clarke jury may be right in thinking this sort of thing a definitive work of contemporary science fiction; but if they are then the genre is in trouble.

the-disestablishment-of-paradiseThe sexual tension in The Disestablishment of Paradise is, at least, resolved. It begins early on with a canny refiguring of the creation story suggested by the name of the planet in its title: “The popular story,” we read of the first exploratory vessel to arrive there, “is that it was Captain Estelle who picked and nibbled the first Paradise plum.” I’ve referred already to the way in which Mann inherits the tendencies of his sourcework, in which women cannot escape the presumed vices of Eve, and certainly not the expectations of the men who promulgate them: “You take that ridiculous headband off and make yourself pretty,” the lead scientist of an entire planet is told by a man we’re cued to find charming. “Put a bit of make-up on like that lovely Captain Abracadabra [this is not Captain Abuhradin's name]. She knows how to dress for a party. She makes a man feel good just looking at her, eh boys?”

This character – Pietr Z – is not immediately dismissed by the astonishingly well-qualified hero of the novel, Dr Hera Melhuish; instead, his advice is followed to the letter with an ‘aw, you guys’ shrug. Pietr Z, incidentally, is apparently from Generic Eastern Europe, and despite being one of Earth’s leading scientists himself he speaks in comically broken English until a scene in which Mann requires him to be sympathetic and inspiring of confidence, when his syntax suddenly improves. Other characters, meanwhile, call each other ‘chum’ and repeatedly josh that their friends should ‘bugger off’; they wear half-moon glasses and write in  each others’ notebooks; they form committees and fill out forms in triplicate. This is Mann’s first adult novel in two decades, and it shows.

But Niall Harrison has covered this aspect of Mann’s novel in as complete and right-headed a way as anyone might wish, and so I don’t wish to repeat him here: go read his review, in which he correctly concludes that “the novel’s categories are too solid to tell us much about the real choices we have to make”. In many ways, this recalls Sherri S Tepper’s The Water’s Rising, another retreat into reiterative fantasy in the face of a contemporary world for which the author no longer particularly cared. This sort of Atlas-shrug is particularly dangerous for science fiction, and yet is broadly visible in the exhaustion influentially identified by Paul Kincaid: works like The Disestablishment of Paradise read like a form of literature no longer well-equipped to deal with today’s challenges. Like Naam’s action movie memes, Mann’s 1960s verities are part of a decayed and decaying toolkit which science fiction writers continue to fit, forlornly, to a world now beyond them.

Mann’s chosen target is nature, the environment to which we have done so much violence to such potentially catastrophic effect. On Paradise, Gaia theory is given explicit and rather un-nuanced reality (coyly, James Lovelock is never named by Mann): the planet’s consciousness has been made vivid and angry by human incursions, its strange intelligence and unknowable biologies twisted out of shape by a reaction against the likes of Hera and her hunter-gatherer manly male, Mack. “There was a time when it basked quietly, this world which you call Paradise, content with miles of ocean and the tug of the moons and the winds and the tides. [...] Everything now has been stained by [...] hatred and anger.” Mann describes Paradise in loving-but-limited thumbnails: its flora and fauna are boiled down to three main components, the Tattersall Weed, the Dendron and the Reaper; Hera and Mack’s march across its surface is dangerous but also weirdly dream-like, as if they are walking not across a planet but in the realm of Faery (“awe is a dangerous emotion, it makes you very passive”); and our knowledge of it is always partial (“maybe the Dendron can adjust its life cycle,” Hera muses, “I don’t know”).

All this is a tad frustrating, compounded further by Paradise’s apparent selection of Mack rather than Hera as its ultimate spokesperson and Favourite Human. Mack is everything Hera is not: masculine and practical, physically strong and intellectually straightforward. At one point, we are told he is “surely descended” from “ancient Celtic warriors who ran naked into battle”. This is a rejection of the qualities associated with the feminine over the course of a novel which at first takes pains to try to convince us its women are individuals capable of leading their worlds and passing the Bechdel test. That sits oddly; worse still, Mann seems not to know what to do once Paradise-through-Mac has explained itself to Hera: in a single chapter, after hundreds of pages of rather stately progress, she sprints to a shuttle and flies away.

I’m not sure, however, that some of this isn’t part of the point. Perhaps Mann is only connected with Naam in my own head, since I read him after Nexus and any novel will look good in the awkward shadow of so ham-fisted an effort; but I rather think he is more aware of his tropes than Naam. In the novel’s preface, we are addressed by a (fictional) writer of children’s fiction who has been tasked by Hera with writing her biography. The Disestablishment of Paradise – despite a few footnotes and some attempts to quote from reports or oral transcripts – never resembles anything like a biography (it is too poetic and discursive for that), but it does resemble children’s fiction. Mann wrote this manuscript years ago and failed to find a publisher for it, but it is emphatically not a failed YA novel finally finding a home: it is a different beast, an adult novel which tropes as fairy story. It turns out to be a silly narrative choice, but it appears to have been an active one nonetheless.

“All the colours have been taken from a child’s palette,” we read of Paradise at one point, and throughout the novel openness and inhibition are lionised: “in their naive approach to love, they touch the heart of Paradise” Mann writes of Hera and Mack; Hera’s “educated mind”, meanwhile, “still hid too easily in abstractions, not developed enough to be earthy” – thus the selection of Mack. It is unhelpful that Mack is also associated with masculinity quite so pungently, but it is his child-like quality, I think, with which Mann is most interested. Most obviously, Hera asks her biographer a rhetorical question: “To be irrational sometimes is not to be mad. Is it?” Where Nexus is adolescent by accident, it seems to me that The Disestablishment of Paradise adopts a deliberately jejune perspective: the prince and its princess, the kindly dragon, the fantastical garden are all present and correct; science is perceived just as easily to be magical (Hera is “pilloried for being a ‘mystical scientist’”); there is a sense in which Mann perceives nature as requiring a lack of sophistication in its partners. This is useless to contemporary humanity in the ways Niall suggests, but that may not be accidental or unthinking in the way he argues. The Disestablishment of Paradise feels like a carefully considered novel, even where it is also creaky and cracked.

I have been trumped in more ways than one by Adam Roberts’s two-part consideration of the Clarke shortlist. My thoughts and his seem to leave Mann resembling The Dog Stars more than Tepper, perhaps: not without some sense of its own absurdities, but let down by essentialism and execution. Nexus, meanwhile, is much further along that continuum of sfnal retreat – so far along it, in fact, that it is a novel in full rout. Neither of these troubled novels, of course, should be the winner.

Of all the books on the shortlist, it seems to me as it seems to Roberts that James Smythe’s The Machine is the one that avoids the apparent pitfalls of contemporary science fiction most successfully: it is structured more smoothly than its nearest competitor, Kameron Hurley’s still-incendiary God’s War; it is more accessible and less idiosyncratic than the shortlist’s most complex piece of art, Priest’s The Adjacent; it is, despite its calmness, considerably more subversive than Ann Leckie’s much-praised Ancillary Justice; and, most crucially, it addresses our current moment without resort to the retro or the pastiche. The Machine is the leading novel on an admittedly lukewarm shortlist; but it should take the prize regardless – and inspire other authors, and other perennially embattled juries, to Do Better.

the-machineJames Smythe’s Clake Award-shortlisted The Machine is like a wedding: it sports both something borrowed and something new. As refreshing as its focus on characterisation, mood and style can be when stood next to something as generically lumpen as Ancillary Justice, it also has as its McGuffin a device we’ve seen many times before: a contraption which can erase a person’s memories, reach into their subconscious and reshape it around a new story. Indeed, The Machine goes further in its weird resemblance to stories we’ve read before, asking questions not very dissimilar to those posited in the 2004 Michael Gondry film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: who are we without our memories, and how do we know we won’t make even worse mistakes without them?

Smythe’s answers are much grimmer than those offered by Gondry and his co-writer, the not usually sunnier-than-the-next-man Charlie Kaufman, and it is in the dour determinism of his novel that we can find the best argument for reading it. The Machine is in many ways a taut and tantalising horror story: the machine itself, fittingly resembling in its faceless opacity Arthur C Clarke’s own monoliths, is a classically implacable monster, squatting in the spare room of the novel’s lonely female protagonist, Beth, a schoolteacher based on the Isle of Wight. The gizmo’s mechanics are not understood either by her or the reader (and in this sense the novel isn’t science fiction at all, since the Machine essentially operates by magic); there is a constant nagging implication that it has its own purpose, its own agenda, and that it will pursue that goal remorselessly.

Beth has illegally purchased her Machine, since it and all other devices like it have been banned by the authorities following a series of disasters resulting from their use. Beth’s own husband, Vic, is one of them: now practically comatose in a specialist facility established for victims of the Machines, he was a soldier returning from the front with memories that tortured him. Like others, Vic opted for them to be removed – and, like others, emerged from the treatments a vegetable: “they’re more like the dead. There’s nothing inside them.” Beth blames herself: she rushed the treatments, she believes, in a desperate bid to get her husband back. The engine of the plot, then, is this guilt, this tragic weakness of the narrator (again, we think of horror).

Beth intends to undo the effects of the Machine on her husband by undertaking the Machine therapy in reverse. In one of the novel’s wittiest turns, she learns how to do so by logging onto internet forums resembling the ones we might search today if we wished to root our phones (this might immediately suggest to any reader unfortunate enough to have followed the wrong online instructions that matters will not go well). The first third of the novel, then, involves Beth’s preparations: the delivery men turning up, being given the excuse that the huge boxes of equipment contain a home gymnasium; their removing Beth’s window to get the parts into her flat (the first of many hints that Beth hasn’t entirely thought this process through); Beth whiling away the end of the school year until she can begin her project in earnest.

That so large a chunk of the novel is spent on build-up gives a sense of the languid pace at which Smythe tells his story. This gives him plenty of space for gentle, unobtrusive worldbuilding. Beth’s near-future is one in which global warming has made summers intolerably stuffy, and economic malaise has turned the young against the older, schools sharing the metal detectors and security guards of the American heartlands that “people the world over [once] laughed at as something that they would never need themselves”. There’s something woozy and dream-like about Beth’s world, since she drifts through it distracted and others stagger through it sweating; but it is also punctured by shocking acts of violence, of the estate’s feral kids threatening the local takeaway restaurant, or Beth herself, or being attacked in turn. Something simmers in Beth’s world, but Smythe’s story is not about the boiling point.

Instead, he moves on. First to the treatment: Beth plans to remove Vic from the centre, since “inside the Machine [...] are the exact constituents of what – who – Vic will be.” This is a painful process, physically gruelling and psychologically taxing; Smythe does not spare his reader the details, maintaining the careful spacing of incident in order fully to dwell on Beth’s own state of mind and on the costs of the Machine’s reverse therapy (“hasn’t she already decided that she’s going to live with him and his temper and – if they start again – the dreams?”). Of course, the Machine remains unknowable – and, Beth comes to think, not entirely to be trusted: “I didn’t put some story about you going back to war in you,” she says to Vic, “That’s from the Machine.” At one point during this painfully drawn-out period, she thinks of Greek statues, wondering how they were crafted: whether artists filled in the “seemingly unimportant parts – the flats of [the subject's] backs, or the flattened plateau of an inner thigh” – from memory or imagination, and whether that matters to the final likeness. The Machine is compared by its publishers to a modern Frankenstein, I suppose because Beth isn’t sure what it is she’s creating. But in a real way she’s worse than that other Vic, Frankenstein: he at least understood the process of creation, the body parts and the electricity; Beth simply has a Machine with a hard drive.

Perhaps it’s this uncertainty which leads to the novel’s slightly unbalanced final third: suddenly, Things Happen and all must be revealed, if not quite understood. An unfortunate catalyst for this change is one of the novel’s few mis-steps, Beth’s accidental best friend, Laura: another teacher at the school, Laura also turns our to be a caricatured evangelical, who hollers at Beth, as she plays with Vic’s soul, that she is bound for Hell and Damnation. “This is creation, Beth,” she rants (later she will pound on Beth’s door, spitting and snarling at her. “You don’t mess with creation, as it is the purview of our one God, Beth.” Leaving aside the fact that few people actually talk in this way, Laura’s fire-and-brimstone might reflect a theological turn in this otherwise successfully sketched-in future, but also seems by-the-numbers and crude, much like another scene in the novel’s final third, in which Beth takes clippers to her hair before a mirror. The familiarity of Smythe’s core conceit begins to re-emerge, then, as soon as he moves away from lingering on Beth’s perspective, her contorted vision of and relationship to her husband and his trauma. The novel’s final twist, though devastating, feels tacked-on and over-neat; there is a real fumble here in the final furlongs, as if the novel strolls nonchalantly and productively away from its borrowed elements for much of its length, and then, like Jim Carrey barrelling through his memory palace, sprints back towards them in order to find the exit.

Smythe’s spare and thoughtful prose may have here been better suited to a shorter length: at times, The Machine felt like a superb novella stretched, in that final third, a tad too far. It is in that prose, however, that The Machine more than earns its keep. Smythe turns a world as well as a phrase gently and yet powerfully, and this is a stylist’s trick often in short supply in a genre which conversely often lives and dies by the subtlety of its infodumping. If The Machine doesn’t quite spit out a product perfectly fashioned from those initial raw materials, watching it working is a pleasure.

ancillary justiceHere’s how my review of Ann Leckie’s rapturously-received – and Clarke-shortlisted – debut novel originally began:

I don’t get it. Ancillary Justice is by no means a bad book: it is competent, even rigorous, and despite some extensive longeurs it is also in places pacey and handily plot-driven. It has a certain singularity of voice, and something to say with it. It manages to tackle some big issues – gender, artificial intelligence, gestalt consciousness – with a real lightness of touch, an unshowy seriousness. It is solid. But I don’t get it.

The buzz for Anne Leckie’s debut novel has been, in tonal quality, closer to a thrumming bass note from a Marshall stack. From advance notice to considered think pieces, reviewers have fallen over themselves to get excited about this big oil’ slice of space opera, as if its mix of interplanetary romance and high-concept mil-SF really is something to write home about. To take the temperature of large parts of SF fandom on the topic of this novel has been to send the mercury soaring. It has been, in fact, rather like the hoop-la a couple of years ago around the US publication of Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, a book with which, since it has now been published in the UK, Ancillary Justice has quirkily enough found itself competing on this year’s Clarke Award shortlist.

Nevertheless, I’m not ooh-ing. My aahs are muted at best. I do not think Leckie has written a book as good as the punchily patchy God’s War, much less one about to reinvent the genre’s ratty old wheel. I don’t get it.

And, then, dear reader, I paused. I ruminated. I checked the jerking of my knee. I’m as up for offering entertainment in the form of wilful gadflyery as (more than) anyone, but my tastes are so often peripheral not just to ‘core’ fandom but a certain literary subset of it that for once – just for once, mind – I wanted to understand. So I fired up Google, and I found Nina Allan at Arc.

Oh, frabjous day.

Leckie [...] embraces the [science fiction] mission statement fully. Ancillary Justice gives us teeming galaxies, evil empires, a version of warp drive, and all without a hint of irony as the commonly accepted imagery of the particular version of SF that ranges itself against the mainstream as “a literature of ideas”.

When examined up close, however, the ideas contained in Ancillary Justice seem disappointingly simple: empires are evil, class systems are oppressive, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Ancillary Justice is an SF novel of the old school: tireless in its recapitulation of genre norms and more or less impenetrable to outsiders.

The novel I happened to read immediately after Ancillary Justice was Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. Both novels are debuts, both are the first instalment in a trilogy. Both deal with far future empires, both have war as a central leitmotif, both have important things to say about society, faith and gender. At a surface level at least it would appear that these two books have much in common, but in fact, I would argue, they are different beasts entirely.

Allan has written her review so that I don’t have to, nailing all the ways in which Ancillary Justice underwhelms: in its characterisation, in its prose, in the execution of its core conceits. She even makes that same comparison with God’s War, pointing out what a properly adventurous debut novel really looks like (the comparison is made all the more damning for Leckie when one considers that Hurley’s effort is itself far from flawless). Here is a novel which routinely inserts its worldbuilding just after a character makes a reference to it: “I’m having trouble imaging you doing anything improper,” one says to another, before Leckie informs us that, “The word was weighted in Radchaai, part of a triad of justice, propriety and benefit.” This simultaneously offers a pretence of depth and the nagging feeling that we are less inhabiting a world and more taking a tour around it. Likewise, dialogue again and again services the plot – characters speak in the same voice, primarily to tell us how to interpret events and where they may next be headed (“It started at Garsedd,” another character explains to yet another. “She was appalled by what she’d done, but she couldn’t decided how to react.” “Oh,” the other doesn’t – but may as well – say. “OK.”)

One one level, perhaps all this is deliberate: Ancillary Justice is set in a quasi-fascistic empire in which to be civilised is to conform totally, and around which we are directed by Breq, a first person narrator who was once merely a tiny component in a gestalt intelligence. Breq is Pinocchio – a Spock or Data figure who was once an outpost of a spaceship’s AI and who may well now, it is strongly implied, be capable of a kind of personhood, about to transmute into a real girl or, since genders are often satisfyingly uncertain in this book, boy. It is in this addition of just a dash of zest to a hoary, tired old conceit that Leckie’s project is most evident: she is not reinventing science fiction so much as holding up a mirror to the genre’s best possible side. Allan suggests that Leckie hasn’t written her novel with anything like a commercial motivation, and in many ways that’s true of what is ultimately a rather awkward debut; but I’d also ask what novel better rushes to the aid of a core genre more embattled than usual, defending itself from all sorts of accusations of gender bias, from the assaults of new fangled literary modes and speculative writers not entirely interested in the genre itself; by new means of production and new forms and fora of criticism. Why, how much that core genre needs a novel from its own patch which doesn’t use the male pronoun. Cue predictably rapturous joy. “We can do this,” cry the SF massive. “We are not yet defeated.”

None of which is necessarily bad, but some of which goes a little way to understanding why Ancillary Justice has been hyped beyond its capacity to fulfil expectations. If it is not quite pedestrian, it is a gently jogging novel with some nice ideas but a ponderous style. The excitement around a book like this reminded me of the work of Algris Budrys, some of which I recently reviewed for Vector but which has also been considered in much the same vein by Paul Kincaid, for Foundation and, briefly, on his own blog: in the 1970s and 1980s, as Kincaid writes, Budrys read science fiction through “a series of columns that turn again and again to John W. Campbell, Lester Del Rey, L. Ron Hubbard, Robert A. Heinlein and a host of writers of the same era”. In much the same way, Ancillary Justice does not feel like a new work of science fiction, but rather as a zeitgeisty iteration of the same old same old. (Lila Garrot at Strange Horizons, in a review full of praise for the book: “The novel’s core questions, such as the meaning of personhood in a world containing artificial intelligences and the meaning of individual identity in a world containing multi-bodied minds, are not new to speculative fiction, but they are combined in ways which shed new light on them, and Leckie never allows anything to resolve into a simple answer.”)

This leaves the Clarke Award looking more like a commemoration of what science fiction likes than it often prefers to seem: where Ancillary Justice ports SFnal conceits, it doesn’t transform or even bend them out of shape very much. It’s comforting and well-meaning all at the same time. On that level, at least, perhaps I do get it, after all.

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