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The Lowland by Jhumpa LahiriIn his 2007 history India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha wrote of the militant Indian Maoists who emerged from the conflagration at Naxalbari in 1967: “‘Naxalite’ became shorthand for ‘revolutionary’, a term evoking romance and enchantment at one end of the political spectrum, and distaste and derision at the other.” [pg. 423] In her new novel The Lowland, shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, Jhumpa Lahiri plays with precisely these reactions, positing a long tail of consequences whipping outwards from a single Naxalite’s decision to fuse ideological fervour with murderous deeds.

The novel begins with Subhash and Udayan, two brothers living in the Kolkata suburb of Tollygunge during the 1950s. Subhash, the elder by a scant fifteen months, is cautious and prone to hesitation; Udayan “was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colours” [pg. 11]. Despite their differences, the boys are as inseparable as the twin pools wallowing in the topographical hollow of the title: “After the monsoon the ponds would rise so that the embankment built between them could not be seen. The lowland also filled with rain, three or four feet deep, the water remaining for a portion of the year.” [pg. 1] This governing metaphor emphasises not just the occasional indistinguishability of the brothers, but also how the consequences of events have a habit of squatting in our lives long after their initial happening: like water with nowhere to drain away, history lingers in the lives of each of Lahiri’s characters, turning brackish and stagnant.

The first section of The Lowand is consequently bulging with Cliff Notes history, context shoe-horned into a smaller story because without it the personal, soapy tragedies which proceed from Udayan’s inevitable radicalisation make no sense. “It was one of a string of villages in the Darjeeling district,” Lahiri writes of Naxalbari, “a narrow corridor at the northern tip of West Bengal. Tucked into the foothills of the Himalaya’s, nearly four hundred miles from Calcutta, closer to Tibet than Tollygunge.” [pg. 20] We get thumbnails of American history, too, since as Udayan becomes ever closer to his Communist friends, Subhash attends college in the USA. We read of India and of Udayan at arm’s length during this stretch of the novel (difficult because Indian news is not something one will “come across in any newspaper in Rhode Island” [pg. 87]), and Subhash returns to Tollygunge only on the news that his brother is dead, shot by soldiers who have homed in on his Naxalite activities.

Subhash’s life is transformed. Not only has he lost the brother who formed his other half; he feels obliged to marry Udayan’s pregnant wife, Gauri. Yet the only love affair Subhash has undertaken in the US has been desultory and practiced, involving “a woman whose company he was growing used to, but whom, perhaps due to his own ambivalence, he didn’t love” [pg. 77]. According to Subhash’s mother, meanwhile, Gauri has no material instinct or aptitude. We think at first this is spite, but learn as the novel proceeds in elliptic fashion that it is a judgement more or less fair. Indeed, Lahiri eschews the tumescent context of her first hundred pages once Gauri joins Subhash in the USA, dropping us into strings of vignettes separated by often large – and important – chunks of time. Gauri develops a love of academia and philosophy, attending lectures on the quiet; Subhash turns his studies into a career; and the daughter they pretend is his rather than Udayan’s develops a personality at a rapid clip (by the close of the novel she is in her forties).

Lahiri intends to write a family epic alert to the irony of unintended consequences – for her senior college thesis, Bela (long since abandoned by Gauri, now a college professor, and living an itinerant lifestyle with which Subhash is uncomfortable) chooses to study “the adverse effects of pesticide runoff in a local river” [pg. 221], encouraging the reader to recall those pools of water in which, we learn, Udayan attempted to hide before the soldiers found him. All of this has a certain piquancy, and the sad, stilted lives of the main characters do have the power to move: alone and adrift, for instance, Subhash feels “that this arbitrary place, where he’d landed and made his life, was not his” [pg. 253], and we feel for a man at sea in his own cast-off-course life, “linked”, like Gauri, “into a chain she could not see” [pg. 292]. But there’s also an obstinacy to The Lowland – all that insistent commentary, crystalline-but-crafted sentences, and punished protagonists (Gauri’s desolation, in particular, feels simply unfair) – which lends it an air of inflexibility. The Indian sections have a nice ambivalence – at one moment “the sour, septic smell” of Tollygunge [pg. 89], at another the “gestures of hospitality from shopkeepers” [pg. 113] – but, in the way of We Need New Names, the prism of America over-directs the novel’s light away from this valence of detail.

The Luminaries by Eleanor CattonDetail is not something lacking in Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, however. At 832 pages, it is by far the largest book on this year’s shortlist – which might be the reason that I’ve left it last to review. More than any other of its competitors, Catton’s novel is interested in capturing the sense of a single place – not evoking a milieu we view from a more familiar one (Bulawayo, Lahiri, Ozeki), not abandoning specifity (Crace), and not being so fiercely concise that all but the most essential details are pruned away (Tóibín). Catton’s 1860s New Zealand goldrush town of Hokitika emerges as a pungent presence, mapped and – aha – mined thoroughly in the course of what becomes a compendious tour. But what is remarkable – and a little thrilling – about all this detail is that the novel conspires to make it entirely irrelevant.

At yesterday’s Booker Prize shortlist event in Cheltenham, Catton discussed the dual meaning of ‘fortune': the prospectors of Hokitiki are in search of riches, of course; but fortunes are told as well as found, and in this way The Luminaries – its title, too, offering a dual reference, to the novel’s cast of Hokitika’s leading lights but also to the celestial bodies around which Catton structures her action – considers determinism and destiny. Its first of twelve parts – we note the allusion to the Zodiac – is itself novel-length, introducing us to (again) a dozen characters who are each in some way implicated by circumstance in the death and possible murder of a rich prospector named Crosbie Wells. In the discursive style of the nineteenth-century novels which are read by the characters themselves, Catton introduces us to the most intimate aspects of each man’s self-image. New arrival Walter Moody “had studied his own reflection mutely, and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best” [pg. 4]; shipping magnate Thomas Balfour “liked very much to feel that he was at the vanguard of an era” [pg. 12]; cleric Cowell Devlin “spent the present moment in a state of constant visualisation, conjuring in his mind the untroubled future self he had determined that he would one day become” [pg. 87]. We come to know these characters entirely, and often through the medium of gloriously witty pen portraits.

But Catton’s story lies elsewhere, in a string of coincidences involving none of the characters who feature in this hefty first part – and who consequently never develop from those initial thumbnails. Significantly given the centrality of the moon to the novel’s vision of ‘fortune’, it is two women who emerge in the book’s second half as the engines of the story: the Hokitika prostitute Anna Wetherell and the scheming villainess first introduced to us as Crosbie’s estranged wife, Lydia Wells. That the tart-with-the-heart and the scheming adulteress are both wearied and wearying types is part of Catton’s project. Individuals are not the drivers of this novel’s action. At one point, Balfour’s main client, and a man himself inextricably linked with the vengeful Lydia, opines that, “Only a weak mind puts faith in coincidence” [pg. 63], but in fact life in The Luminaries is governed by it. Characters act not in relation to their painstakingly-rationalised self-perceptions, but to their star signs or schematic roles in the narrative (the corrupted chemist, the tragic Chinaman); stories have less a beginning, a middle and an end, and more a series of intersections between random events which can build accidentally into denouements; and, as the novel’s twelve parts reduce in length by a mathematical ratio, and the chapter summaries which commence each segment grow ever more rococo in inverse proportion to the wordcount of the chapters themselves, Catton plays with narrative, subverting the certainties and assumptions of precisely the nineteenth-century realism she pretends to ape.

The Luminaries is interested in the way in which the sense of self which novels impose upon us, that bourgeois conception of the individual as an independent agent making choices which forge destinies in the way of Lahiri’s brothers, might not capture the way in which the world really works. Anna is in love with Emery Staines, the richest prospector in Hokitika, a young man who disappeared on the same night Crosbie Wells died and on which Anna herself collapsed in the street; they were born, she finds, on the same day at the same time of the same year, and this seems to give them an uncanny connection, in which one feels the emotions of the other, or can forge their signature without discernible discrepancy. In this context, Staines’s individuality is not important – indeed, the way he intersects with other people and events is the real root of his character, and self-presentation or -perception merely a gloss. “Emery Staines knew very well that he created a singular impression in the minds of all those whom he met. This knowledge had become, over time, an expectation, as a consequence of which, his singularity had become even more pronounced.” [pg. 732] That is, the self is simply self-fulfilling prophecy.

Whether this radicalism is contained in a package effectively executed is a slightly different question; Catton is attempting to interrogate the novel using a novel, and this perhaps inevitably leads to a bagginess, at times even an awkwardness: all that detail, all those words, can come to feel recursive. There’s an extent to which Catton’s concept – perhaps fittingly – overtakes her material, and The Luminaries can feel stretched as a result. Indeed, I wonder if, at the other end of this shortlist’s spectrum, Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary isn’t both just as radical and significantly more disciplined and artful. If The Luminaries is certainly extremely clever, the Tóibín might also be articulate. One of these two should certainly win the prize (I’d probably plump for The Testament of Mary myself), but I wonder if Jim Crace’s reputedly final novel, the elegiac-if-inexact Harvest, might not be awarded the Jacobson-Barnes Award for Life-Time Achievement. The stars will reveal their alignment on Tuesday.

I mentioned, in my first pair of reviews drawing from this year’s Booker shortlist, the sad omission by the judges of M John Harrison’s superb Empty Space. This was a novel, it seemed to me, with all the poignancy and pregnancy the Booker seeks to reward, replete with the subtle craft and canny artistry it likes to encourage. In the comments to a recent post on the blog of science fiction author Adam Roberts, himself a previous recipient of the shoulda-woulda-coulda SF Booker badge, the estimable Matt Cheney agrees:

By your criteria here, it would be hard to make a case for even, say, Harrison’s Empty Space to make it to the list — and I think it certainly deserved to be there. But it’s complex, difficult, allusive, elusive. Certainly not primitivist, unless “primitivist” is stripped of much meaning.

The comment is part of a discussion about the criteria Cheney mentions, a set of propositions Roberts establishes in an attempt to argue not just for the importance of Young Adult fiction but for its primacy in contemporary literary culture. There’s a lot in Roberts’s post to like – I’m particularly intrigued by his idea that education and school represents a dominant strand of post-modern experience – but his position on YA seems unusually wobbly. This has led Nina Allan, who shares my admiration for Roberts’s criticism, to wonder if he isn’t, gadflyishly, playing Devil’s advocate; Allan also pre-empts most of my quibbles with the original post, but I wonder if encoded within it – and implicit in Allan’s response – is a more compelling ‘great definer’ of our age. But more of that anon.

a-tale-forthe-time-beingFor the moment, it’s worth sticking with YA, not least because Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being reads a good deal like fiction aimed at teens for a good part of its length. Half of its pagecount is handed over to Nao, a Japanese adolescent whose diary is found by Ruth, an American writer living on a sparsely inhabited island in Desolation Sound. In reading Nao’s journal, Ruth comes to feel impossibly close to the teen’s stories first of dotcom bubble prosperity in Silicon Valley, then poverty back home in Japan when her depressive father loses his job and takes to placing ill-fated bets as a means of maintaining the family income. Nao’s narrative truly revolves, however, around Jiko, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun who is also Nao’s improbably wise grandmother.

Into this tale therefore enters the concept of Oneness: Jiko’s philosophy is filtered through Nao’s naivety (“everything I write will be historically true and empowering to women, and not a lot of foolish geisha crap” [pg. 6]), resulting in a good deal of restatements of the gnomically obvious. “Being a Buddhist,” Nao tells us of Jiko, “she really understands impermanence and that everything changes and nothing lasts forever.” [pg. 27]   This Cliff Notes approach to Jiko’s beliefs infuses Nao’s half of the novel, in which we are treated to related wit and wisdom ranging across a number of contemporary hot topics: “Everybody in California has ADD, and they all take meds for it, and they’re constantly changing their prescriptions and tweaking their dosages” [pg. 161]; “September 11 is like a sharp knife slicing through time” [pg. 265]; “all the millions of people in their lonely little rooms, furiously writing and posting to their lonely little pages that nobody has time to read because they’re all so busy writing and posting” [pg. 26].

There’s a reductiveness to a lot of this which characterises the worst kind of YA, the type rolled out by lofty adults to help young people understand what it means to be proper people. (Not for the first time, m’learned friend Martin Lewis nails this problem with concision and vim.) Nao’s passages start off promisingly – the first chapter in particular reads freshly and cheekily, and made me genuinely excited for the novel – but it never really deepens or complicates itself. We might assume, then, that Ozeki simply suffers from the same malady which afflicts many such writers when slumming it by writing from a teen perspective: she simply doesn’t capture the sophistication of the voice. The difficulty is that this is true, too, of Ruth’s passages, albeit in a different way. They very often take the form of dialogues between her and another character – most often another improbably wise interlocutor, her husband Oliver.

“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“She says she’s writing it for you. So do you feel special?”

“That’s ridiculous,” Ruth said.

“Speaking about garbage,” Oliver said, “I’ve been thinking about the Great Garbage Patches recently …”

“The what?”

“The Great Eastern and Great Western Garbage Patches? Enormous masses of garbage and debris floating in the oceans? You must have heard about them … “

“Yes,” she said. “No. I mean, sort of.” It didn’t matter, since he clearly wanted to tell her about them. [pg. 35]

This format is fitting for the book Ozeki has written – which is essentially a disputation, a didact’s philosophy primer – but it grinds wearyingly on over the space of a 400+ page volume that insists upon presenting as a novel. Of course, the diary-reading and letter-writing at the heart of this story – emails and blogs feature, too, but only as spruced-up accoutrements to what is a fairly traditional epistolary structure – are all a metaphor for the act of creation undertaken in collaboration by a reader and a writer. Ruth and Nao are in a mystical way the same person, forming (in the oneness of the – geddit? – now) their story together. This is gratingly obvious early on, and the digressions and multiplying frame narratives Ozeki employs to complicate this schematic endeavour don’t sufficiently distract from a core predictability. By the 400th page – when, of course, Oliver reveals all (“the superposed quantum system persists, only, when it is observed, it branches” [pg. 397]), it comes as both relief and let-down. Perhaps this is true primarily for readers of novels like M John Harrison’s; perhaps there are those for whom the Ozeki will come as a revelation; but one wonders why a novel in the footsteps of Jostein Gaarder trumps a more complex novel with the same quantum-philosophical base.

We-Need-New-NamesWhich might return us to Roberts’s thoughts: “No SF? No YA? No Crime? Insular, backward looking shortlist.” Except that Roberts does not consider SF’s science to be as vital as YA’s, well, youth. Indeed, in his trio of defining contemporary characteristics, Roberts places technology on the lowest rung. Above it but below youth, in the role of our age’s Ronnie Barker, he sites globalisation. With self-conscious finesse, then, I direct your attention to NoViolet Bulawayo’s tilt at the Booker, We Need New Names.

Darling is another young girl in unfortunate circumstances: in her case, she and her single mother (who operates, at the edge of Darling’s understanding, as an occasional sex worker) live in a Zimbabwean shanty town known drolly as Paradise. She and her friends spend their days causing trouble and playing Find Bin Laden (all these international children are so interested in the War on Terror, one finds), stealing intermittently into the better parts of town to grab fruit from trees and gaze, wide-eyed, at the privilege they cannot quite imagine, “the big stadium with the glimmering benches we’ll never sit on” [pg. 2]. Globalisation, then, touches their lives in a myriad ways: the well-heeled visitor from London who will “throw food away” as if it’s nothing [pg. 7], the charity workers who arrive at the village without the language, who dole out rations and are mocked by the children; the teachers who have “left to teach over in South Africa and Botswana and Namibia and them, where there’s better money” [pg. 31]; and, finally, the family members who have already escaped to America, to work as cleaners and orderlies in luxury quite alien to Darling’s contemporaries.

Indeed, Bulawayo spends a lot of time in the first half of her novel on the degradations which contrast so vividly with these glimpses of the West: the woman with AIDS who hangs herself, and whose corpse is found, dangling, by the young tearaways; the girl who is pregnant with her grandfather’s child, having been repeatedly raped; the sinister village preacher, the satisfyingly monikered Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, who accuses women of witchcraft and demonic possession in order to abuse them. “There is just no sense in being afraid when you live so near the graves,” Darling says [pg. 132], and there is certainly an air of resignation to Bulawayo’s work. When Darling flies to America to join a relative there, her life – and the prose style itself – changes utterly. We Need New Names proceeds from Bulawayo’s Caine-winning short story ‘Hitting Budapest‘, which is here the first chapter, but the book takes a huge swerve at its centrepoint, shifting from a demotic, almost innocent style, to a breathless, almost bitter one: “If I were at home I know I would not be standing around because something called snow was preventing me going outside to live life.” [pg. 153]

This doesn’t lead very far, however: Darling watches pornography with her new group in America and grows into awkward adolescence; she dismisses the pain of a friend who is physically assaulted by her boyfriend (“I don’t think she had to be all over, like her face was a humanitarian crisis” [pg. 218]); and she returns to her village to be scolded and rejected by her former friends. All this, as in A Tale for the Time Being, is much as you’d expect, a sort of grand thematic tour. On the other hand, it is also written with more clarity and playfulness than Ozeki’s novel, and though it is in its own way just as insistent, it is much less didactic – because much more sprightly. Still, I find it hard not to agree, insofar as it is possible or reasonable for me to do so, with Helon Habila in the Guardian: “To perform Africa [...] is to inundate one’s writing with images and symbols and allusions that evoke, to borrow a phrase from Aristotle, pity and fear, but not in a real tragic sense, more in a CNN, western-media-coverage-of-Africa, poverty-porn sense.” Bulawayo has one of Darling’s childhood friends counter this accusation – “You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on?” [pg. 285] – but in her clear and understandable desire to document the deprivations of a country often invisible to inhabitants of the one to which Darling emigrates, she does somewhat load her novel with precisely the negative resignation one assumes she wishes to eschew.

Bulawayo ends We Need New Names on an ugly image of a dog crushed by traffic on a Zimbabwean road; her final sentence, however, emphasises the “delicious, delicious smell of Lobells bread” which wafts across the scene, as if – aha – to leaven the darkness, to emphasise that all in Africa is not dead dogs in the road. In her second novel, one hopes she succeeds in better achieving that balance. One worries, however, that Philip Hensher is right: that the inclusion from 2014 of American novels in the Booker race will hollow out the prize, render ever more predictable its shortlist; already, in three of these six shortlisted novels (the two reviewed here and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland), America acts as a prism through which more particular struggles are viewed. Hensher, I think, over-eggs his pudding, but concern about a flattening-out is valid: in his own Booker post, after all, Roberts notes that the youth culture he sees as permeating and defining our particular moment was “invented to relieve young people of their pocket money in the 1950s”; in her response to the post, Nina Allan points out that YA is written not for young adults but for “the young adult market“. The characteristic of our age – as Darling, imprisoned in her shanty town and pining for “the TV, the large radio, the beautiful things we don’t know” – is not the youth Nao and Darling share, but the commodification which places intolerable pressures on the lives of all around them, the packaging and repackaging of stuff. Selling to markets is the sine qua non of our technological, globalised, youth-obsessed culture, one in which leisure time expands and is filled not by more time for reflection but by more product – not by what Roberts calls ‘clever clever’ art, but by accessible mass media.

The Booker, one hopes, won’t reward books which play to those pressures.

Harvest, by Jim CraceThis year’s Booker longlist has been greeted with enthusiasm principally because it seems to offer an escape route from the conservatism of the last few years: Mantel, Jacobson, Barnes, Mantel is a list of consecutive winners which skews towards the establishment. However deserving Mantel’s Cromwell novels, and however passed-over Jacobson and Barnes have been in the past, four years of middle-aged Brits winning the prize might not be a trend worth continuing into 2013.

Despite Robert McFarlane’s on-the-record praise for one of 2012’s most exciting novels, M John Harrison’s Empty Space, the longlist remains in style much as it has before (Richard House’s The Kills confirms crime fiction in its position is the ‘respectable genre’). But youth and internationalism characterises the selections, and this seems enough given what we have come to expect of the types of book the Booker chooses to recognise and reward.

The Testament of Mary, by Colm ToibinIf the establishment has its champions on this longlist, the mantle (a-ha-ha) must rest rather awkwardly on them. Both Jim Crace and Colm Tóibín have been previously shortlisted for the Prize (Tóibín, of course, won with The Master, his magisterial evocation of the life of Henry James); both are regular commentators in the national and international press; both are middle-aged and both are – dear reader, ineluctably – male. On the other hand, neither quite sits as neatly at the top of that tree as a Jacobson or a Barnes: Crace is based in Birmingham, not London, and though my suggestion that he had made a good living taking the mickey out of contemporary and classic fiction alike is obvious nonsense, he continues to sit to one side of contemporary literary culture. Tóibín, meanwhile, may well be one of the English language’s most important, dynamic and perceptive writers – and that makes him very difficult indeed to dumb down, reposition or, that dread word, ‘sell’. (His last novel, Brooklyn, was longlisted for the Booker but didn’t make the grade in the year Wolf Hall won.)

For those rooting for more of their same from their Booker winner, both writers offer a lot of encouragement. Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary is slim, almost The Sense of an Ending-ish, and yet preponderantly well-turned. It is narrated by a woman in first-century Ephesus whose son, a man in his early 30s who is wanted by the authorities, has just been crucified. Tóibín is less coy than my précis – there is in The Testament of Mary no attempt to debunk or debase the story of Jesus, and though Mary is shuffled off gently from the wedding at Cana so that we never read her direct observations of the water and the wine, she does witness Lazarus walking around as if he had never been dressed for burial.

The pooh-poohing of miracles is too facile a pastime for Tóibín; rather, his Mary is a witness to their aftermath (“the hordes had moved on, she said, followed by an even larger caravan of hucksters, salesmen, water-carriers, fire-eaters and purveyors of cheap food” [pg. 37]). Mary’s is the female voice raised against the male transformation of Christ’s work into Christian cult. Mary is attended each day in her Ephesian exile by two of Jesus’s disciplines – they are never named – and Mary instinctively understands “the elaborate nature of their desires” [pg. 3], desires which are thrust upon her son, who is told “that he was not a mortal as we are mortal, but [...] that he he was the one we had been waiting for” [pg. 33]. These expectations, this worship, transforms her son: “There was nothing delicate about him now,” she observes as Jesus takes his place at the centre of the crowd, “he was all displayed manliness.” [pg. 49]

In part, this is a tender story of a mother letting go of her son – Jesus becomes “a power that seemed to have no memory of years before, when he needed my breast for milk” [pg. 54] – and Tóibín very much casts his Mary as a representative of a conflicted, everyday humanity distinct from the impossible perfection of the Gospels. Mary worships both at the temple of Artemis and of the one God; she begins her narrative improbably modern – “I disliked weddings [...] the bride and groom more like a couple to be sacrificed” [pg. 27] – but ends it identifiably compromised (she chooses, despite the stories concocted after, to flee the site of the crucifixion rather than wait to bury her son, “to protect myself” [pg. 84]); and, ultimately, she stands for contingency over conviction (“Now I know how random it was and uncertain” (pg. 88). All of this makes for a quite astonishingly resonant novella, and a beautiful, poised piece of ventriloquism. It also speaks to the religious questions of our own age, in which women are again subjected, “within this group of men [... to] a set of hierarchies” [pg. 66], and their truths treated as inconvenient (“It will be as though what I saw did not happen” [pg. 99). The Testament of Mary is as exquisite, as slight, as a scalpel.

Crace’s Harvest is, in comparison, a doorstop – and yet is itself significantly shy of three hundred pages. Set in an indeterminately early modern decade, probably around the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, Harvest takes place entirely within the confines of a tiny hamlet, overseen by a manor house but more properly subject to the tender mercies of its land. Our narrator, Walter Thirsk, first came to the village some years earlier as the manservant of the new master of the manor, a man now in turn to be supplanted by the rightful heir – his dead wife’s wily cousin. At first, however, we like the villagers have no notion of the outside world, and the novel begins with two plumes of smoke – the first a fire at the manor house, the second a sign that interlopers have arrived at the edge of the village’s bounds.

It is remarkable how deftly Crace then spools outwards his plot from these two innocuous spots of grey on an otherwise vivid skyline. He writes about the natural world with spare, evocative economy: “There is a silent ripeness to the air, so mellow and sappy that we want to breathe it shallowly, to sip it richly like a cordial.” [pg. 60] Yet this is no Arcadia, or Romantic idyll: “The countryside is argumentative. It wants to pick a fight with you.” [pg. 63] The village is isolated, two days’ ride from the nearest market town by even the fastest horse, and this has led to inter-breeding – Walter stands out in his colouration and facial features, and observes that “we are too small, and getting smaller” (pg. 4) – but has also played host to a real, if exclusive, community and an umbilical connection with the jealous soil. Indeed, the villagers have yet to bother building even a church, so busy are they with survival, but also, like Mary, with the simple common-sense knowledge that God is not the active agent which sustains them.

Into this centuries-old lifestyle steps first the man the villagers come to name ‘Mr Quill’, a map-maker whose work “has reduced us to a web of lines” [pg. 39], and then the master’s cousin himself. In the stocks, meanwhile, are the itinerant countryfolk responsible for that second plume of smoke – themselves likely displaced by enclosing maps such as Mr Quill’s. Four or five outside individuals are enough thoroughly to destabilise the village’s ancient but precarious balance: by the close of the novel it has changed irrevocably as a consequence of the latest innovation being applied to unprofitable villages such as Walter’s: sheep. “I’ll only have to touch them with this candle flame,” Walter observes of his master’s brittle documents of ownership, “and they will leap with fire.” [pg. 269]

“These are sad and hasty times,” the master sighs at one point [pg. 189], and Harvest certainly twinges a little for what has been lost: as the sheep-farmer’s retinue marches across the nameless fields, Walter sees “Privilege in its high hat. Then comes Suffering [...] Malice follows [...] afterwards, invisibly, Despair is riding its lame horse.” [pg. 202] On the other hand, Mr Quill is one of the novel’s most sympathetic characters, an artistic dupe for the cousin’s more brutal schemes, perhaps, but still a bringer of beauty and of culture: “His endeavours are tidier and more wildly colourful – they’re certainly more blue – than anything that nature can provide.” [pg. 133] Harvest offers a wise and inconclusive picture of what living more closely in harmony with the land means, and, conversely but simultaneously, what a more developed society can offer – Walter’s village, unchecked by the mores of the town, shaves women’s heads and charges them with witchcraft if they speak out of turn. There is little need to point out how this parable, too, is of urgent contemporary relevance.

In some years, both Crace and Tóibín would make the shortlist: The Testament of Mary, I think, pulls off the preternaturally difficult trick of being simultaneously the tauter and more supple work, but it is only a nose ahead. Given the inclinations of the longlist, however, it would seem odd if both men make it through. Crace has suggested Harvest is his last novel – in a press release, the Man Booker hopes its longlisting might change his mind – and so his might be the book to watch. Whatever. Both are superb, inspiring, important pieces of fiction, and though perhaps the Booker could do with some visibly fresh thinking, we could all do with more novels like these.

In considering this year’s Booker shortlist, we should get the obvious out of the way first: Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies is head and shoulders above its competitors. Not only that: it is a better novel than Wolf Hall, which of course won the prize in 2009. These twin killer facts might suggest it is a shoe-in for the gong this evening, but it will surely be difficult for the panel to reward Mantel for two consecutive books when there is also a third on the way. It would risk turning Mantel into the China Miéville of the Booker, and this seems inimical to the prize’s vision of itself.

As one might intuit from this photo taken last night at the Booker’s event on the South Bank, many fancy Will Self to pip Mantel to the post. Umbrella, however, is a wrecking-ball of a novel, demolishing as it goes not just the cosy complacencies of the literary novel but also itself. Self’s suggestion that modernism retains currency feels confected and unconvincing, offering us in a weird kind of way the shock merely of the old. In the wake of Umbrella, I’ve been re-reading John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses, since Self seems to reserve special ire for it (“a curiously patrician form of pro-populism”): Carey may well cherry-pick his case, but what he demonstrates beyond doubt is that modernism proceeded out of its own milieu, not some Romantic eternalised present. Umbrella reads like radical nostalgia.

My thesis is, then, that Self and Mantel will frame this afternoon’s discussion between the Booker judges – but act as alienating poles between which a compromise will need to be found. On one level, almost any of the four remaining books could fit that bill: with the possible exception of Swimming Home (which nevertheless John Mullan was inexplicably enthusiastic about on telly last week), each has something to recommend it. Narcopolis, if bloated and over-stylised, is regardless the closest this shortlist gets to a fresh kind of literary experiment, whilst The Garden of Evening Mists, though overly po-faced and in some need of an edit, in many ways comes closest to Mantel’s brand of narrative interest. It seems to me, however, that one book more than the others is best placed to slip through the Symplegades of Self and Mantel.

The Lighthouse is a small but perfectly formed novel without baggage and with a high level of literary accomplishment. If, as a first novel, it is not as ambitious as either of the shortlist’s big names, it is certainly more successful in its aims, and on its own terms, than any of the books except Mantel’s. If we assume, then, that Mantel cannot win – and that she and Self will divide the panel into warring houses – then the moment may be Alison Moore’s. Compromise candidate or no, The Lighthouse would be a deserving winner – and its victory an exciting prospect for small press publishers.

ETA: I am in the event really very pleased that the judges went for the best book, regardless of the politics. They should be commended, as should Mantel. Bravo!

20121014-185940.jpgI attended the Cheltenham Literary Festival’s annual Booker event yesterday lunchtime, attended by four of the six shortlisted authors, minus Hilary Mantel and Will Self. In the way of these sessions, opening to questions felt less useful than letting the authors keep talking: at one point, for example, Alison Moore was asked why she had chosen ‘Futh’ as the name of her protagonist in The Lighthouse, since it is a proper noun almost entirely without resonance. This, Moore was forced to answer, is precisely, er, the point. Futh is meant to elicit the same response in the reader as he does in his wife-to-be when they first meet again a decade or so after attending the same school: “I don’t remember you.” [pg. 52]

The question was doubly elementary because the novel is so open about Futh’s essential emptiness. On a German walking holiday following the breakdown of his marriage, Futh’s recollections churn around the things said about him first by his distant, philandering father and then his frustrated, disappointed spouse, Angela. “He was introspective, insufficiently aware, Angela often said, of other people and how they might see things.” [pg. 41] Moore can’t be more explicit than this, and if The Lighthouse has a principal weakness it is this reliance on a certain heaviness of interpretation.

Futh’s work is in manufacturing scents – including, for example, instant “coffee whose volatile aromas have been lost and then replaced during the manufacturing process; coffee to which the smell of coffee has been added” [pg. 159]. The Lighthouse makes great play of this idea of artificial recreations – for instance, Futh’s father spends the similar German walking holiday on which he took his young son, reminiscences of which pepper the novel, bringing women back to their shared hotel room as substitutes for the wife who has left him out of simple boredom. Likewise, the lighthouse of the title is in fact a novelty bottle of perfume which ends up in the hands of the landlady of Futh’s hotel, herself in the midst of a loveless marriage, and “is empty, the scent missing” [pg. 37].

On the other hand, Moore’s prose – as opposed to her treatment of theme – is as light and free-flowing as any writing on this year’s shortlist. Here she is conjuring a childhood picnic enjoyed by Futh and his parents:

Despite the incredible heat, up on the cliffs there was a breeze and one could burn unexpectedly. They had eaten a picnic. His mother had made sandwiches and he and his father had shared a savoury pasty in a paper bag. His father had opened a bottle of Pomagne but no one else wanted any. There were oranges but only his mother had bothered with one. Afterwards, she lay on her back on the grass and closed her eyes. Her port-wine stain was visible beneath the strap of her bikini top. She smelt of sun cream. [pg. 55]

There’s a lot happening in this little paragraph, but it goes down as easily as the Pomagne. It’s a pregnant-but-precise style which gives Moore the space to achieve something many of her rivals for the gong are also seeking to accomplish: The Lighthouse is essentially a novel about things withheld, about things unseen, and it weaves delicately through a series of misconceptions and misunderstandings with real economy. Witness, for instance, the delicious episode in which Futh is taken back home by a man he has only just met on a ferry, to meet a sceptical mother and entirely miss the significance of the tensions his presence has provoked. “My wife and I have just separated,” he prates. “And we didn’t have children. [...] I keep stick insects. [...] I wanted a dog.” [pg. 29] Carl absents himself and his mother suggests Futh leave.

This insensibility to the complicated lives of others – indeed, the complexities of his own – leads directly to a series of errors which further destabilise the marriage of his hosts. Ester and Bernard, the proprietors of the Hellhaus hotel (it translates as ‘bright house’, apparently), are trapped in a dead-end marriage – he fails to notice her, and she cheats on him. Even their memories of meeting differ: “She could have sworn that it happened for both of them at that same moment. When, much later, he said that it had not happened for him until after that, it was like having heard a fire engine or an ambulance going by as he stood there on the doorstep, and Bernard claiming to have heard it perhaps hours later when he and she and everyone else were outside on the patio.” [pg. 65] The economy with which Moore depicts the little ways we each misapprehend the other, her manner of capturing the explosions of “a moment, in which nothing was said and no one moved” [pg. 147], puts Levy’s clumsy efforts, and even Self’s over-stylised supposition that only high modernism can achieve the effect of separate lives, to simple shame.

Still, Futh’s habitual inertia tells a tad against the novel: “At the age of twelve, he wanted to go to New York as soon as he was old enough. In his twenties, when he could have travelled anywhere he wanted, he visited many cities and countries but he did not go to New York.” [pg. 78] It’s difficult to spend a whole book aching simply to shake a character into what are fairly modest actions. Futh, like his mother before him, “often fantasised about running away” [pg. 119], but is paralysed by an unspoken fear of the consequences (indeed, his unhappy holiday is proof enough that Futh is best advised to stay at home). Ester and Bernard, who do not begin the novel as a focal point but come to colonise alternating chapters with their own story, feel more dynamic presences – but orbit around Futh’s own non-narrative in a manner which keeps this first novel safely under control.

“Some people do not like the smell of camphor; for others it is addictive,” Moore writes. “It is used, amongst other things, as a moth repellent and as an aphrodisiac.” [pg. 130] That smells and items and relationships can mean different things to different people is not news – and perhaps the modesty of this novel’s aims are one reason it achieves them with so much more clarity than many of the other novels on the shortlist. In many ways, in fact, it reminds one most of The Sense of an Ending, and modest-but-perfectly-turned did Julian Barnes no harm at all.

I’m planning a piece in the not too distant future on Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose quintet, which I’ve been reading leisurely over the last five months. By way of a trailer, I will say that they are limited – indeed, explicitly self-limiting – novels, but within those confines are preternaturally supple and sensitive. The first of the books, Never Mind, is set in the south of France, at the villa of David Melrose, an embittered and violent man whose tantrums and tortures inspire livid fear in both wife and son. Never Mind chronicles a summer spent with the Melroses by a small clutch of friends and hangers-on, during which each in turn is viciously skewered by St Aubyn’s sour wit – and an awful event occurs without almost anyone noticing.

It was impossible not to think of Never Mind‘s potent and surprising mix of understated elegance and devilishly broad satire whilst reading Deborah Levy’s Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home. Alas, Levy did not come off well in the comparison: her book, set in the south of France at the holiday villa of a dysfunctional upper middle-class couple with a single child, features a small clutch of friends and hangers-on, and purports to skewer viciously the pretensions held by each of its characters (who do not notice the warning signs of an awful event which is about to occur). Unlike St Aubyn, however, Levy takes little time to flesh out her stereotypes – we have the priapic poet, the stony war reporter, the preposterous nouveau riche, the spiteful spinster – and so her shots present as rather cheap.

The bubble, such as it is, is burst, as in Ali Smith’s more allusive The Accidental, by the arrival of a Mysterious Young Woman, who is here named Kitty. What follows is a moment of biting social commentary in which Kitty cleverly undercuts the poses struck at a hotel she is taken to by the priapic – and now besotted – poet:

“See those oil paintings of noblemen in their palace?”

He looked up at the portraits of what appeared to be solemn pale aristocrats posing on chairs covered in tapestry in chilly marble rooms.

“Yeah, well, my mother cleans their silver and washes their underpants.” [pg. 128]

Quite apart from the ambiguity of whether the chair coverings resemble particularly the kinds of tapestry to be found in chilly marble rooms, or whether that is the location of the aristocrats on their chairs, this is of course a note so honkingly obvious as to sound painfully flat. It’s not the only one: “Kitty Finch’s eyes were grey,” we are told, “like the tinted windows of Mitchell’s hire car, a Mercedes, parked on the gravel at the front of the Villa.” [pg. 8]  HONK! “The blade was cool and sharp,” we read as the priapic poet recalls his youthful self-cutting. “His wrist was warm and soft. They were not supposed to be paired together but it was a teenage game of Snap.” [pg. 21]  HONK HONK! But the worst is yet to come: the stony war reporter, the priapic poet’s distant wife, “had not been posted to cover the genocide in Rwanda. [...] Yet even without witnessing first-hand the terrors of Rwanda, she had gone too far into the unhappiness of the world to start all over again.” [pg. 31]   Oh, woes. This honks very badly.

That is, Swimming Home reads like a novel which wallows in the self-absorption it pretends to satirise. The poet’s name is Joe, but he is no everyman – in fact, his real name is Jozef (only Isabel, the war-reporting wife, calls him this), and he was left in a Polish wood during the Second World War by parents who didn’t make it out of the Holocaust. He has Pain, you understand, and the novel posits that such Pain is inescapable – the policeman who agrees that “it was unfortunate the Germans occupied Poland in 1939 but he had to point out he was now engaged in a murder inquiry in Alpes-Maritimes in 1994″ [pg. 153] misses the point in the way of the lumpen prole: the privileged angst that suffuses this novel and its characters, you see, is Real and Difficult – much like the Holocaust, an event which Levy in this way employs rather than explores. It is the flattest – and worst chosen – of many such notes.

All of which is a feint shame, because the novel is not without some nice moments: in particular, the relationship between parents and daughter is sketched sympathetically, with the dysfunctional relationship of the adults – “he understood it made more sense of her life to be shot at in war zones than lied to him in the safety of her own home” [pg. 64] – at first unintelligible, but then dimly understood, by their pubescent offspring, shaking her understanding of the world. “What’s more,” she thinks, “if her parents were kissing yesterday (the sheets on their unmade bed looked a bit frantic), and if they seemed to understand each other in a way that left her out, the plot was going off track.” [pg. 117]  Kitty’s figurative role in all this (“She was not a poet. She was a poem” [pg. 88]) is dubious: ostensibly, she is a catalyst, possibly contrived by Isabel, designed finally to bring to a head the unspoken tensions in the Jacobs’s family life. But why the heavy symbolism – “they all had a place in the shade except Kitty Finch” [pg. 10] – and why the constant emphasis upon Kitty’s frequent nudity and fondness for the pool, as if Sandro Botticelli can add something to an under-cooked family saga.

In a novel ostensibly about discovery and self-revelation, this over-egged faux sincerity is fatal. Isabel is a mystery to herself (“all she could do to get through the day was to imitate someone she used to be” [pg. 27]); Joe in denial about the nature of his mental health (“I can’t stand THE DEPRESSED” [pg. 93]; and Nina will “never get a grip on when the past begins or where it ends” [pg. 157]. But each of these dilemmas, supposedly cast into relief by Kitty’s equally deluded, ‘naturalised’ self-knowledge, feel confected or superficial, like the Mercedes – all the angst feels in a very real way unearned. It’s hard to see how this slight book, which never overturns or subverts the established tropes it so consciously adopts, is one of the six best novels of the year – let alone the Booker’s ultimate winner.



In an interview with the Edinburgh Festivals published last year, Will Self huffed and puffed: “I hate umbrellas. I’m just the right height to get poked in the eye. I’ve never had an umbrella. Hate them.” It’s impossible not to remember this line, perhaps muttered off the cuff to an ill-prepared journo during an artificial recreation of Self’s famed tramps through the capital (or, dear reader, perhaps not), when reading his new book. In part, this is because it is entitled Umbrella. On the other hand, it’s because Umbrella is a novel that likes to poke the reader in the eye.

Ostensibly the story of Audrey Death, a twenty-something suffragette who at the dawn of the First World War goes to work in a munitions factory whilst her two brothers – the earthy science fiction-reading Stanley, sent to the trenches, and Albert, the eidetic civil servant managing the war from home – undergo two wildly different fates, Umbrella in fact takes place over three time periods: 1917, 1971 (when Audrey is Sacksishly awoken by Self’s recurring psychiatrist, Zack Busner, from an encephalitic sleep, having “borne the brunt of every successive wave of psychiatric opinion” [pg. 120]), and 2010, with Busner looking back on Audrey and the twentieth century with confusion and trepidation. In book blurb, interview and essay alike, Self has helpfully glossed this novel of Death’s century (geddit?) as taking up “the challenge of Modernism”, and the novel is indeed told in the kind of chapterless, paragraphless, tractionless mode invented by James Joyce.

Now, look: if I am not quite of the Dale Peck school of thought on the matter of Ulysses (“it all went wrong with Joyce”), I am certainly not convinced that modernism is the best means of representing consciousness – and certainly sceptical that it is the only way of unravelling “new and unsettling truths about our world”. We have, pace the Booker shortlist’s omission of Nicola Barker’s The Yips, moved on. All of this may mean I am not the ideal reader to assess the success of such a project, but Self is himself no Luddite, and so it is difficult not on one level to understand Umbrella as a kind of joke played on the literati, and upon the reader: “it was always, he thought, the fucking Irish”, Stan muses ruefully [pg. 150].  On the other hand, Joyce is not the only Modernist (even if Umbrella occasionally reads as if he is), and in particular the radical humanity of Woolf still has something to teach the modern novel. Self’s horror at the mechanised anonymity of the 20th century (“how can anything be beautiful or noble or romantic when it’s [all] the same?” [pg. 50] despairs Audrey, later reflecting that “impersonal tenderness and scientific concern” are “how she imagines the future for womankind [pg. 107]) is a potent encomium for the thwarted human spirit:

This, Zack had thought, is the whole of the twentieth century thus far: a white sheet thrown over our heady hopes, our disturbed dreams, our fleshly desires – with no sense of smell we touch only plush skin, rub it in, gargle the mucal ice cream deep in our throats, but without pleasure … This is our crisis of fixed regard: the zeppelin crashes to the cold earth again and again, a cathedral of rumpled buttresses, flaming arches, burning beams. [pg. 321]

But, but, but. The zeppelin, that canvas stretched over arching struts, is the umbrella (that nasty bit of extraneous technology) writ large, and Self has teased that his novel, too, shares this construction: beams of narrative proceeding, spoke-like, out of a central event; but a zeppelin also, of course, resembles the umbrella not at all – and Self’s novel, not coincidentally, reads for the most part as entirely without structure. Take the italics in that paragraph above: Jon Day has made a decent stab in the LRB at divining their purpose, suggesting they represent the characters’ consciousness breaking through the more general narrative voice; but in truth, whether snippets of song lyrics or great spurtings of over-written insistence (all that mucal ice cream), they come almost at random, adding little except texture to the page. There are awful lapses in this book’s prose – “the sun was out, still puissant enough to raise will-o’-the-wisps from the flowery meadows they clopped beside” [pg. 151], and “the caged bird fluttercheeps” [pg. 65] – which simply are not mitigated by a design only hinted at.

Perhaps this is deliberate. At Balham station, Stanley observes a fellow soldier: “Willis is snoring fitfully – he is an engine with no traction on the present, no means of drawing it into the future” [pg. 153]. This mechanical paralysis (evoked, in this interpretation of the novel-as-trick, by the pastiche idiom) is a recurring theme: in her encephalitic sleep, and like all her other fellow patients mistakenly locked away in an insane asylum, Audrey obsessively repeats a motion bewildering to her doctors but clear to the reader as the movements she learned by rote in the munitions factory; “repetitive actions sustained equally repetitive reveries,” we are told [pg. 164], and Umbrella‘s conception of modernity essentially comes to be one of obsessive compulsiveness, endlessly repeating the same mechanical rhythms without significant progress or change (again we come to doubt if Self really believes all this guff about reviving high modernism). Inspired by pulp SF, Stanley promises Audrey that “in twenty years’ time everyone will be an aeronaunt, Colonel Cody will perfect his war kite and there’ll be gazzetted aeroplane connectin’ all the cities of the Empire” [pg. 62] – in fact, of course, we are still waiting for our future. For Self, our fates are more properly set by our past (“a time bomb was primed in the future and planted in the past” [pg. 14]), and by our eternal present  (“Each era … new and old blended … the utterly familiar paintjob slapped on” [pg. 242]).

Self’s justification for this vision, and thus for his Joycean expression of it, however, is slim – in 1918, we glimpse “an advertisement for Germolene so large its letters loop across the end wall of an entire four-storey block” [pg. 59], and in 2010 we experience the realisation that “the post-encephalitics’ akinesia and festination had been the stop/start, the on/off, the 0/1, of a two-step with technology” [pg. 395]. Of course, Self’s novel – full of mid-sentence shifts in time (“he awakens to find himself an old man” [pg. 29]) and orthographic accents to make Thomas Hardy blush (“Or-dree, Or-dree, Ordee’s mammy gorrersel knocked up by a navvy!” [pg. 25]) – has a defense against this scepticism: it accuses the reader of Not Getting It. “Mind, Busner suspects, cannot possibly assimilate all this confusion – repels it in fact.” [pg. 376]   This from a novel so comfortable with cliché – “y’know Corporal,” opines a soldier at the front to Stanley, “that Frenchie and me, we were regulars, we’d seen war but it was war with hard blows and straight dealings – now we both knew, as we looked upon that curtain of fire, that everything had changed” [pg. 227] – that it just comes out and admits it: “simply because they were truisms, it didn’t mean they weren’t … true.” [pg. 396]   Sam Leith, a usually wise counsel, is intimidated enough to argue that Umbrella exhibits “an ambition of technique that I haven’t seen in him before”, but Self is surely just pulling our chain.

Which is fine, so far as it goes: Umbrella is in large part a satire, particularly of psychiatry and psychiatrists, which, like literature itself, offer such insufficient explanations for our modern condition (the post-modern here being banished). “They are possessed, he thinks,” we read of Busner’s diagnosis of the encephalitics, “by ancient subpersonalities, the neural building-blocks of the psyche” [pg. 13]; but this sort of erstaz, textbook Freudianism, “employing vocabulary purged of any upsetting words” [pg. 5], is insufficient to its task. (When Audrey awakes, she is left repeatedly to switch the lights on and off, squawking, “It’s magic! [...] I do honestly believe it to be magic!” Busner sees this as a success. [pg. 300]) In short, banality may be part of Self’s project. But the novel lapses too regularly. Is the slickness of “Albert picks up the tankard from the table where he’d placed it among a slew of his tools: metal rulers, propelling pencils, slide rules, dividers … Audrey thinks: She hasn’t got the measure of him” [pg. 353] really, truly an evocation of modernism? Isn’t the jolly wit of “he wheezes wordy notes – he has swallowed the consumptive’s harmonium” [pg. 65] more Johnson than Joyce? And isn’t the following simply fluff, frankly unable to add meaning or metre to what is a staid old evocation of the English class system?

As it is, while Albert’s coat may be comme il faut for the Second Division – well cut by a tailor in Swallow Street – the cuffs of his trousers are a long way off on the rug, and fraying, something probably seen plainly enough by the grandees who peer down from the library walls with soon-to-be-cashiered eyes. The grandees lean on marmoreal pillars, ignoring open tomes and laughing their Harrovian laughs, A-ho-ho! A-ho-ho! at the upstart. [pg 111]

Really, this is too much: it’s the sort of pseudishness that might attract a Booker panel looking to burnish its high literary credentials, but it is also a great upwelling of verbiage designed to disguise – or, if Self is playing an elaborate joke on us, draw attention to – thin material. In his essay on modernism for the Guardian, Self has derided the contemporary novel, suggesting it is “as fusty as Victorian drawing rooms cluttered with over-stuffed furniture, and glass domes beneath which once-fluttering thoughts had been imprisoned”. He might be right; but retreating into a century-old mode of writing and pretending that style alone can enliven the same old content – the War, the mechanical, class and gender – is no solution, either. If Umbrella is a joke – on the reader, on the literati, on the novel - it is an unfunny and bathetic one; if it is meant as a serious repositioning of literature, it is misconceived. Self was probably right to avoid umbrellas.

Whenever Anna and I are near Kensington High Street, we try to find a moment for the Kyoto Garden in Holland Park. Donated to the borough by that Japanese city in the early 1990s, the space is hardly the most rococo example of its kind – if that busy, showy word can be used to describe the Japanese gardening tradition at all – but it nevertheless attains a harmony and a peace not on offer elsewhere in West London. That is, the garden’s very virtue is explicitly in its separateness, its confection. In Tan Twan Eng’s Booker-shortlisted novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, Aritomo, the Emperor of Japan’s former gardener, intones:  “Every aspect of gardening is a form of deception.” [pg. 150]   It is the sort of gnomic commonplace with which the novel is littered.

The garden is the novel’s guiding metaphor, a place in which harmony is arrived at through conscious manipulation, co-option and transplantation. This is contrasted with the more earthy physicality of the subjects of the ukiyo-e Aritomo also produces – we come to see that gardens are not separated from the baser urges of the Floating World, but part of it, feeding from and into it. (Ukiyo, the Japanese word for the ‘Floating World’ of geishas and tea houses, is pronounced in the same way as the word for ‘Sorrowful World’ of death and rebirth.) The metaphor is piquant not just because Aritomo’s banishment from Japan – we encounter him in the hills of Malaysia during the Communist uprising of the 1950s – is, it is hinted, due to a dark secret; but also because our narrator, the retired judge Teoh Yun Ling, looking back on her time as Aritomo’s apprentice during the Emergency, spent World War II as an inmate of a Japanese labour camp.

The depredations Yun Ling and her sister underwent in that camp have left her with a deep and abiding hatred of the Japanese. “They’d have to hang their emperor,” she snarls at the Boer tea farmer on whose Malay estate she lives following the War, “before I’d ask for help from any of them.” [pg. 50]   It is of no interest to Yun Ling that Japanese gardening was initially “designed to replicate the extensive pleasure gardens of the Chinese” [pg. 90], or that her own sister, who suffers much worse in the camps, can still gasp, “Their gardens are beautiful” [pg. 269]; for Yun Ling, and therefore for the novel she tells, there can be no erasure of the past. “Your apology is meaningless,” she snaps at a Japanese academic she invites upon her retirement to join her in Malaya to research Aritomo’s life. “It’s worth nothing to me.” [pg. 186]

It is in this context that the garden becomes so important to Eng: it is a symbol of the heterodox husbandry Yun Ling desperately needs to undertake on her own soul. The concept of “borrowed scenery”, which Aritomo disputes upon at some length, offers an analogue in the landscape for taking elements from other cultures to strengthen your own: indeed, Aritomo’s ukiyo-e depict not the Floating World but the lush Malay countryside he comes to love. These lessons are important, because it is impossible, of course, to consign to a distant past difficulty and strife: “When the war ended,” Yun Ling sighs of her time in Malaya, “I had hoped I would never have to experience something like that again. But here I was, in the heart of another war.” [pg. 68]   If those sentences suggest a distrust of the mere implicit, then they hint at the novel’s major weakness: its over-neat metaphor spreads into what is stiff and clogged prose.

Reading even the first pages of The Garden of Evening Mists was a bewildering experience for anyone expecting a supple voice from a novel shortlisted by a judging panel whose chair has been championing “exhilarating prose”. “In sleep, these broken floes [of memory] drift towards the morning light of remembrance,” we read [pg. 9]; we see another character fond of awkward plurals “watching my breaths fade away into the garden” [pg. 11]; our attention is drawn to “a colonial structure, erected to outlast empires” [pg. 12], but we are not encouraged to ask which ones precisely; and, finally, we share some empathy with Yun Ling as she bemoans, juddering, “the potholes of my attention” [pg. 14]. These are weird formulations, phrases which stretch on the page even as they over-reach.

At other times, Yun Ling is asked to set out every implication of her self-reflection. “Once I had recovered from my [wartime] injuries, and to convince myself that I was still physically attractive,” she tells us having just gone to bed with someone she’d just met, “I had slept with a number of men. [...] Looking back on that period of time, I wondered if all I had been trying to do was to asset my influence over another person, after having been powerless for so long.” [pg. 108]   This is deadening stuff. Perhaps the reader of this novel has to buy more readily into the mindset of the characters – who can feel, when placed in a natural environment of uncommon beauty, that they are “inside a living, three-dimensional painting” [pg. 189]; perhaps the reader must accept that people really do say things to each other such as, “We’re the only ones left from those withered days. [....] The last two leaves still clinging on the branch, waiting to fall. Waiting for the wind to sweep us into the sky.” [pg. 343]   If so, I am a poor reviewer of such a book.

The novel’s epigraph is taken from Richard Holmes’s A Meander Through Memory and Forgetting, and the novel indeed revolves around remembrance – the tea farmer has a statue in his grounds not just of the Goddess of Memory, but of Forgetting (“I don’t recall there’s a goddess for that,” offers Yun Ling). It also, however, feels very much like a meander: circular, diverting but rather stymied. It is a novel not without strengths – in particular, its conjuration of post-colonial Malaya is atmospheric and mealy – but it is also rather ponderous and oppressive. I might still prefer the open air, and the careful poise, of Holland Park.

The six-page prologue which begins Jeet Thayil’s debut novel, Narcopolis – a disorienting trawl through India’s recent history seen through the bleary prism of the opium pipe – is a single sentence. It makes a lot of this, pretending to something like the form of the smoke exhaled by the first of our ‘I’ narrators – and exhaustively, tortuously, over-complicating the identity of the other.

[...] that I, the I you’re imagining at this moment, a thinking someone who’s writing these words, who’s arranging time in a logical chronological sequence, someone with an overall plan, an engineer-god in the machine, well, that isn’t the I who’s telling this story, that’s the I who’s being told [...] [pg. 1]

Of course, and as the sentence can’t quite leave unsaid, all this means is simply that “the man and the pipe” are both speaking to us simultaneously, or at least that what we read is the product of their conversation. We get more of this: “and if memory = pain = being human, I’m not human, I’m a pipe of O telling this story over the course of a single night”; “I found Bombay and opium, the drug and the city” [pg. 7]. Duality, or more accurately multiplicity – the way in which one thing can also be other things – will become a theme of the novel, and fittingly this weird admixture of obscurant’s filigree and authorial diktat becomes a novel which is both under- and over-cooked.

At first the story of the opium den frequented by our narrator, Dom Ullis, through the medium of the pipe Narcopolis soon stretches much further – indeed, he is absent for most of the novel. The narration comes somehow to encompass the other characters who frequent the establishment: from its proprietor Rashid to the hijra Dimple, the novel spends an awful lot of time imparting the life stories of people with whom Dom Ullis only has the briefest of acquaintances. The entirety of the novel’s second of four ‘books’, for instance, relates the story of Mr Lee, an exile from Mao’s China who first introduces the gelded Dimple to opium. All this pointedly brings into question the veracity of the teller and the telling – fitting for a novel which doesn’t just feature frequent, and prophetic, opium dreams, but is structured like one. What it doesn’t do is add much in the way of direction or weight.

You’ve got to face facts and the fact is life is a joke, a fucking bad joke, or, no, a bad fucking joke. There’s no point taking it seriously because whatever happens, and I mean whatever the fuck, the punch line is the same: you go out horizontally. You see the point? No fucking point. [pg. 22]

Thayil routinely, in this case through the words of Rashid’s bagman, tweaks the nose of critics by routinely not just denying them the conventional satisfactions of the novel, but refuting them entirely. At one point, one of his characters – the shifty Western painter Xaiver – even goes so far as to suggest that “only the rich can afford surprise or irony. The rich crave meaning.” [pg. 39]  Thayil is a poet, and his impressionistic prose does at times seem to imply that Xavier isn’t far wrong: his cast of pimps and dealers, shysters and addicts, are little interested in what their struggles might symbolise, but instead simply pass through pungent environments. On the other hand, Dimple sits at the centre of this duplicitous narrative – neither male nor female, given the secondary name of Zeenat by her employer and lover Rashid, known to walk town in a burqa despite her own lack of faith – and by the end of the novel “garad no longer got her high [...] The thing that gave her pleasure, perhaps the only thing, was reading” [pg. 223]. Dimple acts a kind of chorus for the stories which revolve around her – the ‘businessman’ Rumi and the violence of the underworld, Rashid’s own battle between his devout Islamic faith and the raw commerce of his profit-making – and it is ultimately precisely information that she craves. It is in this movement that Thayil’s prose doesn’t quite convey his – ha – meaning: his characters yearn for something more, but the novel they are in can only paint smoketrails.

Take Thayil’s treatment of his putative subject, India itself: “I challenge you to live here without turning to Grade A narcotics,” snipes Rumi at one point [pg. 214], describing Bombay (the city that both is and is not yet Mumbai) as a kind of guesthouse for a panoply of swindlers and crooks. Indeed, Rumi’s father condemns bribery, that “corrupt model that has brought this country to its knees” [pg. 206], and Thayil’s succeeds in painting the India of the 1970s and 80s in memorably sickly colours: his depiction of the city is partial to say the least, and yet the pain and hopelessness of these addict’s lives seems to lead naturally, even quietly, to the riots of 1992-3. On the other hand (and Narcopolis shares this with one of the longlisted books not to make the final six, Ned Beauman’s rather more exciting The Teleportation Accident), history happens somewhere else in this novel: when we are told that, “Indians don’t care for past, only care for now” [pg. 65], the line feels almost like a pat explanation for a literary approach – aping the dreamy, stasis-like whirl of the khana – which doesn’t seem quite to capture the Indian experience with which Narcopolis announces so loudly it is concerned.

There’s no doubt that all this is deliberate. For Dimple, who would rather not remember the grisly details of the day her mother left her to the knife, “Forgetfulness was a gift, a talent to be nurtured” [pg. 57]. But this represents a kind of abandonment of India, a conjuring of the disenfranchised so much less engaged – and therefore somehow less complex – than Aravind Adiga’s in The White Tiger. When one of Rashid’s employees, Bengali, announces that “syzygy [...] is the reason the world has gone mad” [pg. 145], he is ostensibly referring to astrological superstition; but Thayil is also, presumably, alluding to the oppositions and conjugations of his novel, implying that the postmodern reality in which “anything can happen to anyone at any time” [pg. 117] is the cause of not just his characters’ but India’s pain. The problem is, Narcopolis is ill-equipped to show us enough of these simultaneities, and in sufficient detail, fully to capture itself.

In the final section of the novel, opium gives way to heroin – a drug Rashid has always previously refused to sell – and the novel takes on a harsher tone. There are some nods to global iniquities – the Western slum-tourists, the fact that the characters consume “the unrefined shit they thrown away when they make good-quality maal for junkies in rich countries” [pg. 199] – but primarily narcotics are again used as a kind of unwieldy metaphor for the wider India. “Do you know what will come in our place?” Rashid asks Dom Ullis. “New business, and if you want to do new business you’ll have to pray to the same god as your client.” [pg. 218]   This new India, the one which emerges from garad and the riots and renames the novel’s city, is seen by Thayil as a clinical and phoney sheen – the khana replaced by a call centre – beneath which the kids still take coke and ecstasy in dressed-up clubs. The same old inequities preval. “What are the attractions of paradise for a man like you?” one character snaps at another in the final pages. “You’re not powerless and angry.” [pg. 275]   Again, that strange mix of the wispish and the insistent.

Ultimately, Thayil succeeds in his project to write a novel that curls like smoke from the pipe that tells it. Narcopolis is essentialy the story of his own lost years of addiction, and though it doesn’t seem to me to cut to the quick like Edward St Aubyn’s novelistic memoirs (which I’ve been reading in turn recently), precision is not its aim. That is also, however, its weakness: Narcopolis, with its treacly sentences and mobius-like structure, is tiring to read because it is peculiarly imbalanced, neither quite content to be an evocation of the opium den or quite equipped to be anything else. It’s far from a failure as a novel, but I doubt that makes it a likely winner of the Prize.

In the spirit of equal opportunities, and having poked Christopher Priest’s review of Jack Glass last week, I suppose I should start this post by picking a fight with a review by Adam Roberts. It isn’t easy to find fault with his recent blog post about Sam Thompson’s debut, Booker longlisted novel, Communion Town (it is more accurately a sequence of ten linked short stories), and much of what you’ll read here is eminently sensible; but it’s also a shade more positive than I might be about to make my own review. “Will Thompson win the Booker Prize?” Roberts asks. “Maybe, though not with this novel.” The good Professor resolves that Thompson has promise, but that Communion Town is an immature expression of it. I might correct this view immediately by suggesting that Communion Town seems to me to have rather a looser grip on itself (oo-er) that that position might suggest, except for Nina Allan at Strange Horizons:

these finely wrought stylistic essays are much more than literary jokes. Far from having a laugh at genre’s expense, the stories in Communion Town are more like love letters, declarations of allegiance in which Thompson demonstrates that he is a writer of genuine quality. He brings situations and characters to life with wit and panache, yet the underlying melancholy and uncertainty in these tales mean that they are also replete with a genuine emotion. Thompson’s “ear” for nuance and style is, quite frankly, extraordinary. His considerable linguistic dexterity allows him to pay homage to the styles of past masters even as he critiques them.

My own experience of the book was of its essential thinness, however. How to reconcile these two readings? I’m not sure it’s possible, but allow me at least to illustrate the counter-argument. Communion Town is replete with characters, voices and genres – each of the ten stories features a different combination – and yet it feels weirdly static. It is simultaneously chock-full of the variety Allan praises, and entirely without it. In large part, I think, this is a function of the unearned quality which so much of Thompson’s writing seems to own. Sometimes, this is the result of a resort to cheap effect: the second story, a faintly adolescent romance with added (poorly evoked) songwriting, begins: “The first time we met, she was climbing into a rickshaw” [pg. 29]; barely a few lines later, we learn that it is the narrator’s rickshaw into which the woman in question is climbing, the indefinite article employed not in line with an internal logic of narration, but in order to catch us short when our narrator turns out to be a poor person. At other points, it’s a matter of giving into the temptation of over-simplistic pastiche: in ‘The Significant Case of Lazarus Glass’, Thompson has his Holmesian protagonist say, “It is in any case a nice knot, this business with Lazarus, not without certain points of interest.” [pg. 195]   Quoting is not the same as evoking.

There is also an extent to which the, to use Roberts’s nomenclature, Pratchett-Harrison-Gaiman-Miéville line followed by Thompson  is neither as vividly nor as carefully drawn here as it is in the work of his forebears. The city in which the metro station of Communion Town can be found is not just London – it is also Paris and Istanbul, Rio and Atlantis. It is a hodgepodge, an at times wilfully allegorical place: “You might spend a lifetime in the city and never glimpse one, if you’re lucky,” we learn of the monsters that inhabit the city, “but few of us escape the occassional reminder of their presence.” [pg. 8]   I might have had issues with China Miéville’s concretising of this metaphor-for-homelessness in The City & The City, but it at least had the virtue of courage. For all the glimpses we receive of the geography of Thompson’s city – the student quarter here, the playground of the rich and famous there – there remains something of the ingénue about it: teasing, and ultimately rather vapid. Thompson foregrounds this habitual withholding in his story ‘Outside The Days’ (“Something had been waiting for him in the derelict house. He didn’t want to describe it.” [pg. 236]), but, tellingly, that story ultimately comes across as a lyrical description of water-treading.

Barring the clangs of generic bum notes, in fact, Thompson’s prose is his principle ally. In ‘The City Room’, a story featuring a small boy who builds a model of the urban space in his bedroom, he tidily captures the mindset of its protagaonist in a scene set in a toyshop: “He wanted a goody but he did not know which were which: they looked at one and his grandmother said it must be a goody because the baddy would not have such a sad expression on his face. He agreed. One figure was a girl, the only girl allowed in Captain Maximum’s team. He did not look at her in case his grandmother noticed.” [pg. 88]   Or here, closing the elegiac ‘A Way To Leave': “As the rooms darkened, early evening light came up in the windows and faded from blue to grey, offering a last view of the heath and the rooftops. She took the pocket street atlas from the drawer of the hall table, then changed her mind and put it back. She buttoned her coat, and, after consideration, left a lamp on in the hall.” [pg. 278]

This is elegant, pregnant stuff. But it is also insistent: the goody and baddy palaver, the heavy symbolism of putting a map back in a drawer. In ‘Good Slaughter’, a man who makes his living butchering animals takes up precisely the criminal pastime you might expect. ‘Gallathea’, meanwhile, has what Roberts rightly calls “a slightly clumsily ventriloquized Chandler tone”. It’s all a bit pat, a tiny bit safe. Despite this, few of the stories stand up outside of the supporting novelistic architecture, which is itself rather slim. There is, in other words, a sense of a simultaneous absence and profusion of consideration: on the level of the sentence, too intent on emphasising the purpose, if not the plot, of the story; and on the level of the world, far too little focus on real material weight.

In ‘Three Translations’, a story featuring something like a gap year student which turns out – surprise! – to be about foreignness, the narrator’s visiting friend opines that “she hated this city that made her seem so stupid” [pg. 180]. One wonders if this isn’t what Thompson wants us all to feel, and whether we are meant to conclude that the problem with the visitor is that she finds this experience discomfiting: embrace, we are exhorted, the bewildering unknowability of the city. This isn’t quite what Thompson gives us in practice, however: coyness isn’t the same as mystery. In ‘The Rose Tree’, the narrative revolves around what is imparted when a man on an evening walk meets a strange creature: “It told him a secret. A story about itself, that was what it told him. Later, the details escaped him completely.” [pg. 249]   This is less learning from unknowability, more revelling in it.

Ultimately, the reader experiences Communion Town as a kind of semiotic limbo. Thompson is good at atmosphere, and provoking this feeling may well have been his intent: if so, he is indeed a talented writer as Roberts suggests. But one wonders what kind of a talent this is, and whether Thompson will need (and here perhaps I arrive at last on the same page as Nina Allan) to develop its effect  if he is to make good on its promise.


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