Posts Tagged ‘booker prize’
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!
I 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.
Posted September 26, 2012on:
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.
Posted August 24, 2012on:
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.
During a recent appearance on Desert Island Discs, a breathless Molly Parkin told a story about meeting Louis Armstrong in her early days at Goldsmiths College, London: she was ignorant of jazz, but the crowd she’d fallen in with insisted she join them at one of the trumpeter’s concerts of that year. After the show, which came as a revelation to her, Parkin and the others went backstage, and, as she tells it, Armstrong propositioned her; when she demurred, and revealed she was not just a virgin but had never been kissed, Satchmo took her face in his hands and laid his lips to hers. Two weeks later, Parkin wasn’t a virgin anymore.
Armstrong appears as a secondary character in Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues, but rather than the impish, mercurial, passionate figure revealed in Parkin’s story, here he is re-figured somewhat bloodlessly as an unscrupulous sage: falling in with the group of musicians who will record the fictional jazz great which gives the novel its title, he gives each of them a pep talk about love, live and music – and then flees the Nazi advance without taking any of them, including his road girlfriend Delilah, with him. In this way, his role is less that of a character and more as an embodiment of Edugyan’s conception of music: for a musician, it is both driving purpose and unfaithful lover, both bosom buddy and betrayer.
The narrator of Half Blood Blues is Sid Griffiths, the averagely talented bassist with the Hot-Time Swingers, a popular jazz act in Weimar Germany which is quite literally struggling to survive in the face of Nazification. In the course of the book, the band move between Berlin, Hamburg and Paris, shedding members to coincidence and persecution: their Jewish pianist is betrayed to the Nazis by a rival; an aristocratic German member of the group opts to stay behind in his father’s country pile, having secured exit papers for the others; and Hiero, the band’s youthful and mercurial trumpet player, is arrested in a Paris nightclub after the German army occupy the Swingers’ last redoubt. It is this final loss which is the emotional core of the book: in the decades since 1940, Hieronymous Falk has come to be appreciated as a jazz genius, a trumpeter of uncommon and tragically unrealised talent, and in 1992 the surviving members of the band – Sid and his childhood friend, the now famous drummer Chip Jones – are invited to a Berlin festival devoted to the genius Sid still refers to as ‘the kid’.
Sid, however, is an unreliable narrator – this is clear as soon as the novel starts full of unspoken tensions and difficulties, when we are dumped into the Paris of 1940, and the Swingers are working hard and feverishly, in hiding and behind back-out curtains, on their last ever recording – and there are a number of betrayals which are slowly unwound through the course of the book. Armstrong’s girlfriend, Delilah Brown, is a key figure in these machinations; but so, too, is the ambivalent force of great jazz – the pressure it exerts upon those who play it to push themselves, to prove themselves, to excel and to record that excellence for the ages. Indeed, and somewhat disappointingly, the degradations of the period are here very much in the background: they offer a reason for the Swingers to be running around and under stress, and they offer a peril which forces urgency onto their slow disintegration, but at the same time this is a story, all jealousy, frustration and thwarted egos, which could have taken place in Sid and Chip’s native Baltimore. This more than anything else represents the novel’s real missed opportunity – and failing.
Sid is a light-skinned African-American, able to avoid all but the most suspicious of Nazi glares; yet Hiero, who is in fact German – one of the ‘Rhineland bastards’ born to French colonial troops and local women during the inter-war years – is so dark that in Paris his only alibi is that he is from Senegal; meanwhile, the Swingers’ pianist, though Jewish, is blonde-haired and blue-eyed, capable of convincing camaraderie on long train rides with sneering Gestapo officers. The arbitrariness of race and nationality is thus constantly underlined, and yet to little effect. “So we passed, sure,” admits Sid. “But there was passing, and there was passing. Sometimes it seemed we’d passed right out of our own skins.” [pp. 78-9] Despite sly references here and there, this backdrop never becomes foreground – Edugyan simply relies on the modern reader’s a priori assumption that the persecution is absurd and reprehensible, and therefore assumes no responsibility for analysing and addressing it except as frame for her plot.
Perhaps this is all part of her subtle purpose – yet the foregrounded plot does not speak thematically to its context, either. Sid’s secrets are born of personal and individualised envy, his love and lust for a woman and embittered acceptance of his own musical limitations; we can’t transpose Sid’s small acts of betrayal, or indeed those of Chip or Armstrong, onto the system which has marginalised, and seeks to murder, them. The novel is built around Hiero’s coming of age – when we first meet him, he mimics Sid or sounds like Satchmo, but come the final recording session his music is “the very sound of age, of growing older, of adolescent rage being tempered by a man’s heart.” [pg. 310] That is, this is a book about a coming of age, about moving on. Given the lack of English language work on the Afro-German experience under the Nazis, this seems an odd choice. The reader is struck, for instance, by the young trumpeter’s reaction when he and Sid visit a ‘human zoo’, in which spoils of colonial conquest – chiefs and their tribes – are displayed for public consumption in full regalia: “Hiero ain’t even blinked. There wasn’t no sense of curiosity in that gaze, no sense of shock. Just calm resignation, like when a man gazes at a portrait of himself from another time.” [pg. 171]
That creole voice is present throughout – a potent mix of Baltimore bar slang and German, of jazz scat and self-recrimination. This works better in some places than in others – at times the prose loses its characteristics so completely one wonders if the perspective hasn’t changed; at others it reads more like Uncle Remus than a 1940s jazz musician in Europe. It lacks, then, the remarkable, supple control of deWitt’s work in The Sisters Brothers; likewise, its scope and courage fall well below that of Jamrach’s Menagerie. We are sometimes exposed to cliché - embarassed by rejection, Sid bites the inside of his mouth so hard he can taste the blood, and the femme fatale has a sad secret hidden behind her glamorous exterior – and at others the attempts to précis history as if living it are clumsy: “The Krauts hurtled through Belgium, Holland Luxembourg [...] the British ain’t got a government, [...] some joker named Churchill taken over. Then the Frogs sent their armies north, and the Limeys opened a front against the Krauts. Then it was the Krauts leading parachutists in behind our lines. Hell.” [pg. 279]
There’s no denying that Edugyan can conjure the atmosphere of a 1930s jazz bar, or the weird liminality of a city under siege, with economy and great effect. She is good, too, at male banter and the condition of the musician. But she is also occasionally cavalier, and hesitant to push her story and her characters further than might be polite. It’s hard not to conclude that Half Blood Blues might not be a better book had its two halves – the recriminations of a jazz band, the persecutions of Africans in Nazi Germany – been separated. As it is, this is a readable, elegant and at times moving book (its epilogue, in particular, makes great use of the emotional power of the novel’s premise); but it isn’t all it could – and arguably should – have been.
Posted September 6, 2011on:
Jamrach’s Menagerie is a Janus-faced novel. It features, in its lengthy middle section, some of the most controlled, sustained, and effective, affective writing I have read all year. It also features, in the frame sections which book-end it, the sort of cod-Victoriana I’d immediately reject as immature in a genre novel. In part, this is a function of Carol Birch’s decision to forego any real narrative pivot – the book passes through the experience of its narrator without quite making a story of it – but it’s also an indication of where her passion lies. The book-end sections exist mostly to explain and explicate the perilous sea voyage at the book’s heart.
Jaffy Brown is an eight-year-old East Ender running errands for his neighbours in Victorian London when he is set upon by a tiger, freshly escaped from the private zoo of the novel’s title. Charles Jamrach, the proprietor of an emporium for wild animals and other exotica, is an historical figure, perhaps most famed for providing armadillo to the artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti; in Birch’s novel he acts as a sort of ring-master, bringing together the troupe and setting them to their performance, in this case a circumnavigation of the world with the aim of capturing what one assumes is a komodo dragon for one of his richer, more eccentric, clients.
In employing Jaffy, and in dispatching him and another young boy, Jaff’s friend and rival, Tim Linver, to the far flung corners of the globe, Jamrach embodies and enacts the novel’s key tension, between nature and commerce. In the Financial Times, Matthew Sweet suggests that Jamrach’s Menagerie is not a novel of ideas, and in this he has the kernel of a point – it is a book always most interested in evoking emotion and experience, rather than offering analysis; this is an adventure story, all songs, scrapes and derring-do. But Sweet is also a little unfair, since Birch also populates her work with a number of doublings – Jaffy and Tim, the tiger and the dragon, man and animal – which combine to ask questions about boundaries and circumstance. When in the jungle of a distant island hunting reptilian beasts, Jaffy is repulsed and horrified by their cannibalistic behaviour, the brute business of survival (in London, even the poor can survive on their wits, and on trade); when the ship on which he sails is wrecked, and Jaffy is cast away in a whaling boat for two months, he begins to see that man is not so different – that what seems in Jamrach’s study to be the civilised stuff of commerce is in truth merely a rarefied form of brute survival (both Jaff and Jamrach read Darwin).
That whaling boat. It is in the long stretch of pages in which Jaff and his fellow survivors bob around on an endless ocean, low on supplies and fortitude, that Jamrach’s Menagerie earns its keep. There are fantastic setpieces before it – the hunt of the dragon, and the killing of a whale (recalling Moby Dick, another disjointed novel inspired by a shipwreck) – but in her unblinking, unrelenting, unsentimental depiction of a small number of desperate men (there are two boats at first, sailing side by side), dying one by one, abandoning luxuried principles one by one, Birch undertakes a quite remarkable feat of novelistic art. For a hundred pages, we are adrift with her survivors, feel the almost interminable distance between them and salvation, but also never quite want to let go, never truly wish to leave them; each time we turn a page, and cannot quite believe that land is still not in sight. It is a sustained passage of quite remarkable bravery and skill – and earns the novel its spot on the Booker shortlist, whatever quibbles one might have with the novel’s less compelling parts.
“I’d been nearer to wild animals thousands of times,” Jaff remarks whilst hunting the dragon, “but here there were no barriers. This was real fierce beasts in the wild and nothing between me and them.” [pg. 157] This is more true than the boy knows at this point in the narrative, and though he will later be unable to think of the captive reptile as a dragon – not cowed and caged, deferential and cared-for – he will also learn the wildness that lies in mens’ hearts and beyond the confines of the artificial separation they have made between themselves and Nature. The most beautiful thing he sees in the course of the novel – in the course of his life – are the whirlpools which destroy his ship: “The three stood swaying, sinuous, spinning gloriously on our lee” [pg. 197]; Dan Rymer, Jamrach’s point-man and veteran sailor, tells Jaff that “when you’re killing a whale … you feel like you are the whale” [pg. 123]; and it is also “true there are bad spots, sounds of crying above the waves, wild winds yelling with the voices of drowned souls.” [pg. 248] In the course of the novel, the place of man and animal shifts constantly between beauty, brutality, and the symbiotic, as if the centre can never quite hold. Perhaps this accounts for the unwieldiness of some of its sections and of the novel’s structure. But out there, further into the novel, further away from its cloying, clogged opening and closing chapters, lies the open, unforgiving, sickly exhilarating sea.
For all its borrowings, meanderings and extraneities, this is a remarkable novel – and a contender for the prize.