“It’s All Just Ink-Blots”: Tom McCarthy’s “Satin Island”

imageTom McCarthy’s Satin Island was the only novel on the 2015 Booker shortlist that I had already read. When I try to recall it, recpature the experience of reading the thing in order to write a post hoc review of it, what I come back with primarily is blankness. This is no doubt inspired in part by the glooping blackness of the cover art, and also by the empty post-it notes which are evoked in its endpapers; but it’s also, I think, more or less the effect McCarthy was after: a literary lacuna, a mordant glance askance at our superficialised milieu.

Here’s what I noted down about it in my reading diary (this entry of which is preserved in our What We Like Section on this very blog):

This is not C: it is not freewheeling and compendious, or expansive and confusing. A satire of late capitalism, Satin Island is the story of an anthropologist working as a researcher for a variety of consumerist brands, and he is open from the first about his bull-shitting trade; as the novel proceeds, however, even those ideas and thoughts he believes to have substance are revealed to have little purchase on significance. Almost everyone in the novel, regardless of their employer, is at work on the same Big Data-ish project, though none understand it; almost everyone searches for meaning and then doesn’t find it; and the novel ends, Gatsby-like, with a character letting a boat flow ever onwards … not into an ineffably recursive future, but a dirty harbour. Did we need Satin Island to know that late capitalism is a morass of self-negating contradictions? I’m not sure.

I’m not sure I need to add much to that, to be honest. Satin Island is far greater than its slim girth might suggest – it feels like an important novel in McCarthy’s pantheon,unlike, say, David Mitchell’s recent placeholder between projects. But by the same token it in some ways feels like a novel McCarthy would of course write, rather than one which surprises or startles. His earlier novel, C, was also nominated for the Booker but, in its twisting of the bildungsroman form into new shapes, or its frankly eccentric diction, it felt like a novel busting out o jail. Satin Island, meanwhile, draws a faithful scale drawing of the prison.

In the course of the novel, the narrator speaks directly to us at length about his life, and yet we are left more or less mystified as to its contexts. We follow him through episodes or even over-arching quests – interviews whi his gnomic boss, the ideas man Peyman (based, apparently, on McCarthy’s real-life friend and sparring partner, the Serpentine’s emperor of the contemporary, Hans-Ulrich Obrist), or visits to a colleague with cancer, or his continuing attempts to write something he calls the Great Report (a task for which he is supposedly employed by the corporation, but which never comes close to being begun, much less completed). These remain in weird ways like marooned components of an unfinished collage, however – floating between each other like underwear on a sparsely-populated washing line, identifiable but absurd.

The Great Report, of course, is both signifier and metaphor for this novelistic approach: like the Koob-Sassen Project, the great Big Data mission on which everyone the narrator encounters is working, it is ineffable and yet all-encompassing, both total and invisible. It is utterly pointless and worthy only of abandonment, and yet life without it would lack purpose of any kind. “The truly terrifying thought,” the narrator muses at one point, “wasn’t that the Great Report might be unwritable, but – quite the opposite – that it had already been written” (p. 123). That is, that it is in some way not being done by the narrator but being done to him, the system grown out of control.

On the very first page of the novel, we’re told that “people need foundation myths,” and if anything Satin Island is interested in being anti-origin story, a recursive feedback loop without any of the consolations or comforts of repetition. “There were scores of wakes,” the narrator observes of that dirty harbour at the novel’s end, “crossing each other in irregular and tangled patterns” (p. 171).  At another juncture, he imagines himself in the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a man puttering down an endless hall, artefacts just as priceless as the one he is currently carrying stretching off to infinity. In this way, the narrator – like us all – is trapped within a self-replicating system of such bewildering fecundity that to cultivate any part of it is to allow a dozen others to grow wild. The Koob-Sassen Project – unknowable, unfinishable – is winning.

The thing is, I knew that Tom McCarthy – and most everyone else – though that about post-modernity, and Satin Island doesn’t add a great deal to ‘what next’ (even if ‘what next’ is a scenario straight out of a Charlie Stross novel, which it may well be).  Perhaps ‘what next’ is another way of saying ‘so what’; perhaps requiring a next or a what is just my urge for a foundation myth whispering; either way, I think Satin Island gets its contrarian way with me. But what’s next?

“The Dead Never Stop Talking”: Marlon James’s “A Brief History of Seven Killings”

abhoskLife beyond this blog – that insistent, inconvenient thing – has been so full of late that I have failed, this year, to read the Man Booker shortlist prior to the announcement of the prize’s winner. In fact, I’ve failed yet to read the whole shortlist full stop. But this won’t, you will expect, prevent me from pronouncing upon it.

In no small part my keenness still to pontificate is based on the day on which I began the shortlist – two before the glittering shindig where the winner is crowned – and the book I chose to start with – Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, which was, of course, the eventual winner. What this tells me is that there’s no reason to read the shortlist at all, if your game is picking the winner – just sit on the sidelines, vaguely pick up on the background mood music, and you’ll be about right.

This may or may not be fair on James, even if it more or less nails the Booker. I picked his novel as my belated opening Booker gambit because I lacked the pressure to read the lot and lacked the time to spend on so-so novels; I’d heard good things about A Brief History, appreciated the jacket art and copy, and thought I’d give it a go. This seems the way we should always pick books to read, right?

Still, back to the horserace (because that’s what matters, natch). When I started the James, I immediately wondered how any other book on the list might manage to compete: the story of a number of character orbiting around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976 Kingston, the novel has such a range of voices, so well-conceived and -executed, and such a pace and sense of energy, that I found myself excited to wonder what the rest of a competitive shortlist might be like.

Of course, before I’d even finished the book it had been announced the winner and I inevitably wondered whether I should bother with the other five at all – at least in part because the middle third of James’s novel is a good deal baggier and less taut than its opening section. This was not, that is, the perfect winner … so, given it still could not stand up to the in-the-event slightly less impressive competition, was the rest of the shortlist up to much?

On deeper reflection, this is certainly unfair on James. That opening third – which introduces a range of characters, from youths on the lowest rung of the gangs which rule Kingston’s various subdivisions to American rock journalists, and conflicted daughters of good, light-skinned, middle-class Jamaican families – really is worth the price of admission alone. James sketches a bewilderingly complex culture and society in which each side seems to be playing all the others (the dimmest character in the book, and the most straight-forward, may not coincidentally be the CIA’s operative in Kingston, Barry DiFlorio); politics shade into organised crime, organised crime into Cold War espionage. Christopher Tayler in the LRB is good on how closely this all cleaves to the reality (in short: pretty).

But in many ways the question of James’s accuracy is the least interesting thing about his novel. Like James Ellroy, who is an impossible comparison to avoid here, James is sneaking his fictions between the cracks of official history; unlike his American counterpart, he eschews real-life names and settings (only Marley is referred to by the name he had in our own world, and even he is largely known throughout as ‘the singer’): the novel’s gangsters, its towns and its reporters, all have new sobriquets. If the background figures – presidents and prime ministers – remain the same, everything else changes. I wonder about this: is there some cowardice here, in dressing up a more or less real-life event in names to protect the decidedly not innocent? What fictive game is James playing?

In part, he’s playing a game of truth or consequences, and the unreal names allow him to posit his own poetic justices for the historical acts he fictionalises: the internal lives of all these men and women are conflicted and shot through with not a little philosophising; the fake names in this way operate as dramatic masks to place over the verifiable historical truth. This is where the novel starts to creak, though: the first third, which sticks closest, except in its interior speculations, to what we know about the history it recounts, bleeds into a rather awkward second section, which strains in every way to pivot the novel to its final furlong, in which chickens come home to roost for all of the characters, transplanted now to the USA and New York’s grim 1980s. James has a beginning and he has an end (his truth and his consequences); at times it feels like he lacks a middle. This is a problem, of course, because the middle is where a book lives.

I don’t often do this sort of thing in a review, but let’s compared and contrast at length:

We see and wait. Two men bring guns to the ghetto. One man show me how to use it. But ghetto people used to kill each other long before that. With anything we could find: stick, machete, knife, ice pick, soda bottle. Kill for food. Kill for money. Sometimes a man get kill because he look at another man in a way he didn’t like. And killing don’t need no reason This is ghetto. Reason is for rich people. We have madness. (p. 9)

Is lie you tell me. Two Friends night club never deh ’bout in 1977? It didn’t open ’till ’79? Then is which club me run into Rawhide, Turntable? No star, me can’t imagine it being Turntable, boy, even the Prime Minister used to go there so. People from the good side of life mingling with middle-class people to feel like them connect to some culture, you know how it go. (p. 471)

Shit just blew up in Iran. Well, it blew up back in January, but fallout’s just reaching us now. Shit is blowing up all over the world. Chaos and disorder, disorder and chaos, I say them over and over like they have anything to do with each other, Sodom and Gomorrah, Gomorrah and Sodom. […] Jesus Christ, I think I’ve caught some Nixon fever. (p. 314)

The last of those three passages is from the troubled middle, and I think you can tell: it is more focused on exposition, on bridging gaps; it is admittedly written in the voice of one of James’s American characters, Barry DiFlorio, but even its rhythm and diction seem less natural and conversational than the first two. Where in the opening passage the accidental gang-member Bam-Bam offers a pungent-but-nuanced vision of life in the ghetto, and in the second an incarcerated former crim pokes the sort of metafictional holes with which James delights in peppering the whole novel, in the workaday central section the novel works hard. Were other parts of the novel not so very bloody good, you wouldn’t notice; as it is, the struggling second movement (“Doctor Love just fly to Miami saying he has a president to get elected” [p. 399]) tends to emphasise that A Brief History of Seven Killings hasn’t quite the iron-clad solidity of an Ellroy (not necessarily a bad thing given how thoroughly that author can be distracting by unity, but a thing all the same): it has a great setting, and some potent denouements (“I’m on the stool and I’m a fucking man, I want to say I’m a fucking man and you can’t treat people like this … but … my brief gets wet and yellow” [p. 656]); but it doesn’t always seem quite sure how to shape its material.

In one of the novel’s most compelling characters, however, there is a line of sight. Nina Burgess begins as the well-behaved daughter of a middle-class Jamaican family, resentful of her “rasta” sister and secretly pining after her one-night stand with the singer. Events conspire to force her into name changes and wide travels, but as she swaps locales and identities she comes, in her many-faced degradations, to stand for a range of roles and individuals in a way few of the other characters, locked in their self-definitions, can. At one point, she realises she “could kill anybody, even a child” (p. 284), and in many ways she in this moment resolves the theme of the novel: that murder is not uncommon or unusual, but endemic and central to the systems that govern – secretly and less so – our societies. The white man with a family at home who abandons her when his secondment to the Caribbean is over, the abusive father who casts her out of the respectable family home, the unthinking New York upper classes who pay her a pittance to care for their families: all of these are four, five, six or seven degrees of separation down the chain contributing to the quality of life of a Bam-Bam (buried alive), a Josey Wales (burned to death) or a Tony Pavarotti (stabbed in the neck by a panicked journalist). And the novel forces its readers not just to understand but to feel that.

That still leaves me wondering about the pseudonyms and about the structure; but the clarity of this novel is in its tone and voices, its pretty astounding ventriloquism. If having read it I might be able to see how there was room for any debate at all around the Booker judges’ table, I remain impressed that they chose it as the winner: tough and uncompromising, it may be imperfect – but it’s never less than vital, relevant and passionate.

“These Queer Enthusiasms”: Sarah Waters’s “The Paying Guests”

51sqHh5h3PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_It is a Very Good Thing that Ali Smith last night won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction: here is a British writer interested in serious innovation of form – something not always associated with the prose writers of these isles. That she does so demotically and entertainingly only makes her win all the more deserved. Smith re-energises the novel without making it inaccessible.

There is, of course, a pejorative usage of “accessible”: “a good read” is so often a euphemism for “a bit slight”. The only novel on the prize shortlist I’ve not yet read is Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, but others have already written “defences” of her more traditional style: “the question of whether Tyler’s work errs too heavily on the side of consolation has lingered, despite (or because of) her immense and loyal readership and high-profile fans such as Nick Hornby and John Updike.” In this context, it is interesting that the another of the shortlist’s more traditionalist authors, Sarah Waters, is conversely so widely fêted that the idea anyone might need to speak up on her behalf is absurd.

“Absolutely brilliant,” wrote Jacqueline Wilson of Waters’s novel, The Paying Guests. “Read it, Flaubert, Zola, and weep,” applauds Charlotte Mendelson. “A joy in every respect,” intones Lionel Shriver. And yet Waters writes old-fashioned novels in many ways, with beginnings and ends and gripping plots, which read quickly despite their often vaguely Victorian girth. The Paying Guests is set in 1922, precisely because, Waters has said, her previous novels have focused on squarely on either the nineteenth century or the 1940s. That is, Waters is a British writer producing novels in a third person limited voice and set in eras not entirely under-served in British culture.

So why is she, too, not tarred with the “accessible” brush? In large part, it’s because Waters’s project is far more subversive than her chosen form makes it appear (and this is part of the project): she queers these classic ages of British history, burrowing under her copious research to imagine the stories of marginalised groups, most particularly lesbian women. Even her novel The Little Stranger, which doesn’t feature an actual lesbian couple at all, is a novel about repression: its first-person narrator hides much from the reader, whilst Caroline, the young woman of the crumbling manor house with whom (which which?) he falls in love, is heavily implied to be closeted. That is, Waters writes terrific yarns which present familiar contexts in familar ways – and then peoples those settings with feelings, perspectives and experiences which are under-represented in the record and in fiction.

The Paying Guests, then, is told from the third-person-limited perspective of Frances, a twenty-five year-old woman eking out the disappointed, disappointing years following World War I in the suburban villa she shares with her mother. They are, like the rather grander country gentry of The Little Stranger thirty years later, struggling for money: her father dead, and economics changing, Frances persuades her mother to take in lodgers in order to supplement their meagre income. The couple who answer the advert, the Barbers, are from Peckham and Walworth rather than Champion Hill: vulgar and jejune to Frances and her mother’s eyes, they fill Mr Wray’s old room with dinky little Buddha statues, and share a little too much of themselves for the landladies, who tuck the weekly rent into their pockets “in a negligent sort of way – as if anyone […] could possibly be deceived into thinking that the money was a mere formality.” [p. 11]

Class and deceit come to be the guiding stars of the novel: throughout, Waters paints in understated but terrifically evocative ways the careful gradations of class struggling to reassert themselves in an England disrupted by war. Men resent the women who have taken their jobs; a clerk like Mr Barber looks down on mere manual workers, amongst whose numbers he would once have certainly sat; Mrs Barber’s clothes are a little too flighty; Mrs Wray’s friend from over the road clearly imagines herself one step above poor old struggling Frances. All of this is more or less unspoken, however, and the manner in which no one quite says what they mean comes to power not just the social whirl – from Walworth dances to Champion Hill soirées – which Waters depicts beautifully, but the scurrilous plot that bubbles underneath the surface.

That plot only really takes full hold of the novel in its final third, and yet the reader never feels played with. In part, this is down to, yes, readability: Waters writes so well that 600 pages simply speeds by. It’s also, however, because she peels back the novel’s layers at precisely the right pace. When we first meet Frances, she seems much older than she is, not a little stuck up and certainly rather grey. As we slowly learn that, during the war, she was a violent suffragette and had a romantic relationship with a fellow suburban bohemian, Christine, we are at first surprised; as her sexual repression becomes evident in her uncomfortable responses to Mr Barber’s proximity, we first think the novel might move one way; when her passion for Christine, and her misplaced fear of her mother become clear (when her new lady lodger cuts and crimps her hair in a contemporary style, Frances is shocked that her mother finds it smart), we are quickly plunged into a slow but compelling blossoming of a relationship with Lillian Barber herself.

Lillian is a good example of the novel’s strength in depth: she is in many ways unknowable. Apparently kind and straightforward, throughout the novel we with Frances worry that she may in fact not be all that she seems – that she may be manipulative or foolish, impetuous or selfish. Frances must learn to trust Lillian, as we must – as everyone who wishes to love must – and this process gives the novel a great deal of its shape prior to its final-third crisis. If anything, I rather preferred the involvingly plotless parts of the novel more: everything happens, and is then wrapped up, rather quickly, and the novel takes on the feeling of the 1920s melodramas which first inspired it. At one point, for example, the lawyer for a wrongly accused defendant announces to the court in which we know the true culprit sits, “the person or persons […] must certainly be looking at these proceedings with very mixed feelings indeed.” [p. 581]  Oh, the tension of irony!

What unites all this is a study of the effects of lies. “The rest of us become narrow and mean when we live falsely,” sighs Frances [p. 302], having spent years denying herself – indeed, hiding even the fact that she has maintained a loose friendship with Christine. Frances goes back and forth between having the courage of this conviction and fearing its logical conclusion, and this terribly human inconsistency is, like everything else in this humane and careful novel, delicately depicted. She and Lillian endlessly debate who is braver, but in point of fact they are brave in different ways: Frances can imagine different ways of living, and Lillian, who lacks that capacity for the bigger picture, nevertheless often takes the action which make them possible. What develops between them, then, is a thoroughly believable – because riven with tension – love affair.

Ultimately, superb characterisation of this sort is a laudably old-fashioned virtue for a novel to exhibit. The Paying Guests is rather unfashionable in this respect: compared with Outline it is fervently traditionalist. That, as I was reading the novel, I could see an argument for it pipping How To Be Both to the Baileys post, says many things – as does the universal acclaim for Waters’s skills as a writer and a storyteller. Hers are novels of huge warmth and heart, but also skill and cunning. Smith’s victory is excellent news for the health of the British novel – but that’s because Smith understands, like Waters (who will surely have her year), that accessibility isn’t a dirty word. Read The Paying Guests, and then read it again … and again.

“Blindly Following The Lead of Others”: Kamila Shamsie’s “A God In Every Stone”

agodineverystoneWhere all three of the Baileys Prize shortlistees I’ve so far read have opted for depth in one way or another, Kamila Shamsie opts in A God in Every Stone for breadth: this story opens at the dawn of the First World War and continues across Turkey, France, England and colonial India, only ending in 1930 (and with an epistolary epilogue written from 1947). All this leads to some reliance on the readers’ received knowledge of a given period – British women of the Great War got jobs they hadn’t before been permitted when all the men went away, Edwardian men felt excited by the glimpse of a female ankle, the British Empire was a bit racist – which at times feel like gestures at detail rather than the real stuff of these characters’ lives. “‘MORE ARMENIAN HORRORS,'” reads one character in 1915 at one of the novel’s particularly heavy moments of eye-rolling irony. “Surely the propaganda department was overplaying its hand?” [p. 116]

In the summer of 1914, Viv Spencer, the headstrong 23-year-old only child of a British chap thoroughly of the nineteenth century, joins her father’s old friend Tahsin Bey on an archaeological dig in Turkey (the ambitious Spencer patriarch wishes for her to be “son and daughter both – female in manners but male in intellect” [p. 13]). When the war begins, she is quickly whisked away from Ottoman territory, carried to English travellers by her new German friends (“The Germans said they shouldn’t be with her when the English couple arrived, it would only create discomfort” [pg. 29]) – but not before Bey, with whom she is falling in love, reveals himself to be an Armenian patriot. Back in England, the naïve Viv lets slip this information to impress a young intelligence officer. Two years later, whilst on a dig in Peshawar, she learns that just days after the German interception a British wire containing his secret, Bey was shot dead in Turkey.

Betrayal, then, is a key theme of the novel, and is mirrored in the journey of its other protagonist, the Pashtun Muslim, Qayyum Gul. We first meet Qayyum as a soldier in the 40th Pathans, in which capacity he quickly loses an eye at Ypres. Back in Peshawar, his younger brother Najeeb misses the train on which Qayyum returns home from his Brighton military hospital, but does meet up with Viv, who has unbeknownst to them all shared a carriage (scandalously) with Qayyum on the train from Kabul. Najeeb consequently becomes a lover of European culture; Qayyum falls in with Ghaffar Khan. “Everyone, even Najeeb, assumed Qayyum’s stand against Empire stemmed from Vipers […] But he had never felt closer to the English than on that day. […] It was later, at Brighton, that the questions began. It was because of the nurses.” [p. 293]  That is, his shabby treatment in England had betrayed his sacrifice to the British Empire, which he in turn betrayed with Khan; and Najeeb betrays that emergent Indian identity by wearing a frock coat at the Peshawar Museum.

Again, then, we arrive at breadth. The novel foregrounds this sweeping aspect of its narrative by imposing a Classical frame around the interlocking stories of betrayal: it begins with a prologue set in 515BC, when the Persian strongman Darius sends his trusted Greek friend and adviser, Scylax of Caria, on an exploratory expedition beyond the bounds of his empire to Caspatyrus (modern-day Peshawar), from which distance Scylax begins to write great anti-imperial tracts. The circlet that Scylax was granted by Darius before his departure to Caspatyrus is the archaeological artefact which powers first Tahsin Bey’s excavations, then Vivian’s, and then Najeeb’s: it becomes a symbol not of betrayal but of potential redemption. What comes to matter most to each of them is not the imperial bonds between Darius and Scylax, which the latter broke in supporting his people’s revolt against the Persians, but in their personal friendship – and in the individual bonds which link people to those around them rather than to distant powers, such as those between Scylax and Heraclides, the Carian hero whose history the former wrote: “Continents are cut up this way, and that way,” Najeeb imagines Scylax telling Darius’s widow. “Islands extend themselves across seas and mountains. What is any of that when compared to Heraclides?”[p. 386]

Perhaps inevitably, not all of this comes quite to line up in the course of just 350-odd pages – Shamsie has taken on just a little too much. How do the biological brothers, Qayyum and Najeeb, map onto Darius and Scylax? How does the feintly inappropriate burgeoning relationship between Tashin Bey and Viv relate to the frowned-upon yet somehow more wholesome love between Najeeb and a girl originally promised to another man? Shamsie is interested in how layers of history fall one upon the other to create a texture which surrounds and perhaps defines us despite ourselves – “I know the stories of men from twenty-five hundred years ago,” Najeeb sighs, “but I’ll never know what happens to you [today]” [pg. 160] – and so exact parallels aren’t necessary. But in the competing architectural styles of Peshawar, or the city’s urban myths featuring real historical figures – “children were still threatened into good behaviour with warnings [of] the terrible [Maharajan Italian mercenary Paolo Avitabile, or] Abu Tabela” [p. 183] – Shamsie conjures with history without producing the trick. Perhaps the novel is ultimately about throwing off history – “To you history is something to be made,” Najeeb says to his brother, “not studied” [p. 228] – but if so it spends rather a lot of time in the past.

Within these broad and slightly sketchy bounds, however, Shamsie alights upon a range of the competing power dynamics of colonial Peshawar to some good effect. In the relationship between men and women, and English and Indian, in particular she shows how segregation and delineation serve to preserve and empower existing privileges and elites. Perhaps most memorably, Viv reflects on a peculiarly Anglo-Indian example:

Memsahib. […] In this country filled with titles and honorifics nothing pre-existing had suited Englishwomen; while the ubiquitous ‘sahib’ came to rest comfortably on the shoulders of Englishmen, something other than ‘begum-sahib’ had to be devised for their female counterparts. As if to say that Englishmen and Indian men, for all their differences, could still be described in the same language but the women of the two races were so far apart that they had to be categorised separately, kept separate. [p. 300]

A God in Every Stone is at its most perceptive in moments like this. History again plays a part here, as a story told by whichever party wishes to control another: “Of all the fantastic tales you’ve ever told,” Qayyum writes to Najeeb, “none is more fantastic than that of the kindly English who dig up our treasures because they want you tk know your own history. Your Museums are all part of their Civilising Mission, their White Man’s Burden, their moral justification for what they have done here.” [p. 232] Najeeb never comes quite to agree, but by the same token comes to be the novel’s balancing figure, the one the reader assumes embodies its core message: he ends the novel both as as “campaigner for freedom from Empire for the people of India and Britain”, and, despite his mother’s intitial refusal to allow him to study “this English word, this ‘Classics'” [p. 168], also Viv’s archaeological assistant. That may be an over-neat resolution for a tightly-plotted, immensely readable, but thematically baggy novel; but perhaps indeed all fruitful new relationships involve just a little betrayal of the past.


“In Flight From Her Own Desires”: Laline Paull’s “The Bees”

 I struggle now to remember how, but in my first years of high school I discovered Duncton Wood. I knew of Watership Down only through the cartoon movie of the novel, and the allegorical elements of this first in what would become William Horwood’s six-volume mole series similarly passed me by. I read it, then, as a standalone tale, and I remember being very fond of it: whatever I might make of it now (and I have never re-read it), at the time I was thrilled, surprised, enlightened and immersed. As I proceeded to the sequel novels, however, I became less and less engaged. As Horwood went on, his allegories became ever more obvious, and the mole society increasingly baroque; at he same time, the structure of the story grew slacker and slacker, more and more expending energy upon exposition and scene-setting. I became sceptical.

Perhaps none of this was a characteristic of the real progress of the series; perhaps I was simply developing as a reader as I made my way through the novels. I suggest this now because, as I read Laline Paull’s The Bees I saw many of the flaws I came to see in Horwood. Its place on the Baileys Women’s Prize shortlist is surely down to its remarkable feats of imagination: like Duncton Wood, The Bees conjures an entirely alien civilisation for its chosen species, complete with social strata, religious belief, political division and personal conflicts. That bees are significantly harder than cute little moles to anthropomorphise, and thus to encourage sympathy for them in the reader, makes Paull’s achievement all the greater.

But I’m still left asking a question: what are animal fantasies for? From Aesop’s Fables to Animal Farm, that whiff of allegory is never far from the bouquet of the mode. Predictably, then, in The Bees we experience a fantasy of societal collapse: the hive is in danger, crumbling as a result of environmental pressures beyond the bees’ control. This is grafted onto specific real-world danger, however: these bees are absolutely a part of our own world (an extremely slight frame story features humans), and the decline of bee populations so worried at in recent years is affecting Paull’s particular colony, too (indeed, she offers some of her own explanations for them). This means that the bees in this novel are real bees – victims of events we can identify, resident in our own world – but also a sort of abstraction – human in their confused, doomed attempts to adapt to the natural changes around them.

So what are animal fantasies for? Do they help us understand the other better, or do they help us understand ourselves? Paull might want us to leave her novel believing it can be both – and certainly The Bees attempts to prove its case – but its dual purpose also leads to an uncertainty which can trouble the reader as she makes her way through the novel.

Paull’s protagonist is Flora 717 – all bees are of a particular kin-type (Flora, Sage, Lily) and assigned a number within their clan. Those clans have very strict roles, and Flora is a member of the lowest order, tasked with cleaning the hive. She is also large and exceptionally ugly, and yet despite these impediments she is, upon birth, rapidly saved from immediate execution for abnormalities – the bee society is brutal and violent – by a high priestess of the bee religion, which revolves around worship, of course, of the Queen. Though the Queen, the bees’ faith, and the priestesses become key to the novel’s plot in its second half, Paull never really makes clear if this initial rescue is part of that later narrative. Indeed, the novels’ first and second halves feel quite separate: one focuses on world-building, often dilatory and even when rather beautiful always a little episodic; the second quickly develops into a sort of political thriller.

Nevertheless, saved Flora is and swiftly are we introduced to the novel’s themes: “knowledge only causes pain” [p. 10]; “variation is not the same as deformity” [p. 16]; “that is the seed of it: you wanted” [p. 25]. This is a novel about the interaction between community and individual. It’s also a dystopia: the hive is hell-bent on the collective good, and in its pursuit commits all manner of atrocity against members of the hive. Only foragers – those bees sent out to seek pollen, and who upon their return ‘dance’ the story of what they have experienced to a hive hungry for shared knowledge – are allowed, “in the Air, […] to think for yourselves” [p. 193]. All but the Queen, then, are denied the right to reproduce (though Flora does, in secret, with significant consequences). Bees seen to have pursued their own wants are executed immediately and brutally. And, as we see in one of the most memorable scenes of joyous misandry I may have ever read, each year the male bees produced to leave the hive and found new colonies are, upon their occassionally failed return, massacred by the majority-female hive in an orgy of  sexualised blood-lust (“She ripped his abdomen open down to his genitals, then tore out his penis and ate it” [p. 213).

That is, The Bees is full of evocative and striking writing. It is with this prose that Paull absolutely wins, despite their thorough other-ness, our sympathy for Flora and the other bees – for example, Sir Linden, one of the puffed-up and preening males whom is first worshipped and then turned on by the hive. As the plot picks up pace, the time we have spent learning the bees’ world pays off in our rooting for them. There is a Name of the Rose-ish awakening at work: “She tried to remember which scripture ordained the Sage the power of life and death.” [p. 228] The second half of the novel culminates, like the Duncton Chronicles, in a religious schism out of which we urgently hope for Flora to emerge emancipated: “every girl child is born a worker but it is how we feed her that makes her Queen!” [p. 304]

But here the novel’s unresolved dual purpose tells against it. The reader spends much of The Bees avoiding being bumped out of the text by odd moments in which the bees – these real insects behaving with their royal jelly and hive mind in the ways in which we know our own, depopulated, bees behave – also act as the human analogues the novel insists they must equally be. They open doors and serve pastries, have hands and arms; they take part in debates about the individual and the community. But then, at the novel’s end, they also fly off and form a new hive which we know – because these are bees and bees in the real world do not have religions and political disputes – will be governed in exactly the same despotic, hive-mind, collectivist way as the one Flora has spent a novel fighting against. That is, the novel wants its cake (or pastry) and it also wants to eat it, and in the resulting  imbalance – repeating at every level of the text – it hobbles itself.

When I read Duncton Wood, I understood that its characters were moles, not humans. That the lead antagonist was named Mandrake, and shared this name with the magician from Defenders of the Earth, meant, however, that I imagined one, and only one, of the moles as wearing human dress (the terrifying villain of the piece war a mole-sized top hat). My mind’s eye just  couldn’t help it. But Horwood pitched his animal society in such a way that it didn’t quite matter – these moles resembled our own, but were not. The top hat was absurd, but not fatal to my immersion in the story. The Bees, however, is, for all its arresting moments and the often soaring poetry of its imagination, a little less well-pitched, and, in its attempt to contain both aspects of the animal fantasy, a little – and, yes, I’ll go there – over-pollinated.

“As Though Context Were Also A Kind of Imprisonment”: Rachel Cusk’s “Outline”

 I’ve already reviewed Ali Smith’s How To Be Both in the context of a different awards shortlist, but its place on the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is just as deserved and its chances, it seems to me, are just as strong as for the Booker (which, er, it rather sadly did not win). Rachel Cusk’s Outline, however, gives it a run for its money: it is just as interested in form as Smith’s novel, and at least as supple in its prose. If its first person singular focus doesn’t quite break the perspectival glass ceiling in the way How To Be Both manages, Outline is perhaps more focused and arguably deeper – at least in so far as that can be taken to mean unfathomable.

This difficulty the reader might find in plumbing Outline‘s depths is appropriate for a novel which begins with the narrator taking a flight over water, and includes a lengthy outing on a boat (indeed, the UK paperback edition foregrounds this motif with a blue cover across which ripples proceed outwards from the title). There is an extent to which the word ‘Outline’ represents very well the paring away of context and characterisation from the narrator, a novelist in the aftermath of a marriage breakdown who flies to Greece to teach a creative writing course: Cusk is engaged in a quite radical novelistic project which seeks to render the narrator a cipher, an almost passionless listener who simply imparts the many stories told to her by her various interlocutors (the novel is more or less a series of conversations) without judgement, comment or conclusion. In a typical exchange, an old friend declaims over a lunch served by a waitress he insists on ogling:

And so I learned, he said, that it is impossible to improve things, and that good people are just as responsible for it as bad, and that improvement itself is perhaps a mere personal fantasy […] We are all addicted to it, he said, removing a single mussel from its shell with his trembling fingers and putting it in his mouth, the story of improvement, to the extent that it has commandeered our deepest sense of reality. It has even infected the novel,  though perhaps now the novel is infecting us back again, so that we expect of our lives what we’ve come to expect of our books; but this sense of life as a progression is something I want no more of. [p. 99]

All of this, of course, is intensely metatextual: in not offering judgement, in providing this opinion unadorned, the reader might usually assume the writer was endorsing the point of view, or at least presenting it as a position to be seriously considered; but Outline is also a novel implicitly seeking to prove the narrator’s old friend wrong, and show how the novel might infect be inoculated against the unbeatable virus he describes; by the same token, the novel ends with the disengaged narrator improved, arriving at the classically novelistic epiphany that “if people were silent about the things that had happened to them, was something not being betrayed, even if only the version of themselves that had experienced them?” [p. 245]  That is, nothing in Outline is straight-forward or final. It is a tessellation of perspectives, none crowding out the others.

“Without structure,” muses another of the narrators companions, this one a man she meets on the aeroplane to Athens, “events are unreal.” [p. 24]  He is talking about the curious ways in which he finds each of his series of failed marriages evaporates when the habits that held them together – shared houses, regular conversations – are taken away. But it goes just as much for the ghost-like way in which the narrator drifts through the lives of others, reporting their words and imparting their lives but not becoming part of them and refusing to allow one to dominate her world.  Unlike many novelistic narrators, endlessly and unrealistically curious and prying, this one is tired of being intimately connected with others – she is exhausted by it. At one point, she sits on the edge of a boat and contemplates the sea. “The thread led nowhere, except into ever expanding wastes of anonymity,” she muses of her mooted swim. “Yet this impulse, this desire to be free, was still compelling to me: I still, somehow, believed in it, despite having proved that everything about it was illusory.” [p. 74]  There’s despair in that.

Now, look. Cusk has her weaknesses, and they are well discussed; a sort of humourlessness, a tendency to over-dramatise. And you might argue that, in depicting someone looking at the Aegean and musing about the impossibility of disconnect, Cusk again falls into the trap she habitually sets herself. There’s a lot of that in Outline. But it’s a too-easy criticism of an intelligent writer (particularly an intelligent female writer) to say she lacks jokes. Even if, to reprise the comparison with Smith, How To Be Both manages to be both serious and playful, it is not to Outline‘s discredit that it chooses a different tone. Indeed, the at times exhausting effort of reading a novel in which the narrator does not care is part of its point: here is a novel, perhaps, about depression; and here, too, is also a novel, undoubtedly, about the novel. That is, it is serious becomes its questions are existential.

When the narrator first meets her students, she asks each of them to describe something they observed on the way to the class. This results in a series of personalised exchanges – all described in that same, detached way – which provide an awful lot of fictive matter, but which do not read like fiction:

“This morning” he said, “I was crossing the square opposite my apartment building, on my way to the metro, and I saw on one of the low concrete walls around the square a woman’s handbag. […] But I realised, while I was walking, that I should have taken the bag to a police station.” [p. 135]

That ellipsis of mine omits an entire page of further discourse, and yet the story remains the same: it’s a structure and a narrative, but one without consolation. In part, this is pure distilled Knausgaard (“there is no story of life” [p. 137]), and Cusk knows it. On another level, however, it is Cuskian, at least in so far as it speaks to Outline‘s central experiment: at the end of the class, one student stands up and complains. “She had been told that this was a class about learning to write, something that as far as she was aware involved using your imagination.” [p. 158] Like many of Cusk’s readers (and, you assume she hopes, you yourself), the narrator’s student feels she has been punked: by autobiography, by the absence of the traditional consolations of narrative, by the sheer po-facedness of the whole enterprise.  In fact, you might imagine a smile on Cusks’ face as she wrote this paragraph. You might imagine it’s a joke.

At the end of the novel, a tutor arriving just as the narrator is leaving describes her own failed relationship: “she had become, through him, someone else.” [p. 237] Perhaps tellingly, by this point the narrator has severed her developing ties with the man from the plane, who has so abandoned the idea of the lasting effects of relationships. In transparent, sometimes glacial, prose, Outline has contrived to go on a journey without appearing to move at all. What Outline does is demonstrate, through a narrator without a perspective, how points of view can shift almost totally and yet almost invisibly, and how they do so in interaction with others. Though it at times presents as an anti-novel, it is in fact a champion of the form, finding a startlingly new way to demonstrate its continuing power to depict and, yes, (over-) dramatise human interaction.

What’s Left?


The image above has been doing the rounds of social media, and speaks strongly to the moment at which the British (or English) left – for which read (or do not read) ‘the Labour Party’ – finds itself in the wake of last Thursday’s General Election. It purports to map the locations of coalfields at the dawn of the Labour movement to those places in England and Wales which voted Labour in 2015, a hundred years later (I say ‘purports’, because, as Newsnight’s Duncan Weldon has usefully collated, Mike Bird has effectively shown how the image is misleading). The left posts this image online as if to say, “You see? Class matters, and we forget it at our peril;” the right shares it around to emphasise just how inadequate Old Labour is to the task of governing contemporary Britain. That one image can be interpreted in two such different ways, or at least be made to serve arguments so clearly opposed, says it all about the post-Miliband – perhaps the post-Blair – Labour Party. It lacks a compass: on the blasted heath of the British left, north can very often be south.

This is why Sam Fawcett at The State of the Left in England can justifiably say, on the subject of the current hand-wringing within Labour about the timetable for the election of a new leader, “The left are saying ‘we weren’t left enough’, the right are saying ‘we weren’t right enough’ and the centre are trying desperately to defend their platform after suffering the worst defeat since 1983 on it. The difference between a long debate and a short one is either we hear this for two months or we hear it for six months.” This is a position backed up by the experience of recent history. It is apparent that the Tory campaign (of which more later) was brutishly effective at hammering home the conception of voting Labour as a risk to economic stability; it could only do so, as Flip Chart Fairy Tales amply demonstrates – with graphs! – because, during the long leadership election of 2010, the Conservatives were given all the time in the world to spin a more or less fictional story about the 2008 crash and the defecit:

If Gordon Brown had not run deficits in the early and mid 2000s, the public debt might now be a little less, but not much. Most of the sharp increase [in] debt came about as a result of the recession. But politics is just as important as economics and the Conservatives won the politics hands down before Labour had realised what was going on. A lot of people are still convinced that the Blair and Brown governments were responsible for the rapid increase in debt in the late 2000s. It will take a long time for Labour to persuade them otherwise. If it ever does.

Already this is happening again: David Cameron opened his first Tory Cabinet by claiming that his was the party for ‘real’ working people; and he has appointed a minister, no less, for Osborne’s pet project, the Northern Powerhouse. With UKIP – who, Nafeez Ahmend’s conspiracy-theory thinking aside, are far closer to outriders for the Tory party than not – clearly eating into Labour’s working-class vote in cities further north of the Trent where many Conservatives daren’t tread, already the stage is being set for a repeat of 2010’s agenda-setting: if you want a vision of the long leadership campaign future, imagine a Tory stamping on a Labour face – for six months.

So let’s think shorter. I’ll put that graph to the right for now, because it’s worth remembering: UK debt was lower than many other major economies’, and it rose precisely in line with everyone else’s. Labour failed to make this case quickly and confidently enough, and in so doing it lost the election. At Policy Network, Patrick Diamond puts it plainly: “Miliband’s team believed an appeal to people’s living standards could trump the core issue of credibility. It would draw a line under the 2008 financial crisis, turning the page on New Labour. The problem was that voters still blamed the previous government for the crash.” This is absolutely key: it doesn’t particularly matter how left- or right-wing you are if you cannot either change or engage with the core argument of an election campaign, and the central concerns of the voters. There is a fairly apolitical, numbers-based argument to be made against the Conservative narrative of Labour failure post-2008; had Labour made it, it may also have been able then to make the weather. But it didn’t – and it risks doing the same now.

The Green’s Molly Scott Cato has received an awful lot of signal amplification for a piece in the New Statesman in which she argues that Labour’s key mistake has been, time and again, not just to fail to challenge but to accept the Conservative narrative: “His decision to resign instantly following the announcement of the result is being interpreted as indicating his nobility, but accepting that Labour was roundly defeated on Thursday is just another example of how Labour has accepted the narrative of its opponents.” Some think Miliband should instead have ‘done a Michael Howard’, remaining as a caretaker and thus allowing the party to fully debate its future – a process from which David Cameron emerged. That is not the world in which we live, however, and, as the Fabians’ Andrew Harrop has pointed out, recovery for Labour is difficult however long the leadership contest and whoever wins it; so it’s brass-tacks time: where next?

Cato, like Andy Beckett in the Guardian, now believes that Lynton Crosby is an evil genius, deliberately fooling us all into thinking the Tory campaign was poor, and ensuring voters scared by neck-and-neck polls would, in the handful of crucial marginal seats, break for the Tories. Certainly the campaign was not the all-conquering success we are now encouraged to believe it to be: the Tory share of the vote went up less in England than Labour’s; only 700,000 more people voted Conservative than in 2010. They did so, however, where it matters: small swings to Labour in safe Tory seats such as Daventry (0.8%!), or constituencies long red such as Michael Dugher’s (“Working-class voters are not core vote any more,” the pit-lad made good bemoans), barely matter; holding vote-share in marginals like Warwickshire North, and ensuring significant shifts to the Tories in Liberal Democrat citadels, is what pushed them over the line. This is attritional electoral warfare fought in the maddening context of First Past the Post.

So Labour should, perhaps, start by mending fences and proposing political reform that would ensure cynicism such as Crosby’s can no longer make the difference in who rules Britain. Labour face a generational challenge in Scotland, and yet the SNP need not be their enemy: Paul Hutcheon’s excellent inside story from the Labour campaign in Scotland shows just how ham-fisted the worst of tribal Labour can be (“He has big ideas,” one source says of Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, “and a big reputation, but it turns out he doesn’t understand Scottish politics and can’t get anyone to play for him”). This sort of stuff has to stop if Labour isn’t to continue to haemorrhage votes in Scotland; likewise, making common cause with the Greens – allying a vision of the future with a party of governance – could pay real dividends.

But in another way this left-wing coalition is the pipe-dreams of a Jon Trickett tilt at the leadership. Labour must look both ways. It did not pull enough votes away from the Tories; it actually lost votes to UKIP, especially in the north. That is, to quote the historian Dominic Sandbrook, “the British people don’t like hectoring left-wing politicians telling us how to run our lives.” Though Ed Miliband improved his dire poll ratings during the campaign, he came across on the BBC’s Question Time programme a week before the vote very much as an academic giving a series of lectures . He was asked tough questions by an audience in little mood to hear why they were wrong about how they perceived the world; Miliband’s apparent inability to explain why Labour did not over spend whilst also acknowledging voters’ fears is a big reason why the Labour campaign failed. It would not meet people in the middle – it was convinced they would come to it, that they would turn left. Without a reason to do so, without an understanding of why Miliband believed what he did, they would not.

And thus the clarion calls for the party to move rightwards now. In one sense, this is bizarre, as if Miliband ran a Marxist campaign. On immigration, he did not; on benefits, he did not. Rather, the problem was at least in part one of communication as much as substance, a muddiness of argument powered by a nervy pick ‘n’ mix approach to policy. Take this analysis by Business Insider of what is now government policy on free childcare: “It’s probably an indicator of just how bad Labour was at communicating with voters prior to the election that the Tory pledge was for a straight doubling of care to 30 hours, whereas the Labour pledge was an increase to 25 hours plus some other hours if you qualified via a set of definitions.” Business Inside too right-wing for you? IPSOS-MORI say that left-wing voters stayed at home rather than respond to the Labour campaign, too. Worried that’s being reported in the Telegraph? Even Owen Jones understands that Labour has failed to make aspiration its own, when it absolutely must: “Don’t let the apologists of the rich steal “aspiration” for their own purposes,” he says. “Reclaim it.”

To reiterate: from whatever angle you look at it, left or right, Miliband’s campaign failed to convince. “Much is made of the idea of ‘aspiration’ in politics,” says Kieran Pedley in an important post-mortem of the Labour campaign (also at The Staggers, Tim Bale is fair and balanced on the issue of Miliband’s personal culpability), “but this just means recognising what the public want from government and giving it to them. Labour still has a potential majority here.” So. What might left-wing aspiration look like?

umunna-mandelsonIt doesn’t look like Blairism anymore, that’s for sure: despite Peter Mandelson’s appearance on the Andrew Marr show this weekend, and then the bizarre decision by Chuka Umunna to allow himself to be seated next to the Prince of Darkness days before he clumsily announced his candidature for Labour leader on Tuesday, what worked twenty years ago will not today. Bar some waffling about ‘technology changing everything’ in that Marr interview, Umunna seems the back to the future candidate of this new election, insisting that the same triangulation that worked in the mid-nineties will pass now, too. That apparently entirely ignores the extent to which the electoral map of Britain has been chopped up by the 2015 General Election. Recovering from its butchery will take a new approach.

If not Umunna, then who? Liz Kendall, the neo-Blairite, is at least, as one of her supporters, Hopi Sen, archly implies, ideologically more consistent than the former Ed Miliband supporter Umunna, but she may lack gravitas. No others have yet declared, but of the hotly tipped runners and riders, Andy Burnham’s social conservatism lends the lie (for UKIP-bashing good or liberal-losing ill) to his left-wing reputation, whilst Yvette Cooper kept so low a profile in the last parliament that it’s hard to know what to make of her current political position. In other words, no leadership candidate is currently expressing a positive vision of Labour’s future – and, by extension and crucially, the country’s. We should give them time, of course, but there cannot be another failure to engage with what the electorate want, and to explain how – inevitably, given their continued narrow focus – the Tories do not and cannot fulfil those aims.

David Cameron is a PR man to the last: he knows how to govern only in so far as he knows how to campaign for his party via legislation. That requires a robust and powerful vision, whoever becomes leader. A battle-line of this Parliament will be rights and protections – human ones, trades union ones, ones provided by EU regulations. There is anger in the ‘traditional working-class’ about all of these; a Labour leader must simultaneously be able to deal with that scepticism and make the case that it is within the context of rights we all share that aspiration can be most easily achieved. The Tories are committed already to paring back these protections, and they will do so by repeating their General Election trick of fear-mongering; it will be a Labour leader’s job to show how improving one’s lot does not involve reducing the lot of others – or the eventual Pastor Niemöller-like reduction of your own.

Right-wing aspiration is about brute individualism, whatever its One Nation dressing; Left-wing aspiration is about environment (and I evoke the Green agenda deliberately). The new Labour leader will need to show they understand how to craft, argue for and create the conditions in which all can experience success – and yet all can also feel secure. Those are not conditions they will inherit, and so the question is not one of Blairite or Brownite, right or left. It is one of remodelling – and of accessible, pluralist radicalism. The electorate are not stupid, and nor are they students. But they do need to be convinced – and, whilst the Labour right has no monopoly on communication, the left needs to accept it is not impure.