“Multiple and Conflicting Answers”: Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”

A recurring theme in my reviews of this year’s Booker shortlist is originality – or, more accurately if informally, “samey-ness”. Both Eileen and His Bloody Project felt familiar in one way or another, even where they made claims for being otherwise; so far in my readings only The Sellout had a voice and a purpose all its own. This state of affairs is not altered by Madeleine Thien’s nevertheless tenderly written family saga, Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

In part, Thien is unfortunate to publish her novel of musicians in a totalitarian regime in the same year that Julian Barnes published The Noise of Time. Perhaps this novel has been overlooked for the Booker because it retreads ground previously covered by his prize-winning The Sense of an Ending; but The Noise of Time still feels slimmer, swifter and more sly than Thien’s shortlisted effort. Her novel is far more expansive – The Noise of Time never leaves the consciousness of Dmitry Shostakovich, whereas Do Not Say We Have Nothing features an ever-expanding cast of characters spread out over more or less one hundred years. But Thien, too, is interested in how artists – how people – can be true and authentic in a society like Mao’s China, and she quotes not just Shostakovich but Prokofiev, too.

At the centre of Thien’s novel are three musicians who each take a different route through China’s mid-century catastrophes, barely surviving the Great Leap Forward and destroyed by the Cultural Revolution. There is Sparrow, a composer who adopts a sort of soft pragmatism, giving up on music and stepping as far out of sight as her can. There is the violinist Zhuli, Sparrow’s cousin and a woman who reacts to the arbitrary and yet irresistible forces of Maoist revolution with confusion and consternation. And there is the pianist Kai, with whose Vancouver-based daughter the novel begins – and whose accommodations with the regime are more muscular than Sparrow’s, and who therefore spends much of the novel, though he is dead by its opening, atoning for sins of denouncement.

I’m not sure the novel ever drills down to an understanding of music as profound as Barnes; its shapes and effects, its power and its impotence, remain vague and disputable. This is perhaps on purpose – “How could I commit myself to something so powerless?” asks one character [pp. 300-1] – but it gives the novel’s central conflicts a weightless feel. The trio’s love of Western music feels loaded, too – we are invited to sympathise with these characters because they think like us, the Western readers of this Canadian novel. That, too, feels like a shortcut next to the Russianess of Barnes’s Shostakovich. “Could music record a time that otherwise left no trace?” we are asked rhetorically at one point [p. 196]; probably not this music, no. No one ever seems to connect with it beyond what it is meant to signify.

That said, in some ways the novel’s music is only another iteration of its presiding theme – time and our efforts to recover that which is past. The novel begins with ten-year-old Marie, the daughter of Kai, when she and her widowed mother are joined in Vancouver by Ai-Ming, a young woman fleeing mainland China after playing a role in (of course) the Tiananmen Square protests. Ai-Ming inspires Marie to reconnect with a Chinese past that until then had represented only her lost father; together they explore the ‘Book of Records’, a set of documents compiled by the extended family of Sparrow and Zhuli, which tells the story of how these individuals made their way through China’s turbulent twentieth century. Ai-Ming eventually leaves for the USA, assuming amnesty will come there before Canada, but she leaves behind Marie’s rekindled – and unquenchable – thirst to understand the full picture at which Book of Records can only hint.

In English, consciousness and unconsciousness are part of a vertical plane, so that we wake up and we fall asleep and we sink into a coma. Chinese uses the horizontal line, so that to wake is to cross a border towards consciousness and to faint is to go back. Meanwhile, time itself is vertical so that last year is the year above and next year is the year below. […] This means that future generations are not the generations ahead but the ones behind. [pp. 198-9]

The novel is at its best when it seeks to represent Chinese writing and thinking in this way (in the text, this passage is broken up with various characters and ideograms). It’s why its representation of music is so disappointing, and also why the reader is left wanting more, not, despite the book’s girth, less, of this other culture. Marie’s quest for understanding feels incomplete because it is so often in this way a trip only into time, rather than into other heads. This despite the proliferating detail, the endless addition of characters and incidents, which seek to demonstrate that “the past […] was never dead but only reverberated” [p. 14]. Indeed, complexity is the novel’s primary project – it pitches polyphony against the brute insistence of Maoist orthodoxy (“I know that the Party is right […] but even the simplest truths don’t seem like truths at all” [p. 248]) – but I couldn’t escape the sense that a lot happened without very much being translated.

This generic quality explains the novel’s more general “samey-ness”, too. It is beautifully written, and often  philosophically sophisticated, dismissing by example Kai’s fatalistic adoption of the idea of a “zero point […] on which all others are dependent, to which they are all related, and by which they are all determined” [p. 297]. But it also resembles all those other family sagas set over decades: those The Glass Rooms or The Memory of Loves, those The Lowlands or The Garden of Evening (er) Mistses which do much the same thing in much the same way. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a masterfully controlled novel and I am being unfair to it; but, for me at least, it added up to less than the sum of its multiple moving parts.

“Community-cum-Lepar Colony”: Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout”

If I started my review of His Bloody Project with an interview about Eileen, let me try to catch up with myself. Here’s an interview with Paul Beatty, author of The Sellout:

“I’m trying to think of a book – but almost anything will do, really – think of whatever’s number fifteen on the best-seller list now, written by a white writer. It has nothing to do with blackness or Asianness or Latinoness, or whatever. I think that’s as much a comment on race as anything else, whether the writer realises it or not. And the problem is we don’t think of it like that. We just think they’re writing about the common experience, we think it’s just the way the world is.”

In the last scene of The Sellout, a novel about race in America, an African-American stand-up comedian, in a work which has already called out almost all African-American stand-up comedians as unfunny and unoriginal,  confronts a white couple in his audience: “Do I look like I’m fucking joking with you? This shit ain’t for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!” [p. 287]  The narrator, an African-American who has spent most of the novel holding slaves and re-segregating his community, wonders what “our” thing really is. In Beatty’s vision, it is occluding by talking about race elliptically.

“Is integration, forced or otherwise, social entropy or social order?” asks the narrator earlier in the book. “No one’s ever defined the concept” [p. 168]. The Sellout is a novel which seeks to enact race relations in America absurdly, in an attempt to really talk about it. In that same Paris Review interview, Beatty questions the labelling of his latest novel as a satire, and the focus on its comedy, and wonders if this isn’t a way to avoid looking closely at what the novel is saying. I think that’s right: there are many good jokes in this novel, many aimed squarely at the traditional spokespeople of African-Americans (a well-meaning academic invents an alternative office package called EmpowerPoint, rewrites F Scott Fitzgerald as The Great Blacksby); there are even more memorable comic episodes, most notably the one with which the novel opens, as the narrator gets high on the floor of the Supreme Court; but The Sellout isn’t a comic satire because it is too expansive for that. Better to call it an absurdist parable, a version of our own world pushed to the Nth degree in an attempt to foreground concerns at which we usually prefer not to look directly.

What The Sellout suggests is that we are all fretting about race without thinking about race. Like the best-selling white writer encoding his whiteness as the norm, or the black stand-up comedian defining his community against that same set of assumptions, our gaze bends around race’s gravity. We don’t look at it square-on. We do so in some cases out of the best of intentions, out of a desire to reach the post-racial uplands promised to us by an Obama presidency; but in doing so we gloss over too much. The humour, the sheer rate of comic incident in this novel, proceeds out of Beatty – and his narrator – refusing respect to the shibboleths which have been built along these careful demarcations in our willingness to understand. “I’m no Panglossian American,” the narrator insists early on. “And when I did what I did, I wasn’t thinking about inalienable rights, the proud history of our people. I did what worked, and since when did a little slavery and segregation ever hurt anybody, and if so, so fucking be it” [p. 23].

Beatty is not, of course, advocating the return of slavery. But his narrator, whom he cannily only ever names “Me” (“a not-so proud descendent of the Kentucky Mees” [p. 21]), rather is – and he does so because he starts to attend to the actual problems on the ground. “Growing up” under the tutelage of his social studies professor father, “I used to think all of black America’s problems could be solved if only we had a motto” [p. 10]; but when Hominy, an erstwhile child actor who in the 1940s played racist, slapstick bit-parts in the Our Gang series, begs, desperate and depressed as their once-proud neighbourhood of Dickens is literally wiped off the map, to be Me’s slave, his reasoning is brutish: “right now, massa, you ain’t seeing the plantation for the niggers” [p. 80].

Now, look. I’m not only white, but a white male; I’m not only that but English, and writing this in one of the capitals of the transatlantic slave trade, Liverpool. Get the fuck out – this is our thing. The Sellout doesn’t want my sage nods, aims its fire necessarily and importantly as much outwards as inwards. “White people, the type who never used to have anything to say to black people except ‘We have no vacancies,’ ‘You missed a spot,’ and ‘Rebound the basketball,’ finally have something to say to us … on hot 104-degree San Fernando Valley days, when we’re carrying groceries to their cars or stuffing their mailboxes with bills, they turn and say, ‘Too many Mexicans'” [p. 153]. I’ve been in the room when white Americans have suggested Obama shouldn’t get the Latino vote because he might not be “their” friend (since a black president can’t be expected to rule for the common good like a white one); the clear-eyed conversation about race may not be best started by pasty folks like me.

But Beatty sees the task as a shared one. In a memorable episode, Me recalls a childhood trip to Mississippi, occassioned when he insisted to his father that racism was over. Driving immediately to the Deep South, Me’s father insists his son eyeball and wolf-whistle a white woman on a semi-rural Main Street – and pay the consequences. The apparent crackers simply continue their conversation about one of their number’s bisexuality, and Me’s father disappears in the car with their chosen target, who it turns out quite likes black men; the problem is not so much race as assumptions about it. The Sellout is a relatively optimistic book – but it’s hopeful side demands a lot of its readers: their careful attention.

The novel’s voice, Beatty’s prose style, embodies those demands. It is full-throated and insistent, and its consistency is no doubt a large part of why the novel has been shortlisted for the Booker in the first place: it has the completeness of His Bloody Project, the follow-through of Eileen, and a totality and depth of purpose that both lack. This pungency is central to the effect of the novel, to the feeling it gives of being slapped around – which is so crucial to its goal of waking us up:

Washington D.C., with its wide streets, confounding roundabouts, marble statues, Doric columns, and domes, is supposed to feel like Ancient Rome (that is, if the streets of Ancient Rome were lined with homeless black people, bomb-sniffing dogs, tour buses, and cherry blossoms). Yesterday afternoon, like some sandal-shod Ethiop from the sticks of the darkest of the Los Angeles jungles, I ventured from the hotel and joined the hajj of blue-Jeanette yokels that paraded slowly and patriotically past the empire’s historic landmarks. [p. 4]

This is dense stuff, and yet also demotic: The Sellout is not one of those literary novels which conspires to confound; it wants to be understood whilst casting our perceptions afresh. That said, Beatty does have his less sure-footed moments: “kind kindhearted plantation owners,” an insistence that shouting “Here comes Frederick Douglass … Run for your lives” sends Hominy fleeing for the hills, or ropey syntax such as “Billy said, after swallowing a mouthful of a peanut butter – and judging from what appeared to be bug legs on his tongue – and flies sandwich” [p. 186]. Sometimes The Sellout feels not entirely in control of itself, as if it is straining to contain everything Beatty tries to squeeze into it (and, more or less, he tries to squeeze in everything – a “presidential” gorilla named Baraka, a rueful recreation of Compton, a wistful romance). This might be an unfair criticism; but it’s true.

It’s a also true that the novel sometimes goes out of its way to outrage, and in so doing doesn’t feel so different to the sort of Chris Rock routine it pretends to despise. At one point, George W Bush is described as “the first coon president” [p. 240]; at another Hominy is whipped by a glamorous dominatrix wearing only a Union kepi. Beatty might want to claim more for his novel than mere satirical bite, but in these moments he appears to be aiming for little else.  “What does that mean, I’m offended?” Me demands. “It’s not even an emotion” [p. 130]. It may not be, but it is a response – and a valid one. Beatty understands its potential, but perhaps not always the limits of its elasticity.

All that said, The Sellout is one of the most complete American novels I’ve read since the financial crash, which itself heralded Obama’s period in office – and this means it is also so far the best novel on this year’s Booker shortlist. It is timely but also perennial, of high style but also unafraid of low comedy. If it occasionally reaches too far, that is only because it is deservedly confident of its grasp.

“If The Well Is Poisoned”: Graeme Macrae Burnet’s “His Bloody Project”

His Bloody ProjectIn response to my review of Eileen, I was directed on Twitter to an interview with Ottessa Moshfegh in the Guardian. In it, she offered her thoughts on the interaction between crime fiction and her latest novel: “most people who pick up a book labelled ‘thriller’ or ‘mystery’ may not be expecting to confront troubling ideas about women in society.” This has raised eyebrows from a genre that has in truth done rather a lot of work in this regard: isn’t it remarkable that a literary author is rewarded with a place on the Booker shortlist for appropriating not just a generic mode, but the very work it has done in the areas that the self-same author chooses to disparage?

Well, perhaps Graeme Macrae Burnet can help. His Bloody Project has won its place on the shortlist whilst also being actually marketed as a crime novel. That is, this is no literary jeu d’esprit, no smash n’ grab raid on a genre from which it would prefer to maintain a snooty distance. It is a gritty, often graphic novel set in 1869, and the triple murder which is its focus takes place in the small hamlet of Culduie in the Highlands. From the novel’s first page, we are under no doubt of the perpetrator: Roderick Macrae, a seventeen-year-old crofter’s son, makes no bones of his culpability. The novel, however, very much does.

His Bloody Project is, if you like, a whydunnit, a crime novel which locates its mystery not in the mechanics of a murder but its metaphysics – it is obsessed with morality and mores, with the reasons that Roderick Macrae becomes a murderer, rather than with how he endeavours to get away with it. In other words, “what is at issue are not the facts of the case, but the contents of the perpetrator’s mind” [p. 250]. But take a look at the page number in those brackets: this is a 280-page novel which opens with the contention that “the evidence of his deeds does not speak of a sound mind” [p. 9], and so near its close is still circling the same subject is a curious beast.

The novel comprises several sections, made up of fictional documents the author pretends to have discovered in the archives. The longest of these is the testament of Macrae himself, supposedly composed at his advocate’s urging in the dank of an Inverness cell. This is easily the best part of the novel – it captures wonderfully the voice of a young man both keenly intelligent and horribly naive, with impressive powers of comprehension but little self-awareness. It also introduces the reader in mulchy detail to a crofting community, presenting not just the feudalism which powers it but the mindsets which prolong it. When Roderick’s father finally breaks under the ceaseless harassment of Culduie’s constable, Lachlan Broad, and complains to the laird’s administrator, he is given a lecture on the way of the world:

You are labouring under a misapprehension, Mr Macrae. […] If you do not take the crops from your neighbour’s land, it is not because a regulation forbids it. You do not steal his crops, because it would be wrong to do so. The reason you may not “see” the regulations is because there are no regulations, at least not in the way you seem to think. You might as well ask to see the air we breathe. Of course, there are regulations, but you cannot see them. The regulations exist because we all accept that they exist and without them there would be anarchy. It is for the village constable to interpret these regulations and to enforce them at his discretion. [p. 102]

That our modern state, and the Glasgow that exists in the world of the novel as an unimaginably distant separate planet of opportunity and luxury, are instead governed by written laws and codes ultimately makes very little difference in the course of the novel, and it’s here that its circularity finds its intended profundity. “We have heard, as we should, a great deal of discussion of the motives for these wicked crimes,” summarises a judge at the close of the novel, “but having been pronounced guilty, these motives are of no consequence” [p. 274].   In other words, once we agree that a thing is the case, all detail – any further demand for corroboration – is extraneous.

His Bloody Project thus bombards us with detail. In doing so, however, it abandons confidence in itself. In the section which purports to be Macrae’s testimony, it is quite possible to read all the devilish details between the lines: the young man’s dangerous mix of precociousness and innocence, the disconnect between his understandings and the world of the doctors and lawyers he encounters at the prison; those events in the village which conspire to create the circumstances for the triple murder he commits but which remain more or less invisible to him. Despite this skilful writing, the rest of the novel – and ultimately its bulk – is made up of witness statements rather too cute in their disagreements (“John Macrae is among the most devoted to scripture in his parish,” insists the village minister on page ten, and immediately on page eleven the schoolmaster insists he was “a reticent and slow-witted individual”); of a fictional work by a historical criminologist (“was it happenstance that put a croman in your hand?” [p. 171]); and, most difficult of all, of a recreation of the trial supposedly drawn from newspaper reports and court records (“The Clerk of the Court then read the indictment” and so on [p. 191]). These sections make explicit all the subtlety of Macrae’s testimony, but adds very little – indeed, rather detracts – from the plaintive mood of the novel, the cleverness of its characterisation and even the authenticity of its mise en scene.

Ultimately, in adding all this extra material, Burnet inevitably comes to focus on process as much as personality – and in so doing renders his novel a little less exciting than it might otherwise have been. It’s unreliable narrator recedes, hemmed in as by the walls of his cell by the paper combats that surround him. Perhaps that’s the point; but, just as Eileen felt less unusual that it believed itself to be, so His Bloody Project comes to read rather more like all those otheir ambiguous courtroom dramas you’ve read or watched.  At one point, Roderick listens to his advocate speak at length about the case, and concludes that “in his mania to employ his great cleverness he quite disregarded the most obvious fact” [p. 85]. Like Sinclair, Burnet had the kernel of a compelling narrative; and like Macrae’s advocate, it could be argued he over-embellished it.

That said, His Bloody Project remains a memorable, and pungent, read: its commitment in particular to the Highlands setting, and the opportunities this affords to make some interesting arguments about class and justice, give it a currency quite beyond its structural hiccups. “Why do such [bad] things happen?” one character asks of Roderick long before he becomes a murderer. “I hesitated for a moment,” he remembers, “and then said, ‘I would say that they happen for no reason'” [pp. 87-8]. He’s wrong, though not for the reasons he or we might first think; and the novel shows us – as well as sometimes less effectively telling us – why.

“You Can Imagine The Details For Yourself”: Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Eileen”

Ottessa Moshfegh is one of those debut novelists whose first book in fact comes freighted with expectation. Beloved of The Paris Review, recipient of several awards, and, despite her much-heralded absence from social media, something already of a “personality” in literary circles, Moshfegh’s appearance on the 2016 Booker shortlist is not the surprise triumph of a rank outsider that it first appears to be.

That Eileen impresses despite all this is testament to the quality of its craft. Set in 1964 New England, and focusing on the eponymous protagonist during the week leading up to the Christmas of that year, the novel has all the claustrophobic intimacy of the short story – the form’s tart phrase-making, its taste for vivid imagery – and yet is expertly paced and packaged as a novel. Moshfegh leaps and bounds, then, over the hurdle which usually does for short story writers tackling their first novel-length project. This books works thoroughly as a novel, is a total formal success: it is both a compelling page-turner and an expansive conjuration of interiority.

Which brings us to character. Eileen has little time for any individuals beyond its titular anti-heroine – even the novel’s change-maker, the beautiful and mysterious Rebecca Saint John, is given a cliched, noir-ish treatment which renders her inaccessible as an individual. We experience her, and every other character – from Eileen’s alcoholic father to Randy, her oblivious crush at the young offendor’s institute where she works – through the filter of the narrator’s consciousness. It is a function of the extent to which Moshfegh conjures Eileen in her entirety that it therefore becomes almost impossible to read the other characters any more deeply than Eileen herself does.

This might be a flaw in another novel, but Eileen is ultimately a book about understanding and comprehension. Eileen is profoundly estranged from her own body. She abuses laxatives, is revolted by her own sexuality, and eats only compulsively (“I went in and bought a Boston cream, ate it in one gulp, as I was wont to do, and walked out immediately remorseful” [p. 56]). When she reflects at one point that “a friend is someone who helps you hide the body” [p. 97], she is not just teasing, as she does throughout, the crime she warns us from the off to expect. As a child, Eileen experienced no love from her parents – in one of the most memorable of the novel’s many flashbacks, Eileen recalls “a yellow rectangle of light” turning to blackness as her mother closed the door to the dangerously steep cellar stairs down which her daughter had just, unforgivably, fallen (p. 66). Her mother long dead and still stuck in her childhood home at 24, Eileen’s house-bound, raging father continues to abuse her and their relationship: “The worst crime I could commit in his eyes was to do anything for my own pleasure, anything outside of my daughter lay duties” (p. 158). There are intimations, too, of incest.

This twisted upbringing, which forms the sum total of her experience, has left Eileen unable, too, to understand others. She is filled with frustrated rage, is herself an alcoholic, and hates everyone and everything as the novel opens, imagining herself as a Joan of Arc accidentally born into the life of a nobody. “I was the only one whose pain was real,” she insists at one point (p. 118). She is thus unlikeable in almost every way, up to and including abusing others in her turn: in one darkly comic moment, her father drunkenly complains to the police that his daughter hides all his shoes from him to prevent him leaving the house; they discard his report as the ramblings of a crazy old man, but in fact his shoes are indeed locked permanently in the trunk of Eileen’s car. It is one of the novel’s quietly radical statements to render a female character so repellent: we are used, perhaps, to Holden Cauldfield and Patrick Bateman, both of whom Eileen resembles to one extent or another, but less so to Esther Greenwood; Eileen is a reminder that The Bell Jar was written fifty-three years ago (and published the year before the one in which Eileen is set) … and that we still haven’t got over the very expectations which so trap Eileen and the turnings of blind eyes which facilitate the abuse that has bent her so fully out of shape. “There are no prizes for good little girls,” she reminds us at several junctures (p. 73).

Eileen objectifies the men and women in her life, has no sympathy for the brutalised boys resident at her place of work, and even when apparently enraptured by someone can develop no empathy for or connection with them. That almost everyone else in the novel is similarly attenuated gives the novel a terrible bleakness that its narrative frame, set at a half-century’s remove from the main events and told from the point of a view of a much older Eileen, cannot entirely dispel. “It’s hard to imagine that this girl, so false, so irritable, so used, was me,” this older Eileen opines; but her references to repeated marriages, numerous empty flings, and her apparent continued lack of understanding of many of the drivers of her story’s plot, provide little redemptive material for the attentive reader.

In fact, at times I read Eileen as I do America Psycho: as the essentially deluded outpourings of a narrator so unreliable as to make them an outright liar. Indeed, the over-riding tone of the novel and its climactic events seem so generically and stylistically divorced that we seem positively encouraged towards this reading. Stylistically, the novel throughout is Eileen’s work rather than Moshfegh’s – though sentences and paragraphs are turned expertly, often diction and turn of phrase are naive (“It was 1964, so much on the horizon” [p. 17]) – but those scenes in which the crime at the novel’s centre and climax is revealed and explained seem in some ways to belong to a different, less interesting and conflicted, book. There’s nothing explicit in the novel that confirms Eileen as a novel of this sort; but there is a generic slippage, from literary to noir to gothic and back again, that doesn’t quite have the proper intonation. The rest of the novel is so well-crafted that it is hard to write this off as poor writing; it is surely a feature, not a bug.

All that said, and for all its scatological content and bold approach to gender and issues of abuse, Eileen also feels curiously old-fashioned. Its 1960s setting renders it a little safely distant, and its relatively straight-forward first-person voice adds few wrinkles to the usual template of the unreliable, unlikeable narrator. It is part of its success, perhaps, that the novel reads like a period piece – like Patricia Highsmith for the Vice generation. That it reads already like a rediscovered classic is one of the reasons, I am sure, it has been shortlisted for the Booker – and a very good reason, I suspect, why it should be considered a favourite. But the canonical air belies the novel’s decidedly more violent, and more vituperative, heart. Eileen is a novel that persuades us to gulp down an awful lot of nasty stuff, and experience it as a pleasure; its familiarity may be part of its spell. But familiar it sometimes feels regardless.

Quis Corbyniet Ipsos Corbynes?


It has taken me months – more or less fully the close-to-a-year that he has been leader of the Labour Party – to find the courage to write about Jeremy Corbyn. Undoubtedly, courage is what is required – never in my lifetime has Labour politics in particular, but British politics in general, been so querulous and febrile. That our politics requires courage is not, I think, a bad thing – for decades it has been more often characterised if not by cowardice then a queasy caution. Even Thatcherism, lionised by some and despised by others for its hatchet-job temerity, strikes me as a form of capitulation – to American hegemony or global capital or simply compensatory managerialism. It is this technocratic approach which is most despised by those flocking to Corbyn’s banner. That it requires courage now to be political speaks of a moment in which we might actually be doing something.

But doing what? Part of the courage we now require is simply in predicting events – the kaleidoscope is over-shaken. What next depends, of course, upon whom you ask. For my part, I haven’t shifted on the subject of Corbyn from initial scepticism: for all the rapture which welcomed his original leadership campaign – the huge turn-outs, the excited spike in membership, the unassailable mandate – it never seemed to me that what Corbyn was saying was terribly interesting in anything other than its distinctiveness from the barren pronouncements of his opponents. “If the best the left can do is go back to the planned economy, we are screwed,” I texted a friend last July, who seemed surprised I wasn’t embracing Corbynism’s first flush with enthusiasm. Corbyn is a Bennite; for many this is his selling-point. For me it is the best expression there might be of the wider malaise of the left. Corbynism badly needs a Jeremy Corbyn figure to shake it up and put it on a righteous, radical path.

But Owen Smith has matched Corbyn policy-by-policy (except on keeping Trident and inviting ISIS to tea) – and why vote for an unimaginative retreat to a 1970s comfort blanket when you can vote for an unimaginative retreat to a 1970s comfort blanket that really means it? Where are the bright ideas from Corbyn’s leadership – even bright ideas, like those of Paul Mason, which seem doomed to remain in the middle chapters of lesser-read Charlie Stross novels? Why has he failed to do anything more with his ascent to the apex of his party than continue to advocate for his ascent to the apex of his party?

Because, Corbynistas will retort, he has been given no room to express an agenda, and no space to relax into the role. That is, the ‘Labour right’ has prevented anything but an immediate bunkerisation of the Corbyn project. I no longer know what is meant by the ‘Labour right’ – the old right of John Spellar or the “Blairism” of the King over the water, David Miliband? Or perhaps what was once the soft leftism of Angela Eagle, or the plain-speaking bullishness of Margaret Hodge. The ‘right’ has morphed into a bogeyman, a label with which to tar and defang Corbynism’s opponents. The breakdown of meaningful dialogue between heterodox political positions characterises our new hard-knock politics more than any other phenomenon: Brexiters and Remainers, one half seemingly hardly knowing a member of the other; Cameroons and Mayites, unable to serve in the same Cabinet even when the transition period between the two regimes is wafer thin; the one per cent and the ninety-nine; the Scots and the English.

But Corbyn’s heart is in the right place – Corbyn wants to stop all this. His is a kinder, gentler politics. He means well. With much of this it is hard to disagree, since his has been a career defined by stubborn advocacy for the under-dog; but my issue is that I have never been sufficiently tribal to believe that at least a fair number of Tories, too, also bleed if we prick them. What matters is not intention but plans of action; we all want that which we define as “best”. But what is that? And how will you achieve it? Robert Halfon wants to tackle poverty, just like Jeremy Corbyn. I know how he proposes to do so, and disagree; Jeremy shrouds his strategy in good intentions.

Perhaps all of this is due to the failure of communications ably identified by (for it is he) Owen Jones. But the dispassionate observer might instead conclude that the principal project of Corbynism is not to craft a platform for government but to build a means of achieving creative destruction within the Labour Party. From the forming of a social movement to the application of extra-parliamentary pressure on legislators, the Corbyn project is so inchoately anti-establishment that it can attract even anarchists like Alan Moore as fellow travellers. This is yet another sign of the abject collapse of the social democratic left. This moribundity can be observed across Europe and beyond; but its ubiquity offers no defence. The lack of a compelling narrative from Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper in 2015; the ham-fisted incompetence of the so-called coup against Corbyn; and Ed Balls’s abject appearances on Strictly Come fucking Dancing are all symptoms of this malaise. But no consequence of social democracy’s senescence is as eloquent as the rise of Jeremy Corbyn.

Indeed, the malaise may well require the sort of revolution Corbynistas hanker for. If Owen Smith is the solution being sold, surely everyone must go to another store. The issue is, however, that the Corbynmania whipped up by the Socialist Campaign Group in order to win last year’s election serves to occlude any policy platform they might now wish to develop: in this excellent piece (the most balanced I have read), the LRB’s Tom Crewe writes that “the failure to separate Jeremy Corbyn from the project of a revived left … obscures (and by extension denies) the existence of legitimate concerns about his leadership.” That is, while you’re busy sharing all those stories from the Canary about how the attacks on Corbyn are all one big conspiracy, you are failing to take the log from your eye. Where are the propitious signs which do not rely on blind faith that Corbynism can, in Moore’s words, “struggle towards a future that we and all of the people who came before us could breathe in”?

I worry. How devastating that UKIP’s Douglas Carswell often seems to express the world-historical underpinnings of our particular moment better than John McDonnell. How fractured a left that cannot occupy or express any truly radical position until it has destroyed itself.

Owen Smith is not the answer to all this, of course. But is Corbyn-as-Moses any more a solution? Who could salvage from Corbynism’s under-whelming performance the trailblazing transformation that was promised? Might Jeremy lead his people to the promised land but never enter it, leaving the storming of the land of milk and honey to McDonnell or Clive Lewis? In the face of a possible early election, an uncooperative parliamentary party, an unprecedented period of constitutional flux and an at-best nascent movement outside Parliament, this seems a slim possibility. It might be made more likely by a war of slow attrition inside the Labour Party – the only body in Britain today, by the way, even faintly capable of mounting a proper opposition to Conservatism. Should Corbyn win on Wednesday, there is little doubt that his allies will recommence with renewed energy exactly that project. But while they are helping themselves, who is helping the people in whose name they are recreating their party? How many years will it take to reach the promised land, and how many of us will fall down during the long trudge through the desert?

The Labour party is Corbynism’s cocoon, and it is struggling to make its way out. What it will look like if it ever does manage to emerge is uncertain – as is why anyone, as a consequence, might feel at all qualified to vote in the party’s current leadership contest with anything but trepidation.

Higher Education: Deeper Than Data

The data-driven nature of the regulation, representation and marketing of Higher Education in the UK and beyond is a well documented phenomenon, about which many of us currently working in the sector often lament.  Higher education seems to have become driven by statistics, ratings and rankings – the National Student Survey (NSS) results, for example, were out this week, and have seen universities and departments take to their Twitter streams to extol their respective virtues.  We already know about the various league tables, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the upcoming Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which is explicitly linked to the results of the NSS, and so on.  There aren’t really many arguments I can relay here that are not already well-known and discussed, whether online, on social media, in the press and behind closed doors within university departments themselves.

But one thing in particular got me thinking this week.  The UCU began sharing a web link, which enables anyone to type in the name of a university, and their vague relationship to that institution (past student, future student, concerned parent…) to find out some basic employment-related data.  The online tool then reveals the percentage of temporary teaching contracts within that university and male-to-female average earnings (which, invariably, reveals that HE uses a lot of temporary contracts and that the gender pay gap is still dire in HE).  This got me thinking, as, yes, clearly it’s very important for such information to be made public, for average earnings and the security of staff contracts to be public knowledge, for universities to be accountable, and especially welcome is the notion that parents and potential students should be aware of how staff are treated within various institutions.  Indeed, however shiny a prospectus may seem, and however well a particular course is marketed, the academics teaching it are more than a significant factor in how a student may experience their university life.

But, is there not a case to be made regarding the use of bald statistics alone?  They can give us indicators – how happy students were on a particular course, how quickly coursework was returned, how much women are paid when compared to men.  Yet, for a sector which is so driven by culture, cultures within universities and departments, work cultures, learning cultures – reflection upon and creation of culture – should we not look more deeply?  Cultures vary between universities and departments, and in themselves they create different sets of expectations within their own communities, which may, ultimately, lead students to answer questions in different ways.  Universities which have, seemingly, according to this basic data, higher levels of permanent staff contracts may be hiding other things.  How secure do ‘permanent’ staff feel?  Is a low level of temporary staff necessarily a good thing in a sector in which staff need to take research leave?  And although I would be the last person to in any way justify any kind of gender pay gap (pay should be equal and opportunities so much more readily and equally open to female academics) but the statistics can only give us rough indicators of a culture.  What is daily life like in university departments?  How are women treated (and colleagues more widely), encouraged and supported?  What roles are they given on a day-to-day basis?  And to come back to that idea of culture – what is the working culture like?

Having worked in and for various universities throughout my career, I can attest to the different nature of cultures – and I am lucky enough to find myself currently working in an institution which seems to me to be at the healthier end of the spectrum.  In a sector driven so wildly by average scores, data and competition, however, it is easy for the academics to find themselves on the harsh edge of an institution which sees itself as marketing a product, rather than providing transformative education and inspiring genuine cultural change.  When that happens, when competition for students and funding is fierce, when staffing is low, and redundancies likely – what is it like to work in those institutions?  What kinds of culture are young people, embarking on their degree study, really entering?  If it’s one of exploitation, bullying and workplace violence, what will the HE sector really teach our young people?  If academic staff members are treated as merely marketable and disposable resources, what will we be able to pass on to younger students about their own rights and inherent value in the workplace?  How will we influence their expectations, and then how will they answer the questions which inform the very data which is now driving our HE sector?  I have no answers to these questions – just a wish for us to scrape beneath the surface, to think about the cultural and social value of our universities, and to look to protect those cultures, for universities to be fully accountable for those cultures – and to consider more than the basic marketability of staff and degrees – for the good of all who work and study in them.

June 16th, 2016

I have for the last few days been ruminating on a blog post about the UK’s current referendum on EU membership, and the horrifyingly destructive standard of its associated debate; about our creaking political system and its readily apparent failure to create a sphere in which meaningful, representative and rational conversations can be had. And then a Member of Parliament was murdered in the street.

That this unspeakably shocking event somehow does not, however, come as a surprise is testament to the parlous state of our national public discourse – and rather overtakes, for now, any other concerns.

We have allowed venom and spite to infect and pervert the ways in which we speak to each other about ideas and people. This has been happening for some time, on both left and right, and it is born of frustration, fear and, in some cases, brute strategy. It is a pyrrhic and paranoid form of politics which necessarily leads to nullity.

The EU Referendum is not the cause of this situation; it has, though, become its clearest expression. Both sides – all sides – are guilty of pandering to the paucity of the age; both sides – all sides – must pull back and remember that, though we may disagree, we must not doubt the sincerity of the other’s convictions.

Nevertheless, convictions, like assassinations and like rhetoric, are political acts – and acts can be evil. It is the responsibility of each of us to fight not those with whom we disagree (that is what debate is for), but the sorts of political act which do damage to our shared polity, our increasingly fragile community.

Remain in the EU or leave it; adhere to Corbynism or to Cameroonery. Do whatever you must, but principles are only worth fighting for insofar as they contribute to a climate in which we as individuals might all live peaceably.

Let us all measure our aims and our methods by their capacity also to achieve these wider goals. Let’s aim for mutual respect, not endemic suspicion; for informed scepticism, not knee-jerk cynicism. Jo Cox’s husband has written a dignified, open-hearted statement in which he urges us all to “unite to fight against the hatred that killed her”. Which of us would object to that? So let’s begin.