Parsing Politics in 2015

election2015And so the General Election of 2015. I used to write a lot more about politics on these pages. In one of my last two posts on the topic, I said this: “it’s hard to argue with Dave Osler that the poor don’t have a party“; in the other, I said this: “When there is a political voice that will speak out against those sort of veering right-turns, expect more politics in these pages.” The absence of any such posts since should say the rest.

There is a palsied incapacity in our body politic to express any alternative to the preening austerity of the Coalition Government. The Tories have abandoned any One Nation credentials in their pursuit of a self-appointed task, pursued with temerity since the economic crisis of 2008, to conjure multiple excuses from that single event for various infringements upon the state. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, emblazon their election literature with the words “stronger economy”, by which they unimaginatively mean “more cuts”. The Labour party, too – powered by Ed Balls’s increasingly macho face-off with George Osborne – are committed to the era’s standard-issue white-bread version of “fiscal responsibility”. The hyperventilation which greeted the election of Syriza in Greece reflects the dicky ticker of our late capitalist pessimism: there is no other way but retrenchment.

This was one of the topics of Adam Curtis’s latest documentary, Bitter Lake. In an interesting experiment, this was released only on the BBC iPlayer, negating the need to split it into a series of episodes, or to edit it into manageable length or conventional structure. I’m not sure this helped the film – it goes for long spells without adding to its own argument, instead focusing on lengthy tessellations of images which tend all to reflect the same contrasts between rhetoric and reality. Indeed, that gap is Curtis’s primary target in the film: he suggests that, following the oil crisis of the 1970s, Western democracies allowed big banks, reigned in since the reforms of the Great Depression, essentially to take charge of economic policy in exchange for social stability. Bitter Lake not entirely successfully splices this idea with the various wars in Afghanistan since the Second World War, arriving at the conclusion that our ruling elite knows its narrative makes no sense – but lacks the imagination to reshape the world as Franklin Roosevelt did.

It may be deeper than that, however. The current political malaise drills down to an issue of the language in which our politics – our identities – are expressed, not just the imaginative capacity of a few politicians. A month or so ago in an edition of the BBC’s horse-race-heavy This Week, the Green MP Caroline Lucas (who on the same programme made a terrible hash of attempting to describe why The Sun‘s Page Three is a bad thing) corrected Andrew Neil on the subject of the Chilcot Inquiry: “You are hoping for vindication, aren’t you?” Neil asked, suggesting that the primary interest of the pacifist Greens in an investigation into the Iraq War was the gaining of political capital. “Well, I rather hope it’s about learning lessons,” Lucas replied, rather nonplussed by the cynicism. As our politicians have become, or reframed themselves as, managers rather than directors of state policy, so the way in which we in turn analyse and assess their motivations and relations has migrated from the ideological to the positional.

This cynicism is present in our political literature: Anna and I have since the New Year burned through the first two seasons of the US remake of House of Cards. The original series, of course, also focused on a fairly venal and dispiriting stripe of politician; yet Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood lacks not only the original Francis Urquhart’s cultured airs and graces, but mostly importantly his political ideology: Underwood appears not to have anything approaching a political position, whilst Urquhart was always identifiably a member of the Tory right, with consistent policy aims that, whilst often presented as straight-forwardly villainous, at least suggested some form of point to holding power. In the US, as in the UK, it has become a governing assumption of our culture that politicians have no guiding principles, only a careerist approach to office-holding.

In this context, political language suffers. Lucas struggled to defend her position on Page Three because the vocabulary of belief is excluded from the discourse; in the days following that appearance on This Week, the Green leader, Natalie Bennet, was judged to have been savaged by Neil on The Sunday Politics when she failed to justify a range of positions he had more or less randomly selected from the more or less crowd-sourced Green website for scrutiny. There is an ideological underpinning to Green policy, even when a particular element has not been adopted by the party as a manifesto commitment; but ideology is either demonised (and not always, as is traditional, by the right) or, and this is something new, simply disbelieved in the way an unsophisticated historian might interpret medieval religion – as a figleaf for the real purpose, which is to hold power cynically and selfishly.

This is the reason, it seems to me, that the Labour Party under Ed Miliband have struggled so thoroughly to offer an alternative to the Coalition’s slash-and-burn narrative. When Miliband suggested in 2011 that capitalists can be split into ‘predators’ and ‘producers’, he risked, as any dichotomy does, reductive thinking; but he also touched on a sense of an unjust capitalism, a need to reign in its wilder excesses, which is felt across the political spectrum. Without the capacity to express that feeling in ideological terms, however, Labour have been left tacking from one tactical formulation to another, adding up to an appearance (and sometimes a reality) of incoherence – and, finally, defaulting to a sort of austerity-lite, which only buys into and reinforces the dominant and destructive managerial paradigm of our political age.

In his defence, in last week’s televised Q&A (if we’re being critical of our political language, let us not hide David Cameron’s frit-ness beneath the word ‘debate’), Miliband reached for some of That Vision Thing: he talked about general directions, opposing Cameron’s statistics-heavy delivery with a sense of passion and vision. Though a snap ICM poll for the Guardian gave the Q&A to the Prime Minister, Miliband’s low-boil attempt to begin to break out of the technocratic strait-jacket had a more lasting effect: more considered polls with larger samples in the days following last Thursday put him ahead, and on Sunday a YouGov poll for the Times put Labour four points ahead.

A ComRes poll today, however, gives the same advantage to the Tories. If we lack a new language to reframe an increasingly sterile political debate (a point of frustration on the right as much as the left, where there is fury that no apparent means of communicating a Tory message for the 21st-century is available to the Conservative leadership), we also lack the means to think about the reasons for this weirdly wheeling public opinion. In the Guardian, Paul Mason suggests that this is due to a fracturing of the British electorate into three tribes: a financialised one residing in the south-east; a Scandinavian one in Scotland; and a more amorphous, ‘post-industrial’ tribe residing in the north of England and in most major cities. These don’t seem entirely convincing – UKIP surely straddles at least two of those groups, whilst what is going on in Scotland seems rather more complicated than a continental drift towards Oslo. But the theory that the tensions of the early 21st century have shaken out the last vestiges of the twentieth, and have left our political classes adrift amid a proliferation of new, baggier identities, feels about right.

Identity politics is a matter of controversy. In the LRB, Jackson Lears recently wrote, as part of a sad assessment of Hilary Clinton’s inevitable ascendancy to the Democratic nomination for President:

The rise of identity politics in America was a tragic necessity. No one can deny the legitimacy or urgency of the need felt by women and minorities to have equality on their own terms, to reject the assumption that full participation in society required acceptance of the norms set by straight white males. Yet even as the public sphere grew more inclusive, the boundaries of permissible debate were narrowing. Critiques of concentrated power, imperial or plutocratic, became less common. Indeed, the preoccupation with racial and gender identity has hollowed out political language, the void filled by an apparently apolitical alternative – the neoliberal discourse of antiseptic intervention abroad and efficient productivity at home.

The danger of identity is that it is so fissiparous that it reduces all ability for publics to join forces in pursuit of something greater. This is the phenomenon of breaking-down described insufficiently by Mason; it is the fracturing that threatens the Tory vote from the right and the Labour vote from the left; and yet it represents the single greatest challenge of this general election campaign. If a new language can be found, and a new narrative acceptable to a unity of interest groups expressed, a breakthrough will be had. If not, we will spend the campaign, its aftermath and potentially another five years of a fractious parliament, playing instead to our increasingly segmented national gallery. Should that be the case, the debate around electoral reform – for the introduction of a system which can at least better reflect, channel and make sense of this Disunited Kingdom – should surely be renewed. It is hard to develop a new language without the appropriate grammar.

“Memories are microscopic”: The Folio, Jenny Offill and Miriam Toews

The shortlist for the Folio Prize 2015, said its chair of judges, sought to show the novel “refreshing itself, reaching out for new shapes and strategies, still discovering what it might be, what it might do”. The winner of the Prize has been announced tonight as Akhil Sharma, and his is one of the shortlist’s three novels I have yet to read; but on reading Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, both superb novels in themselves, you might be forgiven for thinking that the Folio judges have a fairly narrow sense of what the novel might be and do.

Again, that’s not to say either of these books are poor – far from it, both are formidable (and more on this later). On the other hand, both feature a middle-aged female novelist struggling with life at the expense of her art; the narrator is self-recriminating and -critical, placing goodness and kindness and worth in people other than herself, and reflexively wondering why she falls short. Both are also written in that arch, wry, self-conscious sort of tone which I associate with much contemporary North American fiction (and, in all honesty, with the creative writing courses Offill teaches, an occupation she shares with her nameless narrator). Not only that, but Rachel Cusk’s Outline and Ben Lerner’s 10:04 also feature (though I haven’t read them) struggling novelists, and according to reviewers both also tackle this venerable literary conceit in ways designed to nod and wink towards the reader in order to re-fashion what has long been a stock literary situation. Here’s Elaine Blair in the LRB on how 10:04 achieves that:

Author surrogates are more often writerly types than actual writers – academics or journalists if not artists or musicians or something else entirely. We gamely suspend disbelief when the non-novelist turns out to sound like a novelist, though it’s harder for readers today (than, say, in Updike and Bellow’s heyday) not to find the everyman’s lyrical flights distracting and artificial. […] But Lerner’s poet and poet/novelist can shoot straight; their ruminations on matters of art are an important vein of sincerity in his novels. The most cerebral parts give the books substance: not just intellectual substance, but fictional substance – they make Adam and Ben seem real.

deptofspecThis is exactly the approach taken by both Toews and Offill: in the former case, its central pairing of two sisters (the narrator a writer, the other a suicidal concert violinist) constantly trade quotations from Romantic poetry, whilst the latter novel consists of a series of short gobbets, some narratively driven but many drawn from the research and reading undertaken by its narrator, a strung-out novelist, wife and mother who cannot begin, let alone finish, her second book. sa teenager, Toews’s violinist chooses a pseudonym from the same Coleridge poem which gives the novel its title, since Samuel Taylor “would definitely have been her boyfriend if she’d been born when she should have been” [AMPS, pg. 8]; Dept. of Speculation‘s narrator, meanwhile, intends when young to become “an art monster. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella” [DoS, pg. 8]. If the novel is refreshing itself here, it is doing so via great transfusions of the past.

Compared with other novels on the shortlist – most obviously my own tip for the top, Ali Smith’s How To Be Both, but also Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s hauntingly horrific and structurally twisty Dust - it might be fair to say that both Offill and Toews do not challenge themselves to imagine other ways of being: most superficially, these are both semi-autobiographical novels (Toews own sister and father also, sadly, killed themselves, whilst Offill really is a creative writing teacher with a husband and young child who has taken fifteen years to write her second novel); the novel-as-work-of-empathy may or may not be reconfiguring itself in these well-turned pages. Whenever I read novels like this, I think of Richard Milward’s Ten-Storey Love Song, as close as mainstream fiction has come to a novel in form and style separated from literary fiction’s increasingly narrow social echo chamber. The Folio Prize might wonder about that next year. (In its defense, one of last year’s shortlisted works – Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing is, differently but no less fully than Milward, also a novel of a separate social class.)

I don’t, though, think that either of these remarkable novels should fall victim to a backlash which has more to do with the Folio judges’ apparent kink for novelist-narrators. To take the considerable virtues of All My Puny Sorrows first, this story of a woman (the writer-sister, stuck in a rut of children’s fiction and with two divorces behind her and two nearly-grown children in tow), and the struggles and accommodations she makes in her life following first the suicide of her Mennonite father, and then the absolute insistence of her internationally-famous sibling on achieving the same self-annihilation, is a thoroughly sad, and yet consistently funny, novel about not death but love. “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other,” the narrator, Yolandi, says of her sister, Elfreida (or, as everyone knows her in a nod to her trickster-ish ways, Elf). In many ways, this is a novel without a plot: Yoli travels from Toronto to Winnipeg twice, on both occasions to support her mother and Elf’s husband after a suicide attempt; she then sort of kicks her heels a lot, encountering exes or dealing with lawyers; she faces Elf’s request to help her die in Switzerland; she considers writing her literary novel, about a harbourmaster who winds up in Rotterdam having got stuck on a boat he helps out to the open sea as a storm comes in.

This is a book of often gentle humour – “She told me how to say I have a little man when I should have said I’m a bit hungry,” recalls Yoli of Elf’s teenage mischief with Spanish homework – but also of tender poetry – the sisters’ mother is in many ways the hero of the piece, a woman who is initially “a loyal Mennonite wife [… who] didn’t want to upset the apple cart of domestic hierarchy” [pg. 7], but who is at the end of the novel calling Yoli from “somewhere having a burger and watching the game. Extra innings” [pg. 289]. This mixture of wit and sentiment gives the book a warm kind of vinegariness, and even the occasionally meandering structure – at times it feels like this most personal of novels might have been a little shorter, encompassed a little less experience – allows the characters and their relationships to be painted in all their ambivalence, leading to a far more affecting conclusion. On the other hand, it can be cute: those extra innings are a little too obvious in their double meaning. Likewise, Yoli has a “structural problem” with her novel, because she can’t explain why he doesn’t just use someone’s cellphone to ask for a pick-up – but she’s attached to an image of “one person … marooned at sea, helpless, and the other … standing on the shore, hurt and mad” [pg. 200].

ToewsThis sort of pat-ness recurs throughout. At one point, Yoli says she understands another character’s “need to accomplish something, however strange, something with a clear rising action and a successful ending” [pg. 117], and we hear, Lerner-like, the author addressing her audience. This can grate, and, coupled with the novel’s vague bagginess, tells just a little against it. In its depiction of a woman raking over her “younger self, the person I was before I’d become all of these other selves” [pg. 198], however, All My Puny Sorrows is expansive and affecting; it also shares in this vision of a woman’s life as a succession of roles or poses the central conflict of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. The novel is presented in a sort of epistolary form, as a series of short memos-to-self which are often apparent non sequiturs, unconnected to the gobbet before or after, and yet which build with a quite extraordinarily invisible magic into an emotionally powerful depiction of a marriage. It begins with its narrator declaring “ideas about myself. Largely untested” [pg. 7]. Through the course of the novel, life happens – and the testing occurs.

This, of course, is a classic novelistic structure – we might think of Anne Elliot in Persuasion, or of Richardson’s Pamela. In terms of her moral journey, Offill’s narrator, who shares namelessness with every character in this short novel, treads a well-worn path, from youthful assumptions to self-knowledge (the novel’s final line is “No one young knows the name of anything” [pg. 177]). This might make Dept. of Speculation sound a little preachy or self-important, and it’s here that Offill’s structural experimentation really tells: where All My Puny Sorrows can occasionally intrude upon the reader’s reverie, Dept. of Speculation, with its tessellating paragraphs and intellectual fluidity, is entirely open and self-questioning.

In large part, this is down to the novel’s narrator (Toews’s novel, too, derives its best qualities from its brilliantly uncertain protagonist). She is almost painfully self-critical, and rarely allows herself the benefit of even the slightest doubt. This provides the novel with some serious emotional complexity: “Is she a good baby? People would ask me. Well, no, I’d say” [pg. 30] the narrator relates at one point, in a typical show of her antipathy for the child who changes her life; and yet she also exhibits so strong an attraction to her daughter that she thrills when her daughter insists “she will not go to college if that means she must go away from me” [pg. 91]. This facing-both-ways, this aliveness-to-complexity, means that each missive of every chapter cannot be taken to mean only one thing – simply in its very function in the story-structure of the novel, every paragraph works in many ways, sounds at many levels. A snippet of Wittgenstein or a memory of the narrator meeting her husband, when he was just her boyfriend, at a train station after a long time apart – every entry in this curious kind of pseudo-diary speaks to itself, to something else, and to something other.

The narrator attends great parties. She meets an artist whose work is in the MoMA permanent collection (incidentally, Yoli and her mother visit MoMA towards the end of their novel); her best friend is a philosophy professor; she gets a job ghost-writing a book about the space programme for a billionaire. She lives, that is, what many would see to be a gilded life. And yet her vision of herself – her shock at how “some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits” [pg. 92] – is violently expressed on one page, which reads in its entirety soscaredsoscaredsoscared, repeating until the bottom margin. Her delicate state of mind is indicated only subtlety – when her husband has an affair, the narrator takes to referring to herself not as “I”, but “the wife”, signalling increasing disassociation – and she holds a persistent view that “the most charismatic people […] were that way because they had somehow managed to keep a bit of […] light [… but] that the natural order was for this light to vanish” [pg. 30]. She seems unable for a long time to experience her life as reality rather than an interruption; in some ways, this is a novel for an ageing Generation X. At one point, you will excuse me, her daughter has an X-ray: “Here is the bone,” the narrator almost sighs, “shot through with emptiness.” [pg. 76]

In begruding balance, what Dept. of Speculation, which I cannot recommend enough, lacks a little is All My Puny Sorrows‘ humour, its lightness, its countervailing tendency; but there is black humour here, and also, in those gobbets where the moment is grabbed, something approaching transcendence. In this it shares much more with Toews’s novel beyond the upper-middle-class setting or novelistic protagonists which the Folio judges so admire. “Darwin theorized that there was something left over after sexual attractiveness had served its purpose and compelled us to mate,” the narrator observes many years into her marriage. “This he called ‘beauty’ and he thought it might be what drives the human animal to make art” [pg. 103].

Albums of 2014

It’s become something of a tradition on this blog for me to list, in no particular order, my top five albums of the year. In the main, my selection criteria are self-defeatingly non-specific and impressionistic. I cannot, dear reader, show my working. What I do try to do, however, is listen to every record I recall making a big impact on me in the preceding twelve months, and then wittle them down to those which not just feature wonderful songs, but which hang together and forge something new in the proces. I also try, throughout the year, to avoid featuring LPs I think might be candidates for the year’s-best list in the right-hand ‘Sounds We Like’ column we update each month.

Other, then, than the best of those picks (most obviously Doug Paisley’s beautifully warm Strong Feelings and John Fullbright’s intermittently devastating Songs), what is left? Bubbling under the top five this year are Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems (far more virile and creative than it has any right to be), Nick Mulvey’s First Mind (unusually well-balanced between gossamer-light and thunkingly-deep), and King Creosote’s From Scotland With Love (KC’s best in years); but also the wonderful Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Small Town Heroes, which sounds like a Gillian Welch record but injects queer theory, feminism and activism into the ossified bones of Appalachian folk, and Samantha Crain’s sweetly growling Kid Face, which was released in the US in 2013, but made it over here in January.

So that’s those. Let’s, though, do the top five.

Gruff Rhys, American InteriorGruff Rhys, American Interior

In 1792, a Welshman named John Evans set out for Baltimore and beyond, in search of a lost tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans. In 2012, the erstwhile Super Furry Animals frontman, Gruff Rhys, followed in his relative’s footsteps and toured – for some legs with this year’s Flaming Lips bête noire, Kliph Scurlock – across the Midwest, writing songs as he went. What resulted was a unique record, simultaneously intensely personal and unusually expansive, which includes much of SFA’s famed whimsy but also a real sense of gravity and humility in its treatment of the First Nation peoples and others. From the indie pop of ‘100 Unread Messages’ to the ear-worm electronica of ‘Allweddellau Allweddol’, here is a journey on which every stop is worth making – and yet which also makes sense in itself. Really special.

Dawn Landes, Bluebird Dawn Landes, Bluebird

One of my favourites of last year was Josh Ritter’s The Beast In Its Tracks, and perhaps for that reason I for the longest time tried to avoid including this luminous record in 2014’s top five. Landes and Ritter divorced painfully in 2011, and this record is her side of the break-up story told on Ritter’s LP. I think it may be the more compelling version, because the cracked melodies and keening accompaniment on show here are sparingly heart-breaking. The title track is one of the most simply beautiful songs of the year, whilst ‘Oh Brother’ earns all the comparisons made this year between Landes and Blood On The Tracks-era Dylan: it is not easy to balance anger and tenderness, but Landes achieves both on this remarkable record. She was my accompaniment on a snowy Boxing Day drive; I’m not too big to admit that’s what won Bluebird‘s place on this list. You can’t argue with that kind of pretty.

The War On Drugs, Lost In The DreamThe War On Drugs, Lost In The Dream

There may not be a best-of list produced this year that doesn’t include this entirely unexpected piece of work. The War on Drugs have been making music for years – most famously, Kurt Vile is an ex-member – but they have never burst through in the way they have with this effort, which is best described as Mercury Rev meets Dire Straits. If that makes it sound a teensy bit old-fashioned, I might not be unfair in implying so; there’s something meaty about this LP which consciously recalls the sort of ‘event’ record which isn’t really made these days. At the same time, it sounds extremely fresh – ‘Red Eyes’ in particular sits very comfortably in the current radio landscape, rather than idling at the back of the room waiting for nostalgics at Absolute to playlist it. What I think so many people have responded to in this album is the obvious earnestness of its making: here is music that is cared about by those recording it. That doesn’t make it joyless – quite the opposite – and this mixture of spot-on musicianship, careful songcraft, total commitment and enthusiasm for melody makes Lost In The Dream potentially one for the ages.

St Vincent, St VincentSt. Vincent, St Vincent

I’ve long felt I’m missing something when it comes to St. Vincent. Most everyone whose opinion about music one should respect seems to believe Annie Clark to be something close to the unacknowledged saviour of the pop song, and yet I’ve never managed truly to connect with her work. (Nodding, chin-strokingly, doesn’t count.) But St Vincent hit me straight away, despite – or maybe because of – a sense that Clark has not even tried to leaven her idiosyncrasies this time around. The album’s cover features her dressed in purple and seated on a throne, and this imperious pose is maintained throughout, with songs like ‘Rattlesnake’ and ‘Digital Witness’ sounding like the swaggering sort of cuts which should be selling the units currently flogged by Gaga. At its weirdest – on ‘Surgeon’, perhaps, or ‘Psychopath’ – Clark seems to be willing the listener to disconnect. But there’s something magnetic about music which playfully gives no quarter, when so many songs package themselves as products, or movements morph into genres, and this makes St Vincent in many ways the most exciting record of the year.

Beck, Morning PhaseBeck, Morning Phase

I wanted to smash idols, I promise. I didn’t want to be another writer giving Beck Hansen the thumbs-up, or teaching other listeners to suck eggs. Despite his recording hiatus, which individual interested in music is not aware that Beck is a genius? Which of us would deny an Odelay, Midnite Vultures or Sea Change a place in the pantheon? The astonishing news: this may be at least as good as most of those, and certainly singularly reminiscent, as all critics have noticed, to the latter. Some have suggested this is playing safe; I’m not at all sure this trippy album is what they think it is. Morning Phase breaks like a sunrise, and drifts like purple cloud. It is capacious enough to include the catchy – ‘Heart Is A Drum’ – and the ambient – ‘Waves’. On that latter song, Beck sings, “I move away from this place / In the form of a disturbance / And enter into the world / Like some tiny distortion.” In just that way, Morning Phase gently disrupts the time during which you listen to it; it sounds simple, even reductive (that space-cowboy image on its front cover), but casts around at all times for the grace note and the giddiness that can cast new light on its chosen forms. Honestly super. Cast up your idols, people.

“The Devil’s Pet Baits”

We’re excited to announce that, in the year of the publication by Anthony Horowitz of a large section of Professor Moriarty’s long-lost personal papers, this blog has been granted access to a much shorter, and much earlier, passage from the Napoleon of Crime’s private journals. It is dated December 27th, 1887, and begins in what appears to be the form of a letter. There is no record of it ever being delivered.

Pd_Moriarty_by_Sidney_PagetSir,

Your insouciance is intolerable. As twin poles in the invisible tug of war at the heart of London’s seething underworld, here we have both been, engaged in an absurd chase across the metropolis in search of some poultry. I have followed you, and you have stalked me; we have competed for the crop of a goose, and it is you that have taken home the game. Yet the manner – the arrogance! – of your victory seems calculated to insult, to claim a kind of superiority you may feel but certainly have not won in so trifling a moment. I cannot abide such theatrics. They are the weakest mark of your often admirable character.

For instance, I find your capacity for manipulation remarkable. I confess to a regard for the extent to which you are able to feign unconcern, particularly to even your closest friend. I saw the under-informed chronicler of your exploits enter your rooms on the second morning after Christmas, and I saw him leave; not a trace was there upon his countenance of the grave concern he should have felt. From my cab I had seen that infernal commissionaire rush into Baker Street. I knew what he had in his pockets – my own agents had narrowly missed him at home (the reward he may still share with you will barely pay for the damage to his belongings effected by my men as they searched fruitlessly for the Countess of Morcar’s stone).

You also knew – yes, Moran had seen you near the Hotel Cosmopolitan on the day of the theft -that my network was bent upon liberating the blue carbuncle from that venal aristocrat; you knew, like me, that her possession of it was the result of only the latest in the long line of misdeeds which have characterised the passage of its value between human hands. And you knew, but have shared with no one, that my possession of the stone would have funded many more of my activities – which you so doggedly attempt to frustrate. This contest between you and I which you so thoroughly keep from your literary doctor remains secret to both our advantages – but rarely have you caused me more bother than in this, one of my potentially most lucrative single affairs. Your pace, perhaps, picks up.

Your newspaper advertisement in search of the man who had originally intended to eat the goose in which your commissionaire had found that stone was a wonderful ruse, and of course it occurred to me that, in order to be led to the source of that goose, all I need do was follow you. The bird had disappeared from my own view, too. I should not, in hindsight, have entrusted any moment of the carbuncle’s existence to that fool Ryder. His role in the operation should have remained within the confines of the Countess’s  hotel. My mistake was to assign him the role of carrying the stone from the Cosmopolitan to an agent in Twickenham the following day. His fear of me was so great that he did not reveal my role even when you bullied him so mercilessly in your rooms; I thought it would also be so great to ensure his competence. His bizarre decision to place that stone in a goose is proof enough that even my intellect can at times slip from grace.

I stalked you, then, through Covent Garden market during your search for the source of Ryder’s goose. You – and therefore we – were so close, and at any time I might have successfully overtaken you, fatally for you or otherwise, and skipped ahead a step to the stone … but how might I have accounted for the absurd coincidence of your almost bumping into the rat-faced Ryder himself? Even then, I waited outside your rooms, sure you would call Lestrade or some other of Scotland Yard’s useful idiots, and assumed that the stone, once in the police’s possession, would soon again be mine – a constable on duty is easily paid to be in dereliction of it. Of course, you guessed this. Ryder fled your rooms a free man, the terror which propelled him more of me than of the gallows, and I understand he is already bound for Australia; the stone, meanwhile, remained in your rooms, and in your strong-box. The Countess will reclaim it tomorrow directly from you, and be more vigilant of me than ever (as so she should – for the last time we clashed she almost paid with her life).

There will be no weak link in your chain this time, no chink in the armour of another of your neat solutions. I am, in our shared adventure of the blue carbuncle, undone – and you may pose as the noble fount of festive charity, rather than the sly, deceitful nemesis of an adversary you seek to thwart with every move.

Perhaps one day you will have to admit the truth. Until then, there is only one thing left for me to say.

Merry Christmas, Mr Sherlock Holmes.

Professor James Moriarty

 

 

“How Will You Love, If You Fear So Much?” Neel Mukherjee’s “The Lives of Others”

The Lives Of OthersFor the second year running, the Booker Prize has recognised a novel featuring a Naxalite as a protagonist. Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others takes place in the late-1960s, at the birth of the radical Indian Maoist movement, charting the rise and dispersal of a west Bengali family through years of intense but not always overt social conflict. Last year’s The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri, covered similar ground: family epics with a radical at its centre, the novels’ primary structural differences lie in the figure of the revolutionary himself – in Lahiri’s novel, the Naxalite dies early on but his legacy penetrates deep into the future, whereas in The Lives of Others he is granted a narrative strand of his own – and also and more importantly in the approach to time taken by the two authors.

Lahiri made often violent use of the ellipsis. This necessitated in the novel’s first third a profusion of exposition and backstory. Mukherjee’s novel is much fatter and much slower: it takes its time to build up detail and depth, and though its own forty or fifty years proceed from 1967 backwards, unlike Lahiri’s more contemporary work, its own gaps and omissions work not against the flow of the narrative but in its favour: a missing child or unmarried daughter, a broken marriage or a failing paper mill, seem at first to be simple facts of life, but the delicate flashbacks – never explicit, never showy – serve to fill in, rather than draw attention to, the gaps. This makes it, perhaps, a less frustrating novel – but not always, I think, as successful a one.

The reason for this apparently paradoxical situation, it seems to me, is the novel’s totalising project. Its focus is the Ghosh family, a tribe of well-to-do north Calcutta paper magnates, heirs to the self-made fortune of patriarch Prafullanath (born, according to the family tree – for there is one here, along with a map – in 1898). Fairly early on, it’s plain that the Ghoshes are intended to operate as Indian society writ small, or at least the creaky, shaky elements of Indian society, its inegalitarian impulses and unequal distributions. The Ghoshes are a conservative family, nostalgic for the past and wary of change. At the dawn of Independence, for instance, Prafullanath groans: “Gandhi … wearing his louncloth and walking barefoot – all this unbearable rubbish!” [pg. 239]   The deadening system Prafullanath represents is seen to be self-perpetuating, accepting by those most oppressed by it. For example, the widow of Prafullanath’s dead son is forced to live little better than one of the family’s barely-visible servants, stowed along with her two children ‘below stairs': one granddaughter has never “thought this set-up to be unfair, in the sense of assigning it that particular term and being consequently moved along the path of enquiry on causes and reasons.” pg. 18]   It is precisely this despair that another grandchild, Supratik, runs away with the Naxalites to overturn.

It is all, then, allegory: “the family is the primary unit of exploitation”, Supratik insists at one point [pg. 79], and it’s never a position against which the novel really stands. Its interests are too squarely in mapping the Ghosh family’s fate onto India’s. One of the first adult emotions experienced by one of the favoured granddaughters, after all, is desire, in her case for a sparkly pencil case; the acquisitive drive first of Prafullanath and then his favoured son, Adinath, is seen to power their mistreatment of workers at their paper mills, and their distrust for positive social change which will nevertheless impact negatively upon their ageing business models. (“Why did words such as “sufficient” or “enough” have no meaning, no traction in our lives?” [pg. 99]  From the frustrated Chhaya, too dark-skinned to win a groom and in any case in some form of love with her beta-male brother, Priyonath (himself a repressed coprophiliac), to the defeated poet Bholonath, each of the children whom Prafullanath leaves almost entirely to his reactionary wife, Charubala, are in one manner or another undone by the suffocating atmosphere, its strangled will to power, within the household.

Like India in 1967, then, the Ghosh family is at war with itself. Yet what to Mukherjee is necessary analogy also sits side-by-side with his novel’s other theme, the one from which it derives its hope: that families are also the one place where we can best learn to know the other. The ill-fated fifth child, Sona, appears to experience some form of autism, and at one point, whilst enjoying one of the many equations to which he sets himself, he “lets out an exultant cry, part one note laugh, part shout – his magic number, his old friend, his saviour on the winged horse: one.” [pg. 205]  In Mukherjee’s novel, one is not a propitious number. As its title suggests, what The Lives of Others is most interested in is promoting understanding, and in its many pages of scene-setting it absolutely conjures its world, allowing the reader at least to enter very much into the heads of its characters – each of whom are distinct whilst also being identifiably related. Bhola often experiences “the gap between feelings and their articulation in language” [pg. 141], and it is this chasm, bridgeable only with a sort of honesty and frankness unwelcome in the repressed confines of the Ghoshes’ home, that Mukherjee’s novel taken as a whole seeks to bridge: that is, he takes a broken society, and a broken family, and seeks in depicting the ways in which both are defective to propose the fix.

This is an ambitious and elegant trick for a novel to pull off, and in the novel’s closing stages – which I won’t spoil here, but which alternate, like the rest of the book, between a third-person omniscient, time-unstuck narrative of the Ghosh family, and a much tighter, first-person chronicle of Supratik’s adventures in rural radicalisation – the pace doesn’t so much pick up as begin to proceed in a rhythmic pattern that is not predictable but does offer momentum. Undoubtedly The Lives of Others is completely conceived. I can’t help but feel, though, that it might have benefitted from some of the occassionally over-ruthless editing found in the Lahiri. If last year she went too far, perhaps this year Mukherjee hasn’t gone far enough.

That Goldilocks note seems a good one on which to segue into the prediction game. It seems to me that the three big novels on this year’s shortlist are Smith’s, Flanagan’s and Jacobson’s. Of those, perhaps as a function of my having had longer to do so, it is the latter which has led me most to thought having read it. On the other, Jacobson’s is so personal a vision that it might alienate enough others to preclude it from the prize. I more or less decided between Smith and Flanagan in my review of the Australian novel: How To Be Both feels, appropriately simultaneously, ambitious and playful enough to achieve something really remarkable whilst also covering a breadth of mood. For me, therefore, it is Ali Smith who should win the gong.

“Perfectly Without Meaning”: Joshua Ferris’s “To Rise Again At A Decent Hour”

To-Rise-again-at-a-Decent-HourIn the comments of his perspicacious review of Howard Jacobson’s J, Adam Roberts quoth:

The ‘J-under-erasure’ is quite a powerful little rebus. But it’s also a little too slippery. I’ve seen people flinch when I describe my wife as ‘a Jew’, in a way that doesn’t happen when I describe her as ‘Jewish’ (what’s that Jonathan Miler joke? ‘I’m not a Jew; I’m Jewish. Not the whole hog’). It’s not exactly ‘the n-word’, but there is a valence to ‘the j-word’ that makes it tricky for use in polite society. Jacobson is saying: that’s an index of disgust rather than sensitivity — or he’s saying what the sensitivity is sensitive to is revulsion. I wonder about that.

I have thoughts on this whole discussion after listening to Jacobson extemporise about the novel in the flesh yesterday at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. In particular, he expressed a kind of relief that the moderator, David Baddiel, launched straight into the Jewish question: this has not, apparently, been the frame Jacobson has been using to discuss the novel elsewhere (for example, see his conversation with Stephen Smith on Newsnight). Baddiel rightly pointed out that in a real way this brings into the criticism of the novel its central conceit of denial and absence. The novel is about Jews – why the squeamishness?

This isn’t a review of J, however. It’s a review of Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour:

“A Jew is sitting at a bar when a Jew-hater and a Jew-lover walk in,” he said at last. “They have a seat on either side of the Jew. The Jew-hater tells the Jew that he’s been arguing with the philo-Semite about which of the two of them the Jew prefers. The Jew-hater believes the Jew prefers him over the philo-Semite. The philo-Semite can’t believe that. How can the Jew prefer somebody who hates the Jews with a murderous passion over somebody who throws his arms open for every Jew he meets? ‘So what do you say,’ says the Jew-hater. ‘Can you settle this for us?’ And the Jew turns to the philo-Semite, jerks his thumb back at the Jew-hater, and says, ‘I prefer him. At least I know he’s telling the truth.'” [pg. 69]

The teller of that parable is Uncle Stu, a relative of Connie Plotz, the woman with whom Ferris’s protagonist, Paul O’Rourke, has fallen in love. Paul, a self-involved, under-fulfilled misogynist (“to be cunt gripped is to believe that I have found everything heretofore lacking in my life” [pg. 50]), has pored over the Talmud and developed a taste for kosher meat. He wants to become a Jew, to be a Jew, he even agonises over whether to use the word Jew. There is something false about this passion, of course. As he later realises, “I never really saw any of the Plotzes as people. I only ever really saw them as a family of Jews.” [pg. 150]

If this suggests an old-fashioned linear novel in which the main character Learns Something About Himself, you’d be right. If the thematic repetition between this novel and also suggests either a carefully curated shortlist or a narrowness of vision, we might lean one way or the other on the basis of Ferris’s book, which begins with O’Rourke thinking “golf could be everything” [pg. 5] and ends with him living in a kibbutz helping children. Despite Ferris’s reputation as an irreverent comic novelist, there is something earnest about this book which, curiously, makes it feel more straight-lacedly serious than a dystopian novel about a post-Holocaust Britain. There are lots of lovely moments in the book, for example in sections that deal better with the digital than most contemporary fiction, or which capture the modern workplace in the spot-on fashion for which Ferris first became famous; but all these individual elements do not really build beyond a flip picaresque into something coherent or cohesive.

Why? Paul O’Rourke is a dentist on Park Avenue in New York City, and his life is more or less empty. He chases women, not entirely successfully, and takes up a dizzying array of hobbies which he very quickly drops again. The only thing about which he is truly passionate, except for the Red Sox whose games he rather obsessively records on VHS and watches whilst eating the same meal of chicken and rice, is his work. Tellingly, he describes dentistry as the process of fighting decay: “A dentists is only half the doctor he claims to be. That he’s also half mortician is the secret he keeps to himself.” [pg. 4]  O’Rourke, then, is constantly patching up – painting over – death, for which he has no answer or understanding.

Into this environment intrudes a digital stalker. A website for O’Rourke’s practice appears without his knowledge, then a Facebook page and then a Twitter account. All of these begin to broadcast gnomic shibboleths which have the air of scripture, but which do not appear to be sourced from any known holy book. Finally, O’Rourke begins to receive emails, to which he begins to reply in a demand for explanation: “You’re the full measure of a man,” the elusive correspondent writes, “thoroughly contemporary, at odds with the American dream of upward mobility and its empty material success, and in search of real meaning for you life.” [p. 143]   One is meant, I think, to doubt much of this assessment, but meaning nevertheless sits rather awkwardly at the centre of Ferris’s novel.

After all, the meaning O’Rourke ultimately finds is fictive. The emails and tweets and Facebook statuses, it turns out, are designed to lead O’Rourke to the Ulms, long-thought-lost descendents of the Amalekites (“the ancient enemy of the Jews,” says Uncle Stu, “an eternally irreconcilable enemy”) to whose number O’Rourke purportedly belongs. The Ulms are, of course, fictional – and yet they lead Paul away from all the many meanings in the novel which do exist, all the very real issues upon which Ferris touches, towards a curious accommodation with the occult. In the LRB, Thomas Jones has written grumpily about this: “I’d like to be able to say that all this is a sly commentary on the invisibility of the Palestinian experience in mainstream American culture, but I suspect that it’s merely a symptom of it. The Palestinians get three passing mentions in the novel. […] The Bedouin – a real-life oppressed minority – are silent, shadowy, remote, picturesque; a blank screen for O’Rourke to project his psychodrama onto; far less real to him, and to Ferris’s novel, than the fantasy Ulms.”

This is a real problem. Even in a novel as supplely written at Ferris’s, it’s hard for the narrative to dodge and weave enough to get away from the ways in which it squarely avoids the very questions it sets out to ask. “Aren’t you capable of finding anything beautiful in the world?” O’Rourke asks his redoubtable hygienist, and one of the convoluted and mutually-misunderstanding conversations which have presumably led in large part to this novel’s reputation for being funny ensues; but what is the book’s own answer to its protagonist’s query? From the reclusive millionaire and fellow Ulm whom Paul falls in with – with satirical shades of Ayn Rand – to the wily old bookseller who finds the Ulmish scriptures – a bit of Michael Chabon – everything about this novel (as well as being unremittingly male in perspective) leads Paul and the reader further down a rabbit hole with no apparent escape on the other side. Is this the point? Maybe. Is it satisfying? No.

Ultimately, the book offers a limp escape hatch: “It is about people, not God.” [pg. 300]  This, too, is a phrase placed in the mouth – that site of much of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour‘s action – of Uncle Stu, and yet the gravity of the novel, its momentum, is always amongst the Ulms. This is not a novel without praise – the New York Times loved it, and in a wilfully impish piece in the Guardian today Robert McCrum says it should, but won’t, win the Booker. It feels to me, however, under-baked: perhaps that’s why even it’s much-lauded jokes fell flat for me, because a belly-laugh begins in the build-up. This is a smoothly written, but bumpily-executed, book, less wise than wise-cracking. It baffles me that this, rather than Siri Hustvedt’s expansive and eloquent The Blazing World, was chosen as one of US fiction’s first representatives on a Man Booker shortlist.

“The Strange, Terrible Neverendingness of Human Beings”: Richard Flanagan’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”

IMG_0166.JPGYou probably do not know as much as you think you do about the Burmese railway. I refer, of course, to the ‘Line’, that insane undertaking of the Japanese army and its POWs during the Second World War, in which 100,000 people died whilst laboriously laying train track intended to connect occupied Thailand with Burma, where supplies were required and would otherwise need to be transported by sea. You probably do not know as much about this as you think you do.

Not only was the bridge over the River Kwai not in fact over the River Kwai; not only did Alec Guinness’s final collapse in the film of that name do little justice to the true conditions of the railway; the men who built that run of track are, of course, in a real way inaccessible to us. Our imaginations of the war, and of the Line, are coloured by ideas of heroism and of villainy, of the futility of conflict or the valour of survival. These are all prisms, and they break the light in artificial ways.

“It was as if,” we read very early in Richard Flanagan’s novel of the Line, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, “life could be shown but never explained, and words – all the words that did not say things directly – were for him the most truthful.” [pg. 11] The ‘him’ is the young Dorrigo Evans, a man who grows up in small-town Tasmania, eventually enlists and is captured by the Japanese, and ultimately returns to Australia as a hero for the way he leads a troop of POWs (bar a few notable, haunting exceptions) to survival. He is something of a poet – his favourite verse is Tennyson’s, in particular that paen to unfulfillable yearning, Ulysses – and his love of words leads him ceaselessly to look for meaning under the symbols of the everyday. As this passage hints, throughout his life he never entirely succeeds.

This despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that many see in him their meaning: before the war, the love of his life (and the wife of his uncle), perhaps, or after it the string of mistresses he keeps when the marriage he falls into proves loveless; but also the soldiers of the Line who know him as ‘Big Guy’, or the adoring public who make him a hero. These meanings, too, are shown to be insufficient. Dorrigo, however, “did not believe in virtue. Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause.” [pg. 53]

Flanagan is very good, in fact, on the ambivalence of the veteran. “Many years later he found it hard to admit that during the war, though a POW for three and a half years, he had in some fundamental way been free.” [pg. 337] Evans, like his fellow survivors, does not remember the Line unfondly: “Jimmy Bigelow,” for example, “felt himself all appearance with nothing inside” [pg. 33]; ultimately, Evans’s troop are not just survivors of the Line, but of life, “of grim, pinched decades who have been left with this irreducible minimum: a belief in each other” [pg. 204]. Evans himself drags his feet at the end of the war, staying in service as long as he can without becomoing a professional soldier; whilst abroad he can imagine the woman to whom he rashly proposed as an impossible symbol of home; once he returns there, she is simply a person he doesn’t know or even like so very much. War is hell. War is not.

Flanagan conveys all this in a beautifully constructed manner: the novel’s three strands, a pre-war section, the events of the Line (which do not begin until around a quarter of the way in), and the post-war life of a frustrated medic and war hero, slip and weave around each other, never confusing but often demanding: the reader must pay attention, and as the novel goes on must also move further and further beyond Dorrigo’s perspective, which dominates early on. In particular, Flanagan attempts to encompass the Japanese perspective in the book’s final third, investigating their own post-war revisionisms and ambivalences (“Tomokawa had always irritated Nakamura with his narrowness and obsequiousness, but he now saw his old corporal in an entirely different light” [pg. 379]). There are some astonishingly powerful sequences – the scene in which Evans attempts to amputate a man for the second time as gangrene sets in is visceral and unsparing, whilst a later moment in which he and his post-war family are caught in a bush fire is one of the most tense pieces of writing I’ve experienced in a long while. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is in the main an extremely well-constructed, and well-expressed, novel.

To be sure, the structure sometimes feels off – that late-stage sympathy for the Japanese in particular feels tacked-on, but there are also occasional over-reliances on particular formulations (for instance, Flanagan has a fondness for describing anuses as “turkheads of filthy rope” [pg. 218 et al]). The choice to conjure Evans’s troop both as individuals and as an indistinguishable collective can sometimes veer into caricature, and sometimes into confusion. It is hard to criticise a highly ambitious novel for not always quite living up to its own laudably high bar, but carp I must.

But must the Booker judges? My feeling is that this is the sort of novel that they may well like: it features a tortured (male) protagonist (“The more people I am with, Dorrigo thought, the more alone I feel” [pg. 110]); it is very lyrically written, and yet does not shy away from violent realism; and it is a worthy historical novel, unusually but politely structured. There is cross-cultural empathy, but also unapologetic representations of dehumanising clash and unavoidable enmity (“Nakamura no longer seemed to Dorrigo Evans the strange but human officer he had played cards with the night before […] but the terrifying force that takes hold of individuals, groups, nations and bens and warps them against their natures” [pg. 293]). This is a complex, careful and yet vivid novel.

Do I love it? I’m not sure I do. Am I meant to? Perhaps not – it is a sign of the ambition of this admirable work that it holds us, as Dorrigo might, at arm’s length, even as it spares us few grisly details. It is a novel of, about and with ambivalence; little wonder I feel it, too, as a reader. But will the judges? This one’s a dark horse.