Everyone’s habits – not just for listening, but I’d imagine for almost everything – had to shift this year, and I don’t suppose mine were any different. I discover new music, dinosaur that I am, through record stores, live shows and conversations with other musicians … all of which were in short supply this year. That left me relying at least in part, and as in so many walks of life during 2020, on algorithms. I confess I also listened to older music more – the comfort of the familiar, and perhaps the past, was often welcome this year.
Nevertheless, I think 2020 was actually an extremely good year for new music – the best in some time, perhaps. Some musicians completed projects they hadn’t dreamed of at the start of the year (Dan Bern’s Quarantine Me); others released more albums than usual (Taylor Swift, with both Folklore and Evermore); still others brought forward releases – though some, of course delayed them. I’ve enjoyed music this year from Charley Crockett and Calexico, Fiona Apple and Sturgill Simpson; Pharis and Jason Romero, Phoebe Bridgers and Darlingside, beabadoobee and Bob Dylan.
But this year more than any other, the five albums that stand out are – though, I’d naturally argue, musically outstanding and often sharply innovative – primarily those which gave me most joy, that afforded the most catharsis or escape. And these are they – the albums I’ll take with me from this strangest of years.
Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter
Originally slated for release in August, Marling brought forward this album – releasing it digitally in April – in an attempt to “provide some sense of union”. She deserves a medal. This album and its songs – from wonderful opener ‘Alexandra’ to evocative closer ‘For You’ – offered real rays of light for me during that first, queasily uncertain period of lockdown here in the UK. Not only is Song For Our Daughter a thorough-going gift in context, though; in content, too, it is easily the best album Marling has produced since I Speak Because I Can, and it may be the best of her career: melodic but also subtle, full of lyrical cleverness without being over-wrought. It is a proper album for the ages. Most importantly, though, it was an album for this one. I’ll be forever grateful to it.
Waxahatchee – St Cloud
In an interview for BBC 6 Music in the summer, Phoebe Bridgers called this sinuous, sly record her album of the pandemic: it came at just the right time in the US to soundtrack Bridgers’ stay-at-home period, and Katie Crutchfield’s wry, witty songwriting – backed unerringly by a unique harmonic palette and taste for phrasing – gave me as close to an arms-raising moment as I reached in 2020. This is an anthemic LP for anti-anthemic times, and in ‘Can’t Do Much’ it might boast my song of the year. This is the album I’ll continue most to associate with 2020, I think – for better and, perhaps, for worse.
Thundercat – It Is What It Is
While we’re on the subject of wit and wily humour, Thundercat’s resplendent LP has been under-accounted for in year’s best lists – for reasons I can’t figure. Made up mostly of short, but symphonic, snatches of song, from its samples to its collaborators this is an expertly curated tour through Thundercat’s innately fascinating blend of jazz, hip-hop, funk and soul. Stephen Lee Brunner’s background as a bassist is in full evidence in many of these grooves; but his excellences as a lyricist should also not be in doubt – ‘Black Qualls’, ‘Dragonball Durag’ and ‘King of the Hill’, for example, are all pitch-perfect mini-dramas. Beautiful vocals, lush-but-spare arrangements, a wickedly brief run-time and some of the most glorious transitions since of Montreal in their pomp – it’s all here. Give it the Grammy, already.
Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers
This one’s tricky. As old-fashioned a country break-up album as you can imagine, Old Flowers is replete with crystalline songwriting and utterly luminous vocal performances – record opener ‘Burlap String’ is improbably good on both counts. But, like the rest of the album, it is almost unseemly in its sadness. This year, it wasn’t always the right time to listen to so acute a record about loss; but you’ll search long and hard to find so lovingly put-together an album this year, so complete a statement, so beautiful a thing. It’s glorious. It draws you to it despite how miserable it threatens to make you feel at a time when you don’t need any particular help to feel doomy. And yet, like all good break-up albums, at the flickering heart of the matter is love – is hope. It takes your breath away.
John Craigie – Asterisk The Universe
Whatever raised a smile in 2020 had to work hard to do so. But in this, perhaps his most rounded release to date, folksinger John Craigie applied a lightness of touch that got under your defences easily – and left you smiling. Mostly, this is thanks to Craigie’s raconteur spirit, on which he has built his growing reputation amongst the Americana cognoscenti. But there’s more here than a troubadour with a guitar – some properly catchy arrangements and some very tasteful production really lift the material to the next level. If ‘Can’t Do Much’ is my song of the year, it has strong competition from ‘Don’t Deny’; and my lyric of the year? “I always wanted to be a healer and give out medicine / I was too dumb to be a doctor so I do this.” In 2020, the hierarchy between these two healers might have been in greater relief than usual; but both, in their own ways, mattered.
Every Christmas Eve I read “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”, Sherlock Holmes’ only festive adventure. This year, I offer a little marginalia from what I surmise to be the still-unpublished diaries of Holmes’s amanuensis, Dr John Watson. The entry seems to have been written towards the end of the Great Hiatus, with Holmes still believed to be dead. I’ve transcribed it below, as my response to this year’s re-reading of BLUE.
May you all have a peaceful Christmas.
It has been my habit of the last three years to visit, on the second morning after Christmas, the area around Baker Street, from where in earlier days I enjoyed a number of memorable adventures with my good and unusual friend, Mr Sherlock Holmes.
Some of these adventures I have compiled into small stories as well as my talent allows, and these have gathered around themselves a small readership who seemed enthusiastic for them – and of course most especially for the great detective who sat at their heart. Indeed, it may be not so bold as to say that for many readers these curious – sometimes macabre – tales became a part of their routine, an aspect of their everyday ritual that has, in its absence from their lives, created something of a cavity.
It is undeniable that I, too, have experienced a sense of loss in the years since the disappearance over the waters at Reichenbach of my erstwhile companion. There he fell in mortal combat with a foe whose demise – won entirely through the sacrifice of that former inhabitant of Marylebone’s most storied address – brought England and Europe more peace than they might otherwise possibly have hoped. Somehow, I regret to admit, even this posthumous victory cannot, on a personal level at least, make up for the withdrawal from my own life that his death occasioned. I am, as are perhaps we all, the poorer for Sherlock Holmes’s passing from this world.
It is on the second morning after Christmas, then, that I choose to pay my seasonal respects to this most irreplaceable of figures. It was at Baker Street upon this day in the year 1887, now six years ago, that I witnessed Sherlock Holmes show Christian mercy to a villain of rare duplicity. It has been said of my friend in the years since his death that he was cold, uncaring, perhaps inhuman; in his sitting room at 221B during that Christmas, he proved this partial understanding of his singular nature quite wrong. He let free a thief, and hoped in so doing to avoid a role in the forging of a fiend. I have scoured the newspapers internationally in the years since for further mention of the scoundrel that stole the Countess of Morcar’s blue carbuncle and sought to blame an innocent man for the act; I have found none. Sherlock Holmes, it seems, indeed that day saved a soul.
Would that he were still here to do so. As I perambulate down first Thayer Street then Paddington Street, and finally turn onto Baker Street, I am filled with the stirrings not just of nostalgia but what I believe I am not over-hasty in terming grief – a yawning sense within myself of an irretrievable lacuna which cannot be filled. Mary tells me that this is normal and to be expected, but when I imagine the widows of the men with whom I fought in Afghanistan, or the children of the murdered parents whose killers Holmes would so often and ingeniously uncover, I feel somehow unworthy of the emotion they would apply to their own predicament: am I not happily married, comfortable in my station and ensconced in successful practice? Is my material wealth, and physical health, not the best it has ever been? On what basis should I complain or mourn?
As I pass by Mrs Hudson’s door, too shy to call in unannounced on this unusually emotional of days, the pangs that I seek to suppress are at their strongest. There are children in the streets, proudly holding aloft the toy brought to them by Father Christmas only a few days before; courting couples take a stroll and exchange news of their respective family Christmases; old men pause by shop windows, filling their time in idle consideration of the wares on offer in Baring-Gould Books or Gattis’s butchershop. Families promenade; hansoms clatter. Doors sport beleagured wreaths, placed upon their persons in some betokening of the Yuletide.
The spirit of the season, in other words, hangs heavy in the air, and returns me to those events of six years ago in manners both pleasant and painful. Yet reminiscence, perhaps – a paying of tribute to the happier times of yesteryear, and the people with us then who, though here no longer, contributed their jollity and character so definitively to the agreeableness of the day – is the keener sensation. Therefore the pleasure of recollection must and will over-ride the sadness of loss, and perhaps create a space for yet further improvement. It is Christmas, after all, and a time for hope – if also, in each of our own ways, for reflection.
Let us raise a glass on this curious Christmas, then, to perhaps a better year to come – though, most of all and abidingly, to absent friends.
When 2020’s Booker shortlist was first announced, media coverage largely focused on its “diversity”. The primary lens through which these six books were viewed was its “giant-killing” character: Mantel and Amis, for example, had been expelled from the inner sanctum of the prize – one which many had already decided was Mantel’s to lose – in favour of debut novelists and “little-known” names. But hidden only barely behind this headline was, in the summer of Black Lives Matter, the shortlist’s Booker-unusual heterogeneity: two African women, the Ethiopian-American Maaza Mengiste and the Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga, were accompanied by Avni Doshi, an American-Indian based in Dubai, and Brandon Taylor, an African-American gay man. The two white authors were both US-based: Douglas Stuart, an ex-pat Scot, and Diane Cook, a former producer of This American Life. Not one of these books is written by a novelist currently working in the UK. On the one hand, given the heavily American slant of the authors, this was proof that those concerns of some years ago – that the Booker would drift away from its “Commonwealth” roots and begin to reward authors eligible for prizes elsewhere – were not necessarily misplaced (although this isn’t the same as them mattering); on the other, it was hard to remember a Booker shortlist that had offered so varied and exciting an array of voices.
What this coverage missed, however, was how cohesive a shortlist these six novels in fact make. The events of all but one take place within about seventy years of each other; that odd-one-out, Cook’s The New Wilderness, is also the only novel that does not adopt a rigorously realist approach. All of these novels hinge on parent-child relationships; all investigate the impacts of trauma; almost all exhibit a tight grain, focusing on quotidian detail and sometimes exhausting list-making. Ultimately, most of these novels also don’t add up to the sum of their parts, or don’t quite meet their potential. Three are of a quality that might, in this reader’s view, commend them as a winner of the prize. But almost every one of these books is in one way or another a flawed attempt by a talented author to address the violence of our times. Only one book even of the shortlist’s best three, I think, escapes the traps into which the others fall.
I’ll get to which of these novels I think uniquely meets its mark, but let me start with a good example of one which doesn’t, and why: Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, a novel which traces the life of its titular Glaswegian youth from poverty-stricken childhood on a 1980s housing estate to a poverty-stricken tenement in the 1990s. Stuart has been clear that the novel is semi-autobiographical: like Shuggie’s, Stuart’s own mother experienced alcoholism; her addiction destroyed her relationships, her body and her mind. Shuggie’s mother is Agnes, who stumbles from ill-advised affair to ill-advised affair, and who – we are shown – was subject to abuse from her own parents. Stuart renders Thatcher’s Glasgow as an unremittingly grim place, with even those moments of something approaching consolation that are grasped by his characters ultimately feeling empty or disappointing. In this, Shuggie’s milieu mirrors how he feels about life with his mother: “the stretches of sobriety were fleeting and unpredictable and not to be fully enjoyed” (p. 219). Shuggie Bain is not a novel to have fun with.
It is, though, hugely successful in its feat of misery-building: whenever a moment seems to have happened that might herald better times ahead, Stuart swipes it away again. “At first the gaffer, a sinewy pragmatic man, had given the well-practice speeches,” we read about the first employment of Shuggie’s elder brother, which it is hoped will provide the family with an income and teach him a skill. “As the apprentice went on, and Leek kept staring through him, the speeches slowly filled with bitter bile” (p. 147). Amid these unremitting degradations, Agnes keeps going – “everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high” (p. 268) – and this gruelling endurance is encouraged, too, in the reader. Within this context, there are many memorable episodes and lines – at times Shuggie Bain reads more immediately and truly than any other novel on this list. But it does tend to meander, and its wider purpose feels opaque. Economic inequalities of the sort experienced by the Bains remain rife; alcoholism still destroys families; children are still exploited. But Shuggie Bain is – as these quotations may have shown – too sunk in the direct experience of Shuggie necessarily to read outwards beyond it. Still, a novel can reserve the right to aim only to create empathy in the reader for its main character. The issue here is that the protagonist of Shuggie Bain is really Agnes – and yet the novel can’t quite bring itself into sufficient proximity to her. She remains closed off from us throughout, distant and mysterious. The book struggles, then, to bridge several of its gaps. It could have done with some tighter editing: a trimming of its sometimes leaden prose might have helped its purpose peek more proudly out.
Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar, on the other hand, performs some similar tricks but much more supply – and therefore successfully. Its protagonist, Antara, is an Indian woman living in Pune with her American husband; as her mother, the tellingly named Tara, succumbs to dementia and becomes more and more dependent upon her daughter, Antara must reckon with their troubled past and fraught relationship. Like Agnes, Tara is the pivotal character of the novel; but, unlike Stuart, Doshi provides us through flashbacks with just enough access to her life to understand its impacts. Tara was forced into a controlling marriage, and squeezed into an uncomfortable domestic shape by a commanding mother-in-law; she spent the rest of her life – and all of Antara’s itinerant childhood – trying to escape from other people’s control (she “always ran from anything that felt like oppression” (p. 52). This results in an almost deliberately dysfunctional life for the both of them, and Antara is brought up first in an ashram and then at a convent school. Neither of these cultish environments encouraged her to develop a self. As Tara grew older and more bitter, she too took to blocking off Antara’s paths and permitted self-expressions. As Antara in turn grows older, and begins to reckon with the prospect of her own motherhood, we see in economical detail how the consequences of parental abuse can travel through generations.
Perhaps Burnt Sugar works so well because all of its characters, not just the mother figure, are distant and attenuated: at one point, Antara muses that “she cannot remember what I felt for Ma at that time because the feeling lacked a familiar name” (p. 112) – in other words, she is unable to express her emotions, and cannot therefore fully experience them. This is not an usual feeling for Antara: the novel ends with her literally shut out from her own family, waiting to be let back in. Self-discovery is threatening to her: at one point, she ceases to see a therapist “because she asked too many questions” (p. 178). This is a novel, in other words, about the inability to connect – and it succeeds beautifully in creating a hugely compelling narrative which nevertheless exhibits the coolness its characters feel. Antara’s husband – a gently abusive presence himself, more from ignorance than intent, but no less damagingly – “tells everyone there were no jarring charges when [she] moved into his flat, that [her] life merged seamlessly with his” (p. 21). This is a novel about people learning how to live in a way that has weight.
If it sounds as if Burnt Sugar might be the solitary success of this shortlist that I proposed earlier, it isn’t, quite: it is beautifully written and wrought, if by its end a little on the nose; yet it cannot fail but to leave the reader locked out by novel’s end, like its protagonist. It is, though, a very good book – which alas Mengiste’s The Shadow King never quite manages to be. Baggily structured and written in a curiously prolix style, in its better moments it reminds me, and comes with the endorsement, of Aminatta Forna – but without the passion, the fire, that fills that writer’s prose. The story of an orphan, Hirut, who is taken in as a maid by an aristocratic family in 1930s Ethiopia, the novel seeks to provide an alternative narrative of Mussolini’s invasion of Haile Selassie’s kingdom of 1935. Hirut’s master/guardian is one of Selassie’s leading generals, but as the war becomes one of partisan attrition in the peaks and dips of Ethiophia’s Highlands, it is the women who have fled the towns and villages that become more and more central to the story – and critical to the conflict, or at least the survival of the Ethiopian nation as embodied in its people (the Emperor, after all, flees to Bath to listen to classical music on his phonograph). The binaries of war, however, are broken down when Hirut encounters an Italian war photographer, Ettore.
Few of these strands are fully fleshed-out, however: Selassi gets some interludes which feel almost like satire or parody, except they are imbued with what one assumes is meant to be emotional significance; Ettore and Hirut’s relationship – if that’s what it is – is under-developed and swamped by events; the eponymous Shadow King – a sort of guerrilla figurehead almost conjured into existence by the women of the war – doesn’t appear until half-way through the book. There is a lot going on: Hirut’s interactions with her adoptive guardians, theirs with each other; the war, but also the culture that predates and survives it; the Italians get some chapters in an attempt to depict events from their perspective; there’s a frame narrative which shunts the action forwards to 1974, the year before Selassie’s death. If Burnt Sugar is a novel about people who feel little, The Shadow King is one about people who do too much. This is part of the novel’s project – its women achieve more than is imagined for them, and in the face of obstacles worse than they might have feared. But it asks a lot of the novel’s spine, and it bows to accommodate the weight.
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body – which takes its title from an essay by Teju Cole, in which he shows how Western society’s reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attack of 2015 emphasised the manner in which it under-values suffering in the global south, but also how societies are more capable of damaging themselves than any external enemy – is also a book in which much happens. But its characters – in particular the protaginist Tambudzai, who has previously appeared in Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not – are much more clearly and confidently drawn, and they therefore carry the burden of the eventful plot through which they move. The setting here is Harare of the late-1990s, and the reader finds Tambudzai close to rock-botton within it, living in a hostel and out of work, the economy of post-independence Zimbabwe has not proven to be good for her – or for many of her contemporaries. This is simultaneously a novel of the Western tradition and thoroughly done with it, aware of the damage it does to people like Tambudzai.
This Mournable Body is therefore a novel suffused with righteous anger – but also the frustrated selfishness it can encourage. In an early scene, she refuses to help a woman she knows from the hostel, beset by a crowd because of the way she is dresse, mostly so the crowd will never know of the conditions they share; throughout, she openly expresses emotions often coded as ugly in the novels of the Western bourgeoisie, such as envy and bitterness. She imagines that everyone has it better (“You had not believed there was such a thing on this earth as a European without money” [p. 164]); but then – particularly in the case of Zimbabwe’s white elite – she is not exactly wrong. Indeed, Tambudzai is only in the straits she is in because she could not stand to bend to the unspoken rules of the post-colonial economy: at the PR agency where she worked, her copywriting was routinely claimed by her white colleagues, and she resigned in protest. Harare, however, wears her down. When she reconnects with on her co-workers, she learns that their new firm’s clients “are from Sweden, Denmark, some from Germany. Places like that” (p. 242). Zimbabwe, in other words, still does not work for Zimbabweans. But this time, Tambudzai signs up.
Dangarembga writes some very funny scenes about the tourist company Tambudzai joins – they specialist in “ghetto safaris”, touring rich Westerners around poverty-stricken neighbourhoods and villages, but in an entirely sanitised way that allows the travellers to feel worldly without risk. The novel’s dialogue is often fizzing with dark humour. No one emerges well from such close proximity to the compromises of Mugabe-era Zimbabwe; and yet the novel’s ending is hopeful in its return to Tambudzai’s ancestral home, its recommitment to heritage and community – even in the face of all that assails it. Dangarembga paints a picture of a complicit society – one which, in her words during a recent interview of the LRB Bookshop podcast, allowed guerillas to become their government, and which now faces those consequences. But she also shows how, in the context of a world which still seeks to oppress its people, Zimbabwe can reclaim itself by reimagining itself. “Your education is not only in your head anymore,” we read at the very end of the novel. In this moment, colonial education becomes of utility to the educated, rather than merely the educator. Tambudzai is compromised – but also contains the potential to move beyond the one-way exchange that has placed in such subordination. This is a powerful ending, and the novel is a powerful embodiment of the theme, and I can see it taking the prize for its temerity and tenderness.
This Mournable Body, then, is one of the three best novels on the shortlist. It is a picaresque, an episodic litany, and this may not be to every reader’s tastes (mine included). But it is very smart, and builds a world and a cast of characters which feel not just extremely real – but urgent. Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, too, aims for urgency – its vision of a relatively near-future, in which the planet is a blasted heath and its environment ruined by human activity, is created expressly to shock the reader, to scare us into action. It reads a little like Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, both in that it is modishly dystopian and a little like a novel treatment for a movie which does not yet exist. In this it is extremely well turned: it is probably the most readable novel on the shortlist, and easily the most tightly, intelligently plotted. All of its characters – even this novel’s central mother-daughter relationship of Bea and Agnes – are, however, more like casting-call sketches than fully realised human beings: the cynical alpha male, the thoughtful professor, the regretful female collaborator. In part, this might be deliberate – the novel centres on a group of people who have opted to leave the poisoned, polluted City to live primitive lives in nature’s last bailiwick, the Wilderness State; primitive lives lead, perhaps, to primordial types, the very notion of character breaking down as bourgeois reality disintegrates. Certainly the opening scene of Bea giving birth to a baby already dead, burying it and then walking away from the grave as if little has happened suggests that the hard-scrabble stuff of mere survival alters her perceptions of what can be coped with. Similarly, the cynical alpha male, Carl, predicts that the thoughtful professor’s style of consensual leadership “won’t last forever” – in other words, mores change as circumstances do. But the novel doesn’t quite make – and certainly does not sell – its putative case that this requires a different approach to characterisation, and besides I’d be troubled by the idea that somehow humans without the trappings of Western civilisation are not-quite-humans. The apocalypse may come and go, but interiority needs closer attention than this.
The novel’s world-building, too, feels less fleshed-out than it might have been. The literary readers that the Booker attracts will perhaps feel this less keenly, but for a reader who even dabbles in the science fictional there will be too many gaps in this future for it quite to convince. Human civilisation has retreated into a huge City, for example, which has taken over almost all land and in which people live in endless high-rises, supported by barren industrial landscapes which harvest resources and play host to servers. How did this happen? We’re not told. Why do only children seem to sicken from the pollution? This is unclear. How has there not been political instability brought about by these clearly intolerable conditions, particularly given the rumours of the Private Lands where the elite live in luxury? We don’t know. Likewise, the mechanics of the Wilderness State – which is surrounded by a road and kept in pristine, edenic purity by a network of Rangers with whom Bea’s group must periodically check in – feel decidedly uncertain, not least in how it – and only it – has been spared the ecological devastation clearly in place elsewhere, or how a region traversible by foot and ringable by road can also contain the range of landscapes the group hike through and over. In other words, both characters and setting serve the specific story Cook has designed them to tell – but in the absence of cromulence in its underpinnings that story can, whatever the virtues of its purpose, feel rather thin.
This question of texture brings us to what I think is not just the best book on this shortlist, but possibly the best I’ve read all year: Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. The story of a gay African-American from the gritty end of the deep South, it is a campus novel with many layers, in which the protagonist is quietly, but viciously, excluded from the campus. Every one of this novel’s interactions is slick with fraught social tension, tiny micro-aggressions and entirely unspoken, always unacknowledged and sometimes (though rarely) unintended injustices. Taylor manages to conjure these moments in which nothing and yet everything is said, and does so magnetically. He limits himself to only a few set-pieces – a lake-side night-time party, a dinner at a friend’s house, a meeting in the laboratory where the novel’s protagonist, Wallace, works away at his thesis – and yet pours so much significance into these moments that they reveal the volume that events truly contain, however placid their surface. A characteristic formulation might be: “She hates him because he works, but he works only so that people might not hate him” (p. 98); in other words it is impossible in the world of Real Life to do right. Wallace himself is beaten out of shape by the ways in which his background of poverty, his race and his sexuality not just lock him out of the society to which he strives to belong, but actively encourage or cue people to attack him; we learn later on that he is the victim of childhood sexual abuse. As in Burnt Sugar, the sins of one generation pay dividends in the next.
Wallace is a repressed character, one who rarely acts on the dark observations some part of him is constantly making (on one of the few occasions he does, disaster ensues). “When I left it behind me,” he confesses late in the novel, “when I got up the money to go to school and get away, I sealed it all behind me, because when you go to another place you don’t have to carry the past with you” (p. 201). But, of course, you do; and, likewise, every present will beset you with further obstacles, different kinds of violence. To learn to deal with one kind is to learn to accept there will be others. Instead, Wallace is for much of the novel caught between knowing he is a victim, understanding the impacts of injustice, but incapable of doing anything about it. Like Burnt Sugar, Real Life deliberately keeps the reader at arm’s-length; unlike that otherwise excellent novel, Taylor’s turns this into a positive, into part of the effect – the message – of the novel. Taylor has written an acutely elegant, if also deeply discomfiting, depiction of the Catch-22 in which so many are trapped:
He could say any of the thing he has wanted to say since he came here, about how they treat him, about how they look at him, about what it feels like when the only people who look like him are the janitors, and they regard him with suspicion. He could say one million things, but he knows that none would matter. (p. 255)
Real Life is beautifully written in its furious restraint. In how it expresses itself, the novel captures something true about the ways in which many people are forced to express themselves. Every part of Taylor’s novelistic project, then – its prose, its structure, its characterisation, its setting – complement and conspire with the others. Some readers have accused its remarkably crisp prose of betraying its roots in an MFA programme, of reading superficially or obnoxiously; all this misses the novel’s point, and the manner in which it refines the vulgarities of the society to which Wallace so desperately seeks admission. It is the debut novel of a writer already praised for his short fiction, but it is preternaturally mature and alive to what the novel can do. I can’t think of a foot it puts wrong, once on admits its project – from complicating the cliché of the strong, silent Black man to rejecting the common frameworks of the “queer” novel, even the tropes it brushes past are eschewed and transformed in the course of its pages. If ultimately the 2020 Booker shortlist is rather less diverse in its subject matter as it is in the backgrounds of its authors, or if many of these books unbalance themselves in one or another, Real Life is as deserving a Booker winner as any novel that has ever won the prize. And, yes, it is better than the Mantel.
On September 12th, 2015, Anna and I drove for lunch to the home of some good friends. The journey took about an hour, and on the way we tuned in the radio; the winner of that year’s Labour leadership election was about to be announced.
By the time we arrived at our destination, our friends were genuinely excited; during Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable campaign throughout that summer, they had attended one of his many rallies and been both surprised and inspired by the sense of energy and enthusiasm he had been evoking everywhere he spoke. More or less their first words to us as we crossed their threshold were, “Isn’t it great?!” I felt like a terrible Eeyore when I replied, in what I imagine to have been something of a whine, “Is it, though?”
Corbyn was re-elected leader in 2016, of course; in 2017, he led the party to a dead-heat with Theresa May’s Conservatives, in what was widely seen not just among the party faithful as something of a personal triumph. His defeat to Boris Johnson in the 2019 General Election, however, was perhaps not the moment of his ultimate humiliation; that came on the day before Halloween 2020, when he was suspended from the party he had just months before led for questioning the findings of the EHRC’s report into Labour anti-semitism during his tenure.
I have spent much of the last five years suspended in precisely the uncomfortable position in which I found myself on that day in September 2015: not wishing to pour cold water on the phenomenon of Corbyn’s revitalisation of the left, and yet entirely unconvinced that its – geddit? – centre could hold. I wrote a little about this right here back in 2016. But the truth is that I have also spent more of the last five years than I might have imagined during that drive through the Oxfordshire countryside on trying to persuade people that anti-semitism not only exists, but does so in plain sight – and often dwells deeply in their own thinking. I could in fact link now to multiply recursive Facebook threads; but I won’t. Thank me later.
In Julia Neuberger’s useful formulation, “What marks out antisemitism from other forms of racism … [is] that Jews are to blame for everything, and are simultaneously useless and too powerful” (Antisemitism, p. 27). I’ve seen this time and again during Corbyn’s tenure (and will no doubt continue to do so); anti-semitism is so difficult precisely because it is so supple, so internally inconsistent. Similarly, the manner in which it came to be the principle objection to his leadership among Corbynism’s enemies on Labour’s right simultaneously emphasised it as a racism so toxic that the left would aggressively denounce it – but also rendered it a totemic dispute on which his supporters could not allow themselves to act. That Corbyn himself adopted this position – unable to act on antisemitism because he saw accusations of it not as an attack on antisemites but upon himself – was one of the defining tragedies of his leadership. Corbyn was perhaps the least ready for leadership of all the Campaign Group MPs who might otherwise have stood in 2015, had they not already done so in prior contests. But it would still have been so easy for him to act against antisemitism; yet still he would not.
Corbyn’s leadership was in this sense a Greek Tragedy, undone by its own weaknesses, its own peculiar forms of arrogance. In the original Greek, the name of the goddess of retribution, Nemesis, translates as “to give what is due”. When the greek poet Mesomedes wrote – in a hymn to the goddess composed during the second century AD – that she was the “winged balancer of life, dark-faced goddess, daughter of Justice”, I think he hit upon the essential unfairness of many of her retributions: she is of Justice, but at one remove from her; she is dark-faced, not bathed in the calm light of blind equity. Corbyn’s fate – and that of Corbynism – isn’t necessarily a just dessert for his actions (or, more appropriately, his inaction) on antisemitism; but it was almost crushingly predictable in a way that Aesychlus would have surely recognised, and it seems odd to me that so few of his supporters seem to have seen it coming – much less prepared themselves for it.
The followers of Q, too, are currently dumbfounded by the fates. In the Daily Beast last week, we read that, “Aside from perhaps Donald Trump himself, no one is struggling more with the president’s re-election defeat than QAnon conspiracy theorists.” If Trump was the leader of a uniquely just quest to bring to justice baby-eating Democrats and the Satanic Deep State, if The Storm was inevitable and every step towards it safely in Trump’s quasi-Arthurian hands, then how to parse defeat? The likelihood, of course, is schism and fragmentation – even in the face of Trump’s continuing insistence on questioning the results of the election and pretending as if he is will still be the legitimate Commander-in-Chief after January 20th. But the faithful must each make their own way through the wreckage.
The nemesis of the QAnon faithful was – as for the Corbynistas – brute reality. Trump supporters of all stripes had convinced themselves that their man was headed for a landslide victory. This was always unlikely – as indeed was the converse, with Democrats hoping to turn Texas blue (though doing the same in Georgia also remained beyond the hopes of self-appointed realists and yet has come to pass). Trump’s downfall was not that he lost huge numbers of votes – in fact, he gained them. American politics is today a close-run thing, a matter of a few percentage points here and there. In this sense, and beyond any fundamental objection to his politics, Trump’s strategy was poorly considered. He bet the farm on anger in an election which ultimately seems to have hinged on safety. During a global pandemic, this might have seemed an obvious direction in which the wind might blow; but Trump still made the wrong call, and his presidency is now all over bar the crying.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a unique check on Trump’s capacity to shape the world of those whose votes he wished to win. A would-be strongman who has inhabited, almost instinctively, the Surkovian style could not possibly flood the zone with enough shit to distract from the impact of a novel pathogen to which no one in the world has immunity. My unpopular opinion about the US election is that coronavirus enhanced Trump’s performance rather than stymied it: despite his inability to control it, he nevertheless adopted it as a wedge issue with which he could energise and revitalise the cultural divisions on which his 2016 candidacy thrived. Without that clear cultural marker of the facemask, it isn’t clear to me what similarly evocative purchase Trump might have had on his tribe’s imagination. In the final analysis, however, the pull of calm in a period of such turmoil was always going to be an unequal but opposite reaction to any culture-war strategy, and so it has proven.
Perhaps Trump felt he had no choice in the face of a pandemic that moved faster than his capacity to shift and pervert the media narrative, the Overton window of not just US but global politics. He may have missed a trick: he could at least have tried to sitting behind a cheap desk in a rose garde, lying shamefacedly to all-comers about a trip he’d made to a resort town in County Durham. This was certainly the option taken by Dominic Cummings, the senior advisor to “Britain Trump” Boris Johnson, when in the summer it was found he had broken his own government’s lockdown rules: he was checking his eyesight, his children needed the toilet, he had a right to interpret the guidelines. In an approach that has defined his entire career, the story he created to reach the goal he had adopted simply did not stack up, but he stuck by it regardless – and a supine PM supported him, at significant cost both to his political capital and the public health of the whole country.
Cummings, too, however, has now left the stage – preceded by a cardboard box. He is perhaps more guilty even than Trump of the crime of hubris, that unforgivable infraction which classically must be punished by Nemesis. At least Trump won an election under his own name; Cummings has never had the boldness to do the same, and yet has acted since the Tory victory that saw Jeremy Corbyn finally ejected from the Labour hotseat as if he, in fact, was PM. I’ve written before about the darkness of Cummings’ wry arrogance – the manner in which his fundamentally flawed analysis of that which ails us leads inexorably to deeply troubling, if also superficially trolling, solutions. It does not take a genius, as Chaminda Jaynetti has just now been pointing out on Twitter, to create, play to and then profit from public misconceptions. More or less anyone can tell lies and then leverage their effects. Cummings’ reputation was built on his willingness to act unethically, and to do so with rare relish for combat. But this approach, like Corbyn and Trump’s strategies before it, has a shelf-life, cannot survive the rubber hitting the road. As the deadline for a Brexit deal approaches, Cummings’ formula seems – for now at least – to have reached its particular use-by date.
Where politics is left at the end of November – especially in the light of news about the apparent efficacy of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine that is more positive than many had allowed themselves to hope – could not have been imagined at the start of October. After a period in which the Western democracies felt first shocked, then stunned into stillness by first the march of national populism and then the onset of a once-in-a-generation crisis, what Mesomedes called “the frivolous insolences of mortals” seem at least briefly checked, as if a splash of cold water has been applied to the face of the body politic. The wheel turns, and Nemesis sharpens her sword.
What a curious time it is in which to read novels as if they matter. The shortlist for this year’s Women’s Prize has been overtaken almost entirely by events: these six books demand more attention than many readers will have been able in this chaotic year to muster. In spring, I went through a period myself in which I was unable to read a great deal of anything, much less a series of demanding fictions. That I have now managed to reach a place where I can devote time and focus to books is a token of privilege more than it is any sort of personal victory. From pandemics to protests, much of what is currently vital is taking place far beyond the pages of literature.
In many ways, too, Dominicana by Angie Cruz is the quietest, the most unassuming, of any of the six novels in contention. Its first-person protagonist, Ana Canción, is aware from very early on that “a ravenous world waits outside”, but for much of the novel she spends her life in a series of aggressively closed environments: first the strict family home she grows up in, and then the small New York apartment in which she finds herself when she marries at 15 a migrant worker in his thirties, Juan Ruiz. In both contexts her behaviour is closely monitored and controlled – in the Dominican Republic by a mother for whom she is primarily “the ticket for all of [the family] to eventually go to America”, and in the US by Juan himself, for whom she is, on her arrival in the city, “now a wife [… who has] duties”.
I was reminded repeatedly while reading this novel of the work of Miriam Toews, and in particular of her Irma Voth (2011). Toews has solved the problem of passivity: her narrators and protagonists are done-to rather than doing, but they remain magnetic presences. Similarly, despite being the narrator of Dominicana, Ana is its most passive presence, a teenage girl of whom much is asked – and yet to whom little is given. Almost the entire novel drifts by before she does anything for herself, since she has been conditioned to expect only to serve the community.
In Toews’ work, too, women are most often expected merely to play their part – work only to actualise the needs of the community which grips them, rather than form anything like a symbiotic, mutually beneficial, relationship with it or anyone else. Cruz’s novel adds to Toews’ almost peerless evocations of claustrophobic control the experience of the immigrant (in Irma Voth, the Mennonite protagonist has left their native Canada to hide from the modern world in rural Mexico, but this isn’t quite the same journey made by the desperate-but-enterprising migrants of Dominicana). “How in the world does anyone say good-bye to everyone they love, everything they know?” Ana asks herself at one point; the answer is simple: no one can. Dominicana is a novel of loss, and of accommodation to it.
The gains promised by economic migration – in the Canción family home, “Money [ … and] papers [… are] always the main subject” – turn out by contrast to be thin. “In September,” Ana is told by Juan, “you’ll go to a secretarial school so you can learn how to type. And you’ll work at my friend’s agency. Don’t you worry, everything’s been decided.” This isn’t the freedom New York was meant to embody – and in the absence of everything she has ever known, Ana feels in fact more imprisoned than ever. When Juan takes by degrees to domestic abuse – “A slap’s one thing, a dent in the wall another, but choking?” – Ana’s situation feels untenable, and yet is entirely inescapable. A nurse at the local pregnancy clinic slips Ana a leaflet featuring “a photograph of a woman with a busted lip and a black eye filled with panic”, but with her non-existent English and total lack of support networks beyond Juan’s circle, Ana is at a loss as to what to do with it; in the event, Juan finds the leaflet, and is sent into another rage by it.
Ana accommodates herself, too, to this. But as time goes by, she becomes more comfortable with the city – fire alarm, a police siren, a bus halting at its stop … at first they were so loud, […] but now they sound as pleasant as the radio” – and also with the idea of agency (“Puffer fish can kill you if you eat them, yet some people take the risk and die”); she begins as affair with Juan’s brother, César, who helps her begin to earn some money of her own, which she hides in a ceramic doll. Ultimately, however – and here Cruz surely deliberately wrong-foots the reader – Ana chooses her family, and breaks it off with César. Doubling down on settling in, Ana invites her mother to live with her and Juan in New York, locking herself further into the pretence that is her marriage. When her mother arrives, she too seems underwhelmed: “She had wanted New York. She has pushed for it. So this is New York, she says with a weak smile.” The dream pulls along the dreamer.
This is a novel that constantly threatens to broaden out beyond Ana’s perspective – Dominican politics plays an important role in the book, driving many of its events although Ana remains only dimly aware of how, and her apartment sits in the middle of a part of New York, Washington Heights, that is full of stories similar and complementary to her own – but Cruz, for better or worse, sticks to the limited first-person (admittedly cheating every now and then, with Ana suggesting she’s over-heard something or pieced scenes together from gossip). This means that Dominicana lacks of the polyphony of Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other – and in its mission to add warp, weft and detail to our understanding of the immigrant experience this feels a shame. There’s also something else going on here, though. When I read Evaristo’s novel after it was included on last year’s Booker shortlist, I wondered if it didn’t offer a “Radio 4-friendly version of British blackness”; I think Dominicana offers in its level of detail and intimacy a less comfortable vision of the minority experience. In an afterword, Cruz explains that Dominicana is a version of her own mother’s life, the sort of story which, “although common, [is] rarely represented in the mainstream narratives available to us.” In this aim, Dominicana succeeds.
Still, in the year since Girl, Woman, Other won the Booker (alongside, unnecessarily, Margaret Attwood’s The Testaments), evidence has been ample that what I thought of as that novel’s “soft-centredness” will strike many, many others as radical and even alienating: the conversation is not as advanced, well distributed or as nuanced as any criticism of Evaristo’s novel as “pulling its preaching punches” seems willing to acknowledge. This brings me back to my privilege as a reader: perhaps only someone in a happy position would suggest that Girl, Woman, Other needed to be more. Given, then, the ambition of Evaristo’s novel elsewhere, and the clear canniness of its approach, it must be a leading contender for the Women’s Prize, too; if Mantel remains the bookie’s favourite for her star-quality, I might suggest that the plague-novel Hamnetbeats out The Mirror & the Lightby dint of the latter avoiding many of the faults with the former that Colin Burrow identified in his nevertheless generous LRB review. Let it be between Evaristo and O’Farrell, then – either novel seems a fiction well tuned to our times … which might at least allow us all to accept or believe that, even in days such as these, reading novels might still matter.
In one way, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet has not, in its effort to win the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, chosen its moment well: a historical novel set in the sixteenth century, it must defeat Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & The Light in its own Tudorbethan sub-category before even having a hope of triumphing in the tournament proper. It’s not that the novels’ approaches to the period are entirely similar – O’Farrell does not restrict herself to the third-person limited, and she opts for the economical over the encyclopaedic – but equally, and beyond the jerkins and the ruffs, they certainly share a lyrical, empathetic approach to the Tudors that inevitably situates them side-by-side on a shortlist.
In another key way, however, Hamnet is the perfect novel for the moment – because it is a plague book. No one really knows what killed the only son of William Shakespeare – he is primarily remembered by his orthographic near-double, the Prince of Denmark. But O’Farrell has chosen to have him bitten by fleas, and in so doing has written, quite without planning it of course, a novel that became in 2020 simultaneously rather too close to the bone and also unusually comforting. We should all, of course, still be paying attention to the high politics and state-making with which Mantel concerns herself; but in 2020 much of our attentions have also turned inward. Hamnet speaks to the smaller world of the domestic space, riven by disease and shattered by grief, out of control and yet also the only unit left to us in making sense of events. “Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre,” we read early on, “from which everything flows out, to which everything returns.” Hamnet is about that hub, where The Mirror & The Light is about – seeks to encompass – all its many spokes.
The novel begins with Hamnet running. He is, like most young boys, in persistent motion. At this particular moment, his family are nowhere to be seen, distracted by concern for his sister, Judith. Of course, this activity will end soon and the familial fretting will guiltily shift focus – and, equally naturally, the contrast is O’Farrell’s point. Also part of the purpose of the novel’s opening pages is sketching the geography of the very small world in which its events are set. When William eventually leaves for London and Southwark, we do not follow him; we instead stay in Stratford, and mostly on Henley Street – though occasionally we, like the characters, make the trip to the space of Shottery, where the Hathaways reside. This tight mise en scene offers O’Farrell the opportunity to paint the intimacy of the enclosed spaces in which most of the characters spend much of their time: the kitchen, the glover’s workshop, the bedchamber. The few streets of Stratford, too, become material in our reading the novel, and even a funeral procession to Holy Trinity is given the ballast of attractively quotidian detail.
By centring the novel in this way, its comparatively rather small stakes in fact come to matter a great deal – as of course they should. Hamnet isn’t really concerned with William except in his role as a father and husband; we spend most time with him early on, as a frustrated Latin master, and he becomes a mystery to us once he adopts the earring of the rakish playwright. The novel is, despite its title, in large part the story of his relationship with Anne – here known by her own insistence as Agnes. Agnes, the sister of the boys to whom William is assigned as Latin master, is given by O’Farrell the same gifts of human sympathy and understanding which are so often assigned to her husband; his self-actualisation becomes as much her project as his own. “She can look at a person and see right into their very soul,” he says of her, before London and Hamnet’s death drive wedges between them. “There is not a drop of harshness in her. She will take a person for who they are, not what they are not or ought to be.”
This comes as special relief to William, since his own father – the harsh glover, John – has no patience for his son’s sense of displacement, nor his apparent lack of interest in the practical trades to which John has devoted his life. Agnes, however, recognises that William “had more hidden away inside [him] than anyone else she’d ever met.” When William chooses to leave for London and not take his family with him, this hidden part bites the hand that has fed it. “It is evident to Agnes now … that her husband is split in two,” and duality feeds much of the rest of the novel: life and death, brother and sister, husband and wife, London and Stratford, sickness and health. Unusually, in doubleness the novel finds much not just of its conflict but also its consolation. In the novel’s denouement, for example, Agnes steals away to London, unbidden by her husband, to discover what his double life involves – adultery, probably, dissipation surely. But instead she attends the Globe, and sees a production of Hamlet, in which William plays the ghost of the young man’s father.
Her husband wrote these words, these exchanges, but what has any of this to do with their boy? … Why would her husband have done it? Why pretend that it means nothing to him, just a collection of letters? How could he thieve his name, then strip and flense it of all it embodies, discarding the very life it once contained? How could he take up his pen and write it on a page, breaking its connection with their son?
[… But] her husband has pulled off a manner of alchemy. He has found this boy, instructed him, shown him, how to speak, how to stand, how to lift his chin, like this, like that. He has rehearsed and primed and prepared him. He has written words for him to speak and to hear. She tries to imagine how her husband could have schooled him so exactly, so precisely, and how it might have felt when the boy got it right, when he first got the walk, that heartbreaking turn of the head.
[…] Hamlet, here, on this stage, is two people, the young man, alive, and the father, dread. […] He has taken his son’s death and made it his own; he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place.
Having spent hundreds of pages, and in novel-time several years, with this family – who are in many ways historically, culturally, religiously distant from us – this passage, in which William at first has no idea his wife is present, is profoundly moving. This is because O’Farrell has picked apart the grief of the Shakespeares, the absence in their life that the plague has created. When Hamlet first dies from his sickness, which he has suffered while all the while his father is in London or travelling belatedly back, Agnes can barely believe it: “It is an impossible idea that her son, her child, her boy, the healthiest and most robust of her children, should, within days, sicken and die.” William, at first so distant as to see confoundingly unmoved, ultimately admits the same: “I am constantly wondering where he is,” he confides to her. “Where he has gone It is like a wheel ceaselessly turning at the back of my mind.” The complexity of this family, the doubleness of the individuals that make it up, the tight confines in which they share space, are laid bare – rent open, cast into chaos – by the random event of illness. Each member of the family must first identity, then acknowledge, then somehow accommodate, the knowledge that “[what] is given may be taken away, at any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors: they can leap out at you at any moment, like a thief or brigand.” Hamnet is in part a book about how one family might do that.
Their pain is heightened by how arbitrary is Hamnet’s death. In a bravura passage, O’Farrell proposes sketches how, for “the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England, in the summer of 1596, two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these two people need to meet” – but, in the telling, she makes clear how reductive even this emphasis upon chance proves to be. In fact, the necessary connections are even more rosicrucian and random. The two people are a Murano glassmaker and a cabin boy: the second contracts fleas from a monkey he plays with; the first is sick one day and his understudy fails to pack a shipment of beads safely, instead using rags the cabin boy’s fleas eventually migrate to onboard the vessel. When the beads are eventually delivered to Stratford-upon-Avon, as a result of yet more coincidence and hundreds of miles from Alexandria and Murano, a young boy dies. The almost improbable chain of events encourages fear – buboes send Stratford into cold shivers – and also, of course, superstition and foolishness: when a doctor arrives in a plague mask, Hamnet asks why he wears the strange device. “Because he this it will protect him,” Agnes explains. Will it? the boy responses. “His mother purses her lips, then shakes her head. ‘I don’t think so.'” But wear it he does.
All of this, needless to say, feels grimly relevant. But there is also a certain consolation in reading of plagues past, of quarantines and isolations and cumbersome prophylactics that – though terrifying then as now – also connect us to other human beings through shared experience and the empathy we can, with effort, practice in its presence. Hamnet adopts a laconic style that is never lachrymose or over-laden with pathos; but it is also deeply sad while finding room for hopes: of reconciliation, of memory, of love. I don’t think, in the quality of its execution or its clarity of vision, it has much in fact to fear from the mirror or the light.
If I was hoping that reading through the Women’s Prize shortlist might offer some timely distraction from the currently parlous state of the world beyond it, Jenny Offill’s Weather was here to ensure I had nowhere to hide. Narrated by a librarian convinced – like a monk awaiting the Viking horde – that the collapse of civilisation is fast approaching, I cannot imagine it will prove a comfortable read for anyone, much less someone – like me – who can’t quite shake the feeling that she might be right.
Weather reminded me of no book quite so much as Paul Kingsnorth’s Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, a volume of essays rather than fiction which adopts a fatalism about the planet’s predicament that proves hard to shake having completed it. “[S]uicide is protest,” Kingsnorth writes, “suicide is wilful disobedience” [p. 15], and one leaves the book with the sense he wishes that society could just put itself to sleep. Offill’s narrator, Lizzie, has achieved Kingsnorth’s certainty but not his equanimity: she is instead fixated on what she might do, not so much to prevent the collapse as mitigate it. “It is important to be on the alert for the ‘decisive moment,’ says the man next to me who is talking to his date. I agree. The only difference is that he is talking about twentieth-century photography and I am talking about twenty-first-century everything.”
This sense of overwhelm pervades the text, and is a large part of why it proves so difficult to experience. It is an effect that Lucy Ellman evoked in Ducks, Newburyport, but differently: in that novel, the anxious narrator’s flood of thoughts drowns the reader in concerns big and small, relevant and trivial, founded and unfounded:
stranger danger, buckram buildings, the fact that I just don’t get why anyone would do that, Pottersville, the fact that people in the food business could poison people too, every day, if they wanted to, but they hardly ever do, Grant township, the fact that some people in Illinois declared rivers and streams have a right to exist, a right to flourish, but that’s in Illinois […] the fact that officially Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio make up the Midwest, just those four states […]
And so on. In Ellman’s novel – which due to its stylistic choices is eight times the length of Offill’s – a culture in crisis is depicted through the consciousness of a single individual, and the manner in which it cannot contain all that it is being asked to hold in place. In Weather, on the other hand, Offill’s protagonist is far more successful in shaping her anxiety into a single frame, a complete – if uncomforting – understanding. I think this, more than anything else, is why the novel reminds me more of Kingsnorth’s essays than Ellman’s novel: because it curates itself. This isn’t entirely to the subject matter’s benefit.
“Have you read all of these?” Lizzie’s neigbour asks her upon seeing her apartment’s collection of books. She has, but it hasn’t really helped – yet the craft of the prose that presents Lizzie’s crisis can sometimes contrive in its smartness to make everything a little too pat. There is a sense that Offill knows this, and in Sylvia – a travelling lecturer whom Lizzie once studied with and whose PA she becomes in the course of the novel – Weather casts a quizzical eye at the profiteering certainty of environmentalist prophets. “If you think you are lost,” we read at one point, “beware bending the map.” Sylvia has no answers, particularly – “Nothing lasts forever is the conclusion reached” – and her lectures increasingly feel like another symptom of the crisis, rather than a cogent analysis of it. “I’m starting to understand why all those people want to go to Mars,” Lizzie remarks.
Despite this, Weather – in all its well edited concision – can seem a tad insistent, exclusive and even closed; it is sometimes rather more certain than its narrator is meant in fact to be (“I wake to the sound of gunshots. Walnuts on the roof, Ben says”). Its signal is perhaps not sufficiently open to noise: “the impacts are going to be big,” Lizzie worries about the collapse – but the impacts are also going to be unpredictable. For Lizzie, however, they are always imagined as some sort of doomsday action flick: “one day I have to run to catch he bus. I am so out of breath when I get there that I know in a flash all my preparations for the apocalypse are doomed. I will die early and ignobly.” I was a fan of Offill’s previous novel, Dept. of Speculationprecisely because it constantly risked seeming preachy – but in its structural play always managed to achieve polyvalence. I’m not sure Weather quite manages the same trick.
In fairness, this is a novel about a woman’s inability to identify which events are catastrophic and which are not. “There is a period after every disaster in which people wander around trying to figure out if it is truly a disaster,” she muses at one point. “Disaster psychologists use the term ‘milling’ to describe most people’s default actions when they find themselves in a frightening situation.” Weather is a novel of milling: Lizzie worries about leaving her job, about having an affair, about leaving her husband Ben, about going on a day trip to Washington DC, about Sylvia; but nothing actually happens. She is milling – but perhaps so too is the culture that sits around her, that it is her professional calling to categorise and catalogue. In that sense, Weather is a novel of our time, murkily certain of the likelihood of collapse and also ill-equipped to imagine or encompass it. We are all of us milling.
In my review of Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light, I hewed closely to my now rather hoary complaint about the entire trilogy that this latest volume caps: that is, what I perceive to be the essential contradiction between the series’ attention to period detail and the manner in which it conjures a contemporary consciousness for its protagonist. I am among the very small minority for whom this simply does not work; I am a record broken, and unlike the unfixed clock I’m right not even twice a day.
I embarked upon Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships, then, with trepidation: not only is it the latest in a long recent line of feminist retellings of Classical myth (no bad trend, but like any zeitgeist it is one with finite fuel); it is also another novel set in the distant past that could likewise have been tempted to present post-modern personalities within a pre-modern milieu. That I ended up enjoying this novel so much must in part be a function of its contrast with Mantel – because Haynes rather cannily avoids this trap, and her women, while alert to the injustice all around them, would not quite fit in at #metoo rally, either.
Theirs is a fatalism present throughout Classical literature – in the bleak tragedies of Euripedes or the shocking violence of the source myths. Haynes’ women are entirely inured to their society, and in some cases even share its values: Clytemnestra, for example, “never wished to be compared to other women, unless it was for the purpose of demonstrating her vast superiority to the rest of her sex”; Helen, too, does not get off lightly – the text does not try to rehabilitate her so much as show how even other women find her impossible and culpable (“I have not wished anyone dead with quite so such enthusiasm as … Agamemnon,” admits Penelope of the king who takes her husband to war, “and bear in mind that I grew up in Sparta so have spent more time than most with Helen”).
The novel has room, too, for countervailing notes. It is essentially the story of the sack of Troy, but told from many female perspectives. Each one has its own voice and tenor – from the Muse Calliope’s wry impatience (“it is surprising that he hasn’t considered how many other men there are like him, every day, all demanding my unwavering attention”) to Penelope’s passive-aggressive and performative faith in her husband (“Obviously you would not have spent, as the bards have it, a year in [Circe’s] halls, living as her husband, for the excellent reason that you are my husband”). Even Helen gets her say: “That was my crime,” she sneers at Hecabe, erstwhile Queen of the Trojans. “To give your handsome son everything he asked for, like everyone else did”.
This polyphony really works. Some of the voices – Calliope and Penelope, yes, but also women who get only one chapter, such as Iphigenia – inevitably linger longer than others, but such is the nature, and indeed strength, of patchwork narratives. The over-riding vision – again, entirely fitting of the source material – is of the abitrariness of fate, the fickleness of the gods. “If her husband had not sought her hand,” observes Briseis, “if the Greek men had not noticed her, she might have remained a free woman. Or she might have been slaughtered where she stood.” The selfishness of the men who have more freedom is of course lampooned and even revenged – when Paris, dying, flees Troy to find the nymph-lover he abandoned a decade prior in favour of Helen, declaring that he is “prostrate before” her magical powers, the spurned woman Oenone remarks, “But for yourself. I cannot heal you, Paris”. But the focus is instead on the hard choices women must make in a world that is unjust: “She was afraid,” Andromache says of Polyxena, who gives herself for sacrifice by the Greek fleet. “But she was more afraid of slavery.”
In other words, A Thousand Ships is a study of women who find themselves in impossible circumstances – much in the way that The Iliad is a poem about warriors whose fates are sealed before they pick up spear or shield. Calliope rolls her eyes at epic poetry – “Too many men telling the stories of men to each other,” she says of it – but what Haynes does here is not therefore rip up the form and replace it with something more amenable to modern sensibility. Instead, she inhabits the mores of the mode and tells the other story that has always sat alongside it. “I know the poet grows weary of these women who appear and disappear from his story,” the Muse admits, “but even he is starting to grasp that the whole war can be explained this way.” In other words, the siege of Troy is the story of pain. Haynes recentres Homer’s focus but somehow in a way that does not invalidate his frame.
This is clever stuff, and especially so since the novel never collapses into the male stories we know so well, nor betrays its emphasis by endorsing the unjust world while inhabiting it. In the story of the traitor Antenor, for instance – who opens the Trojan gates for the waiting Greeks in exchange for his family’s safety – Haynes admits the “behaviour was despicable,” but equally accepts that “there was no denying that he had won a better fate for his women than Priam”. This is a remarkably even-handed novel for one that is avowedly partial – “I have picked up the old stories and I have shake them until the hidden women appear in plain sight. I have celebrated them in song because they have waited long enough,” declares Calliope – and this empathy for the material and the peoples it depicts lends it a sort of moral and philosophical depth that is quite rare in a book that reads so lightly and in so otherwise contemporary a way.
In other words, Haynes has squared the circle Mantel has been wheeling around for years. But – alas! – it is still unlikely, I think, that she will beat out her rival for the Women’s Prize when it is announced in September. The Mirror & the Light has a prose style which the arch and accessible A Thousand Ships does not attempt to match, and that may count for much. But, for this reader at least, Haynes’ core conceit boasts a great deal more internal consistency – and that should count for something too.
Abigail Nussbaum has already written about The Mirror & theLight, Hilary Mantel’s third and final Cromwell novel, in so circumspect a way as to render this post redundant. She has in the past been more of a fan of this series than me – I enjoyed Bring Up The Bodies but find the way Mantel deals with historical context difficult to wash over – but her critical reading of this concluding volume is generous enough to encompass both its merits and its failings:
All of it is expertly turned, beautifully written, absolutely fascinating. But it also has the feel of marking time. Quite a lot happens in The Mirror and the Light, for all that one might go into it expecting it to be a mere period on Cromwell’s life. It’s 450 pages before Jane Seymour dies. 600 before Anne of Cleves shows her face. In between there are crises galore—Henry’s daughter Mary nearly talks herself onto the gallows through her refusal to acknowledge her father as the head of the church; the peasants’ army nearly reaches London, baying for Cromwell’s blood the entire time; the Poles and the Courtenays scheme while pretending loyalty to Henry and cooperation with Cromwell. But rather than come together into a crescendo, there’s a certain episodic feeling to it all.
This was my experience of the novel, too. Bring Up The Bodies remains for me the best of the trilogy because it is also the leanest, hemmed in both by the volumes around it but also the events and timelines they set in motion and bring to a close. Structure was forced upon Mantel in that intermediate novel, in other words, but in The Mirror & the Light she seems – just as Wolf Hall struggled at times to get going from a standing start – to be reluctant to reach the end. What results is a dilatory experience, and one in which – uniquely in this series – the historical material, Mantel’s undoubtedly deep and broad research, starts to show. We get a lot of this:
It was like killing a cripple; but Henry Tudor did it, so as not to lose the Spanish bride. With Warwick dead, his sister Margaret was in the hands of the king; he made her safe with marriage to a loyalist. “My grandmother wed her to Arthur Pole,” the king says. “I made her Countess of Salisbury.” [p. 99]
Reader, you don’t need to know this. The conceit is that Cromwell does – or rather, that he may. Cromwell’s challenge at all times is to know everything, map out all potentialities, in order to make up for his absence of position, standing and force. The novel thus drowns him slowly, piling incident upon incident until the deluge is too great even for him to withstand. Cromwell loses because he loses control. This is an effective explanation of his downfall – and at the present time a compelling depiction of a society so beset that radical change and personal destruction is inevitable. But the novel, too, loses control.
February, the king sends Philip Hoby into France. Hoby is a gentleman of the privy chamber: a gospeller, good-looking and keen, and well-briefed by himself, the Lord Privy Seal. The king thinks he has a chance of Madame de Longueville, despite the King of Scots’ claims that they are affianced. But there is no harm in looking at her sister, Louise. There is another sister, Renée, who they say is bound for a covent. [p. 534]
It goes on and on. There are walk-on parts for every vaguely famous Henrician notable, and many more besides; the cast of principal characters grows as Cromwell’s own star wanes; the plots become, again no doubt deliberately, impossible to contain. In an episode-long Start The Week interview to mark publication of this novel, the BBC’s Andrew Marr interviewed Mantel as if she were not a novelist but a historian, asking questions of motivation and meaning, interpretation and incident, that might have been better directed towards Diarmaid MacCulloch. But what was fascinating is that Mantel could answer them as if she were a historian, too. The Mirror & the Light, with its compendious qualities and apparent need to encompass not just its own story but all the ones that might have happened instead or did happen to one side of it, betrays this shift in her style.
In another way, though, I was reminded most keenly of fantasy as I read this novel. The Mirror & the Light shares little with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and in one respect they are particularly alike: their scope. Both series take in a huge number of characters, each with their own agendas and desires, and both range across a number of years and a complex sequences of world-defining events. Where Martin conveys these via multiple perspectives, the defining quality of Mantel’s series is its fixation on only one; her literary achievement in creating a convincing consciousness out of this choice is of course these novels’ crowning glory, and what elevates them to the presumed pantheon of early twenty-first-century greatness. But A Song of Ice and Fire in fact balances its many plotlines and coincidences, vignettes and cameos, with more finesse. Much in Martin happens off-screen, imparted by rumour or letter; so, too, in Mantel. Much proves to be irrelevant or tangential, as in Mantel. And much of Martin’s narrative, too, cannot possibly be held in the reader’s mind constantly and at all times – or even requires itself to be. In Mantel, this becomes wearying, even over the course of a single instalment; in Martin, it often does not.
Perhaps this is because Martin’s popular fiction includes the sort of signposting or summarising – the telling and the showing – that literary fiction eschews. Mantel’s novels are Henrician courts in miniature – difficult to navigate, impossible to unravel, both compelling and claustrophobic. “That is how the enemy is hoisted, flying into the air while his horse carries on without him,” we read of a joust. “You hardly hear him hit the ground because the courtiers are yelling like drunks at a bear-baiting” [p. 790]. The noise, in other words, is part of the experience; and it’s meant to be distracting. The telling is secondary to the effect.
How much you get on with this novel will depend a great deal on how much you mind its approach. For me, the hyper-granular world-building feels both overwhelming and unconnected to the novel’s real project – to create in Cromwell a convincingly modern personality, a character we can relate to even as the world through which he moves is alien and strange. Given these novels are so loved by so many, I’m open – as I was back in 2009 – to the idea that this is my failing not the novel’s. Another of this year’s Women’s Prize shortlistees, Bernardino Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Otheris also a garlanded novel I admire but cannot love – and in which I don’t quite see the transcendental virtues others can perceive.
As The Mirror & the Light expands ever outwards across its remarkable length (and we should pause here to marvel at Mantel’s ability to stretch her novel across this sort of page-count without ever once making a prosodic slip), it only becomes more and more itself. And it is too late for this trilogy, as it becomes too late for poor old Thomas Cromwell, to win your allegiance if it has not already.
Last year, one of my uncles sent me a racist screed via a private Facebook message. The first draft of this post quoted it in full, but ultimately I can’t bring myself to reproduce it. It was long – 528 words – and included every racial slur you might imagine, bemoaning nevertheless that, “when we announce our white pride, you call us racists.” It closed with an exhortation: “It has been estimated that ONLY 5% of those reaching this point in this message will pass it on.” The implication was clear: be proud; share hate.
When I challenged him to post this publicly – and suggested he had sent it privately precisely because he knew that to do so would be to court censure – he said that it was all a wind-up, a joke: he’d known I’d find the message disgusting and had chosen to tweak my nose. Lighten up! After all, it’s only a laugh.
The occasions are rare on which it is a useful response to such intellectual cowardice to quote Walter Benjamin, but I’m not always an effective interlocutor. I reminded my uncle that Benjamin had told us long ago, in 1921, that “the cult of the joke … has become an essential constitutive element in fascist propaganda.” Benjamin was a Jew, born in Berlin in 1892, and knew all too well how these things work. He committed suicide on the French border with Spain in 1940, as the Wehrmacht overtook him and cut off all hope of escape.
“Get a life,” my uncle told me.
All this has been brought to mind again – since to be honest I haven’t thought much of it since – by this week’s wranglings in Westminster over the writings of Andrew Sabisky. That a man like Sabisky can be hired by Her Majesty’s Government in 2020 is sign enough that something in Britain’s political culture has become profoundly dislocated; but, beyond that, it’s perhaps worth wondering why the usually canny opportunists who have capitalised on that dislocation – Dominic Cummings, Matthew Elliott, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson – left their critical faculties at home when deciding which of the 35,000 weirdos that responded to Cummings’ call for misfits at Number 10 they should hire. Why didn’t any of them stop to think that a man with links to the Dark Enlightenment movement might not be a wise appointment?
I’d suggest that it’s because the radical right have become reliant on, and almost inured to, a certain mode of speech. It’s possible, of course, that Sabisky’s was a dead-cat appointment: a deliberately provocative move designed to agitate the commentariat and distract from another sleight of hand yet to be detected. But if that is so, the hire was itself a joke – a jibe, a poke, a wind-up. Either it was designed this way – in which case we have demonstrated as true Benjamin’s analysis that a certain stripe of cruel humour offers the most effective means of communicating otherwise unthinkable thought – or it was an oversight born of a complacency around this falsely ironic form of discourse – in which case, ditto.
In this week’s timely BBC documentary on Holocaust denial, David Baddiel trawled through the leaked style guide of neo-nazi website The Daily Stormer. “Most people are not comfortable with material that comes across as vitriolic, raging, non-ironic hatred,” it informs its writers. “The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not. […] This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas [Jews, original slur omitted].” The alt-right has mastered this form of self-reflexive communication. From 4chan to Richard Spencer, modern fascists play a game with their audience that Benjamin would have recognised on several levels: not just because they use the joke as a means of transmission for serious ideas, but because their mix of high and low culture, sincerity and irony, signified and signifier is intensely, counter-intuitively, post-modern.
Here’s what Andrew Sabisky said about the compulsory drugging of schoolchildren:
From a societal perspective the benefits of giving everyone modafinil once a week are probably worth a dead kid once a year.
Here’s what he wrote about forced sterilisation of benefits claimants:
One way to get around the problems of unplanned pregnancies creating a permanent underclass would be to legally enforce universal uptake of long-term contraception at the onset of puberty.
And here’s what he had to say on marital sex:
It ought to be obvious that her wifely duty ought to consist not just of letting you masturbate into her vagina but actively playing her part in building a fantastic sex life with you.
Sabisky is not as sophisticated a communicator as many on the radical right – despite his clear self-regard he has not mastered the art of irony. But in all three of these instances there are the exaggerations, the sillinesses, the informalities that the alt-right habitually employ to insert distance between their words and their beliefs: Sabisky’s wilfully bathetic “dead kid” signals, he would argue, a flippant thought experiment; the gross-out idiocy of “masturbate into her vagina” signposts a rhetorical flourish. The middle of those quotations is the most sober in its expression, but its use of the future conditional – that “would be” is doing a lot of work – positions Sabisky as a philosopher, and possibly a satirical one in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal.
That these markers offer a weak defence is less important than the fact that they offer space in which the author can manoeuvre if necessary. There is a cowardice in expressing oneself like this; but there is also a ruthless efficiency. From Israel to Ireland to the UK, we are not short of warnings that beliefs previously held to be on the extreme right of politics are increasingly mainstream. That even an attempt could be made to appoint Sabisky to Number 10 is perhaps sign enough that these commentators are onto something. Certainly, the adoption by Donald Trump of trolling – of owning the libs – as the primary tenor of his administration underlines the manner in which the “cult of the joke” boasts a powerful magnetism, a schadenfreude built on simplism.
Not only in America has this curiously hollow sort of victory proven so attractive to certain tribes. In last night’s Channel 4 Labour leadership debate, a woman from a mining community in Cannock became tearful when she reflected that her father would have been horrified that she voted Conservative in last year’s General Election. It was, of course, Brexit that led her to abandon every other principle in pursuit not so much of a single – and vague – policy prescription as a “joke’s on you” catharsis: “you lost, get over it.” In Britain, the radical right have in this way offered the Conservative Party a means of building, after decades in the wilderness, a governing coalition: nativism appropriately expressed is sufficient to unglue a section of the English from their actual interests. (This is not to argue that those interests have recently been served by either party; merely to suggest that they will certainly not be served by the panacea now on offer.) One hopes that its current leadership, unlike David Cameron’s – which offered people an EU referendum without any sense of what that might unleash – can control the consequences.
The runes do not read well. Sabisky was hired because his fellow travellers in government have grown used to irony’s inoculation against the attacks of the mainstream culture they deride . This usually reliable defence is afforded by the “cult of the joke” – PJ Masks and all that – but things can become unbalanced rather quickly. The sudden storm over, and rapid resignation of, Sabisky may have demonstrated this to Cummings on perhaps too small a scale for it to register; but in this case, the joke wasn’t funny enough to drown out the boos. Sometimes, though, it avowedly is. Irony – especially in the face of the earnest avatars of liberalism – remains a powerful vector for shifting the Overton window, and Benjamin knew this to his cost. That is, things can become unbalanced in the other direction, too.
The late Clive James, in his essay on Benjamin in CulturalAmnesia, had rather less sympathy with the critic’s work (“voodoo is all it is”) than for the conditions of his life: “[His] Reality was anti-Semitism. […] The better they did in every field of the arts, science, the professions and commerce the more they [the Jews] were resented. The more they fitted in the more they stood out.” Once this process begins, whether it commences in sincerity or not, it is hard to cease its unspooling.