On Political Impasse

“Friendship hath the skill and observation of the best physician, the diligence and vigilance of the best nurse, and the tenderness and patience of the best mother.” Edward Hyde, MP for Saltash in the Long Parliament (elected 1640).

Edward Hyde in 1626.

In the summer of 1640, no fewer than two Parliaments received their summons from the Crown. The first was dissolved after three weeks; the members of the second were only formally relieved of their duties twenty years later, on the eve of the Restoration. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the very different fates of these two parliaments proceeded from the same fundamental problem: across the preceding half-century new pressures had emerged within the polity that the existing constitutional settlement could not contain.

The UK’s current situation resembles nothing so much as the mid-seventeenth century. On today’s Politics Live, the excellent Peter Hennessey described the European issue as “particularly fissile” – because it refracts so variously through different people’s sense of patriotism. We are not good at understanding others’ definitions of the patriotic. This, too, was the issue in the 1640s: for Charles, patriotism was owed primarily to the Crown, as the unanswerably supreme source of power and authority in the kingdom; for Parliamentarians like John Pym, patriotism was linked indivisibly with defence of the ancient constitution and the rights of the Commons; for others, such as the MP for Saltash, Edward Hyde – who began as a critic of the King but later, at the Restoration, was appointed by the monarch Earl of Clarendon – patriotism was about achieving consensus and compromise, and therefore protecting the commonwealth from conflict. The tragedy of the time was that the latter was impossible.

Last night, the Prisons Minister, Rory Stewart, tweeted on the subject of the decision by Her Majesty’s Opposition to seek the government’s collapse: “A no confidence vote solves nothing – we need consensus not party politics.” The issue, of course, is that the current government has proven incapable of achieving that consensus – and the Conservative Party from which it is constituted refuses to take the drastic action necessary to rectify this situation, for fear of its own fate. Many Tories calculate, of course, that a Corbyn government would be a disaster for the country – and so they rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of. Most do so in pursuit of what they have assessed to be the interests of the polity – their opponents likewise. The problem with patriotism is that it is one of the few things more mutable than the British constitution itself – and that makes it a very poor yardstick by which to measure the wisdom of policy. The Edward Hydes of 2019, then, find themselves in similarly hopeless isolation.

The Long Parliament ultimately entered into war with the Crown. We are at this stage – surely – far from civil war. We are, however, deep into the kind of political chaos which the England of the 1640s would have recognised. Partisans of every stripe publish pamphlets and proclamations; groups split and splinter with alarming alacrity; both utopian and millenarian visions of potential futures proliferate daily in the cheap press. The great student of these factions, the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, argued that, in the brief period of political freedom inaugurated by the vacuum that had suddenly appeared at the heart of the constitution, “the lower orders could [now] collect together and discuss whatever they liked, with no control from above at all.”

In 2016, David Cameron explained in a speech to Chatham House, that he would hold a referendum on EU membership in which “it will be your decision whether we remain in the EU […] Nobody else’s. Not politicians’, not parliament’s, not lobby group’s, not mine.” In doing so, he made a mistake even Charles I, famously ill-suited to power, did not: under his stewardship, the British Isles fell into political chaos as a matter of design rather than accident.

Not Charles I.

Charles at least tried to force the constitutional settlement with which he was saddled to cohere; Cameron happily promised a type of referendum that actively ate away at his own. An In/Out referendum was always an absurdly stark choice, and the last two years have demonstrated just how foolish it was to commit simply to leaving the EU upon command. Given the complexities of the legal and political frameworks involved, “Leave” was always a contingent instruction, a direction but not a route. John Pym could not unravel royal prerogative without recourse to war; Theresa May has been unable to exit the EU without plunging the country she nominally seeks to emancipate into its deepest constitutional crisis in centuries.

There is, of course, a conspiracy theory: that our political class, like Charles’s ill-fated advisors, Strafford and Laud, wishes only to have its way – and will seek to ride roughshod over any who attempt to stymie its will. In this vision, the Government could leave the EU tomorrow if it wished, and the Commons should vote against its instincts in an effort to honour the result of Cameron’s half-baked referendum. This paranoia is nothing new, and represents the long-standing wedge between the governed and the governors which acts for us in a similar way to that in which the increasing insufficiency of Tudor methods of revenue generation to meet the demands of Stuart expenditure and statecraft acted for our early modern ancestors.

In her Why We Get The Wrong Politicians (2018), Isabel Hardman attempts to identify the ways in which we might heal “this endless hostility to MPs” (p. 171). Her prescription is based on the analysis that we don’t so much get the wrong politicians as we have inherited and maintained the wrong political culture: “far more insidious [than conspiracy] is the way [that even] politicians try to seem different to their colleagues by disparaging politics itself” (p. 211). The former soldier and backbench Tory MP Johnny Mercer is a good example of this breed, and they do not help. What, ultimately, is the solution to apparently insoluble questions? How do we as a nation change a general direction into a specific route? Politics. There is no other mechanism of conversing as a community.

“We are divided because we are stuck as much as we are stuck because we are divided,” writes David Runciman in the most recent issue of the London Review of Books. This gets pithily to the heart of things, and Runciman like Hardman sees political (note: not necessarily constitutional) reform as the only long-term means out of our current bind. There are currently no good outcomes open to us: a disorderly, or No Deal, Brexit would be disastrously chaotic; overturning the 2016 referendum and remaining in the EU seems, well, cavalier in its subordination of the popular will to Parliament; a second referendum would be improbably fractious; a general election would simply roll the dice on the current parliamentary maths, and if polls are anything to go by would deliver nothing like a commanding enough majority for any party to push through a deal with any more success than May’s minority government has enjoyed. We have reached this impasse for reasons much wider than Brexit – the inadequacy of our political parties as currently constituted, the weakness of our legislature in comparison to the executive, the absence of reliable and consistent subsidiarity. Brexit will solve none of them; it is merely their ultimate expression.

Reform, too, would have been the better route in 1640. It proved impossible to take. We must hope than in 2019 we are more successful in finding a way to become unstuck. That effort must start in Parliament, with honest leadership that lays out to both sides in the country the uncomfortable truths about our system, and about Brexit, that the last two years have cast into the highest possible relief. There is as yet little sign that we will get that – but good politics is ultimately the art of dialogue. Edward Hyde knew what happened when leaders ceased to speak.

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Albums of 2018

2018 was an unusually good year for new music. Janelle Monae, Courtney Barnett, Christine & The Queens; Kacey Musgraves, Julia Holter and Father John Misty: all released albums that were at the very least among the best of their careers. I also enjoyed new records from First Aid Kit and The Decemberists, Jackie Oates and my pal Amit Dattani. I didn’t even get around to listening to the latest from Cat Power, Arctic Monkeys or Darlingside – and in other years I can’t imagine I’d have said that.

So we were spoiled. I’ve stuck here, then, to albums I got to know particularly well – repeat listens always being a good sign for an album, but also offering the best position from which to rate a particular record’s quality. As usual, I’ve also tried to reward freshness or – dread word, this – originality, at the same time as being, as usual, hung up on melody and lyric as much as sonic palette or structural daring. With these caveats, and a re-emphasis of just how much good stuff was released this year, let’s have at the list.

U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited

Meghan Remy is herself a U.S. girl, though she has lived in Toronto now for years, making idiosyncratic indie music under this joshing moniker for more than a decade.¬†In a Poem Unlimited¬†seemed to explode in a way none of her previous records have, and I think with good reason: it is much more than a solo offering, and a good deal angrier and grittier than what has come before. Recorded with more than a dozen musicians, the album feels like a collective effort, a sort of emotional mosaic expertly, and surely for the most part inadvertently, timed for maximum impact and relevance. “Why Do I Lose My Voice When I Have Something to Say?” asks one of the album’s songs; and the joy of¬†In a Poem Unlimited¬†is that, out of the darkness of its context and across eleven tracks surprisingly that are danceable for compositions also so thoughtful and vital, Remy and her collaborators find a voice so urgent and compelling.

Natalie Prass – The Future and the Past

Prass is the only artist on this list who has featured before on one of my end-of-year lists. In all honesty, I didn’t expect this latest record to better that self-titled 2015 debut. In some ways, it doesn’t – there was something crystalline and searing about that first record that doesn’t translate here. That said, the seductive simplicity of Natalie Prass¬†would have been entirely beside the point on¬†The Future and the Past, a record that is a great deal more expressive and expansive than its predecessor – and which deliberately and satisfyingly explodes the chanteuse¬†pose that had threatened to imprison an artist a great deal more interesting than her production has previously allowed. From its avante-garde¬†funk-n-soul stylings to its pro-choice politics, like¬†In a Poem Unlimited¬†Prass’s second album is a defiant call to arms – but it isn’t quite¬†angry¬†about the issues against which it rails; the album isn’t sanguine, exactly, but it¬†is¬†joyous and empowered … and, in a year in which many of us did not feel that way,¬†The Future and the Past¬†was the best kind of tonic.

Kyle Craft – Full Circle Nightmare

Seeming at times like the second coming of Ryan Adams (I know – even I’m not sure we need that), Louisiana native Craft’s second record is improbably mature for an album composed almost entirely of break-up songs. The Dylan influences are apparent from the cover art onwards, but are worn lightly and never hugged too close; the Father John Misty-style kiss-offs, though, occasionally grate. But there is an energy, lyricism and melodic touch at work here that has kept me coming back all year. Full Circle Nightmare¬†is in many ways the least essential record on this list, but it also has songs like “The Rager” or “Exile Rag”, which feel to me already like classics of their kind. What elevates these tunes is their healthy self-awareness: the album’s first and second tracks, for example, segue into each other perfectly, knowingly emphasising their similarities whilst also making perfectly apparent their separation. This is fair-dinkum songcraft, and shouldn’t be too easily dismissed. Stick this on your turntable, or wait a few albums until Craft has written his masterpiece and you’re way behind the curve.

I’m With Her – See You Around

I’d wager that I’ve listened to this record more than any other this year – something about the mix of Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Watkins conjures something properly special in the songs here collected. The trio has been working together for some time – they chose their name long before Hilary Clinton chose her 2016 campaign slogan – but this is their first album. Letting the collaboration marinate has done wonders for the music: it is supple and tender whilst being pin-point sharp and precisely structured. The songs are glorious – “Ain’t That Fine” or “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)” might be my songs of the year – but the arrangements are something else, never less than what each tune requires and never a scintilla more. The record easily tops anything either member has done alone – and that’s saying something, given the quality of their output (even Watkins’ previous stint with Nickel Creek has a pretender to its crown here). Wise and gentle, silly and smart,¬†See You Around is that new-best-friend of a record you’ve been waiting for – and which doesn’t come around all that often.

Anna Calvi – Hunter

Calvi has always been extremely highly regarded among the indie cognoscenti, and her live performances in particular have long boasted the sort of power we last saw from PJ Harvey in her prime (or from Annie Clark last week). But for my money¬†Hunter¬†is her first album to really hit its stride from the first note – and never let up. Sonically, it is a really potent mix of styles – more than any other record on this list, or all year, its melange is total, no one element of its sound easily discernible from another, achieving a seamless hybridity where lesser albums boasted in their stretch for diversity “the funk track” or “the electronic track”. Lyrically, it’s as incisive as Calvi has yet managed. But the album’s masterstroke is its melodic sense: though the record is full of sleazy sneering and gasping eroticism, its confrontational musicality never gets in the way of Calvi’s voice delivering crystal-clear¬†tunes with perfect phrasing and canny cadence. This makes¬†Hunter¬†the total package, and Calvi now rivalled only by Janelle Monae and St. Vincent in the current art-pop firmament.

“I¬†had called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes”

In “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”, which I read every Christmas Eve, Sherlock Holmes is at his most avuncular. He ribs Watson, teases Peterson and, famously, forgives the criminal. He’s far from the drug-addled obsessive of A Study in Scarlet, and devoid of the arrogant hauteur of “The Naval Treaty”.

This comes into particular relief in the audio play of the story which I listened to this morning: an adaptation from 1961, featuring Carleton Hobbs as Holmes and Norman Shelley as Watson. This series originally began as part of the BBC’s children’s programming, and you can tell: although the tone is a drily sardonic one that it is hard to imagine a children’s play adopting today, Hobbs’s Holmes is about as threatening as an old slipper (and not the kind in which one stores tobacco).

If Hobbs’s Holmes lacks even the sense of danger given the role by the patrician Basil Rathbone, in “The Blue Carbuncle” at least you can forgive him. The story features to my knowledge the only image in the canon of Holmes supping an ale in a back-street boozer; the story sees the Master at his homeliest.

The trappings of Victorian Yuletide are present in all this, obviously: peace on earth, good will to all men, and all that. As the gender exclusion of that phrase implies, however, Holmes’s festive spirit isn’t total in its embrace. There is the distinct whiff of snobbery in his approach to Henry Baker, the down-at-heel museum worker whose lost Christmas goose sets the story in motion, and, when the great detective requires advertisements to be placed in the newspaper, he demands, of course, that Peterson, a man who wears a uniform rather than a dressing gown to work, should be the one to wear out the necessary shoe leather.

There are the survivals of all this in Hobbs’s clipped tones and air of assumed authority. But, whether tucking into a woodcock or wishing a barkeep good health, there is primarily, in “The Blue Carbuncle” in general and in Hobbs’s version in particular, a domestic humility one otherwise rarely sees in Sherlock Holmes. You even get a sense of why Watson might have put up with him all those years – he could, when in a good mood, be fine company indeed.

May those with whom you spend the festivities be similarly well-disposed to you, and as suitably warm-hearted. Merry Christmas.

“All The Colours of the Spectrum”: Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black”

I spent much of the weekend at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and managed to hear five of the six shortlisted Booker authors speak: four – Rachel Kushner, Daisy Johnson, Richard Powers and Robin Robertson – appeared together on stage on the Saturday; the fifth, Esi Edugyan, was on Sunday interviewed alone by the excellent¬†Afua Hirsch. This means I’ve only missed Anna Burns, which is a shame – because for my money her novel,¬†Milkman, is in the top flight of this year’s shortlist. But it’s Edugyan, I think, who is the author to beat this year.

Her novel,¬†Washington Black, begins on a Barbados plantation known as “Faith” in 1830. The titular narrator,¬†George Washington Black (or Wash for short), is a young slave of around ten years old (“I cannot say for certain” [p. 3]), and in the opening pages he gives us everything we might expect from this sort of story: cruel overseers, caring-but-cowed fellow slaves, brutal work, distant memories of earlier identities (“If you dead, you wake up again in your homeland,” insists Big Kit, one of the older slaves and one of the few with knowledge of Africa [p. 9]). Very early on, too, Edugyan makes clear that slavery was not merely an economic system, but a cultural and social one – a means of production as linked to white self-image as it was any particular business model:

Faith itself darkened under our new master. In the second week, he dismissed the old overseers. In their place arrived rough men from the docks, tattooed, red-faced, grimacing at the heat. These were ex-soldiers or old slavers or just island poor, with their papers crushed into a pocket and the sunken eyes of devils. Then the maimings began. What use could we be, injured so? (p. 8)

None at all, obviously. But that was not the point. Rather, slavery was – and, alas, can continue to be – as important in how it shores up, confirms and reflects on white supremacy as it was in providing for the ever-increasing demands of the proto-industrial economy. Very late in the novel, Wash will tell a white man: “You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men” (p. 405). (It’s surely deliberate that even Wash isn’t free of another prejudice of the time: phallocentrism.)

The corrupting influence of slavery as an institution, then, is one of Edugyan’s key themes. But in her talk at Cheltenham, she emphasised that she considers¬†Washington Black¬†a post-slavery narrative, one which shifts the emphasis from bondage to what happens¬†after¬†the bonds are if not slipped free then loosened, little by little over time. This is a wise vision of a novel such as this, since I have some sympathy with the criticism that the recent preponderance of slave fictions can crowd out important stories of other sorts. For the first fifty or a hundred pages of¬†Washington Black, then, I was impressed but uncertain: here was another brilliantly written novel of slavery which was going to rightly argue that the institution was wrong – and then move on. I was left feeling like Wash when he is first allowed by Titch, the naturalist brother of Faith’s master, to climb a hill in preparation for assisting in an experiment: “I was troubled by the enormous beauty of that place, of the jewel-like fields below us, littered as I knew them to be with broken teeth” (p. 60).

Washington Black¬†is indeed very finely written. It has by far the smoothest, most controlled prose style on the shortlist. There is never a dip or a jagged edge, except where one is intended to be; every character emerges from the pages fully-formed and of crystal clarity; the characters’ speech reads redolently of their period without falling into pastiche; description is eloquent and evocative without being over-wrought; there are where necessary flashes of absolute wit and insight – “Mister Wilde had told me I was born with a ring of luck at my neck. Luck is its own kind of manacle” (p. 231) – and elsewhere, where appropriate, of more dilatory and yet no less apposite virtues. In one astonishing passage, Wash oversees the ferrying of live cargo across the Atlantic:

The winter crossed was rough, and some of the less hardy genera began to die off. When the octopus I’d caught in the cover grew colourless, lethargic, we stopped paying the steward to bring us sea water. Goff and I descended to the clanging, grim lower hold on the rare days we were in port and, stepping out into the blanched air, we’d disembark alongside a crewman to gather clean sea water into fir-wood casks. Using some rude instrument of my devising, we tested for impurities. The breeze would lift my hat, and I’d crouch there with my sticks and papers, sometimes cupping the water to my face to taste for deadly metals. Occasionally, a small, curious crowd would gather at the boats glistening rail to peer down at the strand old man and his ugly burnt slave who drank straight from the sea. (pp. 317-8)

No one line in this passage stands out, and yet the whole thing taken together reads as improbably moving. In boasting such complete control, but also in being willing to push its characters into situations which demand she move past the politeness of polished prose into something rawer and yet still beautiful,¬†Washington Black¬†is orders of magnitude better than Edugyan’s previous novel,¬†Half-Blood Blues.¬†It is much broader and deeper, following Wash in four parts from plantation to initial freedom – and on to, ultimately, residence in England – via a series of perhaps unlikely but never less than credible events. At each stage of his journey away from slavery – first as fugitive and finally as a “free” man – Wash perceives more and more a piecemeal process which at first had at first been invisible to him. Here is where the novel becomes the post-slavery narrative it prefers to be: in establishing clearly, but then not dwelling on, the depredations of the slave trade,¬†Washington Black¬†is able more fully to understand its legacies – and those individuals who might once have been a part of it.

Most importantly, Wash comes to live in a world still defined by white supremacy. He can achieve nothing without a white sponsor or benefactor – and, even when he finds one, his talents are co-opted by them without permission or second thought. A prodigiously talented illustrator, via Titch Wash becomes fascinated by the natural world, and marine biology in particular. He comes to make a huge contribution to that discipline – and yet, in the sort of act of erasure that the recent movie¬†Hidden Figures¬†made so palpable, his name appears nowhere close to the record of that invention. It will be remembered instead as the work of a white man, Wash having merely drifted from an explicit slavery to another sort of indenture. “I had been a slave, I had been a fugitive […] and I had survived it only to let the best of my creations be taken from me,” Wash sighs (p. 337).

Not everything is perfectly balanced in the novel, however. Edugyan also said at Cheltenham that she was keen not to allow her white characters to become cruel caricatures – but rather to show how slavery came to erode their senses of self and personal relationships, too. In treating the figure of Titch with such care and even sympathy, however, the novel comes perilously close to centring the experience of a white man in a narrative about black slavery and emancipation. Prior to the moment at which she wisely removes Titch from the narrative, Edugyan cannot help but lead us, fascinated, by the nose in Titch’s wake. Perhaps we are meant to feel some of the unearned hero-worship Titch encourages in Wash, the slave he “frees” from the oversight of his master; but later in the novel Wash still believes that Titch “had risked his own good comfort, the love of his family, his name […] His harm, I thought, was in not understanding that he still had the ability to cause it” (p. 406). This is an extremely forgiving vision of the scion of a slaveholding family, whatever abolitionist identity they may adopt in reaction to that practice; and there’s even something of the tragic to it, a poignancy which renders Titch some kind of hero, a figure of unusually poetic proportions who inevitably takes some of the narrative’s momentum with him when he leaves.

Crucial to all this is Edugyan’s concept of freedom. She sees it not as an unalloyed good so much as a tool we must all be given so we may be the person we truly are – good or bad. Wash is spun a story on the plantation by Big Kit, who tells him that freedom is about doing what you wish at all times. The novel is a journey away from that simplicity. “Freedom, Wash, is a word with different meanings to different people,” Titch at another point lectures him, “as though I did not know the truth of this better than he” (p. 154); when Wash learns that the Faith plantation has been sold and disbanded, he comes to wonder about his old friends – “did they use their freedom wisely or foolishly?” (p. 183) ¬†We never know. What we are sure of, however, is that they will have been able, to one extent or another, to pick their path, unlike when they were held in bondage. “You speak of slavery as though it is a choice,” Wash later upbraids another character. “As if there are those who are naturally slaves, and those who are not” (p. 268). This, of course, is a calumny – and Wash is a proof of that, but one which the white scientists around him never quite fully perceive. Only in the Arctic wilderness where Titch’s father toiled in cataloguing natural phenomena is racism seen to be on hold, the exception proving the rule:

“And who introduced you to this delicacy?” said Titch. “Your man? […] Your Esquima, I mean. The one who brought us here on his sled.”

“Hesiod? But he is not our servant. […] He comes and goes at his own choosing. There is no word for ‘servant’ in his tongue.” (p. 203)

(No servant, perhaps; but he is named nevertheless by white men.)

Again, you’ll notice, Titch is the vehicle through which the lesson is dramatised. He is the crease in Edugyan’s philosophy, the anchored line that keeps the big ideas of her novel rooted a little too squarely in place. This is the primary reason I can see for the other big book on this year’s shortlist, Richard Powers’s¬†The Overstory, pipping Edugyan at the post. As distinct from what I still consider to be Milkman‘s unique qualities, both¬†Washington Black¬†and¬†The Overstory¬†feel like weighty novels addressing universal concerns – works which escape the particular.¬†I won’t have time before tonight’s ceremony to write up my thoughts on The Overstory,¬†but it is almost monumental in its solidity, its fixedness of purpose. It, too, is a philosophical novel: in Powers’s case, the governing principal is environmentalist unblinding, the book as a whole a sort of arboreal DeLillo, an American epic following nine disparate characters through a twentieth- and twenty-first-century reckoning with trees (“a tree is a passage between earth and sky” [p. 57]). As one has come to expect from Powers, an intellectual novelist whose books are influenced very much by his previous life as a computer programmer – all flawless logic and clarity of parameters –¬†The Overstory¬†is as complete as a megalith. It has no ideological flaws or accidents, no Titch to skip disruptively through the text. It is insistent, oddly monomaniacal for a novel so gloriously baggy, focusing squarely on its vision of the necessary reorienting of our understanding of what the world is, of “what life wants from people, and how it might use them” (p. 494).

Perhaps it is part of this project that¬†The Overstory¬†is never quite human, however.¬†Washington Black, on the other hand, is only ever over-generous in its extension of sympathy, too readily understanding of individuals’ perfidy and weakness. “I rather underestimated the intrepid nature of human stupidity,” we read at one point in the novel (p. 200), and it seems a lodestar for the book’s vision of us. The seminal line is given, of course, to the patriarch of a slaveholding family. I think it may be this clear-sightedness, but also this compassion, which wins Edugyan the prize this evening.

“More Beginnings Than There Are Ends”: Daisy Johnson’s “Everything Under”

When is a selkie story not a selkie story? When it’s crossed with Sophocles.

Daisy Johnson’s debut novel,¬†Everything Under,¬†is this year’s¬†Elmet: the precocious, lyrical, off-piste British debut which the Booker is recognising to signpost new, native talent. A little like the English Premier League, the Booker, in the international perspective it has taken since 2013, has been routinely the subject of criticisms that it is failing to protect its own. No less a luminary that Peter Carey recently argued that,¬†‚Äúthe Booker prize has always had a very distinctive quality, which comes from ‚Äď I might not describe it as excluding Americans ‚Äď but has to do with what is still the Commonwealth, and the leftovers of empire, which still have a lot of cultural connections.‚ÄĚ It’s hard not to think that including a novel like this on the shortlist is one way that each year’s clutch of Booker judges feels it can pay homage to the prize’s roots.

This is not to say, of course, that¬†Everything Under¬†is without merit – it is stylistically supple and impressively atmospheric, all dun and muddy river landscapes and quietly desperate suburbias. Rather, it is to suggest that the novel doesn’t exhibit the maturity, the sureness of touch, that other books on the shortlist, and the sorts of book that traditionally have found their way onto the shortlist,¬†do. This is a novel which begins with the words, “The places we are born come back” – but at the end of that paragraph admits that “cut wrong side into my skin are not canals and train tracks and a boat, but always: you” (p. 1). That is, within a few lines Johnson manages to mix her governing metaphor, between place and person. This isn’t an unforgivable slippage, but nor does it seem quite fully baked, either.

Take, too, the novel’s structure: its events take place along a jagged timeline, parcelled out in short chapters separated by time, place and perspective; these are never dated, and often seek, especially at first, to obscure their place in the chronology; they have vague titles which recur as the only clue to their purpose or significance (“The River”, “The Cottage”, “The Hunt”). Obviously this is designed to add a breadth to the narrative, as in Marlon James’s perspective-hopping¬†A Brief History of Seven Killings, or to confound until the crucial moment a reader’s understanding of precisely how the story fits together and plays out, as in Eleanor Catton’s jigsawish¬†The Luminaries.¬†But¬†Everything Under¬†sometimes slightly lacks the confidence to shift the voice too much – each chapter, whether first-, second- or third-person, reads otherwise like the others – and also not to include sufficient clues for the reader that by half-way it is more or less clear what is going on.

That is, the novel is never quite as mysterious as it means to be – and this is a problem, because what it aims most to resemble in tone is myth, legend,¬†faerie. Jeff VanderMeer has given the book an approving notice; it wishes to be, and can most usefully be read as, weird. Little Gretel and her mother, Sarah, are river people; they live on a boat and forage in the forests, keeping a watchful eye out for the approach of a water-dwelling monster, the Bonak. They speak their own language and stay away from outsiders, “as if the place we were moored wasn’t on the maps” (p. 61); Sarah seems to not be fully human in ways ineffable and never fully confirmed (“even mothers need to have secrets” [p. 17]). When another young person, known as Marcus, arrives in their small world, the pair find themselves in the unusual position of taking someone in. But Marcus has their own past – born Margot, and strapping themselves down with clingfilm and repressed guilt, he has fled his parents in order to avoid fulfilling a prophecy made by their next-door neighbour, Fiona, that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. When he arrives at Gretel and Sarah’s boat, he has already killed one man – another boat-dweller named Charlie – and his world is consequently all fear that Fiona will turn out to be right.

So far, so¬†Oedipus Rex. Just as in Sophocles, forgetting is key: Marcus, adopted, has no idea who his biological parents might be; Sarah’s origins and precise powers are dim and mysterious; Gretel, when she leaves home, spends sixteen years apart from her mother, and loses track of her entirely, spending a whole strand of the novel searching again for her. Most obviously, in old age Sarah suffers with Alzheimers. “Everybody forgets,” she told Marcus years before (p. 214) – and for her, too, it becomes true. But Johnson doesn’t quite do much with this. Marcus is forgotten, his fate erased from Gretel and Sarah’s knowledge just as his past and origins have been from the record. At the close of a novel full of quite awful pain, Gretel decides, “I must move on. I return to the office, work at my desk. […] There are more good days than bad” (p. 263). What does it mean that, unlike in Sophocles, tragedy and circumstance can have such little consequence?¬†Everything Under¬†isn’t sure, its ideas greater than its wisdom; and so for the most part it reads like a shrug.

The fusing of the Oedipus myth with the Selkie legend, too, doesn’t seem to go anywhere especially interesting. It’s a potentially diverting juxtaposition, but the co-location of the novel’s Oedipus cognate, Marcus, with a woman whom the young Gretel claims is “a sealady [… with] fins for feet and gills” (p. 146) appears to have no particular significance. Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are For Losers” did more to renovate this hoary old myth in rather fewer words (and covers all the ground Johnson manages, to boot); Kamila Shamsie’s¬†Home Fire¬†(2017) refigured Sophocles (in that case¬†Antigone) with more fluidity and clarity, too.¬†Only in the Bonak – a terrifying, shadowy creature not unlike M John Harrison’s Shrander from¬†Light¬†(2002) – does Everything Under create a truly memorable imaginative locus. The Bonak is a sort of wandering agglomeration of fear, a monster with not just a made-up name but one almost conjured into being by the sense of siege which characterises Sarah, Gretel and later Marcus’s existence. “Do you think we [… t]alked it into being?” Gretel asks Marcus’s adoptive father, Roger, at one point in the novel. “I don’t know if it matters,” he replies (p. 168); even the novel’s most effective aspects are afforded little purchase.

I’m more open than I am in the case of The Long Take¬†to the idea that I’m missing something here.¬†Everything Under¬†is a well-realised novel with something to say. But I also experienced it as too often clumsy, as a book which shows a lot of promise but which isn’t always flattered by its inclusion on the Booker shortlist (though its sales will surely, and happily, be lifted). Its relative lack of sure-footedness is perhaps most notable in its treatment of its transgender elements: not just in the siting of Tiresias in the gender fluid Fiona or in the switching of the Oedipus role from male to female (everything else about the figure’s experience is, alas, identical), but also in the manner and outcome of Marcus’s journey from being Margot to becoming the boy found by Gretel in the forest. Even when it is a novel intensely concerned with a deterministic view of human agency, does¬†Everything Under¬†really intend to be quite so biologically fixed as it ends up being? Sarah and Gretel define their own special world by inventing their own language; Marcus’s fate is sealed not by the gods, as in Sophocles, but by the way in which human patterns of thought are conditioned by the words given to us to shape our selves. But none of this, despite some invariably lucid prose and genuinely seamless generic play, seems quite considered enough – and, in the end,¬†Everything Under¬†meanders like a stream rather than roaring like a river: the stretch is beautiful in its way, but it might have been better for us to arrive later, at the confluence.

“This Whole City Is A Trap”: Robin Robertson’s “The Long Take”

There’s an episode of the venerable¬†Buffy the Vampire Slayer¬†spin-off,¬†Angel, entitled “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” (“AYNoHYEB”). It takes place in 1952, when the immortal vampire of the series’ title is living an amoral existence in downtown Los Angeles, passing through but not mixing with a series of avatars from the period: the out-of-work scriptwriter, the meathead actor, the sassy broad. The milieu is paranoid, informed by the Red Scare and McCarthyism; Angel first engages compassionately with these lost souls … and then, despairingly, gives up on them. “Take ’em all,” he sneers in the direction of a demon seeking to feed on the humans’ souls. Such is LA at the twilight of the golden age of Hollywood.

It might be odd that a work of epic poetry brings to mind a seminal forty-three minutes of network television from the earliest 2000s; but, certainly unknowingly, in his Booker-shortlisted The Long Take,¬†Robin Robertson covers much the same ground as “AYNoHYEB” writer Tim Minear: his detached, damaged protagonist, known almost exclusively simply as “Walker”, stalks the cities of post-war America – specifically New York, San Francisco and primarily Los Angeles – and consistently fails to engage with the people around him, even as he pines after a sense of community he at first cannot access and then, ultimately, sees destroyed. Walker is a Canadian veteran of World War II, fleeing the violence of a past which recurs to him, interrupting the free verse in which the majority of this “novel” is written, in italicised prose:

Mackintosh took up a Sten gun, shouting, spraying it like a hose at the Germans. He ran out of ammo, turned back toward us, then we saw how his chest just spat – then petalled open – and with a great convulsion he flopped down dead. (p. 160)

If it feels bathetic to compare the literary tale of a traumatised veteran with a popular TV show about a supernatural detective, then I may be conveying something of my feelings about¬†The Long Take: that it never quite justifies itself, never really leaves behind the stuff people have already said about the subjects it seeks to address. “Manhattan’s the place for reinvention,” we’re told at one point as if this is news (p. 17); we are asked to marvel repeatedly at the “Chinese, Japanese, Negroes, Filipinos, Mexicans, Indians / even Hindus and Sikhs” apparently – guess what? – to be found in American cities (p. 43); and as the years of Walker’s narrative pass by, his beloved post-war cities change, “buildings gone, / replaced by parking lots” (p. 184), as Joni Mitchell very nearly once sang. For an epic poem taking in these years of great change in the US immediately following 1945,¬†The Long Take¬†feels curiously familiar.

In part, this is deliberate. Robertson is seeking to encode in verse the grammar of film noir – the hard drinking journos who work alongside Walker at the¬†LA Press, the quick-bitten dialogue in the bars and on the trams, the sense of despair and of place. Indeed, in its evocation of this grimy atmosphere¬†The Long Take¬†earns some spurs. You have to forgive epic poetry some water-treading – a number of its lines will always exist only to pass from one section to the next. But Robertson scores some big hits nevertheless, and usually it’s when he’s describing cities (Walker, a wandering psychogeographer before the genre was coined, has a thing for the built environment, its “straight lines / and diagonals” [p. 4]). The writing in these sections is often properly lyrical:

The smell of orange blossom on a Sunday morning
in the dead streets of Los Angeles –
the Spanish-style courtyard apartment complexes,
Mediterranean villas with arrow-loops, Mexican ranch houses
with minarets, Swiss chalets with fire-pits and pools,
Medieval-style, Prairie-style, Beaux-Arts-style –
stretching in its long straight lines down to the gray Pacific Ocean. (p. 81)

This is lovely stuff, and to sustain an entire novel across more than two hundred pages of verse is a formal achievement of remarkable proportions – and one that Robertson fully realises. But what’s new about LA-as-architectural-pastiche, or the smell of orange blossom on a Californian breeze? Robertson ticks the boxes of his noir checklist even as the returns from doing so diminish. The hard-boiled pose of his noirish lead doesn’t help, either: not only is Walker a, to be fair understandably, distant figure; despite his radical politics, even his theoretical fraternal feeling for his fellow man is insufficiently expressed to make sense of his horror as the area of Bunker Hill he has called home begins to be demolished. Instead, he just comes across as the worst kind of architecture fan, initial enthusiasm shading into reactionary distaste for the new:

The open cupola of the Seymour Apartments no longer looks out
over the steel frame of the courthouse.
The new concrete of the courthouse
looms over what was once the Seymour, levelled that afternoon. (p. 199)

From early on, Walker is interested in cities and “how they fail” (p. 56), but do they really fail through concrete? Walker is a complex, ambivalent character … but in other ways he’s just a bit dull. His motivating principle comes down to needing to unburden himself: “He had to finish telling Billy what he’d done, back in France,” he resolves late on, thinking of his only constant friend throughout the novel. “It was eating him up. Eating him alive” (p. 216). Reader, if indeed “the only American history is on film” (p. 137), then I’ve seen this one.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that¬†The Long Take¬†has been recognised by the Booker for its undoubted stylistic achievements, and for its regular, but brief, flashes of poetic invention: a woman dances “tipping her toes like a cat / at the end of a rope” (p. 157); cities are “locked geometries of shadows” (p. 5); and everyday diner meals are elevated in metre:

He went down to Clifton’s for some split pea soup;
chili and beans,
corned beef hash if he could. (p. 62)

An epic needs more than some decent lines to keep itself in motion, however: it needs fire, a forward momentum, an almost delirious energy.¬†The Long Take¬†instead has too many longeurs, which perhaps mimic Walker’s sleepless urban perambulations, but which also rob these lines of their roll. Robertson winds up repetitive, circling the blocks of Bunker Hill in ever decreasing circles; and no amount of admiration for the formal discipline, the super-human acts of poetic will it takes to write a book like this, can quite make up for that vague air of the waiting room. For me at least, this novel – if that is what it is – ultimately felt just a little bit like a chore, worthy and even improving … but rarely entertaining. If¬†The Long Take¬†were the kind of movie it seeks to ape, some among its audience might clap and admiringly murmur “bravo”, but few – surely – would be enthusiastic enough to demand, “Encore!”

“It’s Amazing The Feelings That Are In You”: Anna Burns’s “Milkman”

I can’t recall reading quite so magnetic a novel as Anna Burns’s¬†Milkman¬†in some time. In many ways, it resembles Eimear McBride’s¬†A Girl is a Half-formed Thing: its first-person, controlled stream of consciousness lends the novel an air of immediacy and authenticity, and quickly builds its own syntax and grammar as a means of cuing the reader more clearly to its concerns and its protagonists’ character. In others, however, it’s quite different:¬†Milkman¬†is earthier and funnier; where McBride’s narrator, even in her novel’s most brutal moments, had so finely-wrought a voice that it could read other-worldly,¬†Milkman¬†is never anything less than fully embedded in its working-class Belfast¬†mise en scene.

Milkman¬†takes place some time during the 1970s depths of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and in the heart of a Catholic community entirely separated from the Protestant one it neighbours. The manners of elision that this situation encourages bring to mind China¬†Mi√©ville’s¬†The City & the City – so unlikely do the circumlocutions of Burns’s characters seem that they occasionally present as fantastical. So, too, do the commonplaces of their day-to-day: the way bushes are taken to click, or individuals to disappear; the distance of any authority outside of the community, and the weirdness of their intermittent materialisations, which happen quickly and just as rapidly retreat. “All this … seemed normality which meant then, that part of normality here was this constant, unacknowledged struggle to see” (p. 89).

This is one of the most refreshing aspects of¬†Milkman‘s considerable achievement: the way it recreates a world now oddly separated from our own, despite its proximity in terms of simple time. It also feels, in these days of Brexit and border wrangling, important to recall the distressing effects of division and demarcation in the province of Northern Ireland. The impossible pressures that the requirements of clan loyalty and gang solidarity place upon the people of Burns’s Belfast bend and twist them, taking them away from their own desires and goals and towards agendas and disputes not truly their own. They also demand of Burns’s characters destructive moral choices – or rather choices with no viable moral option available: “Do you stand strong? Do you bear witness, even if, in the process, you cause more suffering and prolonged humiliation for your son or your brother or your husband or your father? Or do you go away, back inside, abandoning your son ore your brother or your husband to these people?” (p. 95)

What is most impressive about¬†Milkman, though, is that it correctly situates the political within the personal, as well as vice versa. The novel isn’t the story of hitmen and hardmen engaged in an underground war, but of women and communities living a life above and within that context. No character in¬†Milkman¬†is named – it is safer in this similarly unnamed Belfast to avoid looking too closely at, or choosing to label too decisively, anything or anyone – but its narrator is the middle sister of a family which has already lost two of its sons to the Troubles, and who now finds herself the target of the titular individual. No deliverer of milk, this man – rather, rumour has it, he is a leading figure in the paramilitaries (again, this word is never used) … and he has taken a jealous dislike to the lad whom middle sister insists on continuing to call her maybe-boyfriend. In a conflict that passes from one generation to the next, Milkman is also the inheritor of his soubriquet – an older, “real” milkman (that is, a real “milkman”), was once known to middle sister’s mother. The detail of all these overlaid relationships spools out, often orthogonally, throughout the novel.

As they do, we come to understand how the politics of the community doesn’t just drive its events but also becomes a sort of mask for them: “maybe-boyfriend was to be killed,” middle sister worries, “under the catch-all of the political problems even if, in reality, the milkman was going to kill him out of disguised sexual jealousy over me” (p. 115). In this context – in which women beaten by their husbands are told it is because of some depredation meted out to their man by a soldier from over the water, or in which every murder is understood as having a purpose or justification regardless of its depravity – middle sister comes to feel that “my inner world, it had seemed, had gone away” (p. 178). Likewise, she comes to see Milkman’s stalking of her as of a piece with the unspoken rules of her community: proceeding piecemeal and in metaphor, almost imperceptible but no less, and perhaps more, claustrophobic for all that. The intensity of all this is exhausting for all concerned; each character gives up much in order to survive within a space continually boasting less and less room for manoeuvre.

Perhaps this is why middle sister’s habit of walking the streets reading a book troubles so many of the people around her. In a community governed entirely by rumour – Burns is aware, no doubt, of the anthropological function of gossip in societies which seek self-policing unity – what comes to seem most dangerous is information, education. No one is encouraged to achieve this – boys are spirited away to the fight at an early age, or forced into make-do marriages or closeted homosexual isolation, whilst girls are encouraged to compete for the affections of gangsters and assassins – but middle sister is routinely caught with her nose in a novel.

It’s the way you do it – reading book,¬†whole books, taking notes, checking footnotes, underlining passages as if you’re at some desk or something, in a little private study or something, the curtains closed, your lamp on, a cup of tea besides you, essays being penned – your discourses, your lubrications. It’s disturbing. It’s deviant. It’s optical¬† illusion. Not public spirited. Not self-preservation. Calls attention to itself and why – with enemies at the door, with the community under siege, with us all having to pill together – would anyone want to call attention to themselves here? (p. 200)

This tension between the individual and the group, self-improvement and conformity, is not resolved by the novel’s end – cannot, in a society dominated by a recourse to, an insistence on, a herd identity, be resolved. But nor can the community be saved by a resort to the inward. Instead, increasingly recursive self-justifications are sought in order to protect the integrity of the corporation. Women, again, are the forefront of this, demanding more rights and greater equality, and so the men try to pay lip service to these demands “by coming up with the invention of rape with sub-sections – meaning that in our district there could now be full rape, three-quarter rape, half-rape or one-quarter rape” (p. 311). Such are the rationalisations to which middle sister and her contemporaries are subject. Only in her third brother-in-law, for whom rape is not “equivocations, rhetorical stunts, sly debater tricks or a quarter amount of something” (p. 346), is there a sign of hope – and only in the re-emergence of her mother’s true self from under a smothering blanket of theatrical piety is there a suggestion of escape.

Despite the fact that¬†Milkman¬†dwells on constriction, it is an expansive novel full of wisdom and not a little optimism. It perceives a dark time in recent history and seeks not just to understand but explicate it, and to hint and suggest how the way out of it was found. It does so through that incredible voice – humane and witty, difficult and characterful yet almost instantly accessible. There is little about this novel that doesn’t work beautifully – perhaps only in the weakness and occasional redundancy of its plot and central mysteries does it struggle to make something of its promises – and in its unnamed universality is, alas, of renewed relevance in our increasingly tribal times. Burns has here written something rather special, and the book not just deserves its place on this year’s Booker shortlist; it seems to me a frontrunner for the prize.