“I’m In An Alien Country Without Rules”: Angie Cruz’s “Dominicana”

Dominicana coverWhat 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 Hamnet beats out The Mirror & the Light by 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.

“It’s Like A Mirror”: Maggie O’Farrell’s “Hamnet”

Hamnet coverIn 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.

“How We Might Channel All Of This Dread”: Jenny Offill’s “Weather”

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 Speculation precisely 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.

“What Happened After The End Of The World?” Natalie Haynes’ “A Thousand Ships”

A Thousand Ships coverIn 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.

“Wine of Head-Spinning Strength”: Hilary Mantel’s “The Mirror & the Light”

The Mirror & the LightAbigail Nussbaum has already written about The Mirror & the Light, 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, Other is 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.

“Der kleine Mann mit einem Weltbild”: Benjamin, Sabisky and Irony

Walter Benjamin, in Frédéric Pajak’s “Uncertain Manifesto”.

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 Cultural Amnesia, 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.

Albums of 2019

First, a confession: my listening has been less extensive this year than in ones past. (In my defence, my reading was much wider.) Second, a question: has this year truly been as underwhelming as it feels to my admittedly under-exploring ears? Good music has abounded, but perhaps in not quite such volume as in some recently: we’ve been through a purple-patch of new music it seems to me; 2019 felt slower, but perhaps I wasn’t paying sufficient attention. A resolution for 2020 is to do so better.

All that said, there are a bunch of records competing for this year’s gong: Edd Donovan’s plangently hopeful Guardians of Our Time, and Jake Xerxes Fussell’s scruffily sinuous Out of Sight; Maya de Vitry’s dilatory Adaptations, and Dan Walsh’s galloping Trio; Bill Callahan’s maze-like Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest stands out, too, as does Jenny Lewis’s On The Line. I’ve yet properly to listen to Lana Del Ray and Angel Olsen, slowthai and Solange.

But, as ever, I picked five anyway – and here they are. As usual, I want an album to do something new or interesting – for the band or the musical mode – and don’t always pick the ones I’ve listened to most (although sometimes these two criteria do coincide, in this year more than many). Enough preamble! Let’s cut to the no-particular-order chase.

Iron & Wine and Calexico – Years to Burn

Look, the minute I dropped the needle on this one I knew: from the first note I was sure I’d get on with an album that has been fifteen years in the coming (these two bands last collaborated on 2004’s In The Reins EP). Beautifully produced, this is a warm record that never risks the syrupy, a romantic one that never turns to mush. Nostalgic and open-hearted, it is also forward-looking and brave for both acts – though both play to their strengths, with Sam Beam’s vocals front and centre and John Convertino’s tastefully smart drumming forming the foundation, this is also truly a collaborative album which feels neither like an off-cut or a glorified solo album from either quarter. The songwriting, too, is top-notch – among the best either Beam or Calexico’s Joey Burns have penned in years (and Burns in particular has had a strong decade). “What Heaven’s Left”, “Outside El Paso”, “In Your Own Time” are all classics of their shared oeuvre. Years To Burn is, in fact, one of their masterpieces.

Ezra Collective – You Can’t Steal My Joy

This is the record that Britain needed in 2019 – excited, exciting, communal, far-sighted. That despite this, and despite playing one of the best sets at this year’s Glastonbury festival, Ezra Collective remain just below public notoriety says something about the British distrust of jazz … but mostly about the UK’s terrible, cagey year. We had no room for this sort of groove-laden, genre-defying, exultant tune-age. Ezra Collective often sound like a Dixieland jazz band brought up to date, since they largely eschew the cult of the solo break in favour of band-mediated good-time music. This plays to my own jazz prejudices, but also proves a powerful political project in a multi-cultural Britain suffering an identity – and confidence – crisis. The title of this album was chosen assuredly and advisedly. This is generous music, and we will need more of this stuff in 2020 and beyond – it’s the future, and on this record you can hear it calling happily.

Grande Valise – Glass & Keys

Full disclosure: I’ve known Becky and Andy, the duo behind Grande Valise, for years – and made music with the for just as long. (They are joined here and on stage by Carl Bayliss on drums and John Napier on bass, alongside numerous others including yours truly.) But Glass & Keys is a very special record regardless, since it includes some inspired songwriting on the topic of just the sorts of communities and histories that have sat at the heart of music the political wrangling past which Ezra Collective successfully squeeze. This slice of Black Country synth-pop includes songs about the impact on employment of automation, of the withering away of local amenities likes pubs and clubs; it includes songs about venerable figures of the industrial revolution like the Chubb brothers, Charles and Jeremiah, and that Wolverhampton marvel of automotive engineering, the Sunbeam. And yet it is also quite the catchiest record I’ve heard all year – hooks and melodies and vocal harmonies to die for are layered on top of one another with almost showy abandon, producing an effect of celebration rather than wake. It’s brilliant, and defies all the barren shibboleths of our present discourse. Go and buy it, and then dance.

Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride

This is going to be a controversial choice. Vampire Weekend have never been the coolest of bands – their preppy image and unapologetic adoption of polyrhythms saw to that. But on Father of the Bride they lean in to that caricature, and there’s no way around the fact the record is occasionally simply very cheesy and unfashionable, not least in its length. There’s a lot of vibrato and chorus on the guitars, too, and there’s quite a few backing choirs, as well. But here’s the thing: it works. The production here never feels gloopy or leaden, but instead comes across as refreshingly crisp, uncomplicated in some obscure, post-cool fashion. The album also includes some of the best individual songs of the year – most obviously “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin”, but also “This Life” and “Married In A Gold Rush” – and that shouldn’t be over-looked in the rush to dismiss Ezra Koenig as a bit of a douche. Stop trying to be cool, guys. It’s sad.

Our Native Daughters – Songs of Our Native Daughters

This record could so easily have been a museum-piece. Of course, once its personnel were chosen – Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell – there was never any chance of that happening. But choose only one of them, or choose a different quartet, or give them a different brief, and the resulting record could have been polite and respectful – but not also vibrant and creative and inspiring, as this set is. Released by Smithsonian Folkways, and played on acoustic instruments in a – dread word this – authentic roots Americana style, Songs of Our Native Daughters is, rather like the work of Hurray for the Riff-Raff in fact a work of stealth revolution: songs that sound like standards which are in fact original compositions that reclaim musical forms for the dispossessed. It proceeds out of Giddens’s own explorations of slavery and the history of the banjo (most obviously on 2017’s Freedom Highway), but the inspired decision to make the project fully and wholly collaborative transformed a fascinating project into a vital one. These are great tunes, beautifully performed and affectingly sung; but taken together they are also something else that happens meaningfully rather less often: they are a manifesto. The second album cannot be far away, and the movement is already here.

On Being Bothered

Be careful what you wish for. For more than two decades, British voters lamented the similarity they perceived between the two major parties that jockeyed for government positions within their First Past The Post electoral system. From the rise of Tony Blair in 1994 until the Brexit vote in 2016, the “neoliberal consensus” dictated and defined the terms of political debate; the choice between the two options felt sterile and marginal. Conservatives felt cheated, their leaders championing gay marriage or wearing baseball caps at theme parks; the Labour faithful bemoaned PFI and City-friendly deregulation. If only – if only! – they said, there was a choice to be made.

The choice for many is now, it would seem, far too stark for comfort.

The 2019 General Election campaign has been a contest between a right-wing, sotto voce  nativist Tory party and a socialist, redistributionist Labour Party; between on the one hand Jeremy Corbyn, a champion of the left for decades and an anti-imperialist peacenik, and on the other Boris Johnson, the true heir to Churchill in his bullish British chauvinism. Where Labour seeks to radically alter the capitalist model under which it perceives voters to toil arduously and to little benefit, the Tories seek Shanghai-on-Thames, a free-trading buccaneer nation of carefully stratified worker-citizens. The Conservative Party has reoriented as the party of a certain part of a rump-England, ruddy and anti-metropolitan; the Labour Party as a fierce opponent of privilege and inequality of all kinds.

Or at least this is the narrative, the dividing lines that appear to have been drawn over a country far more confused and conditional than any of this. One writes country where in truth one means a set of countries, a collection of nations that breaks down with far more granularity than merely “England-n-Scotland”. By this I mean not the non-existent geographical divides of Brexit (to leave behind a further false narrative of a north-south or even class-based oppositionality as regards the EU issue), but rather the competing interests of regions voting more separately and disparately than they have perhaps ever before: the north-east sticking with Labour, the north-west flirting with Brexit, the Midlands with Conservatism. The centre cannot hold – but not in the way you think.

We live at a time of crisis; I am convinced radical shifts are necessary. But Labour’s manifesto is no more or less Leninist than a standard Scandinavian settlement; and Norwegians or Swedes are rarely characterised as firebrands. Likewise, so insipid is the Conservative manifesto that is difficult to brand the party as particular pro-active, or even especially right-wing at all. On either side, each says the other is hiding their true intentions; this may be so, but Michael Heseltine depicted Tony Blair with demon eyes and now both flirt with the Liberal Democrats. Sometimes political parties simply believe what they say they do. Johnson’s Conservative party likely will be confused on a policy level – nativist in some areas, authoritarian in others, emollient elsewhere; Corbyn’s Labour may put up taxes a bit and return utilities to public ownership, but is not going to abolish the army or destroy capitalism. The extremes have not, in fact, yet been reached. Only the limits of the mainstream have been stretched; that this comes as such a shock is evidence more of the withering of the British political consciousness than it is of any especially radical moment.

Nevertheless, what is different about this campaign is its tenor, its tone. The Conservative party, a study has found, has lied in 88% of its online ads; Labour not at all. That the country seems to be considering rewarding this sort of approach to political discourse – of a piece with its figurehead’s approach to truth throughout his journalistic career, but unprecedentedly corrosive of public trust, and in an echo of the Surkovian approach perhaps designed to be just that – really is a bad sign for our politics. The decades of having no choice has appeared to cheapen the idea of having one at all; that everyone is “just the same” has offered carte blanche to voters who simply wish to vote for whomever makes them feel better, regardless of the context. Punch-drunk from degradation, we go giggling into the sea.

The principle objection to any anti-Johnsonian attack is Jeremy Corbyn: he is a threat to our national way of life, to our security; a terrorist sympathiser, an anti-semite. Many of these accusations have more to do with his difficulty in guiding the electorate closer to  his policy perspectives than anything inherently wrong with his actual positions; but the last of these accusations has exercised me a good deal during the campaign and before it. Is it to ignore racism and accusations of it to argue that Jeremy Corbyn might still be the nation’s only hope in the face of a Prime Minister who cares little for what he does with power as long as he has it? Johnson is a figure who will say or sanction anything – avoid all scrutiny or blanket the airwaves with untruths as proves profitable – in order to hold on to an office which, as his own manifesto suggests, he and his party have little idea how to utilise. In this context, is it reasonable to hand-wave accusations of anti-semitism, or to dismiss them, or to accept them but hold them in balance with other considerations? Are any of those approaches defensible? Which is worst?

No one’s ethical choices are pure in the midst of what has been a dismal campaign. Labour’s failure to handle anti-semitism is certainly a sign of institutional incompetence; it may also be a sinister expression of something rotten at its head or heart. That this question is still be resolved to the satisfaction of many in the Jewish community and beyond is a serious issue for Corbynism, which struggles – in the face of daily attacks – to accept any criticism. But voting for Boris Johnson seems to guarantee not the Brexit for which many of his supporters seem myopic in their enthusiasm – that moment of national coming-together – but the speeding-up of a cultural turn in the country which insists on uniformity, on vapid conformity to a set of fictions we all know are lies but which we parrot either because they suit us or because not to do so is to court opprobrium. Perhaps defending Corbyn on anti-semitism is part of this movement; but the level of scrutiny to which Labour has rightly been subjected on the issue stands in stark contrast to the lack of interrogation that is permitted by Johnson’s Conservatives.

Few could describe the current Labour approach to anything – much less the establishment of pogroms – as ruthlessly strategic, and in fact in many ways they emerge from this campaign as a band of dogged pragmatists, of make-do-and-menders. In her recent book on anti-semitism, even Julia Neuberger – not one to compromise with prejudice and an eloquent critic of Labour’s reaction to antisemitism in its ranks – wrote, “there is antisemitism, but it is not like the 1930s.” She exhorts”people who are not Jewish [to] call out … shadowy views”; I have tried to do this in daily life, and, while other anti-Tories won’t face what they might find to be a Hobson’s choice, yet will vote Labour tomorrow.

The compatibility of these positions may be in question; but Boris Johnson has consistently acted with much greater cynical dissonance, elevating hypocrisy to the level of philosophy. Corbyn may oversee a creaking system reluctant to admit fault; Johnson speaks of letter boxes and “piccaninnies,” of hook noses and shadowy conspirators. Here is a man who at one point makes the queasily eugenicist argument that IQ quotas somehow tell us something about who in our society deserves reward; and at another presents himself as the champion of the working class against the marauding foreigner. Here is a man who says there will be no barriers for Northern Ireland, all the while working on a new Sykes-Picot line that will divide Ulster from Great Britain more surely than any border poll.

This Janus-faced strategy contrasts with Corbyn’s attempt to hold together the fractured coalition of Remain and Leave which constitutes not just his party but our whole polity. To reward it is to endorse cynicism. It is to beg for it to continue, to express a preference for the erosion of any semblance of communal feeling or understanding in favour of ever more segmented divisions. Johnson cannot say different things to different audiences unless he splits them apart from one another. To vote for this fragmentation is to say that any effort to unite us is doomed to failure; better to accept our divisions and leverage them. Many of those who may vote Tory tomorrow are not Johnson partisans; they will be making a choice, though one informed more by exhaustion than enthusiasm. We are tired as a nation; to build something new feels like hard work. To play in the ruins at least offers a barren kind of lenience, granted for time served. “Get Brexit done” offers a holiday from politics.

The Conservative anti-political offer, then, is a complete package: knowing fictions, impotent despair of ambition, derogation of duties. Hand it all over to Johnson, let him deal with it while he tells us another joke. The campaign hasn’t so much replaced a lack of choice with a stark one; it has offered the opportunity not to choose, to accept the inevitable, give in – as we did not in 2017 – to the Tory right to rule. If the country makes that choice, it will have confirmed the neoliberal consensus as not so much challenged -either by populist nationalism or resurgent leftism – as in place. There will have been seen to be no alternative, even to lies.

Johnson’s increasingly haggard face looks at you, and asks: can you really be bothered anymore? Behind him, the deckchairs are arranged for you. The loudspeakers burble about another meaningless story, a fiction that will pass. The ship is slowly sinking. It’s been a long time like this. Can you really be bothered anymore?

Can you?

“How Women Get Things Done”: Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments”

The Testaments coverThe Testaments is by some way the most traditional novel on this year’s Booker shortlist. It proceeds chronologically, for the most part, and it passes sedately between three more-or-less transparent narrative voices. It has a very clear plot – a lot happens in this novel – and its prose style has crystal clarity but nary a nod to experimental hi-jinx. Perhaps for these reasons, but also I think for others, it is also by a good distance the most readable of this year’s clutch. It is, in the lingo of the capsule review, a cracking read.

Indeed, it may well be the first proper science fiction thriller ever to make it onto the Booker shortlist. Two of its three narrators are young adults, and this gives the book a decidedly YA-ish verve – again, The Testaments is written to be read. It has a rehabilitated villain at its heart – who, if not entirely redeemed, is depicted in sufficient full, compromised technicolour to win our empathy – and its events have decidedly high stakes. The Testaments proceeds at the civilisational level.

All this makes it a very odd frontrunner for the gong this evening – but ahead of the pack it is, at least according to the bookmakers. At the same time, I am an unusual reader for it: here is where I confess to you, sotto voce, that I have never read The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), to which this book is a sequel, and have never watched the Hulu TV series of the same name, from the success of which this novel undoubtedly proceeds. I know the basics of the world of Gilead – the triumph of patriarchy, the subjugation of women, the terror of reproductive tyranny – but The Testaments is my first proper entry into this world. This no doubt makes me weird and even wrong; but it does at least mean I’m approaching this novel only on its own terms, as surely the Booker jury also must (if they can).

For my part, then, the other text I couldn’t stop thinking about as I read The Testaments was not The Handmaid’s Tale but Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman; that book, too, came a long time after a beloved original, a bona fide modern classic; that novel, too, had an extremely clear – even jejune – style, a bald approach perhaps; and that novel, too, cast new light on old characters (I know enough to realise that the newly rounded villain who powers The Testaments, Aunt Lydia, is a rather less complex figure in the original novel). Of course, Go Set A Watchman is also – undoubtedly – not a great novel. The Testaments feels similar to me in this respect, too.

I’m steering clear of spoilers – unusual for these Booker reviews of mine – because in some ways plot is all this novel has: the fate of Baby Nicole, the plots and stratagems of Aunt Lydia; the relationship between witness 369A and 369B, the novel’s other narrators; the ultimate fate of Gilead (in her Acknowledgements, Atwood says that she wrote the book to answer the most-asled question about The Handmaid’s Tale: “how did Gilead fall?” [p. 417]). Otherwise, there is world-building – beautifully, subtly done, although of course also reliant on the cultural penetration of that image of the Handmaid, meme-like in its ubiquity in the age of Trump. There isn’t a lot of character – other than Lydia, the characters all tend to speak in the same way (even the Canadian ones, whom one might assume are immune from the brainwashing of the Commanders). There isn’t a lot of atmosphere – we are told about a lot of terrible things (mass shootings, public dismemberments, forced executions), but most often in the style of reportage, our reactions doing the work for the economic prose:

“God will prevail,” concluded the speaker.

There was a chorus of baritone Amens. Then the men who’d escorted the blindfolded women raised their guns and shot them. Their aim was good: the women keeled over.

There was a collective groan from all of us who were seated in the bleachers. I heard screams and sobbing. Some of the women leapt to their feet, shouting – I could not make out the words – but were quickly silenced by being hit on the back of their heads with the butts of guns. There were no repeated blows: one sufficed. [p. 118]

The starkness of the prose tells us all we need to know; but it doesn’t conjure with the details. Atwood adopts this rather passive approach throughout (“Fists were raised, clutching clumps of bloodied hair torn out by the roots” [p. 279]), and it is certainly by design: first, it emphasises the powerless of the observers, who are always women; and second, I think, it allows the novel not to strain to tell us the obvious: this is wrong. It is so plainly, self-evidently wrong that why should the novel waste words persuading us of this? The problem, I think, is that the reader becomes an observer themselves in this process, rather than an intimate actor; it keeps us at one remove.

This is a shame, because the novel’s primary argument is for community, and specifically solidarity between women. Time and again, gossip acts as a lever of not just the plot but of the weakening of patriarchal authority: “The Aunts, the Marthas, the Wives: despite the fact that they were frequently envious and resentful, and might even hate one another, news flowed among them as if along invisible spiderweb threads” [p. 232]. When one character protests that, “I can’t destroy Gilead […] I’m just a person,” the retort comes: “Not alone, of course not” [p. 198]. Those who escape Gilead do so through “densely interconnected … networks of marriages” in the “liminal patches of Maine and Vermont” [p. 112]. In other words, fellow-feeling gets us through: “Is your mother the one who gives birth to you or the one who loves you the most?” one character asks of another [p. 89], and the truth is that there are many and multiple mothers in this text. Women nurture each other towards a better future.

There are compromises in all this, too: to fight the future, you have to get angry. One character is taught despite their protestations how to kill someone by gouging out their eyes; another proves her loyalty by murdering someone. Another reflects that women must be “prepared to wheedle, and lie, and go back on their word” to strike a blow against Gilead [p. 234]. The Testaments doesn’t think that craftivism will save the world; but it does believe in connecting the cracks in a system which appear in each individual – that woman who doesn’t want to get married, that one who can’t see why she should become pregnant – in order to create a fatal flaw in the broader façade. Many characters and plotlines come together in the course of the novel to achieve exactly this.

Any novel so tightly plotted can be accused of making complex events seem too easy, and the YA overtones of the piece do occasionally tell. Some of the novel’s best lines – “Wedlock: it had a dull metallic sound, like an iron door clicking shut” [p. 158] – are also among its most aphoristic, its most schematic. One character berates themselves for believing the checks and balances of the US constitution, that document that was so easily pulled apart by the forefathers of Gilead; The Testaments sees itself as a guide for the lost: how to avoid the mistakes of this world … and how to survive those of our own. This is a novel the last lines of which are, “Love is as strong as death” [p. 415].

Each reader’s mileage will vary as to how well they react to this. For my part, I found The Testaments moving and compelling – I read it at a clip, and was entirely captured by its events. On the other hand, I also experienced it as a teensy bit pat, perhaps a little lacking in layers. It’s remarkable that Atwood has set out to stamp her mark on a world she created and which has now become common property – presumably, The Testaments is canonical, and that means the TV series must reckon with it. It would be equally remarkable, I think, if the Booker rewarded such a novel tonight; not a bad thing at all on many levels – at last, a blow struck for genre! –  but it would be a decided departure for the prize.

“Pitiless Circumstances”: Chigozie Obioma’s “An Orchestra of Minorities”

An Orchestra of Minorities coverEach of the novels on this year’s Booker shortlist deals with outsiders: Shafak’s sex workers, Rushdie’s unemployed immigrant; Ellman’s Ohioan housewife is the closest to middle-class comfort the shortlist managers, but the intense anxiety that suffuses those pages robs the character of any of the assured confidence we might ordinarily associate with the insider. In the main, these novels seek to align their reader with their marginalised characters: as I discussed with Abigail Nussbaum in the comments to my review of Girl, Woman, Other, identification may indeed be at least one of these novels primary aim. In An Orchestra of Minorities, however, Chigozie Obioma isn’t quite playing that game: his oppressed character is so damaged by his experiences that the reader risks entirely losing sympathy.

Indeed, this tug of war gives the novel its structure: the narrator is not the protagonist but his chi, a sort of guardian spirit in the Igbo cosmology who pleads on its host’s behalf to its presiding demiurges. The human host, Chinonso, “has committed this great crime in error, unknowingly” the chi insists [p. 4], and in order to save its host from retribution the spirit proposes to impart the story of his life up to the date of the infraction. Like the best advocates, it couches its defence in precedent, in the received wisdom of existing authorities. In this case, the chi calls on a seemingly endless store of Igbo aphorisms. Most chapters begin with one of these, and indeed are peppered with gnomic pronouncements throughout, of which the following is a decent sample: “the old fathers say that a mouse cannot run into an empty mousetrap in broad daylight unless it has been drawn to the trap by something it could not refuse” [p. 130]. The old fathers, it turns out, are verbose.

The chi’s dilatory style, which is a unique and original a voice perhaps because of its excesses, ensures that we do not reach the details of Chinonso’s crime until the novel’s final chapter. Instead, we learn much about his early life as a chicken farmer – difficult, due to the filthy conditions of his work, but also not entirely without promise, since the farm is owned by his family. When he comes across a woman, Ndali, who is about to drown herself in a river, Chinonso persuades her instead to continue to life – her betrothed has married another after only a short time living in Britain, but he encourages her to see that this is not worth her own life. They fall in love; but Ndali’s family are rich – and Chinonso is a chicken father without an education. Ndali’s parents do not approve, and oppose the marriage.

Here the novel places culture front and centre: the Igbo traditions and language of Chinonso, and the Western, Christian, English-speaking culture of Ndali’s family. This postcolonial snobbery persists throughout. It darkens even the final pages of the novel, when the Christianity of Ndali’s milieu is seen to be both hollow and yet strangely suffused with the forgiveness of which Chinonso is incapable: when, in a bid to win the favour of Ndali’s father, he pays a friend up-front to send him to university in Cyprus (using the proceeds of his farm’s sale), he soon finds himself penniless and unregistered on the Greek island that once shipwrecked Odysseus. He proceeds to repeat Odysseus’s period of exile from Penelope (“he will not know that it happened long ago, and had merely been patiently waiting for him to notice” [p. 512]).

The novel does not, then, eschew the culture of the coloniser as Akwaeke Emezi chose to do in her recent Freshwater (a novel that also rendered Igbo cosmology in the contemporary, material world); rather, An Orchestra of Minorities seeks to hold them in tension. This isn’t entirely successful, and asks difficult questions. The Greek killed Penelope’s suitors, but he didn’t plot this retribution while away – and he didn’t punish his wife (though for some reason he did hang her handmaidens). Does Chinonso’s more wrathful, more premeditated, response to his travails say something about the Igbo tradition when contrasted with the relative stoicism and impersonal character of Odysseus’s? Does the manner in which the man who connected Chinonso with the fraudulent university enrolment goes on to embrace Christianity and, on his return, Chinonso himself point to the hypocrisy of the religion of the coloniser … or to the relative rigidity of the native theology? These often implicit questions are usually left unanswered.

Certainly the novel undermines the apparent wisdom of its chi by depicting the cluelessness and increasing malice of Chinonso. When it declares that “the great fathers in their discreet wisdom say that seeds sown in secret always yield the most vibrant fruit” [p. 172], it is practising wilful blindness: the silences in Chinonso’s life ruin him; they bear bitter – rotten – fruit indeed. Even the apparent omniscience of its narration (“his voice is my voice” [p. 4]) is explicitly rejected: “I have spoken many times this night about this peculiar lack in man and his chi,” it admits, “that they are unable to know that which they do not see or hear” [p. 510]. Obioma is not entirely patient with the pretensions of his spirits – or perhaps with any. For him, human experience is darker and dingier than all that.

Chinonso, for example, is hard to like – particularly in his objectification of Ndali. Early on, he focuses primarily on her “ponderous breasts” [p. 37], and he never really moves beyond them. When finally reunited with her after many years, he notices first that she is “weightier than the slender woman whose image he carried in his head all these years” [p. 449]. Chinonso’s chi is challenged, at the close of the novel, by Ndali’s: “I warned you to desist long ago but he kept coming after her, chasing her, until he disrupted her life” [p. 509]. Chinonso, for whom “loneliness is the violent dog that barks interminably” [p. 19], and who suffers from a “poverty of anticipation and the emptiness of hope for the future” [p. 223], is a sort of incel: entitled and affronted, someone for whom a woman is less an individual and more a set of imagined virtues, a reflection of their own needs (for these are all that matter). In pleading for him, the chi makes a serious error of identification.

Yes, Chinonso is the victim of racism in Cyprus – in one painful scene he is mistaken for Ronaldinho and forced to sign footballs. In others he is mocked for not being able to speak Turkish, or refused help because of his country of origin. And yes, he is the victim of a cruel trick, a form of human trafficking that profits from the forlorn hopes of the disadvantaged. But when he is rejected by a woman we are told he “quaked in his seat as a possessive form of violence perched on his mind” [p. 484]; it is hard, despite all the depredations to which he falls victim, to feel sympathy for him. When the chi argues that “my host would have done things differently if he had more capabilities” [p. 457], it feels like special pleading – and rings hollow.

Is this the author’s intent? I’m not sure: his debut novel, The Fishermen, spooled out a similarly grisly plot and managed to maintain the reader’s sympathy for those caught up in it; one of the novel’s three epigram’s is another Igbo proverb that maintains “if the prey do not produce their version of the tale, the predators will always be heroes”; and in an Author’s Note he suggests that he hopes the novel can “serve as a sufficient reference book” for anyone interested in “Afro-religions” [p. 513]. So there is a sense that, perhaps, An Orchestra of Minorities isn’t quite aiming for the ambivalence that ultimately it inspires. The novel takes its title from a saying of Chinonso’s father: that the English would translate the Igbo for “little things” – chickens – as minorities. “He was always saying the chickens know that is all they can do: crying and making the sound ukuuukuu!” [p. 98]

If Obioma thinks his novel is a story of the effects that prejudice and marginalisation can have on a man, then he is only half-right: but the man comes to that suffering already half-broken, and this is not his vision of the Igbo culture, which is rendered here in full and deep detail (there are even diagrams). Perhaps the girth of the novel, and the sometimes glutinous quality of its prose, is evidence that it got away from Obioma in this way; or perhaps the ambivalence is baked in but quietly, a less trumpeted part of the project. Either way, if not wholly successful or balanced, the novel is meaty and full of the sort of ingenuity and creative clash that prizes like the Booker often reward. It may, then, have a shot at this year’s gong – and for Obioma it is already his second such opportunity, an achievement in itself. But I wonder if they, too, will be given pause not by the novel per se … but by Chinonso.