The Story and the Truth

Author Archive

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

In Books on October 16, 2018 at 9:38 am

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 BluesIt 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.

Advertisements

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

In Books on October 11, 2018 at 7:15 pm

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”

In Books on October 10, 2018 at 4:47 pm

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 Miéville’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.

“The Prison of the Present Tense”: Rachel Kushner’s “The Mars Room”

In Books on October 9, 2018 at 9:10 am

I feel like I’m being unfair to The Mars Room. Its presence on this year’s Booker shortlist is refreshing and significant; its voice is memorable and consistent; its heart, reader, is in the right place. There are passages of quite impressive tension, and others of much humour and even – if this is not too hoary a noun (which, of course, it is) – ribaldry. It has something to say of perhaps even greater urgency now than when the novel was being written. You’ll remember it; it sticks.

And yet I can’t quite shake the idea that the novel doesn’t really work, or that it is weirdly derivative for a novel that wants to be taken so seriously.

The Mars Room begins some time around 2003, when Romy Hall, a single mother in her late twenties, is being ferried to Stanville, the prison where she is to start the first of two consecutive life sentences. The exact nature of her offence is kept hazy until very late in the novel, but we quickly intuit that, in one way or another, she killed a man who had begun to stalk her. She had first met him in her capacity as an adult dancer in the Mars Room of the title, a very low-rent establishment in her native San Francisco at which she had worked for some time. “I am still Kurt Kennedy’s victim,” Romy tells us very early on, “even though he’s dead” (p. 19).

“Low-rent” is the adjective to describe much of the milieu in which The Mars Room is set. Its San Francisco is not the sun-kissed city of postcards and romantic movies; it is a hard-scrabble, down-at-heel place which exists beneath, above, to one side of and in between the recommended hotspots, “immersed in beauty and barred from seeing it” (p. 11). Only the tourists call this place “San Fran”, Romy tells us, and only people from further east think of it as a beacon of the good life. For Romy, it is only the home foisted upon her, her tatty default state.

The characters in The Mars Room, then, are acutely aware of their own disenfranchisement. From the conspiracy theories of her inmate contemporaries – “I didn’t meet a single person in the county who wasn’t convinced that AIDS had been invented by the government to wipe out gays and addicts” (p. 15) – to their understanding of the job market – “White girls get all the best jobs … while us black and brown women pull used tampons from the septic tank” (p. 161) – they are not blind to the injustices around them, and which have defined their lives. Injustice is fully integrated with their daily experience, threaded through life like a shabby golden thread. “If I was a dude I’d be like I am right now,” one of the prisoners shrugs. “‘Cept not locked up” (p. 105).

This structural injustice is featured on almost every page of The Mars Room, but is perhaps most clearly and concisely presented in Romy’s experience of the justice system. Bundled into a pen of other defendants, she first watches a man named Johnson endure a hearing, “as the facts of his life were exposed like pants pockets pulled inside out” (p. 61); she then finds herself assigned the same lawyer as Johnson, simply approached on the other side of the pen’s fencing by “an incompetent and overworked old man” (p. 63) going through the motions in a court which habitually dopes up defendants with liquid thorazine (“an invol by corrections offices [to make] their own job easier” [p. 62]). He refuses to let Romy testify, mostly out of a sort of programmatic caution (“No competent lawyer would put you on the stand” [p. 64]), and fails to work to build Romy’s trust sufficiently to persuade her to take a plea bargain. “What I didn’t realize, at the time,” she opines with the benefit hindsight, “was that most people took pleas because they did not want to spend their life in prison” (p. 65).

Romy blames her lawyer, then, for her predicament: as an avatar of a system interested primarily in processing people rather than understanding them, he comes to represent all that is inadequate and off-hand about the US court and penal system. Others, however, blame Romy: “Ms, Hall,” intones Stanville’s Lieutenant Jones, “I know it’s tough, but your situation is due one hundred per cent to choices you made and actions you took” (p. 157). The Mars Room is not ambiguous about the side it takes in this debate: it depicts Romy as never having had a meaningful choice to make from the day she was born, and also demonstrates the ways in which that helplessness is transmitted through the generations.

The novel throws this argument into higher, but not always as successful, relief through the medium of three competing perspectives. Interspersing Romy’s first-person narration, which makes up the vast majority of the novel, are intermittent chapters from male points of view: two written in the third person – one from the perspective of Gordon Hauser, the prison educator, and a man named Doc, a corrupt cop who was having an affair with one of Romy’s fellow inmates – and an even more intermittent, and frankly odd, set of first-person interpolations from the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski – a man who lives, like Hauser, in the woods and admires, like Hauser’s hero Thoreau, the “natural” world. The third-person emphasises that the novel doesn’t belong to these men, and their perspectives – Hauser’s sleazy obsession with “improving” the women in his classes without ever engaging with the truth of their existences (“They seemed afraid of the mountains, which surprised Gordon[:] ‘You got to fight bears up there'” (p. 187)], or the total lack of value Doc places on the lives of the people he in theory seeks to protect (“At the moment when the suspect’s hands go into the pockets, Doc fires at the face” [p. 198]) – serve to underscore the inevitability, if not the wisdom, of Romy’s fatalism. “Everything here is about choices, decisions, as if people are making them when they commit a crime” (p. 285), she observes cynically.

The Kaczynski stuff feels more out of place, and never quite coheres. It seems that Kushner is making a point about toxic masculinity, the Pyrrhic vacuum at the heart of the most destructive assumptions on offer in the novel; but since, rightly, the men in The Mars Room aren’t given space to take over the narrative, none of this is developed sufficiently to justify the weirdness of Kaczynski’s presence. The one exception to this rule is Romy’s stalker, Kurt Kennedy, who, in one of the book’s queasiest about-turns, develops around him an air of pathos in his final appearance: a man now on crutches, with clear mental health issues himself, bludgeoned to death with a crowbar. The Mars Room doesn’t make of Romy a Mary-Sue: she is prone to racism even as she also admits to “sometimes feeling sorry for bigots” (p. 166); for every bit of wisdom she imparts, she betrays, too, her limitations. Her contemporaries are not saints, or even likeable, “just people eager to see others fall under the hammer they suffered under themselves” (p. 78). This is a novel which wishes us to understand that we are all human – and that this means we are all often unlovely.

In achieving this, however, it is less successful than the book that casts a long and deep shadow over Kushner’s, Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black (2010). This shadow is made more indelible, in truth, by the Netflix TV series based on Kerman’s memoir, in which the show’s creator, Jenji Kohan, consciously created a stage for minority stories and diverse experience: by using the story of the blonde, white, middle-class Piper Chapman as an entry-point for the audience, OitNB has succeeded like few other mainstream television series in showcasing female stories rarely seen by audiences. The show’s six seasons and flashback structure has enabled it to weave an extremely rich tapestry; The Mars Room, set just like OitNB in a women’s prison and, just like OitNB, in the mid-2000s and, just like OitNB, focused on advocacy and diversity, can occasionally read as redundant, like fan-fiction for a show which shares its difficult mix of politics and humour, whimsy and violence. I’d like to say this isn’t Kushner’s fault, and that the novel should be read outside of this context; but OitNB has been hard to avoid since its debut in 2013, and The Mars Room should have taken more readily its opportunity to offer something different.

Still, a novel’s similarity to another property does not negate the often crystal clarity of its prose style, or the many achievements of its, admittedly sometimes over-formal, voice. Structurally, it doesn’t always fit together as satisfyingly as it might have done; every now and then the reader feels a little too keenly the gravity of the novel’s concerns pulling it into certain shapes or in particular directions; few of the characters beyond Romy are really given room fully to breathe. But nearly 1% of all people in the United States are incarcerated, giving it the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world; 40% of this population is black, compared to just 13% in the general population; and between 1981 and 2001, the rate of female incarceration increased five-fold. This makes The Mars Room of acute contemporary relevance, as does its piercing focus on how women are policed and punished more generally within US society. At a time when the President of the United States is a self-confessed perpetrator of sexual assault, and the US Senate has become so politicised, and mired in such constitutional crisis, that a man of allegedly similar proclivities, and certainly of unexamined partisanship, can be elevated to the Supreme Court, The Mars Room is more urgent still. That it is an accessible, and yet lucidly written, novel makes it unusual amongst literary fiction – and means it deserves and is capable of a very wide readership. If for rather less important reasons it might be somewhat hobbled in the Booker stakes, we might want to place the significance of book prizes within that wider, and more critical, context.

Albums of the Year, 2018

In albums, music on December 31, 2017 at 7:21 pm

It’s probably not just for me that 2017 felt like a year that both whizzed by and ground on. I wasn’t at all sure, sitting down over the last week to consider what album might make my annual top five, that I’d listened to a great deal of candidates. As it turns out, I had: bubbling under this quintet are excellent records by Hurray for the Riff-Raff, Nerina Pallot, Joan Shelley and Iron&Wine, each of which include single tracks which might make a list of top songs.

Top albums, though, need in this parish to be both consistent and interesting enough to stand apart as a single thing. So here they are: my best listens of 2017.

Chicano Batman – Freedom is Free

The Los Angeles quartet have been branded “world-rock”, which is a truly hideous phrase and one I shall try never to type again. That said, what was so refreshing about this album, released earlier in 2017, was its polyphony: so many musical traditions are mixed here into a sound uniquely the band’s own, and applied to songs which never feel like gimmicks or vehicles. In other words, the band created something new and rather thrilling with this album (not their first, but certainly their best) – and did so unostentatiously and without any pretension. It’s been the album I’ve most often returned to throughout the year, and deserves in particular a spot on any car trip.

This is the Kit – Moonshine Freeze

Like Chicano Batman but more so, this is very far from This is the Kit’s first album – in reality they’ve been a going concern for some time now, bubbling away on the underground scene without ever quite breaking through. It’s not clear that Moonshine Freeze was anything like a tilt at mainstream success, but the album is certainly a really impressive bit of proper songwriting, shorn of all the navel-gazing or worthiness that phrase might suggest. With a sort of woozy acoustic feel, and an indie aesthetic if that isn’t too old-hat a term, Moonshine Freeze does exactly as its title suggests: it somehow simultaneously warms and cools, its atmosphere an unusual mix of doomy and searching. Which may make it a singularly perfect album for this of all years.

Willie Watson – Folksinger Vol 2

Produced by the fader-riding David Rawlings, Folksinger Vol 2 picks up where its predecessor left off, but with some added elements – vocal groups, broader instrumentation – to cast into further relief Watson’s remarkable powers of interpretation. Its refreshing to see an acoustic Americana folkie not feeling the pressure to write his own songs, and instead commit fully and without apology to old standards into which he breathes rare life. As punk a record as has been released this year, too. Bloomin’ glorious.

Fleet Foxes – The Crack-up

AKA the album I didn’t expect. I’d sort of assumed Fleet Foxes, officially or not, had broken up – and from the contents of this album it seems clear that at some points so did they. Their return, however, is triumphant: deliberately potted and fragmented, its authors set out to make an album which sounds occasionally as if it has been been scrambled and put back together in the wrong order. Somehow, though, it is also a more solid effort than they’ve ever previously managed: perhaps because of its over-arching approach it never falls into ‘first one thing, then another’ trap that particularly their undeniably beautiful debut album sometimes did. They were also excellent live in Wolverhampton in November, and I recommend them to you.

St Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

I wasn’t sure this one would make the list, if I’m honest: after her self-titled 2014 LP, MASSEDUCTION sometimes feels a little too keen to please, a little too happy with its vision of Annie Clark as some sort of twisted pop princess. The problem with that feeling is that, even so, it is still among the most sonically interested records I heard last year, like something Chvrches might put out if they had an ology. Yes, ‘New York’ might be my song of the year; but the album as a whole builds to and falls away from it so expertly, so magnetically, that you simply cannot dismiss it. Curse you, St Vincent, and your confounding ways (except long may they continue).

I’m off to Twitter now to ask people what I’ve missed.

On Peace at Christmas

In Books, sherlock holmes on December 24, 2017 at 9:10 pm

“I seated myself in his armchair and warmed my hands before his crackling fire.”

Christmas is a time of tradition, of course, and long-term readers will know that one of my few festive habits is to read ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’. The only explicitly Yule-ish Sherlock Holmes story, the ‘Blue Carbuncle’ focuses on forgiveness and food – it feels to me, in large part because of repetition, to embody Christmas. Reading the story gives me the same feeling some will get from their favourite seasonal song, or from a particular drink or location.

To what end, however, do we indulge in the Christmas spirit? Why do we have these traditions, these triggers, to slip us into the right gear when otherwise we might roll into the holiday period feeling just as we do for the rest of the year? What’s Christmas for, precisely?

For many, the answer is family – the excuse, as the Petersons do in the story, to gather together and enjoy time without interruption (except, of course, for the sudden appearance of a precious stone at the dinner table). For others, and curiously none of these appear in the Holmes story, Christmas is for children. For Watson, Christmas is a time to visit old friends – at the time of ‘Blue Carbuncle’, he no longer lives at 221B Baker Street, yet he makes a visit on the second morning after Christmas.

I, however, have some sympathy for Holmes himself. As the story begins, he has spent Christmas in meditation. Watson arrives to a lecture on the inferences to be made from a battered felt hat that has been the subject of seasonal inspection; Holmes is surrounded by newspapers and has been interrupted only by the arrival of Peterson and Henry Baker’s goose:

He was lounging upon the sofa in a purple dressing-gown, a pipe-rack within his reach upon the right, and a pile of crumpled morning papers, evidently newly studied, near at hand.

He closes the story by inviting Watson to eat a Christmas supper with him. Holmes, in other words, sees Christmas as caesura: he shuts the doors and, barring people who come to him, he spends it in quiet contemplation. In my case, festive cues help me similarly switch off, and consider, like Holmes, a smaller – but no less important – set of problems.

Perhaps not coincidentally, my introduction to Sherlock Holmes was as a result of Quiet Time. This was the name given to an hour of afternoon’s silent private study that was introduced to the class of final-year infants students to which I belonged by a wonderful American exchange teacher. Her encouragement of individuality and creativity was a huge influence on me – and I still daily enjoy its benefits.

My choice of activity during Quiet Time? Holmesiana: reading adapted stories, drawing pictures, writing what we’d now call fanfiction. Quiet Time gave me the opportunity to explore not just a passion, but the storytelling principles behind the tales I was beginning to love. It wasn’t an opportunity I’d have been given without that stateside innovation, since in place of Miss Ingram’s gentle private contemplation would have been a prescribed hour of … something I would now be unlikely, in all probability, to remember. In other words, a period of peace was infinitely more productive than the alternative.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

“Everything That Happened”: Paul Auster’s “4321”

In Books on October 17, 2017 at 8:50 am

When 4321 was longlisted for the Man Booker this year, I did (as I remember it) a physical double-take. When it was then shortlisted, I was entirely surprised. In a year during which many other famous names who published less than their best work were rightly left out of the Booker running, that Auster had made it through seemed decidedly odd. The 2017 judges had otherwise decided not to give a lifetime achievement award; what on earth was this novel doing anywhere near any other kind of gong?

This opinion, I will confess, was received. I am not an Auster aficionado, and had not read 4321 prior to its longlisting. Rather, I’d paid heed, dangerously, to its reception in the literary press – and across the piste this had been cool. In some cases, the novel had received a thorough monstering. Most memorable was J. Robert Lennon in the pages of the LRB:

4321, as published, is not a novel; it’s notes towards one. It reads like every novelist’s binder of ideas: what if X happens? Would Y result in Z? The act of writing a novel involves as much elimination as it does creation. You think of the possibilities, then you abandon all but the most interesting. 4321, on the other hand, reads as though Auster just wrote down everything that popped into his head and declared it a masterpiece.

Reader, having slogged through this novel I cannot demur from a single word of this – though it might make the next few hundred words more interesting for you if I did. Many other reviewers have found themselves in a similar position: Michelle Dean in the LA Times (“tediously repetitive”), Blake Morrison in the Guardian (“the novel drags”), Laura Miller in the New Yorker (“it comes too close to tedium too often”), Lydia Kiesling at Slate (“curiously cold”): the vast majority of Auster’s reviewers have sought to understand this novel and have come instead to resent it. You begin to wonder, so complete has been 4321‘s confounding of the cognoscenti, if this wasn’t Auster’s project.

The story of Archie Ferguson, born into a New York family with an Eastern European Jewish background in 1947, 4321 breaks itself into seven chapters, each with four constituent parts. Each element of the sequential quartets follows a different parallel Archie, tweaking often very small aspects of his life in order to … not precisely map their consequences, because often those are minimal, but to document how Archie copes with the various brickbats of fate. One Archie grows up richer than the others, another in a “broken home”; one Archie dies, another lives. All surviving Archies become writers, but one is a novelist and the other a memoirist; one lives in the north part of the suburb, the other in the south; one has a mother who is an art photographer, the other watches his struggle to keep open a mom-and-pop camera store. Some characters live in Paris a bit; others don’t leave New York. Archie’s recurring love interest, Amy, sometimes breaks up with him and is sometimes his cousin. Time passes.

In one quintessential moment, Archie 4’s family moves house: “The new house was in South Orange, not Maplewood, but since the two towns were governed by a single board of education, Ferguson and Amy stayed on as students at Columbias High School, which was the only public high school in the district” [p. 567]. In other words, you can make a change but you can’t make a change. Ultimately, Ferguson stays the same because he is the same, his character irreducible. 4321 believes in nature more than it does nurture: one Ferguson’s experiences may lead him to bisexuality, and another’s may not; but he stays the same at his core – without notes and a map, a reader might plunge randomly into this novel and not be able to tell until told which Archie she is reading about. 

This is a feature, not a bug. Many reviewers have remarked upon the similarity of 4321 to Kate Atkinson’s wonderful Life After Life – and rarely in a favourable manner. While both novels share a structural tic, presenting the parallel lives of its central character and often ending them in death, the decidedly less entertaining or evocative 4321 seems more akin to Karl Ove Knausgaard in its exhaustive attention not to novelty but to detail: pages and pages of this novel list all the films and books Archie reads and watches, or the histories of characters who never appear again. The novel dwells interminably on the goings-on of the American midcentury as if aiming for some DeLillo-like definition, but collapses instead and repeatedly on baldness. Chapters begin, “On November 7, 1965, Ferguson came to the sixteenth book of Homer’s Odyssey” [p. 661]; we learn that Ferguson 1’s mother “had been reducing the number of hours she kept the studio open, from five ten-hour days in 1953 to five eight-hour days in 1956 to four eight-hour days in 1959 to four six-hour days in 1962 to three four-hour days in 1963” [p. 488]; we are treated to a full summary of Ferguson’s college career (“Freshman CC (Contemporary Civilisation-required). Fall Semester: Plato (Republic), Aristotle (Niomachean Ethics, Politics), Augustine (City of God)” … and so on, for the entire closely-typed page [p. 638]).   

And yet, and yet. Much earlier in the novel, Ferguson edits his own newspaper at school, and critiques a contributor’s writing:

Timmerman had done a creditable job of reporting the facts, but his language was bland, stiff to the point of lifelessness, and he had concentrated on the least interesting part of the story, the numbers, which were profoundly boring when compared to what the students said … [p. 193]

This self-reflexiveness cannot be accidental. However poor the execution, Auster is up to something. In Knausgaard quotidian detail is used to cast into relief, but also make absurd, the existential crises of its narrator. In 4321, the existential crises are made flesh in the multiple Archies – and yet, in the essential similarity of one to the other, still shown to be over-stated. Archie continually agonises over God’s nature and absence (“from one end of the earth to the other, the gods were silent” [p. 228]), and yet he is never clearer-eyed than when he reflects of one of many more or less interchangeable characters: “Francie had suffered […] no more or no less than anyone else in the family, perhaps, but each one had suffered in his or her own way” [p. 347]. This is true, too, after all, of each of the Archies – even the one who, pages before he dies, reflects in a little too heavy a moment of pathos that, “There were limits to what he could expect from the future” [p. 217]. Auster, in the bloated fashion of the nineteenth-century social realism which many see as the form’s pinnacle, is questioning the  novel’s reliance on character development and incident. 

Everyone had always told Ferguson that life resembled a book, a story that began on page 1 and pushed forward until the he hero died on page 204 or 926 [… But] Time moved both forward and backward, he realised, and because the stories in books could only move forward, the book metaphor made no sense. If anything, life was more akin to the structure of a tabloid newspaper, with big events such as the outbreak of a war or a gangland killing on the front page and less important news on the pages that followed, but the back page bore a headline as well […] Time moves in two directions because every step into the future carried a memory of the past. [p.p  427-8]

In the context of America’s current paroxysms, Auster’s depiction of its mid-twentieth century apogee as essentially recursive, even redundant, has real currency and is structurally bold. It makes sense, too, of the novel’s place on the shortlist: 4321 sits suddenly alongside Autumn‘s exploration of time, Exit West‘s criticism of modern culture, History of Wolves anti-Bildungsroman, even Lincoln in the Bardo‘s meditation on death and America. It is, though, much less successful than any of those novels: from its clumsy obsession with sex (“a delicious slobber” [p. 173]) to its weirdly literal metatextualism (“good as J.D. Salinger might have been, he wasn’t fit to shine Charles Dickens’s shoes” [pp. 429-30]), 4321 is over-emphatic, deafeningly insistent. 

From its gender politics – “the good thing about being with Julie,” Ferguson 3 reflects about a prostitute he visits regularly, “was that she never talked about herself and never asked him any questions” [p. 544] – to its consequently bizarre need for Ferguson to be at the forefront of every social movement of the period (“You’re too good” his basketball coach at one point straight-faced lay tells him, and the reader agrees but not in the way that might be intended [p. 539]), 4321 overplays its hand.  Ferguson 3 works on the COINTELPRO and Pentagon Papers stories; Ferguson 4 is exonerated in court for defending “a black friend against a white bigot” [p. 1007], wins a Walt Whitman scholarship at Princeton, and goes on to write a novel entitled 4321. Auster mistakes determinism for didacticism, yet ends his novel not as an exercise in the futility of small changes but, in a moment of real alternate history, with Nelson Rockefeller being appointed the forty-first President of the US. This is an unbalanced novel, and very often to not particularly insightful ends: ultimately we learn only that Ferguson “wasn’t a person but a collection of contradictory selves” [p. 300].

This inelegance should put 4321 out of the running for the Booker, the winner of which is announced tonight. For all that Brexit unbalances Autumn, Ali Smith’s witty and daring novel must, on the other hand, be a front runner; so, too, I should think, will be Hamid’s Exit West. In many ways, though, this year’s shortlist is exceptionally strong – the novels it gathers together, even the Auster in its superhuman breadth and depth, are uniformly controlled on the level of prose and each in their own ways impressive. In that consistency – even uniformity – it may also, though, be a little bloodless: I can’t say I loved any of this sextet in the way I did last year’s winner, The Sellout, or was transported by any of them in the way I was by 2015’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. This shortlist is gentler than many in recent years, and, in the absence of any other sort of tumult, the winner may yet prove to be a surprise: put an outside bet on Elmet.

“I Didn’t Mean To Go Anywhere”: Emily Fridlund’s “History of Wolves”

In Books on October 14, 2017 at 6:31 pm

I write this a few hours after seeing Emily Fridlund appear at the Cheltenham Literature Festival’s annual Booker Prize shortlist event. She appeared alongside Fiona Mozley and Ali Smith, and, as the discussion began to shake loose of the rather strict sequence of author interviews preferred by the moderator, Gaby Wood, I began to understand a little better what she had been trying to do with History of Wolves, her rather patchy and unwieldy debut novel.

Next to Mozley, Fridlund’s reading was gentle and supple; where Elmet, the other debut on the shortlist, often strikes for plain and even bluff prose, History of Wolves shoots for that wistfully wise tone many American novels these days adopt, and which some see as an excrescence of all those creative writing courses. “It’s not that I never think about Paul,” her narrator begins, at the start of nearly three hundred pages which revolve around him. “He comes to me occasionally before I’m full awake, though I almost never remember what he said, or what I did or didn’t do to him” [p. 3]. We’re already, of course, in the realm of the unreliable narrator, and History of Wolves indeed gives away its secrets slowly and in a muddle. Most importantly, however, we are reading a story told by an adult who doesn’t yet understand her childhood, and therefore herself.

Fridlund said this afternoon that she wanted to explore in this novel the slipperiness of the roles humans fill. Paul is a young child whose parents engage the narrator, Linda, as a babysitter. She is, in other words, his guardian; but she is also a child, his playmate. Paul’s parents, meanwhile – at first just the mother, Petra, and then also the father, Leo, who joins them at their cabin retreat across the Minnesota lake on which Linda’s family also lives – vacillate between being the care-givers we might expect and something else, powered by their own moral codes and belief systems. Meanwhile, at school, Linda is taught by an off-kilter History teacher, Mr Grierson, who proves to be in possession of child pornography, though he fights not to act further on his paedophiloc urges; Linda resolves to encourage him otherwise, keen to gain his attention at the expense of the class beauty, Lily. For her part, Lily eventually makes erroneous accusations against Grierson which everyone believes. The reader finds their instinctive sympathies sorely tested.

The problem with all this, as may be apparent, is that a lot of only tangentially connected events and characters are deployed throughout History of Wolves in an effort at thematic profundity … but never quite connect. The only thing that links Paul with Mr Grierson is Linda, and though Fridlund attempts, in some slightly vanilla sex scenes I think we are meant to find disturbing, to sketch the damage adult Linda exhibits as a result of all this bearing witness, it’s always a bit too obvious that we’re reading a novel, in which stuff like this must happen in order to make a point.

There’s a moment in Ali Smith’s Autumn in which one of the protagonists reflects that, were she appearing in a novel or a TV series, her next scene and its meaning would be predictable and conform to a set of tropes and conventions. There is a little of this in History of Wolves, even where it considers itself to be upending such cliches. This is a coming of age novel in which the protagonist does not learn – indeed, clings to the misconceptions and passions of her youth with little in the way of regret. Though Paul’s parents fail their child profoundly, and Linda is dragged into the wake of these events, she closes her narrative not with them but with Lily and Mr Grierson:

Even now, when those words move through my mind, like a curse or a wish, I become Lily. To happens just like that. I have to go through all t he preparations for it to work […] But by the time I […] see the look of recognition in [Mr Grierson’s] face […] I’m the one wanted more than anyone else. [p. 275]

Again, that slippage of role and persona – but, also again, that novelistic contrivance, just a little too transparent. Partly, this is a function of often beautiful writing which draws attention to itself – in particular, on the landscape and nascent sexualities – but more often it’s simply the over-insistence of many debut novels, cast into the unfairly harsh light of the Booker shortlist. “Maybe there is a way to climb above everything, some special ladder or insight, some optical vantage point that allows a clear, unobstructed view of things,” Linda ruminates whilst appearing in a novel [p. 150]. “You know what Jung would say?” her dysfunctional boyfriend asks her in the course of her arrested adulthood. “The archetypal Fool is Pet-ah Pan” [p. 171]. I think we get it.

In another such sleight of hand, the novel takes its title from a presentation Linda is asked by Mr Grierson to give at History Odyssey, an inter-school competition in which Linda takes as her topic the lupine record. “Wolves have nothing at all to do with humans,” she explains. “If they can help it, they avoid them” [p. 14]. Linda wins only the Originality Prize, a sort of wooden spoon, but her real tragedy is that she cannot avoid humans – “It was hard to explain how ingrained a habit it was to pretend I understood what was happening in other people’s lives before explanations were offered” [p. 118] – and that in this vexed confraternity she becomes entirely lost. Sadly, and despite the novel’s often deeply evocative scenes or moments, ultimately so too do her readers.

“We Are All Migrants Through Time”: Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West”

In Books on October 10, 2017 at 12:12 pm

In my review of Lincoln in the Bardo, I didn’t pay much heed to the sense of place it evoked. In large part, that’s because I found it unconvincing – perhaps deliberately, the bardo of the title feels timeless, and the characters speak not so much to themselves in their own idiolects but to us, the twenty-first-century reader, in ours. At no point did it really feel as if I was observing the nineteenth century, or communing with antebellum spirits; I was being told stories, in the most effective and accessible way possible.

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, on the other hand, revolves around locality, is focused laser-like on the ways in which places characterise themselves, and are in turns characterised; it is a novel about how cities and countries are in an endless process of becoming themselves, and of simultaneously resisting that change – sometimes violently and often begrudgingly, but almost always eventually.

The novel’s central characters, Nadia and Saeed, meet in its opening pages, at a business course being held in a nameless city in a nameless country. Saeed works in advertising, Nadia in insurance. He is the secular son of a teacher and a university professor; she wears a long black robe whenever she is in public, but smokes marijuana and listens to soul records in private. “If you don’t pray, […] why do you wear it?” he asks her when they first drink a coffee together. “So men don’t fuck with me,” she replies [p. 16]. This complexity of identity is the novel’s lodestar.

You may assume their city is Aleppo before its destruction, or Fallujah before it descended into chaos. In one scene, however, Saeed shows Nadia photographs of Western cities manipulated to appear lit only by starlight, and “whether they looked like the past, or the present, or the future, she couldn’t decide” [pp. 55-6]. Their city could be ours: its religions are never mentioned by name, much less its streets or neighbourhoods. The first half of the novel takes place almost in its entirety there, and Hamid’s writing is often at its strongest in those passages: precisely because it is nameless, one feels the city’s slippage from normality to conflict in this town alongside the characters, feels their taking leave of it as an almost equal wrench.

As the novel opens, the city is already used to refugees filling many of its public spaces, as if they are not harbingers of the future. Hamid is excellent at the incremental degradations of societal collapse: “because of the flying robots high above in the darkening sky, unseen but never far from people’s minds in those days, Saeed walked with a slight hunch” [p. 82]; the man who delivers early on in the novel some magic mushrooms to Nadia’s apartment “would [in a few months] be beheaded, nape-first with a serrated knife to enhance discomfort” [p. 38]. Saeed’s mother is shot “through the windscreen of her family’s car […] not while she was driving, for she had not driven in months, but whiole she was checking inside for an earring she thought she had misplaced” [p. 72]; the city’s “relationship to windows now changed […] A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come” [p. 68]. The world doesn’t end; it changes.

By the time Saeed’s father insists that the young couple leave him behind – “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind” [p. 94] – the reader may feel the prickle of tears. Exit West methodically makes refugees of its readers. The method open to Nadia and Saeed to escape their homeland, however, is not one available to refugees in our own world: in Hamid’s novel, particular doors, often for no reason and certainly with no explanation, become portals to another place – and, if the authorities don’t get to them first, refugees may slip through them to one or another form of safety.

These wormholes have a simple effect on the narrative: they enable Hamid to make his characters, and his readers, rootless whilst also still focusing on place rather than transit. Usually, a novel has to focus on one or the other state: Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways (2015), for example, brilliantly depicted the lives of refugees and migrants in one English town, but in so doing became a static story of settlement; Dave Eggers’ What is the What (2006), meanwhile, primarily emphasised its protagonist’s lengthy journey from Sudanese boyhood to American refuge. In Exit West, via the conceit of the doors, Hamid can both demonstrate the liminality and itinerant lot of the refugee whilst also settling in specific locations and assessing – animating – them.

For example, Nadia and Saeed first emerge – and now, the novel having made its assumed Western readership complicit in its refugees’ movement, places gain their names – in Mykonos, at the edge of one of many refugee camps, “with hundreds of tents and lean-tos and people of many colours and hues – many colours and hues but mostly falling within a  band of brown that ranged from dark chocolate to milky tea” [p. 100]. The world of Exit West is on the move, and at this point resembles our own: “without warning people began to rush out of the camp and Saeed and Nadia heard a rumour that a new door out had been found, a door to Germany” [p. 107], though eventually they are shuffled through to London by a clinic worker who grows quickly intimate with Nadia.

London is where the novel begins another of its increasingly radical shifts. Where in Mykonos, Nadia and Saeed were still new to their refugee status, strolling around the island almost as tourists, in London – and amidst the manifold pressures of so large a city so hostile to its newcomers – things begin to become difficult and calcified. They find a room in a house, but the refugees’ houses slowly break down in ethnic groupings. Saeed begins to feel kinship with his “own kind” [p. 143], but Nadia wishes to remain with the Nigerians who have formed their group in the building around their room. There is violence between these gangs, even as the authorities bear down on them without perceiving the particularities they read onto themselves. Then a war begins, “military and paramilitary formations […] fully mobilized and deployed in the city from all over the country” [p. 159]; Britain takes up arms against it migrants … and then pulls back. Even as the wedge in Nadia and Saeed’s relationship becomes ever more plain, Hamid begins to strike a note of hope: “Perhaps [the British] had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open” [p. 164].

From here, the novel proceeds further into the couple’s – and perhaps our own – future, beginning gently to evaporate away. Nadia and Saeed move through a door to one of the many new cities being constructed for the migrant populations worldwide – this one in California –  and Saeed becomes increasingly nostalgic and religious, while Nadia does not. Their relationship cools to nothing: “Saeed wanted to feel for Nadia what he had always felt for Nadia, and the potential loss of this feeling left him unmoored” [p. 188]. The future, however, begins to seem more hopeful: rather than a tenement they live in a house, with wireless data and solar panels and batteries and rainwater collectors. The world, and its peoples, adapt. The final scene of the novel takes place back in their nameless home city, fifty years on, and Nadia “watched the young people of this city pass, young people who had no idea how bad things once were, except what they studied in history, which was perhaps as it should be” [p. 228].

Throughout all this, and in the novel’s weakest, most tangential, moments, Hamid intersperses scenelets of reconciliation: a refugee emerges from a door in the large house of a paranoid Westerner, does not experience the spontaneous desire to rape and kill her and instead simply seeks out a window through which he may leave; a newly-arrived elderly Brazilian man meets an old Dutch man and they share a kiss; an old woman lives in the same house for her entire life, as the world around her nevertheless changes beyond all recognition. If these brief interludes sometimes feel abrupt or disconnected, by the end of the novel their purpose becomes clear: they are examples of the coming-together Exit West proposes and, in its early identification of reader with refugee, enacts.

In contemporary science fiction, this sort of optimism has almost entirely disappeared. In one respect – its vision of transit – Exit West reads more like magic realism than SF, but as Nadia and Saeed proceed into a potential future Hamid seems capable of imagining a transformation rather than a half-century of things getting worse. If its pivotal moment – London pulling back from the abyss – feels in these days of Brexit far-fetched, we too might yet want to share Hamid’s optimism: “It has been said that depression is a failure to imagine a plausible desirable future for oneself,” his omniscient narrator declares, “[… but] the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic” [p. 215].

All this makes for a novel both elegant and urgent. It is a slim work that somehow manages to be more expansive than many a novel twice its length. It reads like reportage and fairy tale, news story and futurology. It takes on a topic of the greatest pitch and moment – “all over the world,” as Hamid has it, “people were slipping away from where they had been” [p. 211] – and emerges equal to the task. It is both universal and specific, generalised and granular. In her New Yorker review of the novel, Jia Tolentino suggests that the novel “feels instantly canonical”; this is the sort of statement that might in some cases be hyperbolic, but in the case of Exit West it feels wholly earned. In it the Booker judges may have their winner.

“The Furies That Haunt Houses”: George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo”

In Books on October 6, 2017 at 10:21 pm

When in 1865 Abraham Lincoln was shot in the back of the head whilst attending the theatre, the United States of America was granted one of its most tempting historical what-ifs. Lincoln is perhaps the most fictionalised of all American presidents, and he holds that distinction because his story feels incomplete; to fight the Civil War and be murdered just days after winning it makes for an unsatisfying narrative. Writers have found this itch irrestsistable, and have consequently been scratching it for 150 years.

It’s typical of the puckish short story writer George Saunders, then, that the Lincoln who features in the title of his first novel is not Abraham but Willie. Lincoln in the Bardo‘s eponymous protagonist is the president’s son, who died in 1862 at the age of just eleven. The bardo of the title, meanwhile, isn’t really the liminal space between lives of Buddhist cosmology, but more a  sort of purgatory for spirits yet to accept the reality of their own death. In the wake of his untimely passing, Willie Lincoln lingers – as children are not meant to – in this realm, encouraged to do so by his father’s penchant for visiting Willie’s “sick-form” – the boy’s corpse, euphemistically imagined by these ghosts-in-denial – in the Union Hill chapel during the nights between his death and burial. Could the mighty Abe Lincoln bring his son back to life?

Of course not. But Lincoln in the Bardo depicts the magnetism of a series of absurd beliefs, assumptions and self-perceptions, becoming a curiously bifurcated novel of both broad humour and often moving grief. Willie meets in the afterlife Saunders’ primary narrators – a young homosexual man who committed suicide before immediately regretting it, an old merchant who practiced guilty abstinence in his marriage with a beautiful young bride, reaching the potential for consummation only in the hours before his own accidental death, and a revenant reverend who cannot understand why he is yet to pass through to heaven. In a Dantean touch, Saunders gives his ghosts physical forms that reflect their reasons for lingering: Blevins, the suicide, has many hands, nostrils and eyes, as if to mourn all the sensations he never experienced; Vollman, the frustrated husband, walks around with a persistent, and gigantic, erection.

It’s not always clear what Saunders means to satirise in all this. His lauded short stories have, when criticised at all, sometimes been accused of being too on-the-button in their targets: consistently, white collar drudgery and the banality of late capitalism. It’s refreshing in some ways, then, that Lincoln in the Bardo finds in its mysticism a bit of mystery. On the other hand, the ocassionally unadorned humour and slapstick often feel like distractions from the beautifully painted scenes of grieving and loss. “A century and a half has passed,” opines one of the many secondary historical sources – real and invented – which Saunders uses to paint the background for his hauntings, “and yet it still seems intrusive to dwell upon that horrible scene – the shock, the querulous disbelief, the savage cries of sorrow” [p. 56]. It is Saunders’ project to intrude.

The ghosts act as a chorus, an increasingly and endlessly varied cast of colourful characters who tell us their own stories but in so doing build up a patchwork narrative of the variegated nation of the United States. They tell their stories whilst coming together to save Willie by convincing Abraham, who has given them hope and self-respect by visiting their realm of torpor, nevertheless to leave the chapel and thus allow Willie to pass through the bardo before, by the obscure rules of this cosmos which brook no childish tarrying, he is forever bound to it. In this effort the ghosts begin to enter the President, and in so doing they achieve the kind of empathy, the kind of understanding, denied to historians by his assassination. 

Did the thing merit it. Merit the killing. On the surface it was a technicality (mere Union) but seen deeper, it was something more. How should men live? How could men live? […]

Across the sea fat kings watched and were gleeful, that something begin so well had now gone off the rails (as down South similar kings watched), and if it went off the rails, so went the whole kit, forever, and if someone ever thought to start it up again, well, it would be said (and said truly): The rabble cannot manage itself.

Well, the rabble could. The rabble would.

He would lead the rabble in managing.

The thing would be won. [pp. 307-8]

The novel’s central moral dilemma is simple: Lincoln, grieving for his own son, must send many others to their deaths in battle. In learning through the course of the novel about the lives and deaths of men and women from the birth of the republic onwards, the reader understands how variegated and vital every life lost is, what a tragedy every death can be. But, as the ghosts must, Lincoln comes to accept death in order to move through crisis to a new state. This is a fairly bleak message for a novel so often as hilarious as this one. On the other hand, Lincoln in the Bardo can sometimes seem like an awful lot of fuss simply to arrive at a rationalisation for the American Civil War.

Perhaps this is a novel most relevant to American perspectives – although its reception there has been quite cool in the context of the rapture with which Saunders is usually greeted. Perhaps Lincoln in the Bardo speaks to the American project, but in the age of Trump does so a little too quietly, even sentimentally. After all, this is a novel which ends with Lincoln walking back to the White House possessed by the ghost of a slave (“we rode forward into the night, past the sleeping houses of our countrymen” [p. 343]). It means less to a British reader, perhaps, to achieve empathy with the sixteenth President; oddly, it may in this moment feel less urgent an undertaking to the American, too.  

All that said, Lincoln in the Bardo is simply beautifully written. Its innovations are touted in the blurb as “a thrilling new form”, and that’s a bit much – this is a mosaic novel, equal parts scrapbook and script. But each of its many voices are realised wonderfully, the jokes are often laugh-out-loud funny, and the pace is usually perfect, the swings of mood elegant and never abrupt even when they are severe. Saunders is a master. Here he is writing William, in one of the novel’s most moving passages: 

Mother says I may taste of the candy city       Once I am up and about.   She has saved me a chocolate fish and a bee of honey.    Says I will someday command a regiment.   Live in a grand old house.    Marry some sweet & pretty thing.    Have little ones of my own.    Ha ha.   I like that.    All of us will meet in my grand old house and have a fine.   I will make the jolliest old lady, Mother says.    You boys will bring me cakes.    Round the clock.    While I just sit.    How fat I will be.   You boys must buy a cart and take turns wheeling me around ha ha [p. 115]

This, of course, is a scene on Willie’s deathbed. Lincoln in the Bardo is never afraid to sound these plaintive notes, and many are painful in their purity. It’s simply sometimes harder, amidst all these scenes and voices and skits and confusions, to hear the melody amidst the chords.