In Memoriam: Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy, photo by Anna

Paul Murphy, photo by Anna

Whenever I heard someone ask Paul Murphy, the Birmingham-based and Belfast-born songwriter and storyteller whose death has sadly been announced today, what he did beyond music, he would respond simply: “I’m an educator.”

This answer was typical of Paul’s thoughtful and humane approach to every experience, concept and individual. He had an unerringly generous eye for the human condition, and understood that everyone is special in a way particular to them – that everyone has a story and a value. He was eternally curious about people and ideas, and implacably committed to social justice. Most importantly, he made this into art of quite remarkable emotional scope and reach: in his songs he was able to make an audience laugh and cry within the space of a verse.

Indeed, to see Paul perform was to become part of a community, however temporary. This is what he did – he connected. Though he received much deserved exposure for his role as frontman of The Destroyers, there was something alchemical in the intimacy of his solo work. Paul was able to hold an audience, but would never manipulate one: he was always in dialogue with people, exchanging ideas and emotions with them.

Anna, whose thoughts inform this piece as much as mine, has also written some words about Paul on Facebook which I think really capture something  important about the man, and I’d like to share them here:

I’m so saddened to hear of the loss of dear Paul Murphy. Such a beautiful man, with the most generous and open hearted spirit. He cared about people and he cared about the world, and making people and the world better. It was impossible to feel alone or forgotten in his company. He will be greatly missed. Bless you Paul, I’m so glad to have known you xxx

When Anna says that it was impossible to feel alone with Paul, she nails exactly his special gift not so much for making people feel special, which sounds confected, but for helping them appreciate their own value, for nurturing and encouraging them. This is why his death has prompted such an outpouring amongst all who knew him: the word ‘inspiration’ is included in almost every tribute because Paul was inexhaustably engaged in understanding people; for him everything and everyone was fascinating and worthy of closer inspection – and in that space of learning would be the key to unlocking both their and his further potential. This is a rare gift which he gave again and again to his audiences, to Birmingham’s musical community, and, to go by their remarks about him online today, to his students. It seems impossible that we can repay such bottomless generosity.

Except that, perhaps, we can – by taking him as a role model. One of the last conversations I ever had with Paul was about labour rights and immigration, and the injustice of blaming those newest to our land for its ills and wage deflation; Paul was sharing issues of political importance on social media until the very end; his Songwriter’s Cafe project provided a glorious and crucial platform for emerging and established talents alike to practice their craft. We can all be more open-hearted and more capacious in our sympathies, more creative and more curious; we can all take from the important sadness we feel for his passing a resolution that at least a portion of what he offered us will continue through us.

Anna and I would not claim to have known Paul as well as some; we spent memorable evenings with him, enjoyed parties in his company. Given how saddened we are by his passing – and we have both cried today – we can only imagine the grief of his family and closest friends. We are a small part of a much broader and deeper community of loss, which has been brought together by love and respect for this astonishing, incisive, humble man.

Knowing you, Paul, was a privilege and an education. May we all learn and grow always, as you inspired us to do.

“People Don’t Change”: Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life”

Hanya Yanagihara-A Little LifeI’m not sure I can recall off-hand a reading experience quite so odd as the one I had whilst making my way through Hanya Yanagahira’s A Little Life. The last of 2015’s Booker-shortlisted novels I had to read, in many ways this novel is, excepting Marlon James’s winner, the most memorable: 720 pages long, it is a bizarre mix of bildungsroman, misery memoir, Franzen-ish lit, and family saga. It begins with four friends in college, and makes its way to their 50s and 60s in simultaneously dilatory and episodic fashion, slowly writing each of them out of their own story until the last word is given to a character who has always been on the outside of their cohort. It is a novel with often unreadably detailed descriptions of self-harm and sex abuse, which in reality spends a much larger part of its time on pure math and modern art. It should be a thorough mess, and yet it is entirely immersive. I’m not at all sure it works, but I was never bored by it.

This discombobulation is, for the novel’s most vocal cheerleaders, its point:

To understand the novel’s exaggeration and its intense, claustrophobic focus on its characters’ inner lives requires recognizing how it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera. The book is scaled to the intensity of Jude’s inner life, and for long passages it forces the reader to experience a world that’s brutally warped by suffering.

Jude is the novel’s central character, the member of that opening quartet who is, at first, the quietest and most mysterious – but whose story soon comes to dominate the others’. Indeed, ‘dominate’ is the only possible word: such is the extent of Jude’s suffering that its devastating effects both on his body and his psyche come to make greater and greater demands upon those closest to him. Found, abandoned a baby, by a group of monks, Jude is sexually abused at their school for boys before escaping with Brother Luke, the only member of the fraternity who has shown his kindness; Luke proceeds to pimp Jude out to other men, ultimately also taking the nine-year-old boy as his own lover; years later, Luke hangs himself in a hotel bathroom adjacent to Jude’s bed when the police finally make their raid. After further abuse by the counsellors and care home staff charged with his safe-keeping, Jude breaks out on his own and becomes a male prostitute; one night he is found by Dr Traylor, who promptly locks Jude in his basement for months on end and subjects him to sexualised beatings; when Traylor finally lets Jude free, it is only to chase him down the road in a car and repeatedly run over him, breaking Jude’s back.

The point of A Little Life is that it is impossible – utterly and entirely – to get over that sort of abuse. The likelihood of that sort of abuse actually happening is not addressed. In this, it short-circuits the routinely redemptive, and mostly mimetic, promise of the novel as a form, which insists people can change and grow over an allotted time, defeating their personal demons and growing stronger through trauma. This happens to no one in Yanagahira’s book – everything more or less stays the same. So, too, does the setting: from the day Jude meets his new college buddies (the angelic social worker who takes charge of Jude’s case following the Traylor incident manages to encourage Jude to apply to university right before dying of a terrible cancer), it is impossible to locate the novel’s events in time. We appear to be in an eternal present, where everyone always has a cellphone and no one ever discusses politics. This, more or less, is the reason A Little Life fails to impress its detractors:

In proper melodramatic manner, Jude goes from the pits straight to, if not the top, the upper middle class. The ghastly litany of his childhood sufferings is at least coherent. Jude, an adult player in a melodramatic lifestyle novel, in which the point is to observe the way the passing of time affects the cast of characters, is static.

That’s from Christopher Lorentzen’s entertainingly vicious review of the novel in the London Review of Books. He also cites the review from which my first quotation was taken, Garth Greenwell’s in The Atlantic. Their readings are two sides of the same coin: Greenwell supposes that Yanagihara’s project is to queer the Great American Novel; Lorentzen that this may well be the case but that you can’t ignore the demands of the form in which you choose to write. I think Lorentzen over-emphasises the novel’s focus on the abuse and self-harm – it takes up but a fraction, albeit an indelible one, of the whole novel. But I also think that Greenwell forgives the novel’s trespasses in an attempt to prove his theory: that, in his words, Yanagihara’s “characters suffer relatively little anxiety about the public reception of their sexual identities” may help him prove his point, but is very much part of the novel’s strange weightlessness, its sense of unreality.

The novel’s less partisan reviewers have accepted this whilst arguing that its immersiveness, the intensity with which I, too, found the novel gripped me, allows it to go astray in other ways: “The novel is brilliantly redeemed by Yanahigara’s insistence on Jude’s right to suffer,” suggests Alex Preston at the end of a review in the Guardian which seems negative until its final moments; likewise, Jon Michaud is ambivalent in the New Yorker, arguing that, “Like the axiom of equality, A Little Life feels elemental, irreducible—and, dark and disturbing though it is, there is beauty in it.” Why the need for this special pleading? Implicit in the need to argue for the novel is an acceptance that there is an awful lot of room for improvement in this young writer’s work -Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life was written in just eighteen months following the surprise success of her first. In a weird way, the reception of the book reminds of the rapture that greeted James Frey’s now much-maligned A Million Little Pieces: people sort of know it’s wrong, but it’s just so readable (Brigid Delaney offers excellent chattering-class evidence of this in the Guardian).

I also think, though, that it’s because the novel contains so much material. It is full of stuff – about gender and race and poverty and consumerism – and in its almost naive insistence that it can and should be able to talk about everything without having to pause to explain itself I think it makes a connection that is unusually personal with its reader. At one point, Jude – who understand how lucky he is to have been literally adopted by the upper middle class of an improbably liberal and wealthy enclave of New York City that is so detached from the world beyond, and so shocked when that world intrudes, that the novel’s society sometimes reads science fictionally – sighs that he is wasting his talent in corporate law, and perhaps should have remained a poorly-paid public attorney. We gasp that A Little Life has the chutzpah not just to short circuit the pleasures of the bildungsroman but court our frustration at its central character’s apparent lack of gratitude for his improperly fortunate lot in later life (at this stage, he has partnered off with the impossible good-looking Willem, a movie-star actor and a member of the opening quartet, which is rounded off by a lauded international artist and a star architect).

The novel can be seen to boil down simply to a parable about us all, about the impossibility of finding meaning: “He wants you to tell him that his life, as inconceivable as it is, is still a life.” [p. 563]  It barely matters that Jude’s rags-to-riches story is implausible, his abuse improbable and his self-harm gratuitous; what matters is that, in experiencing both extremes, his remains ultimately “a little life”, rendered meaningful not by his suffering or his success, but by friendship. Near the end of the book, Willem – Jude’s only love, remember, and the only person with whom he can even come close to consummating an adult relationship – dies in a horrid car crash. Before he does, however, he opines: “‘I know my life’s meaningful because’ – and here he stopped, and looked shy, and was silent for a moment before he continued – ‘because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.'” [p. 688]  That’s it. 720 pages, and the novel has so apparently tiny an ambition for us all.

That Janus-faced quality – the huge girth for the bathetic moral, the graphic violence for the coy context – is both the novel’s project and its great frustration. This brings us back to Lorentezen and Greenwell, of course: so which of them is right? Is the novel a trainwreck or a masterpiece? I think, perhaps like Jude, it is neither one extreme nor the other, but something contingent and cobbled-together. I think it may well become a classic cult novel. I’m certainly still turning it over in my head, and it reveals new sides to itself each time – surely one sign of a rich text.

But, on that ever-present other hand, it’s also the sign of a confused one – and the prose style, rarely incompetent but regularly hammy and distended, doesn’t help. I keep worrying away at something: that Lorentzen and I share a favourite character from the novel in the shape of JB, the out-spoken artist of the quartet of friends who gives lone voice to any of the novel’s politics or contexts (he gives Jude the nickname ‘Postman’, because he is post-racial, post-sexual … post-everything). “He’s temporarily ushered out of the narrative,” writes Lorentzen, “after he says to Jude: ‘You like always being the person who gets to learn everyone else’s secrets, without ever telling us a single fucking thing? … Well, it doesn’t fucking work like that, and we’re all fucking sick of you.’ JB’s also the one hooked on crystal meth. What real person trapped in this novel wouldn’t become a drug addict?” The person, perhaps, who is addicted instead to this faintly false, wilfully trippy, trance-like novel. And, ultimately, I’m not sure literature should act like meth.

 

Sherlock: Everyone Always Lets Him Do Whatever He Wants

abominable bride

Lestrade laughed loudly.

“You don’t like being beaten any more than the rest of us do,” said he. “A man can’t expect always to have it his own way, can he, Dr. Watson?” (“The Adventure of the Norwood Builder”)

The seasonal special episode of Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’s Sherlock began with a ‘Previously On’ sequence that was also a statement of intent. These montages of scenes from previous episodes are usually made up of snippets with heavy significant to an overall plot, arranged in such a way that they provide a condensed grounding in whatever on-going story points will be addressed in the coming episode; here, however, they made no such attempt to add up to a coherent narrative primer, but rather appeared to offer a “greatest hits” compilation of the show’s most memorable images or phrases. Almost immediately, indeed, the special began to echo the first of these motifs: in retelling Sherlock and John’s first meeting but doing it in the Victorian garb we are more accustomed to seeing the great detective and his amanuensis don, Moffat and Gattis deliver a series of winks to the viewer that explicitly call back not so much to the original stories (although there are those, too) but to the clips included in the opening sequence.

In other words, Sherlock was coming clean: it is primarily interested in referring to itself.

The Victorian 221B has beneath it a cafe like the one in 2015 and it’s called Speedwell’s not Speedy’s; nineteenth-century Sherlock’s big, billowy coat has a red-stitched buttonhole, too; and the moustachioed John’s limp is psychosomatic, eventually disappearing just like the clean-shaven version’s. Compare this with how the opening scenes of the episode treat the Arthur Conan Doyle canon: “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” has just been published, but somehow Sherlock has also read The Hound of the Baskervilles, written ten years later; Moriarty has died at Reichenbach, but Dr Watson still resides at Baker Street. That later on five orange pips are delivered to a Sir Eustace living at an Abbey Grange-ish house, and Holmes and Watson travel there in poses taken straight from “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” is of a piece with Sherlock‘s now time-honoured tendency to mash up the original stories into new shapes; that the show doesn’t even try to make some internal sense of its Victorian setting (of which more anon) – and yet is utterly obsessed with its contiguity with the twenty-first-century milieu it has over three series conjured – says much, however, about the situation in which this show now finds itself.

In fact, I rather weary of writing about Sherlock for much this reason: from its very first episode, it was a victory of style over substance, and despite having other avenues to explore it has often opted to chase the tail of its own worst tendencies, gradually becoming more and more self-interested and less and less convincing. The lot of a viewer attempting to assess and understand the show as a storytelling artefact, then, is not a happy one; and the sadness of this sad – so sad – sad, sad situation is only further compounded by the quirks of Steven Moffat, who – perhaps more than his co-creator, Mark Gattiss, himself hardly innocent – more or less revels in negative fan commentary. This is primarily because, as Maureen Kincaid Speller has put it in in her own piece on this episode, Moffat enjoys adopting a persona that suggests “anything I might know, he will know better.” If we are fully to engage with this self-interested text, then, let us indulge in its own game and self-refer:

On one level, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is a thoroughly modern SMS addict, firing off 160-character messages almost constantly; on another, his addiction teaches us something about his character, as well as his milieu – that he is distant and distanced, preferring communication at one remove and which has the additional benefit of forcing the elision of all but the most necessary information; but yet further, the SMS is a the modern telegram – priced by the space it takes up, delivered practically immediately, perfect for the issuing of diktats and summonses. This depth of reference makes Sherlock a complex and clever drama, aware of the power its source material bestows, rather than desperate to ditch it. [July 2010]

Elsewhere, there’s much to enjoy, although the dialogue is not as sharp as in the series opener. Cumberbatch and Freeman remain splendid in the main roles, and the central mystery is decidedly more difficult and engaging than in ‘Study in Pink’ (though that ain’t saying a lot). The action sequences aren’t bad, either. But the episode also feels not quite as tight as the premiere, and that silly Chinaman stuff undermines the whole edifice. (Oh, there’s an indeterminately ethnic swordsman at the start, too.) If Sherlock is to maintain its credibility as an anti-period piece, it needs to be more like ‘The Yellow Face‘, in which Conan Doyle showed compassion – rather than condescension – for the denizens of a multicultural England. [August 2010]

So this is a joyous fangasm of a writing effort, and the enthusiasm of the execution mostly makes up for its failures. (Did Sherlock really spot a gay man by sight? Must the only women on show be bitter, soppy or useless? And isn’t that cliffhanger a massive cheek – and cheat – after just three episodes, and an indeterminate period of time before the next episode is even written, much less filmed or scheduled?) It would be curmudgeonly not to admit that this Sherlock has been something of a triumph; but, like its titular character, it is not yet a heroic one. As good as it has been, it needs to be more careful about its choices in the future. [August 2010]

Sherlock’s crush on Sherlock is at the root of the show’s problems: the show’s addiction to aggrandising reference, and its incomplete treatment both of other characters and Sherlock’s less formidable sides, lead to weaker characterisation, and weaker thematic treatments, than might be achieved with a clearer-eyed view of the hero. Sherlock’s journey from sociopath to ‘good man’, it seems to me, will be even bumpier than Adler’s from dominatrix to hostage. This leaves us, at the end of the show’s sixth episode, where we were at the close of its third: “As good as it has been, it needs to be more careful about its choices in the future.” [January 2012]

I am not invested in an idea of what Sherlock should be, or in the idea that it should follow the same plot-heavy pattern of the original stories. I’m happy to countenance Moffat’s vision of his show, which is that, “it is not a detective show. It is a show about a detective.” But Moffat then went on to say: “It is a show that celebrates a clever man. So we make the show look complex.” There are a couple of problems with this. First, Sherlock doesn’t celebrate Sherlock: it suggests his high intellect is not so much a virtue as a mental illness; at its moment of crescendo, indeed, ‘His Last Vow’ allows no intellectual escape for its clever man, but instead asks him to fall back on the worst behaviours of his supposed condition.  Secondly, there’s that issue of appearance: why go to the effort of making a show look complex if it is complex already? [January 2014]

I have had five years of writing about Sherlock, then, and yet have so little new to say. I’ve been more charitable towards the show than many, and have wanted it to succeed; but I think you can detect – ho, ho – the slow erosion of that faith across my assessment of the show as it has gone on; certainly by its third series I had given up much hope. What’s startling, though, is how much of the show’s troubles were there from the off – or, rather, from its first broadcast episode. Unusually, Sherlock‘s unaired pilot has been made widely available, most notably on the first series DVD, and in that episode Cumberbatch’s performance is slightly softer, perhaps callower – his character was hardened between that and the broadcast version of Study in Pink, and that hardening has continued ever onwards, presumably because the show’s success justifies writing its bugs large as features. This results in a Sherlock denied a celebration of his intellect (“Must be difficult, being the slow little brother”), but who remains bizarrely lionised by all for dimmer and more dubious reasons.

Indeed, by The Abominable Bride, it is Sherlock who is truly abominable: sneering “You’ll do” at Watson on their first meeting, quipping that he has found the murderer of a dismembered country squire but is “still looking for the legs,” and, of course, being rude to Mrs Hudson. The show is both aware and not of its protagonist’s ickier qualities. It has Watson demand he hold himself to a higher standard – but because, through John’s stories, he’s become a figure that millions look up to. It has him say, quite obviously unfairly, that Watson never understands a word anyone says – and yet has Watson’s wife, Mary, smirk conspiratorially at the “joke”, because everyone on this show must first love Sherlock. It is strange to see a show at the height of its popular success lack quite so much confidence that it treats its lead with such kid gloves.

Most pertinently, the whole episode actually takes place inside Sherlock’s head. I didn’t object to this per se, perhaps because it was clear to me from around the ten-minute mark that this is where we were headed. But as a metaphor for what this show has become it is unbeatable: we are in Sherlock’s imagination; that’s how irrelevant all other considerations have become, how marginal every other character. All of them are – and at least for the Victorian Watson, in his last appearance, happily – simply grist for Sherlock’s self-obsessed mill. In part, this is in the show’s DNA – from episode one, it has been the halting, and increasingly unrewarding, story of how a good man might become a great one – and yet that lack of confidence to shake up the formula has led to a self-defeatingly circular route to that end-point, as if Sherlock must get worse before he gets better. There is an attempt at fixing this near the episode’s end – “there’s always two of us,” says Watson in Sherlock’s dream, in one of the moments that seemed to me at last and again to grok the power of the source material – but even this is marred first by the preceding absurd over-play and sad misinterpretation of the Moriarty relationship (“I am your weakness!” he bellows, entirely missing the fact that Moriarty is what transforms Sherlock Holmes into a heroic figure), and second by the sort of slash-fic fan-service that is beginning to eat the show whole (“On your knees, professor”). There are hopes here for a Sherlock in series four more aware of his faults, but the show’s own instincts seem to remain less self-critical, more hesitant.

The entire episode is, as well as a plotless amble into the self-professedly fascinating subconscious of its title character, a metafictional play on whom we consider Holmes to be – is he the Victorian or the modern, the actual human being or the story, his own self-image or how he is experienced by others? This is an interesting route to take when adapting a character already so widely adapted as Sherlock Holmes, but it’s not enough to carry episodes which increasingly lack a central mystery. In this episode, alas, the investigation is not just imaginary but thoroughly fumbled thematically. Helena Coggan, she of the publishing contract at 15 for those of you not paying attention at the back, has a good description of this: “a man walking through a row of mute women in blue Klan outfits and musing that men will really have to give in to women eventually because it is ‘a war we cannot win’, because if they do not, women will physically actually murder men they dislike.” That is, feminism is having your own back because your husband asked you patronisingly at breakfast whether you were going to spend your day at the milliner. Coggan laudably wishes, as I’ve often tried, to give the creators of Sherlock the benefit of the doubt (“Disparaging a show is very easy when you have not had to write, agonise over, cast, set up, fund and film a show yourself”); but, again like me, she struggles. (The only additional commentary I can add to the cloth-eared, cack-handed cultish denouement, by the way, is that it reminded me of the same finale in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), and that it may therefore, as in the episode’s final shot of Cumberbatch, Brett-like, looking out from his window over Baker Street, have been the show again puling itself out of shape to whack out a knowing riff – there is, in Sherlock, nothing new under the sun indeed.)

It is becoming increasingly difficult, then, to argue anything other than that Sherlock is a show fatally flawed under the hood. Conceptually, it simply seems to be broken, back-firing at every turn. On the surface, it is beautiful as ever to look at – its performances, particularly and always Freeman, are excellent, its production values top-notch, and its sheer surface fizz, the amount of stuff it fires out at its audience, is remarkable – but its story engine, its internal combustion of plot and theme, is simply not sparking. I’m currently editing for Strange Horizons a review of Telotte and Duchovnay’s Science Fiction Double Feature: The Science Fiction Film as a Cult Text by Raz Greenberg, and I hope I’ll be forgiven if I quote from its quotation prior to the review’s publication: “cult film cuts across all generic types, it is a form that, in another kinship to the sf world, has tended to privilege the audience and the peculiar nature of the audience experience, in effect, to be marked by a level of self-awareness” (Telotte and Duchovnay, p. 9). Sherlock is a mass-market success – The Abominable Bride took five million dollars in box office when it was released in Chinese and Korean cinemas last weekend, a fact which also suggests that five years of writing about this show is five years wasted – but it comes from, and has retained, a cult aesthetic. It is, then, self-aware to the point of self-regard. But objects in a mirror might be closer than they appear, and, on the evidence of The Abominable BrideSherlock is crashing.

“Just A Body Needing To Be Clothed and Fed”: Sunjeev Sahota’s “The Year of the Runaways”

The Year of the RunawaysVery late in Sunjeev Sahota’s Booker-shortlisted The Year of the Runaways, Avtar, a young Indian man whose preceding twelve months of illegal work and dodging immigration officials in England we have followed for more than four hundred pages, calls home.

He could see her frowning. “Anyway, what have you been up to? Anything fun?”

He opened his mouth but no words came out. He had nothing, absolutely nothing, to say to her. (p. 436)

If it aims for anything, The Year of the Runaways intends to ensure that, were we on the other end of the telephone line to Avtar, he would be able to share – and we would be able to understand. It is as evocative, engaging, and convincing a depiction of the immigrant experience as I have read. By this, I mean it is not about second- or third-generation communities seeking fused identities, as in Chimamandah Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and that likewise it is not a piece of over-dramatised pedagogy like Rose Tremain’s worthy but thickly-egged The Road Home. It most reminds me of the sections in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names in which its protagonist arrives and begins to build a life in America; but Sahota’s characters are adults, not children, and each of them is stressing not the need for assimilation but the temporary nature of their arrangements: stay a few years, earn a lot of money; marry an Indian man so he can gain a visa, and do good by sacrificing just a year of matrimony.

Of course, these best laid plans go inevitably awry: the student finds it difficult to pass his exams, and thus retain his visa, whilst also working the two jobs he needs to barely pay off the loan sharks who funded his transit from India; the British-born wife realises all too quickly that “just a year” is time enough for everything to change; and still others, such as the high-caste Randeep, with whose sister Avtar is in love, have as the end-point of their endeavour residency in Britain – and the opportunity permanently to bring their families with them.

All this takes place in 2003, when marriage and student visas were easier to come by; but the variegated humanity of so-called “economic migrants” is of acute current interest. Randeep is mockingly referred to as “prince” by other denizens of the packed house he and Avtar share with nine other illegal workers at the novel’s opening; he will eventually become homeless, and be turned away from a gurdwara that might once have coveted his place in their congregation. Another of the house’s residents, Tochi, is of a low caste – whenever his attempts to hide his roots fail he is failingly ejected from Indian communities both immigrant and British-born – and yet makes far more money, is a cannier earner and saver, than the more middling – and more widely accepted – student, Avtar. In this way, the reader is shown how the immigrant experience can be flattening – it forces all who go through it into certain shapes, regardless of their past experiences or positions; but also, and most importantly, the novel stresses the characters’ continuity of personality and perception: that is, it teaches us to consider the immigrant’s individuality whilst also emphasising the degrading competition in which they are engaged. In a year in which the British press has dealt up dehumanising copy by the column-foot, this is a timely literary effort.

The novel’s key theme is duty. Very early on, Randeep and Avtar discuss what drove them to leave their native country:

“He said it’s not work that makes us leave home and come here. It’s love. Love for our families.” Randeep turned to Avtar. “Do you think that’s true?”

“I think he’s a sentimental creep. We come here for the same reason our people do anything. Duty. We’re doing our duty. And it’s shit.” (p. 7)

From Randeep’s duty to his family to Avtar’s to his creditors; from the religious piety of Narinder, Randeep’s visa wife to Tochi’s orphaned responsibility to himself, The Year of the Runaways breaks down each character’s set of obligations and forces upon each unpalatable choices. No individual emerges from the impossible dilemmas they are set, and even good intentions have little chance of turning out for the better – Narinder’s choice to marry Randeep is powered by a previous refusal to marry another Indian migrant, who was later found dead on the side of a Russian road, and yet things do not go well for either of them. The novel describes a series of practical challenges requiring utilitarian solutions – and doesn’t pretend that anything is perfect.

Indeed, The Year of the Runaways rather insists on the unsatisfactory nature of any response to the complex factors that drive migration and the black and grey economies which depend on it. It is the reader’s duty, indeed, to come to understand this – to empathise with and advocate for individuals simply trying to make a good fist of slim hands. This is a novel with modest hopes. “Happiness is a pretty precarious state, Randeep,” Narinder says in the perhaps too-neat epilogue. “I’m content. That’s more than enough. That’s more than most.” (p. 462)

If the national – indeed, international – conversation around migrants and migration were of a higher quality, we might not need a novel like this. As it is, a call to understand migrants on their own terms is a radical enough thing to do, and The Year of the Runaways – well researched, delicately written and humane – feels like an important novel. It has a breadth of emotional vision, an imagination, that lends it a calm wisdom. On the other hand, it is almost quaintly straight-forward – its twelve-month structure split into four seasonal parts, no less – and feels almost old-fashioned in its strict third person limited style, its linear narrative with its polite flashbacks, and its social realist perspective. Its interest arises from its complicated ethics and its refusal to talk down to its readers (there are no translations of its frequent Punjabi phrases, for example). But I can’t help but feel that its place on the Booker shortlist is as much an expression of how bad our novels and our nation have been at talking about the things this novel talks about as it is of its considerable, but often conventional, qualities.

Albums of 2015

As in previous years, here’s my top five albums of 2015. They’re in no particular order, and the process of selection is far from scientific. There is a vague criterion that the albums here collected should do something interesting or different with their chosen form, but even this is a pretty bendable rule of thumb. On the other hand, these aren’t necessarily the quintet of records I’ve listened to most this year – accessibility or suitability as background music aren’t scored factors.

In other words, this list comes with a health warning and a disclaimer a mile wide. Should you wish to continue reading, here we go …

imageNathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats – Self-titled

This record probably accounts for my insistence above that the ‘new and different’ rule is bendable. In some ways, its inclusion is a sort of belated penance for the absence in my 2010 list of Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three’s Riverboat Soul, since this consciously retro record’s virtues are the same: an unaccountably tight band, a total commitment to concept, and great tunes. Not only that, but Rateliff’s story is compelling: tilling for years the fields of earnest indie folk, he has, at the age of 37, hit considerably more gold with this endeavour – and taken humble, jobbing musicians from his native Denver with him. Together, they’ve surely had the most fund – and made the most entertaining – record of the year. If the novelty may wear off by album number two, then for now Paste Magazine have it about right: “while the singer and his band are drawing on a classic form, their interpretation makes for an exciting and contemporary sound.”

natalieprassNatalie Prass – Self-titled

In all honesty, I didn’t expect this album to have the staying power it has proven to have. The ineffable quality of Prass’s vocals and songwriting had me fooled – this diaphanous LP has spent the year with me and still come out on top. I don’t disagree with anything I wrote about it back in the month of its release: “There is a sense – in the skinny angles of current electronica, the ironic posing of the grizzled hangover of indie rock, or the heritage atmosphere of much current alt.country or anti-folk – that sentiment is no longer welcome in pop music. If that’s true, then Natalie Prass’s debut album – long-delayed following the unexpected success of label-mate Matthew E White took all of Spacebomb’s attention and resources – is a sort of New Sincerity manifesto for the 21st-century album. Drenched in brass and strings, keeningly hurting, and unafraid of the quiver of the torch-song, this is a tear-jerking, crafted, unabashed LP more Dusty Springfield than Lana Del Rey. Which, y’know. Is pretty fashionable after all.” Except I’d say she’s more Dolly than Dusty. So it’s improved in my estimation, then.

imagePanda Bear – Panda Bear vs the Grim Reaper

Important fact: the grim reaper never really shows up. Despite that, this is a record that may represent Panda Bear’s crowning achievement so far: entirely devoted to melody, and yet absolutely uninterested in received forms and modes, this is an LP which swerves and turns at every bar, and yet has a consistency of identity it maintains right through to the surely deliberate seamless loop from the close of the final track to the first notes of the opening. This is the quality which ensures the album’s place on this list: a never-ending enthusiasm for sound and song, that manifests in an impish inventiveness but also none of the coolness which is often associated with experimental or electronic music. There are both emotions and mathematics on display here, and each align to re-enforce the other. A really super bit of work.

imageFather John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear

Or “Reasons That It’s A Good Thing That The Author Is Dead”. Martin Lewis of another parish and I are currently working on a joint essay/blogged dialogue about this record and its intersections with its creator: are the songs here a joke, or honest expressions of opinion? To what extent is the singer’s insistence in one song that he’d like to choke an annoying woman at a party a knowing self-parody, an instance of unthinking misogyny, or something in between? It’s my contention that from the “text” itself the only viable reading – with the over-elaborate production and competing narrative points of view – is that I Love You, Honeybear is an entirely conscious and wry look at twenty-first-century love, that fortunately also has fantastic melodies, memorable lyrics and good arrangements. It’s a complete album. That Martin has looked beyond the text is a conversation for another forthcoming post … keep your eyes peeled, gang.

imageJoanna Newsom – Divers

In an earlier life, would I have been a Kate Bush fan? I am avowedly not, and yet based on my contemporary and undying love for Joanna Newsom, I have to hold out the possibility that, had I been born a decade or more earlier, I could have become all that I hate in pseudish aficionados of 1980s caterwauling. Divers feels like a step away from Newsomish excesses – no grand Ys-ish formal constraints here, no Have One On Me triple album packaging. But from the title onwards this is as uncompromising an album as Newsom has ever made: her vocal, matured since her last release into a fully controlled but no less eccentric instrument, is used to impart in often bizarre phrasing lyrics that impart an over-arching consideration of the dregadations of time. Newsom fans like me will tell you that this results in a gloriously rich, surprising, and rewarding record of intellect and musicality; Kate Bush detractors will tell you that it’s all just self-consciously kooky tat. But they’d be wrong, right?

“You Know My Methods”: Habit, Tradition, and Sherlock Holmes

The Strand, 1892“Don’t you get a bit sick of it?” This was the entirely understandable question posed to me by Anna’s brother, Joe, this Christmas Eve when conversation turned to my tradition of reading the same short story each and every year on this date. ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, as I’ve written in previous years, is not without its faults; even if it is also one of the tightest and cleanest of the Sherlock Holmes canon, an annual reading of any tale this slight might understandably shade familiarity into contempt.

But Christmas is about tradition, and another word for tradition is ‘habit’. Good, bad, or indifferent, habits all share the characteristic of being immune to fatigue and, indeed, to good sense: one follows a tradition, and indulges a habit, because it’s what one does. Often, a habit is a nervous tic; other times, it’s simply something that makes you feel comfortable (the two kinds are of course related). For me, ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ is a habit – and one whose virtue is almost multiplied by over-exposure. Why does it make me feel Christmassy? Because I always read it at Christmas. Such is the power – and the attraction- of a tradition.

Not coincidentally, this story being a festive one and Arthur Conan Doyle not being quite the amateur he is sometimes made out to be, ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, a story in which a priceless gem is found in the crop of a seasonal goose, revolves around the theme of habit. When Watson calls upon Sherlock Holmes on the second morning after Christmas, he finds the great detective ensconced in his rooms in the way we might often imagine him: “lounging upon the sofa in a purple dressing-gown, a pipe-rack within his reach upon the right, and a pile of crumpled papers, evidently newly studied, near at hand.” Holmes himself is a creature of his own patterns – indeed, his understanding of, in some ways his enslavement to, systems is the means by which he makes the deductions which solve his cases.

Inevitably, the same is true here: Holmes deduces so much about Henry Baker, the man who loses his Christmas goose with such consequence, because the man’s hat gives away such a wealth of information about his habits (and part of the degradation that has led Baker to rely on a pub’s Christmas club is the result of another habit that Holmes infers – drink). In thus managing to make contact with Baker, Holmes proceeds to the marketstall from which the goose hailed. The poultry vendor is at first reluctant to provide further information; Holmes tricks him out of his story by playing on the gambling addiction from which the detective infers the retailer suffers. Habit smooths down the intricacies of human behaviour to predictable patterns – it makes the detective’s job easier.

When Holmes commutes his own sentence on the thief of the piece at the story’s close, he does so because to “send him to gaol now [… would be to] make him a gaol-bird for life” (that is, crime, too, can become a habit). But he also does so because the most important of Christmas traditions is forgiveness. In this way, traditions – habits – enable us to access the spirit of annual festivities. For those of us without the fate of would-be criminals in our Victorian hands, they provide the frameworks which remind us to relax, or the structures which provide us the opportunities – the excuses – to see old friends and family. They offer punctuation. And that, I suppose, is why I am as yet still not sick of this well-worn old story.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

 

“The Real Palpable Reach of Loss”: Chigozie Obioma’s “The Fishermen”

imageWhen Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen is good, it is arresting. In these moments, it’s not hard to see how this story of four Nigerian brothers in the 1990s put its nose ahead of the competition to become  the only debut on this year’s Booker shortlist: its carefully paced moments of sudden and irrevocable violence rip through an often temperate narrative, offering – and you’ll forgive the alliterative assonance – pungent punctuation to what increasingly reads like a fable, an allegory of lost opportunity and squandered hopes.

Early on, the boys experience an encounter with the man they know only as “MKO”, whom the reader may or may not know better as Moshood Abiola, the ill-fated Social Democratic candidate for president during Nigeria’s controversial 1993 general election, who ran on the slogan, “How To Make Nigeria A Better Place for All” – and whose presumed victory was never announced, the candidate instead eventually finding himself in prison. The great man gives the brothers a calendar which they keep from then on as a treasured possession – its trashing is a key episode in the slow decay of their relationships – and his career is imparted dimly but deliberately as he recedes from the daily life of the children and Nigeria slides, with consequence but almost invisibly in the narrative, towards the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha.

The storyteller’s priorities lie elsewhere. Our narrator, after all, is a child. More correctly, Ben, the youngest of the four central brothers, is  telling the story from a vantage point in the future, but his style is tricksily naive: there is very little hindsight inserted into his telling (thus the sketchy understanding of the political context of MKO’s career), and this more than anything else is what gives the novel its fable-like quality:

The winged insects, as small as the brown brush flies, would leap out of porous holes in the earth in a sudden invasion and converge wherever they saw light – it drew them magnetically. The people of Akure often rejoiced at the arrival of the locusts. For, rain healed the land after the dry seasons during which the inclement sun, aided by the Harmattan wind, tormented the land. […] But the rain would come down – usually on the day after the locust invasion – with a violent storm, plucking out roofs, destroying houses, drowning many and turning whole cities into strange rivers. (p. 134)

This sort of allusive style – almost showily eloquent whilst also oral and demotic – is dominant throughout. Each chapter, for instance, is named after an animal, with the creature assigned to a particular character or feature of the story (“Father was an eagle”, “Ikenna was a python”, “Hope was a tadpole”). This in particular becomes a little wearisome, and not a little pat for a story that stretches the boundaries of the parable form: despite the mythic resonances, there are no lessons to be learned here, no great moral victories are won. At the close of the novel, the characters having been ruthlessly punished for various transgressions, Ben is told by his father, “What you have done is great.” (p. 285)

Indeed, the boys’ father is in many ways the central tragic figure of the novel: an upwardly mobile member of the emerging middle class, he over-reaches his grasp by disastrously little; he punishes his boys brutally for failing to live up to his often arbitrary expectations; leaves the family for a big job in the city, returning only when it is too late to put events back on track; and, at the end, cannot see the ways in which his demands and dreams have both contributed to and been negated by the actions he endorses.

If anything, his wife is even more carefully characterised: a woman of huge heart and discipline, she tries her very best – and far harder than her would-be grander husband – to ensure a harmonious family. When she inevitably, unsupported, fails, she is more viscerally affected than anyone, and yet never loses her moral compass (the father does not congratulate his son in her earshot). “She owned copies of our minds in the pockets of her own mind and so could easily sniff troubles early in the forming, the same way sailors discern the forming foetus of a coming storm,” Ben tells us in one of the novels many supple and apposite expressions of the bonds of family. (p. 103)

If I’m being cagey about the precise nature of that storm, it’s because those explosive moments of violence are best experienced without foreknowledge – they need to arrive with the same unsurprised shock that a sailor will experience the first thunderclap he half-expected. The trouble begins, however, early on, in the sort of encounter one finds in the Bible or Aesop: on one of the boys’ clandestine fishing trips (“I sweat and suyffer to send you to school to receive a Western education as civilized men,” their father rants, “but you chose instead to be […] Fish-a-men!” [p. 39), a madman tells the eldest brother, Ikenna, that he will be murdered by one of his fellow fishermen – in other words, by a sibling. This seed slowly germinates throughout the novel, needlessly but inevitably bearing bitter fruit. The senselessness of this cause only emphasises the fatalism of its effect: “we cannot flip precedence,” sighs the third of the brothers in age, Obembe. “We cannot bring forward what is behind, nor can we bring what is forward back.” (p. 197)

In this way, and despite being occasionally if only faintly over-worked, The Fishermen becomes an anti-fable, a story with all the grace notes and chord structures of a parable, but none of its codas – and certainly nothing approaching the moral certainty of its plagal cadences. The novel would be an elegy for lost hope if, figured as a tragedy from the start, it had any to begin with; as it is, it’s a valuable lesson in how unnecessarily self-defeating human beings can be, and how sad it is to watch them be so. I can quite see how this novel, which closes by calling on young Nigerians to become one of the “wool-white birds that appear in flocks after a storm”, would have been the one to give Marlon James a run for his money.