“It’s All About The Legend”: Sherlock’s Final Problem

Sherlock Season 4

Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his pipe. “No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin,” he observed. “Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.”

“Have you read Gaboriau’s works?” I asked. “Does Lecoq come up to your idea of a detective?”

Sherlock Holmes sniffed sardonically. “Lecoq was a miserable bungler,” he said, in an angry voice; “he had only one thing to recommend him, and that was his energy. That book made me positively ill. The question was how to identify an unknown prisoner. I could have done it in twenty-four hours. Lecoq took six months or so. It might be made a text-book for detectives to teach them what to avoid.” (A Study in Scarlet)

It is one of the recurring metatextual jokes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories that their protagonist believes he could write them better than their narrator. In ‘The Copper Beeches’, for example, Holmes declares that Watson has “erred perhaps in attempting to put colour and life into each of your statements instead of confining yourself to the task of placing upon record that severe reasoning from cause to effect which is really the only notable feature about the thing.” In one of only two stories the Master deigned to write himself, Holmes remarks of this ongoing spat with his Boswell that, “I have often had occasion to point out to him how superficial are his own accounts and to accuse him of pandering to popular taste instead of confining himself rigidly to facts and figures.”

Admittedly, in that self-penned story, ‘The Blanched Soldier’, the Great Detective admits that he found in the writing of a case that some thought to the entertainment of the reader is necessary. But one wonders how he would feel about Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the latest series of whose twenty-first-century update of Holmes and Watson, Sherlock, has just finishing airing.

I began more or less as a fan of Sherlock, but as early as the first episode of its second season I was becoming ambivalent; by last year’s “special”, I’d fallen out badly with the show. I wrote then that, “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”, and I take only a little bit of pleasure in having been proven prescient. The first of the new trio of episodes, ‘The Six Thatchers’, seemed to be aimed at doing what Doyle did so many years ago in ‘The Empty House’: reboot the series. It did so via some highly rushed resolutions of several previous cliffhangers, which allowed us to reach a montage of old-fashioned case-solving: Sherlock in his rooms at Baker Street, interviewing clients and putting together pieces of puzzles. Then, as again Doyle had done before them, Moffat and Gatiss killed off Watson’s wife.

One of Sherlock‘s biggest problems – in many ways its original sin -has been to miss the attraction of Doyle’s original stories. The series has assumed at almost every point that what matters is Sherlock Holmes – his psychoses, his addictions, his cruelties and his heroisms – but this was never the case. What mattered in those original stories, and what made Sherlock‘s opening episodes different, was the focus on the relationship between Holmes and Watson. It can hardly be said that Sherlock has entirely ignored that dynamic – the legion of online slash fiction writers happily lapping up every nuance of every scene between them is proof enough that there is material here, there is scope. In this sense, ‘The Six Thatchers’ did its best: by killing off Mary Morstan, and looking at how her self-sacrifice for Sherlock Holmes might affect his relationship with her widowed husband, Sherlock was trying to get back to basics.

But the show could not escape its own dread gravity: not only did Mary deserve rather more, in an adaptation which trumpets its updating of Holmes to a twenty-first-century milieu, than to become female fodder for the series’ central boys (even her Victorian forebear didn’t die for Sherlock Holmes); when Moffat and Gatiss had her leave behind a recorded video message not for her husband John but his best friend Sherlock, all that might have been achieved by the opening episode lay in tatters: it was not for Holmes and Watson, together, to find some meaning and win some justice in a Mary-less world; rather, it was for heroic, super-human Sherlock to save John from his own worst excesses. That is, it was – and shall always be – all about Benedict Cumberbatch’s sexy weirdo.

It was fortunate in papering over these cracks, then, that the season’s second episode, ‘The Lying Detective’, was Sherlock‘s strongest instalment certainly since ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ and very possibly since ‘The Great Game’. Toby Jones’s Culverton Smith may well be the show’s best villain, up to and including Andrew Scott’s over-used Moriarty: he is a caricature to be sure, but played with such conviction by Jones, and just close enough to what are improbable but all-too real cases in our own world, that we buy into the fiction. Sherlock hasn’t seemed to care too much about its own plausibility in this way for years, and if – inevitably – the episode closes with yet another Big Twist focused on Sherlock himself, at least ‘The Lying Detective’ had its moments: Sherlock conjuring a narrow kitchen in a London street to demonstrate how he has deduced the origin of a sun-bleached note; John receiving feedback from Sherlock’s adoring public about the quality of his blogs; Culverton Smith himself, perched over Sherlock’s deathbed, explaining to the audience’s mounting horror the cold logic of a serial killer.

If Sherlock never escapes the flashier parts of its DNA – Mrs Hudson screeching around a residential development in an Aston Martin, Euros Holmes appearing from nowhere with a bullet for John’s brain – ‘The Lying Detective’ held them all in an acceptable balance. It gave us hope that the show could do the impossible -break free of its years of accumulated weight and hype, and return to something approaching a show about two detectives and their relationship as they solved crimes. What Sherlock has always assumed is that bigger is better – the larger the canvas, the clearer and more large-writ its characterisation. In fact, the opposite is true: never has Sherlock been more entertaining than in its quieter moments, in those scenes where Freeman is allowed to act repressed, or Sherlock to doubt himself. For every naval treaty, the Victorian Sherlock Holmes had a half-dozen solitary cyclists; Sherlock Holmes does not need to save the world to be interesting.

Alas, Sherlock feels he does, and ‘The Lying Detective’ bled out into ‘The Final Problem’, a bizarre instalment of the series that may be its worst, at least since the execrable ‘The Sign of Three’. Sherlock’s long-lost sister, Eurus Holmes, imprisoned for a lifetime in Sherrinford, a high-security prison on a sea-beaten island somewhere, has finally – following a Christmas Day treat of five minutes with Jim Moriarty half a decade ago – broken free. She used her time to get on a bus and text John Watson flirtatiously; pose as the daughter of Culverton Smith and go for chips with Sherlock; and pretend to be John’s new therapist and shoot him at the end of last week’s episode. Then, we learn, she went back to her prison and awaited their arrival.  

Mycroft, of course, is at the centre of the conspiracy to secrete Eurus, and Gatiss gets more lines than perhaps he ever has: endless backstory, numerous retcons, a whole barrel-load of pop-psych justifications for the personality quirk of each Holmes sibling. Sherlock’s childhood best friend was murdered by his sister; that’s why he doesn’t like making friends. Mycroft, almost a decade older than his siblings and smarter than his parents, had to take early charge of the situation; that’s why he’s so distant and Machiavellian. Euros just wanted to play with other children, but wasn’t invited; that’s why she became a criminally insane psychopath. She leads Mycroft, Sherlock and John through a series of Saw-like puzzles that she appears to think offer meaningful moral quandaries – will you shoot a man to save his wife?! – in an attempt to we’re not sure. Annoy her brothers? But it’s all very important, and we know this because people get speeches and Andrew Scott gets a cameo.

All this amping-up is entirely unnecessary, but Sherlock has the weirdest case of impostor syndrome we may ever have seen on television: it is wildly popular, internationally successful, and stars some the UK’s most famous actors. It consequently exhibits a certain smugness, a self-regard – Sherlock is a show that cannot believe its luck, and feels pretty happy with itself. (We know this because Mark Gatiss has taken to responding to critics in verse.) Fair enough. But it cannot believe that luck; that is, it is incapable of settling into its own rhythm, of having the confidence simply to be. Rather, it must ape Hammer Horror at one moment, and Skyfall the next. It is always acting out, always assuming that we’ll turn off if it doesn’t one-up itself yet again within the next five minutes. All this despite the self-evident truth that the single most gripping scene in the whole of ‘The Final Problem’ was a telephone conversation between a man and a woman, in which each told the other they loved them. (Kudos to Louise Brearley, sadly under-used in season four and bravely selling a scene that did her character yet another injustice.) Sherlock can do under-stated if it wants to. It chooses otherwise.

In other words, the series focuses too freely on image, on the cool visual. Its scripts are like string threaded through pearls meant for a necklace: important only as connective tissue.  Eurus is imprisoned in a glass cell – but the glass isn’t there! Moriarty is flying in on a helicopter – to the strains of ‘I Want To Break Free’! Sherlock is unhappy – so he karate-chops a coffin! One of these is seasoning enough to delight a restless audience’s palate. But Sherlock has always packed itself so full of incident that it is the incidentals which have come to dictate the melody. We might return at this juncture to the Master himself: “Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner,” he insisted to Watson in The Sign of Four. “You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.”

Gatiss might presume to disagree: “If you don’t want to be challenged,” he says about Sherlock, “don’t watch it. It’s a complex and entertaining programme.” But the truth is that the series has not been half as complex as it thinks. Its plots and structures have sometimes been purposefully Byzantine, yes; but this sort of spectacle is chaff. At its most basic level, Sherlock has been so simple that its foundations have always struggled to bear the weight of its accretions. “He’s a great man,” gushed an anonymous plod to Inspector Lestrade at the close of ‘The Final Problem’. “He’s more than that,” says a disappointed Rupert Graves, gearing up dejectedly for the culmination of the show’s entire arc. “He’s a good one.” In my review of the show’s very first instalment six-and-a-half years ago, I wrote: “a great man becoming a good man may not be the most revolutionary of concepts.” It turns out Gatiss and Moffat disagreed, and have spent the intervening years trying to prove themselves right. That seems to me a fair summary of the path Sherlock has taken, in fact: on gender, on sexuality, on Molly and Mrs Hudson, on Sherlock’s centrality and on plot tokens and cliffhangers … it has sought to prove its writers right.

All that said, at the final furlong I’m attracted – diverted, even won over – by another of the duo’s sophistries: that Sherlock so far has been a sort of prequel for the Sherlock Holmes we know. “He isn’t as smart as Eurus, he isn’t as smart as Mycroft but he is always going to win against them because he is better and stronger,” they say in an interview with the Radio Times. “That is him becoming the Sherlock Holmes of Basil Rathbone and [fellow Holmes actor] Jeremy Brett, the one we’re used to, the wise old man … who is still terrifying and still cold but has a heart that you never doubt.” For a show that has long been obsessed with references to the canon – in ‘The Final Problem’ alone we have a Musgrave ritual, no fewer than three Garridebs, a Carfaxian cofin, a best friend named Trevor just as in ‘The Gloria Scott’, and a chalkboard featuring dancing men – it’s rather fitting that where its creators have ended up, and they admit it is by accident more than design, is in the margins: Sherlock is a gloss, one of many ‘young Holmes’ fictions written by fans over the years in an attempt to understand our actual hero. We can debate how successful Moffat and Gatiss have been in their attempt (‘The Final Problem’ looks likely to be the last Sherlock for some time, and certainly the last in which Cumberbatch and Watson can feasibly play young men); that they failed with fondness is beyond question.

Albums of 2016

As I’ll write in my contribution to Strange Horizons‘s “Best of 2016” piece, the twists and turns of 2016 have often made me feel, in my weaker moments, like art needed to come second to news. I’ve read and listened much less this year, then – and from where we’ve ended up during the last twelve months I can’t help but feel that this was true of many of us.

So in that spirit, let’s tear ourselves away from the twenty-four-hour news channels for long enough to think about records. Maybe it’s because I’ve been concentrating on populating 50 Miles of Elbow Room every two weeks, but it feels as if 2016 has been a better year for songs than albums. Given that streaming – more track-based a business model than flogging LPs out of HMV – is now making labels money, it might also be the shape of things to come. If we omit the traditional singles focus of pop and hip-hop, then the impact of Margo Price’s “Hurtin’ on the Bottle” was not matched by her Midwest Farmer’s Daughter; Christine & The Queens might be the year’s best singles band, but stretching that success to album-length was a challenge; and even Warpaint this year seemed to be better at doling out new songs (geddit?) than worthy successors to previous magnum opi.

That said, I listened less this year. So read this list and then re-educate me, please.

John Prine – For Better or Worse

I didn’t expect anything of this album except some fodder for a radio show. But blow me if Prine hasn’t put together one of the most affecting, emotionally open little albums I’ve heard in a long time. It’s a collection of duets with female luminaries of country – Iris DeMent, LeeAnn Womack, Kacey Musgraves – that is also a set of covers: old standards like “Falling In Love Again” and “Cold Cold Heart” sung by Alison Krauss or Miranda Lambert might sound dull as ditch-water, but partly thanks to Prine’s own cracked vocal and partly thanks to the sensitivity of the singers and their arrangements, what actually emerges are fifteen maudlin masterpieces. For Better or Worse is assured a place, I think, in the canon of great love albums: it’s sad, wistful, wry, joyful and wise. It’s also very, very pretty. Give it a spin.

Teleman – Brilliant Sanity

I caused some controversy amongst my indier friends when I demurred in 2014 from listing Teleman’s debut album is my best of list. My reasons at the time I still cleave to: Breakfast was a bit cold, a tad cerebral. Where Alt-J or Django Django leavened their songs’ math-rock nerdiness with dollops of humour, Teleman seemed a trifle more sober. Brilliant Sanity makes good on that debut’s promise, though: with a surer melodic touch and some lovely rhythms amidst the riffs, the band’s second album recalls Belle and Sebastain (whom they supported on tour this year), but also seems nicely contemporary in a way a lot of guitar music no longer does. I’m imagining my indier friends hate it.

Nathan Bowles – Whole & Cloven

This record may be the most musically accomplished, innovative and interesting album on my list. Bowles is a banjo player, but not as you know one: he recreates the instrument on this record, slapping it inj the middle of contexts to which it is often alien and playing it with a suppleness I’m not sure anyone else could manage. You may not be a fan of banjo; that does not matter. Whole & Cloven is primarily an album of music, and though the instruments that music is played on of course contribute to its textures what is most exciting here are the compositions. That these pieces have been written for the much-maligned banjo, and soar so surprisingly, is part of the album’s charm; but ignore old-time nerds like me and listen anyway: ignore the banjo if you must and investigate “Chiaroscuro” or “Gadarene Fugue”; tell me music much better has been produced this year.

Ryley Walker – Golden Sings That Have Been Sung

When I first listened to Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker this year – following his death, alas – I reached its end and realised, as the notes faded, that I’d been holding my breath. There are moments on Walker’s fourth album that have the same effect, though for different reasons. You Want It Darker is intense and stark, but, like its technicolor cover in which a sunset bleeds across the surface of a lake and multicoloured planets parade across an oil-spill sky, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung shoots for diversity. Its opening track, “The Halfwit In Me” is the album’s best, and announces a departure from Walker’s pastichey style of old; but the songwriting and production throughout this record showcase a fast-maturing talent. It may be that to some ears this album will still sound too revivalist; I think that’s unfair – it sounds to me like a revivication.

Edd Donovan and the Wandering Moles – Making Mountain Vol I

Full disclosure: Edd is a friend. But I have lots of friends who are musicians and have never listed any of their work in a ‘best of’ post … So I hope you’ll hear me out (although while we’re here please do take time out to discover Men Diamler’s Black Shuck Rings Mordor, too). For my money, Edd’s album stands toe-to-toe with any other folk singer-songwriter release this year; that it has been released by a tiny record label and written by a grass-roots musician seems irrelevant. It also has the virtue of an apocalyptic bent, which seems about right for 2016. With a broad sonic palette – from string-laden ballads and accordion-driven Parisian swing through to free jazz freak-outs and summery indie pop – Making Mountains Vol I is the perfect showcase not just for Edd’s laconic-yet-intimate vocal style, but also his literate, often biting, songwriting.  You can order the album from edddonovan.co.uk and should do so.

“Its Owner Is Unknown.”

Meanwhile, over on Yuletide Twitter … Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle and I reflect on the importance of people – of individuals, of every face in each crowd – at Christmas.

“What Is It, A Tosser?” David Szalay’s “All That Man Is”

This year’s Booker Prize shortlist is easily one of the freshest in years. I’m not entirely sure if I agree with Robert McCrum that it is also one of the best, but it certainly deserves commendation for looking beyond the usual names and even the usual modes for the best literature of the year. Where I might agree with McCrum, however, is in his ruling that David Szalay’s All That Man Is should not, in all honesty, be termed a novel.

Szalay has written novels in the past, and the nine sections of his latest book have all the energy and wit of the most observant purveyors of the craft; if he also occasionally mistakes brand-names for granular detail (one of the recurring motifs is that characters smoke Park Lane cigarettes), then you might allow it as a sort of comment on the flattened, samey world he sets out to depict. For, despite the volume’s title, All That Man Is cannot be characterised as expansive. The masculinity it maps is a narrower, rather more embattled, beast.

In truth, this collection of nine short stories – which maps awkwardly despite its number onto Shakespeare’s seven ages of man – would be more appropriately titled All That Straight, White, Repressed European Man Is. One assumes that this title was too unwieldy for its publisher, which also insists on continually referring to the book as a novel – presumably to get the Booker nod it has fortunately managed to parlay out of a punch-drunk panel. The opening story features a seventeen-year-old protagonist, the closing one a septuagenarian; in between we see desultory sexual encounters, unwanted pregnancies, child-rearing and senescence. We see prostitution and bargain basement holidays, Inter Railing and academia. The book, published prior to the UK’s June 24th referendum on membership of the European Union, reads like a mimetic version of Dave Hutchison’s recent trilogy of science fiction novels: avowedly, if acidicly, European, it does not shield us from the vapid vulgarity of much (post-)modern life.

The overall tone is captured well by the close of the third story, which focuses on a Central European bodyguard who travels to London with a friend and his sex-worker girlfriend. He, like most of the characters here, falls into a passive, unrequited love, but learns from its unattainability something about his own essential lack of ambition – and immediately projects this onto another woman:

And then there was the girl at the chicken place. She was always there, serving the customers, but he hadn’t really noticed her until tonight. The little smile she gave him when she took his order, it occurred to him, as he sat down to wait for his food, was not the first. Part of the lace edge of her bras showed in the V-shaped neckline of her T-shirt, where’s a little gold cross lay on the skin. He watched her dealing with the next customer, her earnest manner, her hand tightly gripping the pen with which she wrote the orders down. He wondered what she thought about things. Though she was not smiling now, she had a nice face. [p. 150]

And that it’s – end, quite literally, of story. The women of these stories never get much beyond the girl in the chicken place. The reader wonders if Szalay wants us to condemn his characters for this lack of curiosity (“[she] pathetically overestimated his own emotional engagement” we read of another character (p. 158), whose investment is won only when this latest woman – a girl, an undergraduate to the male’s lecturer – takes a younger boyfriend); but these stories go by with so little sense of judgement, of any ironic detachment, that they begin to read as shrugs. “This is how men are,” Szalay seems to say. “So it goes.”

Given his self-selected narrow sample, this seems like an odd project to undertake, much less for which to claim some sort of wider unity or significance. Still, early on, Szalay’s pseudish teenager Simon posits a structure for the cycle of short stories he opens: “an image of human life as bubbles rising through water. The bubbles rise in streams and clouds, touching and mingling and yet each remaining individually defined … until at the surface they cease to exist as individual entities” [p. 18]. That Simon is fairly obviously not quite as clever as he thinks he is, one wonders if this will be contradicted as the volume goes on. But it isn’t, and again we’re left with what we’re presented. It closes with the senescent man, his daughter Cordelia leaving behind (really), and the “Via Maggiore … fading away in their dusk” [p. 437]. That is, the bubbles evaporate. For all his self-evident priggishness, our first male predicts the last.

That the book’s claim for novel status – its building of a vision of manhood from nine separate stories – is also the most eloquent embodiment of its tonal failure to interrogate that central theme might do for a work less well written. But All That Man Is can be mesmerising at the level of the sentence, and is often very funny (“they do not succeed in finding it, the Kafka exhibition” [p. 41]). I can recommend it if Philip Roth: The Cappucino Years sounds like the sort of book you’d like, and you should dip into one or two of its stories even if it doesn’t. But is it a novel? Not really.

That leaves, for my money, The Sellout and Hot Milk contending for the prize. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is too evanescent, Eileen too contrived. His Bloody Project might be the dark-horse, but I think its final third’s pedestrian turn may scupper its chances. All told, The Sellout should win; but the Booker has been known to surprise before. We’ll find out tonight.

“It Covers Up Everything”: Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk”

That Hot Milk is the favourite to take this year’s Booker Prize is, I think, a simple function of Deborah Levy’s being the only one of this year’s sextet to have been previously shortlisted. I was not a fan of her Swimming Home, but the good news is that Hot Milk is a considerable improvement. Levy’s backstory, however, surely still plays into her Booker-fame – she spent a long time away from the world of writing and novels before she published Swimming Home, and nothing pulls a panel’s heartstrings like the returning hero.

This must be true, because Hot Milk retains many of the faults that Swimming Home boasted – and the shortlisting of that earlier novel baffled me. There is the focus on the privileged, and yet the aching focus on their terrific troubles: Hot Milk‘s protagonist, Sofia, is a PhD student working in a coffee shop whose mother and father are the sort of global citizens whom Theresa May despises, and who finds nothing odd about comparing the fate of bankrupt Greece with her own personal travails: “As a result of [my father’s] first default, my mother has a mortgage on her life” [p. 138].

In that quotation, too, is the sort of gnomic bathos in which Levy unwittingly majors (“My laptop is my veil of shame” [p. 66]). The novel has a sort of unwieldy governing metaphor encoded in its title: Sofia leaves the flat whites behind early on to shepherd Rose, her probable hypochondriac of a mother, to a clinic in Spain which promises to succeed where every medic has previously failed, and return feeling to Rose’s legs; but milk stays with her. Across the landscape of late capitalism she sojourns, with milk as her guide: “‘We have travelled a long distance from the cow with a bucket of raw milk under its udder. We are a long way from home,'” her boss tells her at one point [p. 32]. Long-life milk – a “stable commodity” – comes to stand in some improbable, vaguely queasy, way for the curious attenuation that characterises the Europe she moves through.
There’s no denying that the longer Hot Milk goes on the more clunky it becomes (fifteen pages from the end: “I waded into the sea up to my belly button, which is the oldest human scar, and discovered I was crying” [p. 203]). But it’s also true that in its set-up – a weirded Europe which seems more or less to have experienced its apocalypse without anyone noticing – Hot Milk finds a lot to recommend itself. In some ways, it feels like the best post-crash European novel yet, its young people unable top find work, its older people unable to give up on all the fripperies that got us here in the first place. “‘Greece is a smaller country than Spain, but it can’t pay its bills,'” says a lifeguard studying for a master’s degree in philosophy. “But the phrase about the dream being over implied that something had started and had now ended. It was up to the dreamer to say it was over, no one else could say it on their behalf” [p. 5].

As statements of the post-2008 European experience go, that takes some beating. Likewise, everyone in the novel feels distanced from their own selves, from the society around them: despite her surname of Papastergiadis, and her father’s ancestry, Sofia cannot speak a word of Greek; laptops are designed in America and made in China, bottled water sourced in Milan and shopped to Singapore to be exported to Spain; Sofia is desperate to “get away from the kinship structures that are supposed a to hold me together” [p. 63]. The events of the novel – is Rose’s doctor a quack, are the lovers Sofia takes in the Spanish heat in some way sinister or strange, can she rebuild her relationship with her estranged father? – all pass by at one remove, described as coolly as Sofia seems to move through them (“I am anti the major plots” [p. 143]). A lot has ended here, but nothing has finished.

This way in which Hot Milk captures our particular moment makes it a great deal more engaged and engaging than Swimming Home, and may even justify not just its shortlisting but its status as favourite. About an American doctor selling a superficially more straightforward remedy for Rose’s illness, her Spanish doctor says: “I can sell you his medication for the disorder he invented. […] We must not always be a slave to the pharmaceuticals” [p. 179]. What we are told ails us may not; our remedies may not be cures; but what are the alternatives, and do we trust who provides them? Sofia says her mother “relies on human kindness and painkillers” [p. 13]; perhaps we all do. A novel that asks these questions, even if not always elegantly, is an important one.

But does Hot Milk have quite the consistency of voice of Eileen? Does it convince like His Bloody Project? Is it as complete in its statement as The Sellout? You may guess I think not in each case, but in its defence Hot Milk is a very different, more elusive and poetic, novel than any of those others. If it’s a teensy bit self-regarding, perhaps that’s the price we pay for the views its unforgiving gaze provides. I sort of don’t like Hot Milk, but I can’t dismiss it. The bookmakers might be right.      

“Multiple and Conflicting Answers”: Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”

A recurring theme in my reviews of this year’s Booker shortlist is originality – or, more accurately if informally, “samey-ness”. Both Eileen and His Bloody Project felt familiar in one way or another, even where they made claims for being otherwise; so far in my readings only The Sellout had a voice and a purpose all its own. This state of affairs is not altered by Madeleine Thien’s nevertheless tenderly written family saga, Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

In part, Thien is unfortunate to publish her novel of musicians in a totalitarian regime in the same year that Julian Barnes published The Noise of Time. Perhaps this novel has been overlooked for the Booker because it retreads ground previously covered by his prize-winning The Sense of an Ending; but The Noise of Time still feels slimmer, swifter and more sly than Thien’s shortlisted effort. Her novel is far more expansive – The Noise of Time never leaves the consciousness of Dmitry Shostakovich, whereas Do Not Say We Have Nothing features an ever-expanding cast of characters spread out over more or less one hundred years. But Thien, too, is interested in how artists – how people – can be true and authentic in a society like Mao’s China, and she quotes not just Shostakovich but Prokofiev, too.

At the centre of Thien’s novel are three musicians who each take a different route through China’s mid-century catastrophes, barely surviving the Great Leap Forward and destroyed by the Cultural Revolution. There is Sparrow, a composer who adopts a sort of soft pragmatism, giving up on music and stepping as far out of sight as her can. There is the violinist Zhuli, Sparrow’s cousin and a woman who reacts to the arbitrary and yet irresistible forces of Maoist revolution with confusion and consternation. And there is the pianist Kai, with whose Vancouver-based daughter the novel begins – and whose accommodations with the regime are more muscular than Sparrow’s, and who therefore spends much of the novel, though he is dead by its opening, atoning for sins of denouncement.

I’m not sure the novel ever drills down to an understanding of music as profound as Barnes; its shapes and effects, its power and its impotence, remain vague and disputable. This is perhaps on purpose – “How could I commit myself to something so powerless?” asks one character [pp. 300-1] – but it gives the novel’s central conflicts a weightless feel. The trio’s love of Western music feels loaded, too – we are invited to sympathise with these characters because they think like us, the Western readers of this Canadian novel. That, too, feels like a shortcut next to the Russianess of Barnes’s Shostakovich. “Could music record a time that otherwise left no trace?” we are asked rhetorically at one point [p. 196]; probably not this music, no. No one ever seems to connect with it beyond what it is meant to signify.

That said, in some ways the novel’s music is only another iteration of its presiding theme – time and our efforts to recover that which is past. The novel begins with ten-year-old Marie, the daughter of Kai, when she and her widowed mother are joined in Vancouver by Ai-Ming, a young woman fleeing mainland China after playing a role in (of course) the Tiananmen Square protests. Ai-Ming inspires Marie to reconnect with a Chinese past that until then had represented only her lost father; together they explore the ‘Book of Records’, a set of documents compiled by the extended family of Sparrow and Zhuli, which tells the story of how these individuals made their way through China’s turbulent twentieth century. Ai-Ming eventually leaves for the USA, assuming amnesty will come there before Canada, but she leaves behind Marie’s rekindled – and unquenchable – thirst to understand the full picture at which Book of Records can only hint.

In English, consciousness and unconsciousness are part of a vertical plane, so that we wake up and we fall asleep and we sink into a coma. Chinese uses the horizontal line, so that to wake is to cross a border towards consciousness and to faint is to go back. Meanwhile, time itself is vertical so that last year is the year above and next year is the year below. […] This means that future generations are not the generations ahead but the ones behind. [pp. 198-9]

The novel is at its best when it seeks to represent Chinese writing and thinking in this way (in the text, this passage is broken up with various characters and ideograms). It’s why its representation of music is so disappointing, and also why the reader is left wanting more, not, despite the book’s girth, less, of this other culture. Marie’s quest for understanding feels incomplete because it is so often in this way a trip only into time, rather than into other heads. This despite the proliferating detail, the endless addition of characters and incidents, which seek to demonstrate that “the past […] was never dead but only reverberated” [p. 14]. Indeed, complexity is the novel’s primary project – it pitches polyphony against the brute insistence of Maoist orthodoxy (“I know that the Party is right […] but even the simplest truths don’t seem like truths at all” [p. 248]) – but I couldn’t escape the sense that a lot happened without very much being translated.

This generic quality explains the novel’s more general “samey-ness”, too. It is beautifully written, and often  philosophically sophisticated, dismissing by example Kai’s fatalistic adoption of the idea of a “zero point […] on which all others are dependent, to which they are all related, and by which they are all determined” [p. 297]. But it also resembles all those other family sagas set over decades: those The Glass Rooms or The Memory of Loves, those The Lowlands or The Garden of Evening (er) Mistses which do much the same thing in much the same way. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a masterfully controlled novel and I am being unfair to it; but, for me at least, it added up to less than the sum of its multiple moving parts.

“Community-cum-Lepar Colony”: Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout”

If I started my review of His Bloody Project with an interview about Eileen, let me try to catch up with myself. Here’s an interview with Paul Beatty, author of The Sellout:

“I’m trying to think of a book – but almost anything will do, really – think of whatever’s number fifteen on the best-seller list now, written by a white writer. It has nothing to do with blackness or Asianness or Latinoness, or whatever. I think that’s as much a comment on race as anything else, whether the writer realises it or not. And the problem is we don’t think of it like that. We just think they’re writing about the common experience, we think it’s just the way the world is.”

In the last scene of The Sellout, a novel about race in America, an African-American stand-up comedian, in a work which has already called out almost all African-American stand-up comedians as unfunny and unoriginal,  confronts a white couple in his audience: “Do I look like I’m fucking joking with you? This shit ain’t for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!” [p. 287]  The narrator, an African-American who has spent most of the novel holding slaves and re-segregating his community, wonders what “our” thing really is. In Beatty’s vision, it is occluding by talking about race elliptically.

“Is integration, forced or otherwise, social entropy or social order?” asks the narrator earlier in the book. “No one’s ever defined the concept” [p. 168]. The Sellout is a novel which seeks to enact race relations in America absurdly, in an attempt to really talk about it. In that same Paris Review interview, Beatty questions the labelling of his latest novel as a satire, and the focus on its comedy, and wonders if this isn’t a way to avoid looking closely at what the novel is saying. I think that’s right: there are many good jokes in this novel, many aimed squarely at the traditional spokespeople of African-Americans (a well-meaning academic invents an alternative office package called EmpowerPoint, rewrites F Scott Fitzgerald as The Great Blacksby); there are even more memorable comic episodes, most notably the one with which the novel opens, as the narrator gets high on the floor of the Supreme Court; but The Sellout isn’t a comic satire because it is too expansive for that. Better to call it an absurdist parable, a version of our own world pushed to the Nth degree in an attempt to foreground concerns at which we usually prefer not to look directly.

What The Sellout suggests is that we are all fretting about race without thinking about race. Like the best-selling white writer encoding his whiteness as the norm, or the black stand-up comedian defining his community against that same set of assumptions, our gaze bends around race’s gravity. We don’t look at it square-on. We do so in some cases out of the best of intentions, out of a desire to reach the post-racial uplands promised to us by an Obama presidency; but in doing so we gloss over too much. The humour, the sheer rate of comic incident in this novel, proceeds out of Beatty – and his narrator – refusing respect to the shibboleths which have been built along these careful demarcations in our willingness to understand. “I’m no Panglossian American,” the narrator insists early on. “And when I did what I did, I wasn’t thinking about inalienable rights, the proud history of our people. I did what worked, and since when did a little slavery and segregation ever hurt anybody, and if so, so fucking be it” [p. 23].

Beatty is not, of course, advocating the return of slavery. But his narrator, whom he cannily only ever names “Me” (“a not-so proud descendent of the Kentucky Mees” [p. 21]), rather is – and he does so because he starts to attend to the actual problems on the ground. “Growing up” under the tutelage of his social studies professor father, “I used to think all of black America’s problems could be solved if only we had a motto” [p. 10]; but when Hominy, an erstwhile child actor who in the 1940s played racist, slapstick bit-parts in the Our Gang series, begs, desperate and depressed as their once-proud neighbourhood of Dickens is literally wiped off the map, to be Me’s slave, his reasoning is brutish: “right now, massa, you ain’t seeing the plantation for the niggers” [p. 80].

Now, look. I’m not only white, but a white male; I’m not only that but English, and writing this in one of the capitals of the transatlantic slave trade, Liverpool. Get the fuck out – this is our thing. The Sellout doesn’t want my sage nods, aims its fire necessarily and importantly as much outwards as inwards. “White people, the type who never used to have anything to say to black people except ‘We have no vacancies,’ ‘You missed a spot,’ and ‘Rebound the basketball,’ finally have something to say to us … on hot 104-degree San Fernando Valley days, when we’re carrying groceries to their cars or stuffing their mailboxes with bills, they turn and say, ‘Too many Mexicans'” [p. 153]. I’ve been in the room when white Americans have suggested Obama shouldn’t get the Latino vote because he might not be “their” friend (since a black president can’t be expected to rule for the common good like a white one); the clear-eyed conversation about race may not be best started by pasty folks like me.

But Beatty sees the task as a shared one. In a memorable episode, Me recalls a childhood trip to Mississippi, occassioned when he insisted to his father that racism was over. Driving immediately to the Deep South, Me’s father insists his son eyeball and wolf-whistle a white woman on a semi-rural Main Street – and pay the consequences. The apparent crackers simply continue their conversation about one of their number’s bisexuality, and Me’s father disappears in the car with their chosen target, who it turns out quite likes black men; the problem is not so much race as assumptions about it. The Sellout is a relatively optimistic book – but it’s hopeful side demands a lot of its readers: their careful attention.

The novel’s voice, Beatty’s prose style, embodies those demands. It is full-throated and insistent, and its consistency is no doubt a large part of why the novel has been shortlisted for the Booker in the first place: it has the completeness of His Bloody Project, the follow-through of Eileen, and a totality and depth of purpose that both lack. This pungency is central to the effect of the novel, to the feeling it gives of being slapped around – which is so crucial to its goal of waking us up:

Washington D.C., with its wide streets, confounding roundabouts, marble statues, Doric columns, and domes, is supposed to feel like Ancient Rome (that is, if the streets of Ancient Rome were lined with homeless black people, bomb-sniffing dogs, tour buses, and cherry blossoms). Yesterday afternoon, like some sandal-shod Ethiop from the sticks of the darkest of the Los Angeles jungles, I ventured from the hotel and joined the hajj of blue-Jeanette yokels that paraded slowly and patriotically past the empire’s historic landmarks. [p. 4]

This is dense stuff, and yet also demotic: The Sellout is not one of those literary novels which conspires to confound; it wants to be understood whilst casting our perceptions afresh. That said, Beatty does have his less sure-footed moments: “kind kindhearted plantation owners,” an insistence that shouting “Here comes Frederick Douglass … Run for your lives” sends Hominy fleeing for the hills, or ropey syntax such as “Billy said, after swallowing a mouthful of a peanut butter – and judging from what appeared to be bug legs on his tongue – and flies sandwich” [p. 186]. Sometimes The Sellout feels not entirely in control of itself, as if it is straining to contain everything Beatty tries to squeeze into it (and, more or less, he tries to squeeze in everything – a “presidential” gorilla named Baraka, a rueful recreation of Compton, a wistful romance). This might be an unfair criticism; but it’s true.

It’s a also true that the novel sometimes goes out of its way to outrage, and in so doing doesn’t feel so different to the sort of Chris Rock routine it pretends to despise. At one point, George W Bush is described as “the first coon president” [p. 240]; at another Hominy is whipped by a glamorous dominatrix wearing only a Union kepi. Beatty might want to claim more for his novel than mere satirical bite, but in these moments he appears to be aiming for little else.  “What does that mean, I’m offended?” Me demands. “It’s not even an emotion” [p. 130]. It may not be, but it is a response – and a valid one. Beatty understands its potential, but perhaps not always the limits of its elasticity.

All that said, The Sellout is one of the most complete American novels I’ve read since the financial crash, which itself heralded Obama’s period in office – and this means it is also so far the best novel on this year’s Booker shortlist. It is timely but also perennial, of high style but also unafraid of low comedy. If it occasionally reaches too far, that is only because it is deservedly confident of its grasp.