“It Happens All The Time”: Anne Tyler’s “A Spool of Blue Thread”

Anne Tyler-A Spool of Blue ThreadWhilst reviewing the Women’s Prize shortlist earlier this year, I never made it to what is reputed to be Anne Tyler’s final novel (bar an entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare series). I did, though, wonder about its reception in my review of Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests:

The only novel on the prize shortlist I’ve not yet read is Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, but others have already written “defences” of her more traditional style: “the question of whether Tyler’s work errs too heavily on the side of consolation has lingered, despite (or because of) her immense and loyal readership and high-profile fans such as Nick Hornby and John Updike.”

I went on to consider Waters’s current reputation, so stratospheric that she doesn’t require defenders. But of course upon reading A Spool of Blue Thread as part of my belated Booker catch-up, I thought back to the words of John Blades: “annoyingly synthetic”, “cockeyed humanism”, “deliberately ingratiating”. Reader, I confess: I find it hard to disagree with him on the evidence of this book (Tyler has otherwise escaped my reading).

A Spool of Blue Thread takes place in a sort of timeless 1950s, in which lugubrious gentlemen drive their Datsuns and Buicks to the train station to pick up the prodigal son, and women in cotton dresses disagree about how best to do the washing up; its characters, social workers and carpenters, build things and nurture them (I will leave you to guess which gender is assigned which role); should the Baltimore in which this novel is set resemble in any way the decaying American dystopia of David Simon, I can only assume that the characters are unaware. There are certainly refugees and homeless, and they are invited for dinner to the large home that forms the epicentre of this family saga; but we never follow them back to their own homes, where they are sent with the leftover dessert in a box, and are given the distinct sense that, even in the simple act of reaching out to Them (and they are absolutely Other), some sort of moral victory has been won.

I’m being a bit unfair: the social worker of Tyler’s Whitshank family, its matriarch Abby, is shown to be a woman whose children feel neglected by her in favour of her “orphans”; the novel doesn’t quite endorse her apparent belief that inviting people to a large meal at which they’re made to feel a bit uncomfortable is some sort of virtue; and, most brutally, the novel afflicts her with dementia, as if to emphasise the process of forgetting in which the entire family is explicitly engaged:

The disappointments seemed to escape the family’s notice, though. That was another of their quirks: they had a talent for pretending that everything was fine. Or maybe it wasn’t a quirk at all. Maybe it was just further proof that the Whitshanks were not remarkable in any way whatsoever. (p. 74)

Which is all well and good – the bizarre stasis bubble in which the novel takes place is part of the point. But that passage is also what is wrong with the novel, as well as explanation of it: that flattening of its contours inherent in the universalisation of what at first seems to be being held as an angular, problematic quality; that breezy tone which appears not to want to hover over or consider anything very deeply; and, of course, the deadening homespun insistence on telling you What The Moral Of The Story Is.

“An outsider might say that these weren’t stories at all,” we read at one point (p. 71), and the novel seems to have a direction – to make us care, but also to complicate the Whistshanks’ own self-obsession. If indeed any of this was imparted in that sort of arch ironic tone of Austen (and Tyler shares a lot else with her, in deceptive complexity of her structures and dogged insistence that the “domestic” isn’t somehow lesser material for the novel), then I’d be fine. But I’m not sure it is: Tyler’s novel has nuances, for sure, but they are details pushed into high relief. Take Denny, the black sheep of the Whitshanks, the only member of the family who lives away from Baltimore, keeping his private life exactly that and refusing to engage in their heartland conservatism of home and work. The novel begins and ends with him, even though he is absent for much of it (as a way, I think, of emphasising that life does exist beyond the Whitshanks’ home); and yet, of course, he is intensely interested in all the most important parts of the family’s life – he’s the guy who points at what we’re meant to notice.

“In my opinion,” Red said, “going to Florida for the winner is kind of like … not paying your dues. Not standing fast for the hard part.”

“Are you calling Baltimore summers the easy part?” Merrick asked. Then, as if to prove her point, she said, “Whew!” and left off petting Heidi to bat a hand in front of her face. “Can somebody turn that fan up a notch?

Stem rose and gave the fan cord a pull.

can see why you might want two houses,” Denny spoke up. “Or even more than two. I get that. I bet sometimes when you wake in the morning you don’t know where you are for a moment, am I right? You’re completely disoriented. […] I love that feeling. […] You don’t know your place in the world; you’re not pegged; you’re not nailed into this one single same old never-ending spot.” (pp. 169-70)

Do you see?

There are a lot of names in the above, no? Red is the pater familias, the crotchety-but-good-hearted proprieter of the family construction firm; Stem is the favoured son, in fact adopted as a boy when his indigent father, a worker of Red’s, died unexpectedly. Merrick is the upwardly-mobile aunt. And so on. Few of these characters emerge from their sketches; they are pegged, as Denny is intended to show, in a family in which 22 is too young to marry if you’re male and too old not to be married if you’re female. And yet this conservatism is never indicated to be the problem, rather encoded into the novel as a whole: the Whitshanks, it holds, are “one of those enviable families that radiate clannishness and togetherness and just … specialness” (p. 19, my emphasis, but not my adjective).

Much of the novel is imparted in flashback – to Red and Abby’s courtship, to the youths of their children and further back to when none of them were born but the house in which they have all spent their lives was being built by Red’s father, Junior, about whose past nothing is otherwise known (“Where he came from was never documented, but the general feeling was that he might have have hailed from the Appalachian Mountains” [p. 52] – of course he did!). The world in which Junior built that house – in 1936 – and fell in love with it, eventually conspiring to “convince” its owners to leave – in 1941 – is tonally identical to the one in which Denny pokes holes in his own dad’s pieties. The policemen are friendly and don’t dig too deeply into Junior’s machinations; the road on which the house is built, Bouton, plays host to family parties on the porch; downtown is a quick drive away, and there are clubs to join and stores to visit for upholstery. It all feels adrift, listless.

In the novel’s defence (see how it needs one?), part of its purpose is to undermine these family myths by in its first half having the family endlessly retell them and, in the second, imparting them in full flashback. And on the level of its sentences and paragraphs, indeed in long passages, it does so beautifully: Tyler writes so apparently effortlessly, so smoothly and wittily, with sensitivity and empathy and all of that, that reading her is a pleasure. But the writing goes nowhere, and the flashbacks aren’t in nearly as much disagreement with the rosy family hagiographies as they would need to be to cast light on that weird stasis the family – and their town – seem to be in. There’s a super example, if I do say so myself, towards the very end of the second half’s long flashback to a vaguely more complicated, and certainly more filled-in, Junior and his slow movement towards moving into that house. Having made all that complicating effort, Tyler reaches the same point that Red reached hundreds of pages before:

Under the shelter of the trees the front of the house didn’t get the morning sun, but that just made the deep, shady porch seem homier. And the honey-gold of the swing, visible now through the balustrade, gladdened Junior’s heart. He had to stop himself from saying to Linne, “See? See how right it looks?” (p. 438)

That is, the interest in A Spool of Blue Thread lies in its prose and its flashbacks; which is also precisely where what is wrong with it can be situated. In other words, it has itself pegged.

“These Queer Enthusiasms”: Sarah Waters’s “The Paying Guests”

51sqHh5h3PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_It is a Very Good Thing that Ali Smith last night won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction: here is a British writer interested in serious innovation of form – something not always associated with the prose writers of these isles. That she does so demotically and entertainingly only makes her win all the more deserved. Smith re-energises the novel without making it inaccessible.

There is, of course, a pejorative usage of “accessible”: “a good read” is so often a euphemism for “a bit slight”. The only novel on the prize shortlist I’ve not yet read is Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, but others have already written “defences” of her more traditional style: “the question of whether Tyler’s work errs too heavily on the side of consolation has lingered, despite (or because of) her immense and loyal readership and high-profile fans such as Nick Hornby and John Updike.” In this context, it is interesting that the another of the shortlist’s more traditionalist authors, Sarah Waters, is conversely so widely fêted that the idea anyone might need to speak up on her behalf is absurd.

“Absolutely brilliant,” wrote Jacqueline Wilson of Waters’s novel, The Paying Guests. “Read it, Flaubert, Zola, and weep,” applauds Charlotte Mendelson. “A joy in every respect,” intones Lionel Shriver. And yet Waters writes old-fashioned novels in many ways, with beginnings and ends and gripping plots, which read quickly despite their often vaguely Victorian girth. The Paying Guests is set in 1922, precisely because, Waters has said, her previous novels have focused on squarely on either the nineteenth century or the 1940s. That is, Waters is a British writer producing novels in a third person limited voice and set in eras not entirely under-served in British culture.

So why is she, too, not tarred with the “accessible” brush? In large part, it’s because Waters’s project is far more subversive than her chosen form makes it appear (and this is part of the project): she queers these classic ages of British history, burrowing under her copious research to imagine the stories of marginalised groups, most particularly lesbian women. Even her novel The Little Stranger, which doesn’t feature an actual lesbian couple at all, is a novel about repression: its first-person narrator hides much from the reader, whilst Caroline, the young woman of the crumbling manor house with whom (which which?) he falls in love, is heavily implied to be closeted. That is, Waters writes terrific yarns which present familiar contexts in familar ways – and then peoples those settings with feelings, perspectives and experiences which are under-represented in the record and in fiction.

The Paying Guests, then, is told from the third-person-limited perspective of Frances, a twenty-five year-old woman eking out the disappointed, disappointing years following World War I in the suburban villa she shares with her mother. They are, like the rather grander country gentry of The Little Stranger thirty years later, struggling for money: her father dead, and economics changing, Frances persuades her mother to take in lodgers in order to supplement their meagre income. The couple who answer the advert, the Barbers, are from Peckham and Walworth rather than Champion Hill: vulgar and jejune to Frances and her mother’s eyes, they fill Mr Wray’s old room with dinky little Buddha statues, and share a little too much of themselves for the landladies, who tuck the weekly rent into their pockets “in a negligent sort of way – as if anyone […] could possibly be deceived into thinking that the money was a mere formality.” [p. 11]

Class and deceit come to be the guiding stars of the novel: throughout, Waters paints in understated but terrifically evocative ways the careful gradations of class struggling to reassert themselves in an England disrupted by war. Men resent the women who have taken their jobs; a clerk like Mr Barber looks down on mere manual workers, amongst whose numbers he would once have certainly sat; Mrs Barber’s clothes are a little too flighty; Mrs Wray’s friend from over the road clearly imagines herself one step above poor old struggling Frances. All of this is more or less unspoken, however, and the manner in which no one quite says what they mean comes to power not just the social whirl – from Walworth dances to Champion Hill soirées – which Waters depicts beautifully, but the scurrilous plot that bubbles underneath the surface.

That plot only really takes full hold of the novel in its final third, and yet the reader never feels played with. In part, this is down to, yes, readability: Waters writes so well that 600 pages simply speeds by. It’s also, however, because she peels back the novel’s layers at precisely the right pace. When we first meet Frances, she seems much older than she is, not a little stuck up and certainly rather grey. As we slowly learn that, during the war, she was a violent suffragette and had a romantic relationship with a fellow suburban bohemian, Christine, we are at first surprised; as her sexual repression becomes evident in her uncomfortable responses to Mr Barber’s proximity, we first think the novel might move one way; when her passion for Christine, and her misplaced fear of her mother become clear (when her new lady lodger cuts and crimps her hair in a contemporary style, Frances is shocked that her mother finds it smart), we are quickly plunged into a slow but compelling blossoming of a relationship with Lillian Barber herself.

Lillian is a good example of the novel’s strength in depth: she is in many ways unknowable. Apparently kind and straightforward, throughout the novel we with Frances worry that she may in fact not be all that she seems – that she may be manipulative or foolish, impetuous or selfish. Frances must learn to trust Lillian, as we must – as everyone who wishes to love must – and this process gives the novel a great deal of its shape prior to its final-third crisis. If anything, I rather preferred the involvingly plotless parts of the novel more: everything happens, and is then wrapped up, rather quickly, and the novel takes on the feeling of the 1920s melodramas which first inspired it. At one point, for example, the lawyer for a wrongly accused defendant announces to the court in which we know the true culprit sits, “the person or persons […] must certainly be looking at these proceedings with very mixed feelings indeed.” [p. 581]  Oh, the tension of irony!

What unites all this is a study of the effects of lies. “The rest of us become narrow and mean when we live falsely,” sighs Frances [p. 302], having spent years denying herself – indeed, hiding even the fact that she has maintained a loose friendship with Christine. Frances goes back and forth between having the courage of this conviction and fearing its logical conclusion, and this terribly human inconsistency is, like everything else in this humane and careful novel, delicately depicted. She and Lillian endlessly debate who is braver, but in point of fact they are brave in different ways: Frances can imagine different ways of living, and Lillian, who lacks that capacity for the bigger picture, nevertheless often takes the action which make them possible. What develops between them, then, is a thoroughly believable – because riven with tension – love affair.

Ultimately, superb characterisation of this sort is a laudably old-fashioned virtue for a novel to exhibit. The Paying Guests is rather unfashionable in this respect: compared with Outline it is fervently traditionalist. That, as I was reading the novel, I could see an argument for it pipping How To Be Both to the Baileys post, says many things – as does the universal acclaim for Waters’s skills as a writer and a storyteller. Hers are novels of huge warmth and heart, but also skill and cunning. Smith’s victory is excellent news for the health of the British novel – but that’s because Smith understands, like Waters (who will surely have her year), that accessibility isn’t a dirty word. Read The Paying Guests, and then read it again … and again.

“In Flight From Her Own Desires”: Laline Paull’s “The Bees”

 I struggle now to remember how, but in my first years of high school I discovered Duncton Wood. I knew of Watership Down only through the cartoon movie of the novel, and the allegorical elements of this first in what would become William Horwood’s six-volume mole series similarly passed me by. I read it, then, as a standalone tale, and I remember being very fond of it: whatever I might make of it now (and I have never re-read it), at the time I was thrilled, surprised, enlightened and immersed. As I proceeded to the sequel novels, however, I became less and less engaged. As Horwood went on, his allegories became ever more obvious, and the mole society increasingly baroque; at he same time, the structure of the story grew slacker and slacker, more and more expending energy upon exposition and scene-setting. I became sceptical.

Perhaps none of this was a characteristic of the real progress of the series; perhaps I was simply developing as a reader as I made my way through the novels. I suggest this now because, as I read Laline Paull’s The Bees I saw many of the flaws I came to see in Horwood. Its place on the Baileys Women’s Prize shortlist is surely down to its remarkable feats of imagination: like Duncton Wood, The Bees conjures an entirely alien civilisation for its chosen species, complete with social strata, religious belief, political division and personal conflicts. That bees are significantly harder than cute little moles to anthropomorphise, and thus to encourage sympathy for them in the reader, makes Paull’s achievement all the greater.

But I’m still left asking a question: what are animal fantasies for? From Aesop’s Fables to Animal Farm, that whiff of allegory is never far from the bouquet of the mode. Predictably, then, in The Bees we experience a fantasy of societal collapse: the hive is in danger, crumbling as a result of environmental pressures beyond the bees’ control. This is grafted onto specific real-world danger, however: these bees are absolutely a part of our own world (an extremely slight frame story features humans), and the decline of bee populations so worried at in recent years is affecting Paull’s particular colony, too (indeed, she offers some of her own explanations for them). This means that the bees in this novel are real bees – victims of events we can identify, resident in our own world – but also a sort of abstraction – human in their confused, doomed attempts to adapt to the natural changes around them.

So what are animal fantasies for? Do they help us understand the other better, or do they help us understand ourselves? Paull might want us to leave her novel believing it can be both – and certainly The Bees attempts to prove its case – but its dual purpose also leads to an uncertainty which can trouble the reader as she makes her way through the novel.

Paull’s protagonist is Flora 717 – all bees are of a particular kin-type (Flora, Sage, Lily) and assigned a number within their clan. Those clans have very strict roles, and Flora is a member of the lowest order, tasked with cleaning the hive. She is also large and exceptionally ugly, and yet despite these impediments she is, upon birth, rapidly saved from immediate execution for abnormalities – the bee society is brutal and violent – by a high priestess of the bee religion, which revolves around worship, of course, of the Queen. Though the Queen, the bees’ faith, and the priestesses become key to the novel’s plot in its second half, Paull never really makes clear if this initial rescue is part of that later narrative. Indeed, the novels’ first and second halves feel quite separate: one focuses on world-building, often dilatory and even when rather beautiful always a little episodic; the second quickly develops into a sort of political thriller.

Nevertheless, saved Flora is and swiftly are we introduced to the novel’s themes: “knowledge only causes pain” [p. 10]; “variation is not the same as deformity” [p. 16]; “that is the seed of it: you wanted” [p. 25]. This is a novel about the interaction between community and individual. It’s also a dystopia: the hive is hell-bent on the collective good, and in its pursuit commits all manner of atrocity against members of the hive. Only foragers – those bees sent out to seek pollen, and who upon their return ‘dance’ the story of what they have experienced to a hive hungry for shared knowledge – are allowed, “in the Air, […] to think for yourselves” [p. 193]. All but the Queen, then, are denied the right to reproduce (though Flora does, in secret, with significant consequences). Bees seen to have pursued their own wants are executed immediately and brutally. And, as we see in one of the most memorable scenes of joyous misandry I may have ever read, each year the male bees produced to leave the hive and found new colonies are, upon their occassionally failed return, massacred by the majority-female hive in an orgy of  sexualised blood-lust (“She ripped his abdomen open down to his genitals, then tore out his penis and ate it” [p. 213).

That is, The Bees is full of evocative and striking writing. It is with this prose that Paull absolutely wins, despite their thorough other-ness, our sympathy for Flora and the other bees – for example, Sir Linden, one of the puffed-up and preening males whom is first worshipped and then turned on by the hive. As the plot picks up pace, the time we have spent learning the bees’ world pays off in our rooting for them. There is a Name of the Rose-ish awakening at work: “She tried to remember which scripture ordained the Sage the power of life and death.” [p. 228] The second half of the novel culminates, like the Duncton Chronicles, in a religious schism out of which we urgently hope for Flora to emerge emancipated: “every girl child is born a worker but it is how we feed her that makes her Queen!” [p. 304]

But here the novel’s unresolved dual purpose tells against it. The reader spends much of The Bees avoiding being bumped out of the text by odd moments in which the bees – these real insects behaving with their royal jelly and hive mind in the ways in which we know our own, depopulated, bees behave – also act as the human analogues the novel insists they must equally be. They open doors and serve pastries, have hands and arms; they take part in debates about the individual and the community. But then, at the novel’s end, they also fly off and form a new hive which we know – because these are bees and bees in the real world do not have religions and political disputes – will be governed in exactly the same despotic, hive-mind, collectivist way as the one Flora has spent a novel fighting against. That is, the novel wants its cake (or pastry) and it also wants to eat it, and in the resulting  imbalance – repeating at every level of the text – it hobbles itself.

When I read Duncton Wood, I understood that its characters were moles, not humans. That the lead antagonist was named Mandrake, and shared this name with the magician from Defenders of the Earth, meant, however, that I imagined one, and only one, of the moles as wearing human dress (the terrifying villain of the piece war a mole-sized top hat). My mind’s eye just  couldn’t help it. But Horwood pitched his animal society in such a way that it didn’t quite matter – these moles resembled our own, but were not. The top hat was absurd, but not fatal to my immersion in the story. The Bees, however, is, for all its arresting moments and the often soaring poetry of its imagination, a little less well-pitched, and, in its attempt to contain both aspects of the animal fantasy, a little – and, yes, I’ll go there – over-pollinated.

“As Though Context Were Also A Kind of Imprisonment”: Rachel Cusk’s “Outline”

 I’ve already reviewed Ali Smith’s How To Be Both in the context of a different awards shortlist, but its place on the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is just as deserved and its chances, it seems to me, are just as strong as for the Booker (which, er, it rather sadly did not win). Rachel Cusk’s Outline, however, gives it a run for its money: it is just as interested in form as Smith’s novel, and at least as supple in its prose. If its first person singular focus doesn’t quite break the perspectival glass ceiling in the way How To Be Both manages, Outline is perhaps more focused and arguably deeper – at least in so far as that can be taken to mean unfathomable.

This difficulty the reader might find in plumbing Outline‘s depths is appropriate for a novel which begins with the narrator taking a flight over water, and includes a lengthy outing on a boat (indeed, the UK paperback edition foregrounds this motif with a blue cover across which ripples proceed outwards from the title). There is an extent to which the word ‘Outline’ represents very well the paring away of context and characterisation from the narrator, a novelist in the aftermath of a marriage breakdown who flies to Greece to teach a creative writing course: Cusk is engaged in a quite radical novelistic project which seeks to render the narrator a cipher, an almost passionless listener who simply imparts the many stories told to her by her various interlocutors (the novel is more or less a series of conversations) without judgement, comment or conclusion. In a typical exchange, an old friend declaims over a lunch served by a waitress he insists on ogling:

And so I learned, he said, that it is impossible to improve things, and that good people are just as responsible for it as bad, and that improvement itself is perhaps a mere personal fantasy […] We are all addicted to it, he said, removing a single mussel from its shell with his trembling fingers and putting it in his mouth, the story of improvement, to the extent that it has commandeered our deepest sense of reality. It has even infected the novel,  though perhaps now the novel is infecting us back again, so that we expect of our lives what we’ve come to expect of our books; but this sense of life as a progression is something I want no more of. [p. 99]

All of this, of course, is intensely metatextual: in not offering judgement, in providing this opinion unadorned, the reader might usually assume the writer was endorsing the point of view, or at least presenting it as a position to be seriously considered; but Outline is also a novel implicitly seeking to prove the narrator’s old friend wrong, and show how the novel might infect be inoculated against the unbeatable virus he describes; by the same token, the novel ends with the disengaged narrator improved, arriving at the classically novelistic epiphany that “if people were silent about the things that had happened to them, was something not being betrayed, even if only the version of themselves that had experienced them?” [p. 245]  That is, nothing in Outline is straight-forward or final. It is a tessellation of perspectives, none crowding out the others.

“Without structure,” muses another of the narrators companions, this one a man she meets on the aeroplane to Athens, “events are unreal.” [p. 24]  He is talking about the curious ways in which he finds each of his series of failed marriages evaporates when the habits that held them together – shared houses, regular conversations – are taken away. But it goes just as much for the ghost-like way in which the narrator drifts through the lives of others, reporting their words and imparting their lives but not becoming part of them and refusing to allow one to dominate her world.  Unlike many novelistic narrators, endlessly and unrealistically curious and prying, this one is tired of being intimately connected with others – she is exhausted by it. At one point, she sits on the edge of a boat and contemplates the sea. “The thread led nowhere, except into ever expanding wastes of anonymity,” she muses of her mooted swim. “Yet this impulse, this desire to be free, was still compelling to me: I still, somehow, believed in it, despite having proved that everything about it was illusory.” [p. 74]  There’s despair in that.

Now, look. Cusk has her weaknesses, and they are well discussed; a sort of humourlessness, a tendency to over-dramatise. And you might argue that, in depicting someone looking at the Aegean and musing about the impossibility of disconnect, Cusk again falls into the trap she habitually sets herself. There’s a lot of that in Outline. But it’s a too-easy criticism of an intelligent writer (particularly an intelligent female writer) to say she lacks jokes. Even if, to reprise the comparison with Smith, How To Be Both manages to be both serious and playful, it is not to Outline‘s discredit that it chooses a different tone. Indeed, the at times exhausting effort of reading a novel in which the narrator does not care is part of its point: here is a novel, perhaps, about depression; and here, too, is also a novel, undoubtedly, about the novel. That is, it is serious becomes its questions are existential.

When the narrator first meets her students, she asks each of them to describe something they observed on the way to the class. This results in a series of personalised exchanges – all described in that same, detached way – which provide an awful lot of fictive matter, but which do not read like fiction:

“This morning” he said, “I was crossing the square opposite my apartment building, on my way to the metro, and I saw on one of the low concrete walls around the square a woman’s handbag. […] But I realised, while I was walking, that I should have taken the bag to a police station.” [p. 135]

That ellipsis of mine omits an entire page of further discourse, and yet the story remains the same: it’s a structure and a narrative, but one without consolation. In part, this is pure distilled Knausgaard (“there is no story of life” [p. 137]), and Cusk knows it. On another level, however, it is Cuskian, at least in so far as it speaks to Outline‘s central experiment: at the end of the class, one student stands up and complains. “She had been told that this was a class about learning to write, something that as far as she was aware involved using your imagination.” [p. 158] Like many of Cusk’s readers (and, you assume she hopes, you yourself), the narrator’s student feels she has been punked: by autobiography, by the absence of the traditional consolations of narrative, by the sheer po-facedness of the whole enterprise.  In fact, you might imagine a smile on Cusks’ face as she wrote this paragraph. You might imagine it’s a joke.

At the end of the novel, a tutor arriving just as the narrator is leaving describes her own failed relationship: “she had become, through him, someone else.” [p. 237] Perhaps tellingly, by this point the narrator has severed her developing ties with the man from the plane, who has so abandoned the idea of the lasting effects of relationships. In transparent, sometimes glacial, prose, Outline has contrived to go on a journey without appearing to move at all. What Outline does is demonstrate, through a narrator without a perspective, how points of view can shift almost totally and yet almost invisibly, and how they do so in interaction with others. Though it at times presents as an anti-novel, it is in fact a champion of the form, finding a startlingly new way to demonstrate its continuing power to depict and, yes, (over-) dramatise human interaction.

“Memories are microscopic”: The Folio, Jenny Offill and Miriam Toews

The shortlist for the Folio Prize 2015, said its chair of judges, sought to show the novel “refreshing itself, reaching out for new shapes and strategies, still discovering what it might be, what it might do”. The winner of the Prize has been announced tonight as Akhil Sharma, and his is one of the shortlist’s three novels I have yet to read; but on reading Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, both superb novels in themselves, you might be forgiven for thinking that the Folio judges have a fairly narrow sense of what the novel might be and do.

Again, that’s not to say either of these books are poor – far from it, both are formidable (and more on this later). On the other hand, both feature a middle-aged female novelist struggling with life at the expense of her art; the narrator is self-recriminating and -critical, placing goodness and kindness and worth in people other than herself, and reflexively wondering why she falls short. Both are also written in that arch, wry, self-conscious sort of tone which I associate with much contemporary North American fiction (and, in all honesty, with the creative writing courses Offill teaches, an occupation she shares with her nameless narrator). Not only that, but Rachel Cusk’s Outline and Ben Lerner’s 10:04 also feature (though I haven’t read them) struggling novelists, and according to reviewers both also tackle this venerable literary conceit in ways designed to nod and wink towards the reader in order to re-fashion what has long been a stock literary situation. Here’s Elaine Blair in the LRB on how 10:04 achieves that:

Author surrogates are more often writerly types than actual writers – academics or journalists if not artists or musicians or something else entirely. We gamely suspend disbelief when the non-novelist turns out to sound like a novelist, though it’s harder for readers today (than, say, in Updike and Bellow’s heyday) not to find the everyman’s lyrical flights distracting and artificial. […] But Lerner’s poet and poet/novelist can shoot straight; their ruminations on matters of art are an important vein of sincerity in his novels. The most cerebral parts give the books substance: not just intellectual substance, but fictional substance – they make Adam and Ben seem real.

deptofspecThis is exactly the approach taken by both Toews and Offill: in the former case, its central pairing of two sisters (the narrator a writer, the other a suicidal concert violinist) constantly trade quotations from Romantic poetry, whilst the latter novel consists of a series of short gobbets, some narratively driven but many drawn from the research and reading undertaken by its narrator, a strung-out novelist, wife and mother who cannot begin, let alone finish, her second book. sa teenager, Toews’s violinist chooses a pseudonym from the same Coleridge poem which gives the novel its title, since Samuel Taylor “would definitely have been her boyfriend if she’d been born when she should have been” [AMPS, pg. 8]; Dept. of Speculation‘s narrator, meanwhile, intends when young to become “an art monster. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella” [DoS, pg. 8]. If the novel is refreshing itself here, it is doing so via great transfusions of the past.

Compared with other novels on the shortlist – most obviously my own tip for the top, Ali Smith’s How To Be Both, but also Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s hauntingly horrific and structurally twisty Dust – it might be fair to say that both Offill and Toews do not challenge themselves to imagine other ways of being: most superficially, these are both semi-autobiographical novels (Toews own sister and father also, sadly, killed themselves, whilst Offill really is a creative writing teacher with a husband and young child who has taken fifteen years to write her second novel); the novel-as-work-of-empathy may or may not be reconfiguring itself in these well-turned pages. Whenever I read novels like this, I think of Richard Milward’s Ten-Storey Love Song, as close as mainstream fiction has come to a novel in form and style separated from literary fiction’s increasingly narrow social echo chamber. The Folio Prize might wonder about that next year. (In its defense, one of last year’s shortlisted works – Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing is, differently but no less fully than Milward, also a novel of a separate social class.)

I don’t, though, think that either of these remarkable novels should fall victim to a backlash which has more to do with the Folio judges’ apparent kink for novelist-narrators. To take the considerable virtues of All My Puny Sorrows first, this story of a woman (the writer-sister, stuck in a rut of children’s fiction and with two divorces behind her and two nearly-grown children in tow), and the struggles and accommodations she makes in her life following first the suicide of her Mennonite father, and then the absolute insistence of her internationally-famous sibling on achieving the same self-annihilation, is a thoroughly sad, and yet consistently funny, novel about not death but love. “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other,” the narrator, Yolandi, says of her sister, Elfreida (or, as everyone knows her in a nod to her trickster-ish ways, Elf). In many ways, this is a novel without a plot: Yoli travels from Toronto to Winnipeg twice, on both occasions to support her mother and Elf’s husband after a suicide attempt; she then sort of kicks her heels a lot, encountering exes or dealing with lawyers; she faces Elf’s request to help her die in Switzerland; she considers writing her literary novel, about a harbourmaster who winds up in Rotterdam having got stuck on a boat he helps out to the open sea as a storm comes in.

This is a book of often gentle humour – “She told me how to say I have a little man when I should have said I’m a bit hungry,” recalls Yoli of Elf’s teenage mischief with Spanish homework – but also of tender poetry – the sisters’ mother is in many ways the hero of the piece, a woman who is initially “a loyal Mennonite wife [… who] didn’t want to upset the apple cart of domestic hierarchy” [pg. 7], but who is at the end of the novel calling Yoli from “somewhere having a burger and watching the game. Extra innings” [pg. 289]. This mixture of wit and sentiment gives the book a warm kind of vinegariness, and even the occasionally meandering structure – at times it feels like this most personal of novels might have been a little shorter, encompassed a little less experience – allows the characters and their relationships to be painted in all their ambivalence, leading to a far more affecting conclusion. On the other hand, it can be cute: those extra innings are a little too obvious in their double meaning. Likewise, Yoli has a “structural problem” with her novel, because she can’t explain why he doesn’t just use someone’s cellphone to ask for a pick-up – but she’s attached to an image of “one person … marooned at sea, helpless, and the other … standing on the shore, hurt and mad” [pg. 200].

ToewsThis sort of pat-ness recurs throughout. At one point, Yoli says she understands another character’s “need to accomplish something, however strange, something with a clear rising action and a successful ending” [pg. 117], and we hear, Lerner-like, the author addressing her audience. This can grate, and, coupled with the novel’s vague bagginess, tells just a little against it. In its depiction of a woman raking over her “younger self, the person I was before I’d become all of these other selves” [pg. 198], however, All My Puny Sorrows is expansive and affecting; it also shares in this vision of a woman’s life as a succession of roles or poses the central conflict of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. The novel is presented in a sort of epistolary form, as a series of short memos-to-self which are often apparent non sequiturs, unconnected to the gobbet before or after, and yet which build with a quite extraordinarily invisible magic into an emotionally powerful depiction of a marriage. It begins with its narrator declaring “ideas about myself. Largely untested” [pg. 7]. Through the course of the novel, life happens – and the testing occurs.

This, of course, is a classic novelistic structure – we might think of Anne Elliot in Persuasion, or of Richardson’s Pamela. In terms of her moral journey, Offill’s narrator, who shares namelessness with every character in this short novel, treads a well-worn path, from youthful assumptions to self-knowledge (the novel’s final line is “No one young knows the name of anything” [pg. 177]). This might make Dept. of Speculation sound a little preachy or self-important, and it’s here that Offill’s structural experimentation really tells: where All My Puny Sorrows can occasionally intrude upon the reader’s reverie, Dept. of Speculation, with its tessellating paragraphs and intellectual fluidity, is entirely open and self-questioning.

In large part, this is down to the novel’s narrator (Toews’s novel, too, derives its best qualities from its brilliantly uncertain protagonist). She is almost painfully self-critical, and rarely allows herself the benefit of even the slightest doubt. This provides the novel with some serious emotional complexity: “Is she a good baby? People would ask me. Well, no, I’d say” [pg. 30] the narrator relates at one point, in a typical show of her antipathy for the child who changes her life; and yet she also exhibits so strong an attraction to her daughter that she thrills when her daughter insists “she will not go to college if that means she must go away from me” [pg. 91]. This facing-both-ways, this aliveness-to-complexity, means that each missive of every chapter cannot be taken to mean only one thing – simply in its very function in the story-structure of the novel, every paragraph works in many ways, sounds at many levels. A snippet of Wittgenstein or a memory of the narrator meeting her husband, when he was just her boyfriend, at a train station after a long time apart – every entry in this curious kind of pseudo-diary speaks to itself, to something else, and to something other.

The narrator attends great parties. She meets an artist whose work is in the MoMA permanent collection (incidentally, Yoli and her mother visit MoMA towards the end of their novel); her best friend is a philosophy professor; she gets a job ghost-writing a book about the space programme for a billionaire. She lives, that is, what many would see to be a gilded life. And yet her vision of herself – her shock at how “some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits” [pg. 92] – is violently expressed on one page, which reads in its entirety soscaredsoscaredsoscared, repeating until the bottom margin. Her delicate state of mind is indicated only subtlety – when her husband has an affair, the narrator takes to referring to herself not as “I”, but “the wife”, signalling increasing disassociation – and she holds a persistent view that “the most charismatic people […] were that way because they had somehow managed to keep a bit of […] light [… but] that the natural order was for this light to vanish” [pg. 30]. She seems unable for a long time to experience her life as reality rather than an interruption; in some ways, this is a novel for an ageing Generation X. At one point, you will excuse me, her daughter has an X-ray: “Here is the bone,” the narrator almost sighs, “shot through with emptiness.” [pg. 76]

In begruding balance, what Dept. of Speculation, which I cannot recommend enough, lacks a little is All My Puny Sorrows‘ humour, its lightness, its countervailing tendency; but there is black humour here, and also, in those gobbets where the moment is grabbed, something approaching transcendence. In this it shares much more with Toews’s novel beyond the upper-middle-class setting or novelistic protagonists which the Folio judges so admire. “Darwin theorized that there was something left over after sexual attractiveness had served its purpose and compelled us to mate,” the narrator observes many years into her marriage. “This he called ‘beauty’ and he thought it might be what drives the human animal to make art” [pg. 103].

“The Devil’s Pet Baits”

We’re excited to announce that, in the year of the publication by Anthony Horowitz of a large section of Professor Moriarty’s long-lost personal papers, this blog has been granted access to a much shorter, and much earlier, passage from the Napoleon of Crime’s private journals. It is dated December 27th, 1887, and begins in what appears to be the form of a letter. There is no record of it ever being delivered.


Your insouciance is intolerable. As twin poles in the invisible tug of war at the heart of London’s seething underworld, here we have both been, engaged in an absurd chase across the metropolis in search of some poultry. I have followed you, and you have stalked me; we have competed for the crop of a goose, and it is you that have taken home the game. Yet the manner – the arrogance! – of your victory seems calculated to insult, to claim a kind of superiority you may feel but certainly have not won in so trifling a moment. I cannot abide such theatrics. They are the weakest mark of your often admirable character.

For instance, I find your capacity for manipulation remarkable. I confess to a regard for the extent to which you are able to feign unconcern, particularly to even your closest friend. I saw the under-informed chronicler of your exploits enter your rooms on the second morning after Christmas, and I saw him leave; not a trace was there upon his countenance of the grave concern he should have felt. From my cab I had seen that infernal commissionaire rush into Baker Street. I knew what he had in his pockets – my own agents had narrowly missed him at home (the reward he may still share with you will barely pay for the damage to his belongings effected by my men as they searched fruitlessly for the Countess of Morcar’s stone).

You also knew – yes, Moran had seen you near the Hotel Cosmopolitan on the day of the theft -that my network was bent upon liberating the blue carbuncle from that venal aristocrat; you knew, like me, that her possession of it was the result of only the latest in the long line of misdeeds which have characterised the passage of its value between human hands. And you knew, but have shared with no one, that my possession of the stone would have funded many more of my activities – which you so doggedly attempt to frustrate. This contest between you and I which you so thoroughly keep from your literary doctor remains secret to both our advantages – but rarely have you caused me more bother than in this, one of my potentially most lucrative single affairs. Your pace, perhaps, picks up.

Your newspaper advertisement in search of the man who had originally intended to eat the goose in which your commissionaire had found that stone was a wonderful ruse, and of course it occurred to me that, in order to be led to the source of that goose, all I need do was follow you. The bird had disappeared from my own view, too. I should not, in hindsight, have entrusted any moment of the carbuncle’s existence to that fool Ryder. His role in the operation should have remained within the confines of the Countess’s  hotel. My mistake was to assign him the role of carrying the stone from the Cosmopolitan to an agent in Twickenham the following day. His fear of me was so great that he did not reveal my role even when you bullied him so mercilessly in your rooms; I thought it would also be so great to ensure his competence. His bizarre decision to place that stone in a goose is proof enough that even my intellect can at times slip from grace.

I stalked you, then, through Covent Garden market during your search for the source of Ryder’s goose. You – and therefore we – were so close, and at any time I might have successfully overtaken you, fatally for you or otherwise, and skipped ahead a step to the stone … but how might I have accounted for the absurd coincidence of your almost bumping into the rat-faced Ryder himself? Even then, I waited outside your rooms, sure you would call Lestrade or some other of Scotland Yard’s useful idiots, and assumed that the stone, once in the police’s possession, would soon again be mine – a constable on duty is easily paid to be in dereliction of it. Of course, you guessed this. Ryder fled your rooms a free man, the terror which propelled him more of me than of the gallows, and I understand he is already bound for Australia; the stone, meanwhile, remained in your rooms, and in your strong-box. The Countess will reclaim it tomorrow directly from you, and be more vigilant of me than ever (as so she should – for the last time we clashed she almost paid with her life).

There will be no weak link in your chain this time, no chink in the armour of another of your neat solutions. I am, in our shared adventure of the blue carbuncle, undone – and you may pose as the noble fount of festive charity, rather than the sly, deceitful nemesis of an adversary you seek to thwart with every move.

Perhaps one day you will have to admit the truth. Until then, there is only one thing left for me to say.

Merry Christmas, Mr Sherlock Holmes.

Professor James Moriarty



“How Will You Love, If You Fear So Much?” Neel Mukherjee’s “The Lives of Others”

The Lives Of OthersFor the second year running, the Booker Prize has recognised a novel featuring a Naxalite as a protagonist. Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others takes place in the late-1960s, at the birth of the radical Indian Maoist movement, charting the rise and dispersal of a west Bengali family through years of intense but not always overt social conflict. Last year’s The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri, covered similar ground: family epics with a radical at its centre, the novels’ primary structural differences lie in the figure of the revolutionary himself – in Lahiri’s novel, the Naxalite dies early on but his legacy penetrates deep into the future, whereas in The Lives of Others he is granted a narrative strand of his own – and also and more importantly in the approach to time taken by the two authors.

Lahiri made often violent use of the ellipsis. This necessitated in the novel’s first third a profusion of exposition and backstory. Mukherjee’s novel is much fatter and much slower: it takes its time to build up detail and depth, and though its own forty or fifty years proceed from 1967 backwards, unlike Lahiri’s more contemporary work, its own gaps and omissions work not against the flow of the narrative but in its favour: a missing child or unmarried daughter, a broken marriage or a failing paper mill, seem at first to be simple facts of life, but the delicate flashbacks – never explicit, never showy – serve to fill in, rather than draw attention to, the gaps. This makes it, perhaps, a less frustrating novel – but not always, I think, as successful a one.

The reason for this apparently paradoxical situation, it seems to me, is the novel’s totalising project. Its focus is the Ghosh family, a tribe of well-to-do north Calcutta paper magnates, heirs to the self-made fortune of patriarch Prafullanath (born, according to the family tree – for there is one here, along with a map – in 1898). Fairly early on, it’s plain that the Ghoshes are intended to operate as Indian society writ small, or at least the creaky, shaky elements of Indian society, its inegalitarian impulses and unequal distributions. The Ghoshes are a conservative family, nostalgic for the past and wary of change. At the dawn of Independence, for instance, Prafullanath groans: “Gandhi … wearing his louncloth and walking barefoot – all this unbearable rubbish!” [pg. 239]   The deadening system Prafullanath represents is seen to be self-perpetuating, accepting by those most oppressed by it. For example, the widow of Prafullanath’s dead son is forced to live little better than one of the family’s barely-visible servants, stowed along with her two children ‘below stairs’: one granddaughter has never “thought this set-up to be unfair, in the sense of assigning it that particular term and being consequently moved along the path of enquiry on causes and reasons.” pg. 18]   It is precisely this despair that another grandchild, Supratik, runs away with the Naxalites to overturn.

It is all, then, allegory: “the family is the primary unit of exploitation”, Supratik insists at one point [pg. 79], and it’s never a position against which the novel really stands. Its interests are too squarely in mapping the Ghosh family’s fate onto India’s. One of the first adult emotions experienced by one of the favoured granddaughters, after all, is desire, in her case for a sparkly pencil case; the acquisitive drive first of Prafullanath and then his favoured son, Adinath, is seen to power their mistreatment of workers at their paper mills, and their distrust for positive social change which will nevertheless impact negatively upon their ageing business models. (“Why did words such as “sufficient” or “enough” have no meaning, no traction in our lives?” [pg. 99]  From the frustrated Chhaya, too dark-skinned to win a groom and in any case in some form of love with her beta-male brother, Priyonath (himself a repressed coprophiliac), to the defeated poet Bholonath, each of the children whom Prafullanath leaves almost entirely to his reactionary wife, Charubala, are in one manner or another undone by the suffocating atmosphere, its strangled will to power, within the household.

Like India in 1967, then, the Ghosh family is at war with itself. Yet what to Mukherjee is necessary analogy also sits side-by-side with his novel’s other theme, the one from which it derives its hope: that families are also the one place where we can best learn to know the other. The ill-fated fifth child, Sona, appears to experience some form of autism, and at one point, whilst enjoying one of the many equations to which he sets himself, he “lets out an exultant cry, part one note laugh, part shout – his magic number, his old friend, his saviour on the winged horse: one.” [pg. 205]  In Mukherjee’s novel, one is not a propitious number. As its title suggests, what The Lives of Others is most interested in is promoting understanding, and in its many pages of scene-setting it absolutely conjures its world, allowing the reader at least to enter very much into the heads of its characters – each of whom are distinct whilst also being identifiably related. Bhola often experiences “the gap between feelings and their articulation in language” [pg. 141], and it is this chasm, bridgeable only with a sort of honesty and frankness unwelcome in the repressed confines of the Ghoshes’ home, that Mukherjee’s novel taken as a whole seeks to bridge: that is, he takes a broken society, and a broken family, and seeks in depicting the ways in which both are defective to propose the fix.

This is an ambitious and elegant trick for a novel to pull off, and in the novel’s closing stages – which I won’t spoil here, but which alternate, like the rest of the book, between a third-person omniscient, time-unstuck narrative of the Ghosh family, and a much tighter, first-person chronicle of Supratik’s adventures in rural radicalisation – the pace doesn’t so much pick up as begin to proceed in a rhythmic pattern that is not predictable but does offer momentum. Undoubtedly The Lives of Others is completely conceived. I can’t help but feel, though, that it might have benefitted from some of the occassionally over-ruthless editing found in the Lahiri. If last year she went too far, perhaps this year Mukherjee hasn’t gone far enough.

That Goldilocks note seems a good one on which to segue into the prediction game. It seems to me that the three big novels on this year’s shortlist are Smith’s, Flanagan’s and Jacobson’s. Of those, perhaps as a function of my having had longer to do so, it is the latter which has led me most to thought having read it. On the other, Jacobson’s is so personal a vision that it might alienate enough others to preclude it from the prize. I more or less decided between Smith and Flanagan in my review of the Australian novel: How To Be Both feels, appropriately simultaneously, ambitious and playful enough to achieve something really remarkable whilst also covering a breadth of mood. For me, therefore, it is Ali Smith who should win the gong.