“Talk About A Lost Cause”: Tricia Sullivan’s “Occupy Me”

Proceeding more or less at random along the 2017 Athur C Clarke Award shortlist, Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me follows Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad with in most ways something of a jolt. In particular, it feels like a going-backwards: Whitehead’s book feels so on the bubble of the zeitgeist that its very existence seems improbable; Sullivan’s, from its title onwards, reads as just slightly behind the curve. Squatting in Wall Street or outside St Paul’s feels so very 2011 – and events have moved with such ferocious speed in the last half-decade that, especially for a work of science fiction, that historical moment already feels weirdly distant.

At the same time, the style and voice of Occupy Me feels familiar to anyone who read British science fiction in the first decade of the twenty-first century. I was taken to task on Twitter by m’learned friend Niall Harrison for suggesting in my last post that this year’s Clarke had occassioned more than the usual level of controversy. I’m happy to yield to him on the basis that measuring controversy is as a science controversial; but he agreed with me that this year’s spat was unusual at least in its ratio of heat to light. One such aspect of all this has been an argument about what the Clarke should reward; Occupy Me certainly resembles, in a faded kind of way, some of the Clarke’s greatest hits and unluckiest runners-up.

The novel focuses on Pearl, an “angel” working with the Resistance, a sort of dispersed network of do-gooders who somehow carefully select individuals on whom to bestow acts of small but transformative kindness. Pearl has wings, and a body that can extend physically and in more than three dimensions. She has no memory of her origins, and the Resistance is quickly ushered from centre-stage even as it becomes clear that it is connected in some way to an oil tycoon’s apparent murder at the hands of his personal physician, a native of a nation his company destroyed in its search for fuel to burn; the doctor, we know, is being in turn controlled by a presence able to lurk and then direct his consciousness.

In its politics – “you can’t even imagine a world where the powerful don’t determine everyone’s fate by thuggery and domination” [p. 236] – Occupy Me recalls Charles Stross, and most obviously, in its thriller structure and rapid pace, his Rule 34 [2011], which was nominated for the Clarke Award. In its albeit limited exploration of a near-future England, it recalls Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love (2003), which was nominated for and won the Clarke Award; and in its consideration of physicality and gender it has some echoes of the work of Justina Robson, who has been twice nominated – once in 2000 and again in 2002. Primarily and most prominently, however, Sullivan – herself a former winner of the award, in 1999 for Dreaming in Smoke – recalls M John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract Trilogy, the second volume of which won the Clarke in 2007. You may be detecting a theme.

Occupy Me is, like Harrison’s series, a quantum novel. It begins with instructions for the use of a “waveform launcher”, and the reader struggles to understand what one of these is throughout the course of the narrative. It manifests itself in the form of a briefcase, is in reality a sort of amputated organ of Pearl’s, and powers the extended chase sequence which forms the spine of Sullivan’s plot. Ultimately, we learn that it was built by a race of scavengers, who are fleeing a catastrophe that destroyed their civilisation (this is at one point awkwardly referred to as a “cosmic credit crunch”), and who, in a surely deliberate nod, physically resemble the Shrander from Harrison’s first Kefahuchi novel, Light (2002) – or, indeed, the garuda of China Miéville’s Clarke-winning Perdido Street Station (2000). Here they are on the nature of their McGuffin:

-It contains waveforms we have scanned up and down the length and breadth of time. Snapshots of things that were coming to an end. Back before the Event isolated us, we recorded them.

What kind of things?

-Many kinds. Of course species. But also languages are gone. Cultures are gone. Skills, habits, ways of knowing. Ecosystems are gone. [p. 215]

In other words, the creatures are trying to save those kinds of thing which capitalism – at least as embodied by that apparently murdered oil tycoon, who has in fact been stuffed and stowed into the briefcase – currently destroys on our own planet. But, we come to see, the scavengers’ solution is partial, since it is no less commodifying than the capitalist urge: “When you take the waveform of a person […] you also take their attachments [… T]here is a severance that can never be repaired” [p. 217]. As Pearl finds herself collapsing between various quantum states, and learning about the Immanence, a pre-civilisational intelligence that has left its traces throughout reality and across time, she comes to understand, like the serial-killer scientist Michael Kearney in Light before her, that the schlock genre novel she is a part of is in fact rather grander and rarer than it seems.

I was reminded as I read Occupy Me of a 2007 essay in the critical journal Foundation. Writen by that sage of the Gothic, Professor David Punter, it argued that Light held out the possibility of “a key to all mysteries”: “we at last see, writ large, a modern, or perhaps postmodern, trope: one might see the Kefahuchi Tract precisely as the end, or beginning, of all master-narratives” [Foundation, 36:99, p. 86]. In Sullivan’s novels, the Immanence performs a similar function: it’s möbius-strip embrace, punching through time and space as it does, lies at both the beginning and end of not just the novel’s story, but it’s entire univere’s. Primordial soup and dinosaurs feature, and so do space stations, and the collapse of stars. Occupy Me aims at a totality.

The novel comes to us, however, at the raggedy finish of the tail-end of the “British boom” bell curve – and reads like it. Partly, this is a question of freshness, of the difficulty of being novel when too many ideas compete for too little space: few of Sullivan’s ideas have not been dealt with more fully elsewhere. Partly, it’s a question of control – the novel feels regularly as if it is about to shake loose of its moorings, and while in some hands and in some contexts this can be exciting in Sullivan’s and in this novel it is only unnerving. Though the book begins with a document insert – that instruction pamphlet – this technique evaporates even more rapidly than the Resistance; and, though its thriller structure provides a clear through-line, the novel’s pacing is bumpy as it proceeds from a bravely pyrotechnic opening through an extended chase and on into a more ontological final third. There are odd disjunctions of tone, too, as Sullivan’s thinly sketched near future UK comes to lack the ballast necessary to hold its own against the asteroid belts and prehistoric swamps of Pearl’s quantum-hopping: at one point, the angel’s ally, the likeable and redoubtable Scottish veterinarian Alison,  bathetically saves the day by growling, as if suddenly pastiching a 1970s conspiracy romp, “if I don’t return safely in forty-eight hours all of this will be released to the press” [p. 224]. In a novel which also features a chapter entitled “Dino battle BOOM”, this chimes oddly.

There’s a lot in this novel – about commodification, and how one may do good in an itemised world, and what is and is not worth saving, anyway – but I’m not sure Sullivan is successful in finding the right frame, the right vehicle, for all this. Occupy Me is an awkward novel, and I couldn’t shake the sense that part of this gawkiness is a bashfulness in the face of the anxiety of influence. If the question at the heart of this year’s Clarke kerfuffles is “what sort of books should the award be recognising?”, then Occupy Me is trying to be precisely that kind of book – or at least exemplifies the sort of book that once reliably appeared in its shortlists. That, despite its lineage, its worthiness and its wisdom, it feels a little hackneyed and cannot quite cohere suggests why there is an argument that the Clarke, like SF itself, has moved on.

“They Stay Broke”: Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”

In a recent piece in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik bemoans that the American Revolution ever happened.

What if all this was a terrible idea, and what if the injustices and madness of American life since then have occurred not in spite of the virtues of the Founding Fathers but because of them? The Revolution, this argument might run, was a needless and brutal bit of slaveholders’ panic mixed with Enlightenment argle-bargle, producing a country that was always marked for violence and disruption and demagogy. Look north to Canada, or south to Australia, and you will see different possibilities of peaceful evolution away from Britain, toward sane and whole, more equitable and less sanguinary countries. No revolution, and slavery might have ended, as it did elsewhere in the British Empire, more peacefully and sooner. No “peculiar institution,” no hideous Civil War and appalling aftermath.

As an alternative history this is interesting, if in need of more world-building. But as an examination of what ails the America we have, it is properly compelling:

Over the years, we have seen how hard it is to detach Americans from even the obviously fallacious parts of that elementary-school saga—the absurd rendering of Reconstruction, with its Northern carpetbaggers and local scalawags descending on a defenseless South, was still taught in the sixties. It was only in recent decades that schools cautiously began to relay the truth of the eighteen-seventies—of gradual and shameful Northern acquiescence in the terrorist imposition of apartheid on a post-slavery population.

Much ink, digital and actual, has been spilled in recent years over the question of why slave narratives have once again found themselves at the forefront of the contemporary popular consciousness. One reason must surely be that a new generation is finding that it must once again discover this past for itself. That some of these narratives – most notably Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years A Slave – come from outside America suggests even more strongly that the amnesiac republic is in need of a reminder of the missteps of its past (so, too, of course does the election of one Donald J. Trump, who lionises Andrew “Trail of Tears” Jackson). From the in some ways surprisingly successful remake of Roots to the delirious Django Unchained, America is being asked again to look itself in the eye.

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is an alternative history of its own – strictly speaking, given its structure and allegorical world-building (about which more shortly) it in fact has several alternative histories. Like those other narratives, it focuses on one particular individual – in Whitehead’s case Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation in a period we assume ultimately unnecessarily to be somewhere around the 1850s – and as in those other narratives the reader’s tender constitution is not spared. Cora sees and experiences rapes and executions, psychological torment and intimate betrayals. Her family is torn asunder, her friends taken away; her existence is unbearable at worst and terrifyingly precarious at best, dictated by the capricious whims of white supremacists who most often deny her very humanity. The first section of this book is terrifically good at painting the totalitarian untenability of the slave’s life: “Sometimes such an experience bound one person to another; just as often the shame of one’s powerlessness made all witnesses into enemies” [p. 15].

The trauma of slavery is writ large in the book: for example, Cora comes to hate even her own mother, who escaped the plantation when Cora was a child and never returned. “Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery,” intones one character late in the novel. “We can’t. Its scars will never fade” [p. 285]. The novel’s structure enables Whitehead to depict the multi-faceted indelibility of slavery: the underground railroad of the novel’s title is a literal subterranean railway which plunges its passengers into total darkness (and structural ellipses) before depositing them in a wholly new mise en scene. In this way, Whitehead carries Cora northwards  from a plantation of the kind we are familiar with from Roots – red-headed Irish overseers, amputated feet, bitter and brutal masters – to a South Carolina where, counter-historically, slave-owning has been abolished and the whole exponentially growing population of slaves purchased by a fearful state (“with strategic sterilization […] we could free them from bondage without fear that they’d butcher us in our sleep” [p. 122]); from there she proceeds to a North Carolina from which all “negroes” have been deported (“In effect, they abolished slavery … On the contrary, we abolished niggers” [p. 165]), and to a ruined Tennessee blighted by disease and famine (“They sat on what was once Cherokee land […] and if the Indians hadn’t learned by then that the white man’s treaties were entirely worthless […] they deserved what they got” [p. 204].

In other words, Whitehead’s novel takes the reader on a tour of the various iterations of American racism. As this becomes clear – as Cora is asked to be a living exhibit in a museum which renders slavery as Gone With The Wind did, or as she comes to realise she is not welcome in a segregated town – the reader might begin to search for real-world analogues. In Indiana, Cora falls in with a community of free blacks and runaways, whose leadership seems divided between a character called Mingo and another called Lander, whose philosophies more or less map with those of Booker T Washington and Frederick Douglass respectively; another character poses as a slave hunter under the name “James Olney”, who in our reality was an academic noted for his work on slave oral histories. In one of the mini-chapters that separate Cora’s various episodes, we are told of an elderly white woman that, “Slavery as a moral issue never interested Ethel. If God had not meant for Africans to be enslaved, they wouldn’t be in chains” [p. 195]. The maddening circularity of this logic fuels each of these picaresque vignettes of which Cora becomes; but there comes a point toward this stop-start novel’s end where the reader begins to wonder if it matters that there is a skyscraper in South Carolina, or that Valentine Farm, an all-black community where Cora finds brief respite, seems in turn to have no real-world analogue. In other words, the novel’s episodes never quite cohere.

Fortunately, Whitehead gives us a lens through which to view all this. I’m writing about The Underground Railroad as part of my project to review all six novels on the shortlist for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award, a gong doled out to “the best science fiction novel published in the UK during the previous year”. There has been more than the usual controversy surrounding the award this year – and I may come to that in future posts – but at least some of it has been attached to a debate over whether The Underground Railroad is even science fiction. One way you may wish to decide that question is in how you feel about one of Whitehead’s clear influences, one so strong that he has Cora read it in the course of his novel: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Adam Roberts argues in his The History of Science Fiction for Swift’s work to be included in a very long lineage of SF which he drags back to Lucian (Roberts, p. 92); on the basis of this influence, The Underground Railroad should indeed be seen as part of the science fictional tradition. But I have sympathy for Brian Aldiss’s rather hoarier position in Billion-Year Spree (which Roberts dismisses a tad airily by not pointing out that the two are not mutually exclusive) that the intention of Gulliver’s Travels is satirical rather than speculative (Aldiss, p. 81). Bear with me here, for below I quote the section of the novel that most fully explains its central novum, that deeply-dug track:

Caesar could scarcely speak. “How far does the the tunnel extend?”

Lumbly shrugged. “Far enough for you.”

“It must have taken years.”

“More than you know. Solving the problem of ventilation, that took a bit of time.”

“Who built it?”

“Who builds anything in this country?”

Cora saw that Lumbly relished their astonishment. This was not his first performance.

Caesar said, “But how?”

“With their hands, how else?” [p. 67]

This, dear reader, is fantasy, not science fiction. Swift’s satirical motivation is also Whitehead’s, and consequently so is not just his genre but his form: to judge The Underground Railroad as a novel, and to criticise it for its lack of coherence, is to misunderstand its purpose. Gulliver’s Travels, too, is episodic and improbable (and critics therefore argue that it is and is not a novel, just as they debate whether it is or is not SF); the worlds Gulliver describes could not possibly exist together within the same reality, just as those to which Cora travels could not. That kind of coherence is not Swift’s point, and nor is it Whitehead’s. The Underground Railroad is rather a dark picaresque, a satirical epic. Its real-world analogues exist as hooks or hints rather than as keys to be slotted into thematic locks; it is a story of moral purpose more concerned with ethics than aesthetics.

Last year, Paul Beatty – whose own slave narrative, The Sellout, in which a contemporary African-American reinstituted slavery in a suburb of Los Angeles, won the Booker Prize – rejected the idea of being a satirist. “I mean, what is satire?” he asked in the Paris Review. “Do you remember that New Yorker cover that everyone was saying was satire? Barack and Michelle fist-bumping? That’s not satire to me. It was just a commentary. Just poking fun at somebody doesn’t make something satire.” On this basis, The Sellout is certainly not a satire, but The Underground Railroad and Gulliver’s Travels may well be: that is, they both know their target and their own countervailing virtues. The Sellout, on the other hand, is less confident in the concept of virtue, and in so doing becomes what I called an “absurdist parable”, broader and more conflicted and comprehensive – it becomes a novel. The Underground Railroad takes a different track.

In part precisely because it shrugs off these formal chains just as Cora escapes her literal ones, Whitehead’s narrative is compelling and essential. It is written beautifully, unshowily but tremendously skilfully; it is pungent and sometimes cruel, whilst also being extremely accessible and queasily entertaining. Ultimately, it is even hopeful: “The underground railroad is bigger than its operators […] It goes everywhere, to places we know and those we don’t. We got this tunnel right here, running beneath us, and no one knows where it leads. If we keep the railroad running, and none of us can figure it out, maybe you can” [p. 267].  In the context of the Clarke, it may be neither a novel or science fiction (or it may be both); but in the more important context of posterity, it is hard to see The Underground Railroad as anything but a text which generations hence, perhaps embarked on their own quest of education and rediscovery, will return to. Read it.

 

“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.

“If The Well Is Poisoned”: Graeme Macrae Burnet’s “His Bloody Project”

His Bloody ProjectIn response to my review of Eileen, I was directed on Twitter to an interview with Ottessa Moshfegh in the Guardian. In it, she offered her thoughts on the interaction between crime fiction and her latest novel: “most people who pick up a book labelled ‘thriller’ or ‘mystery’ may not be expecting to confront troubling ideas about women in society.” This has raised eyebrows from a genre that has in truth done rather a lot of work in this regard: isn’t it remarkable that a literary author is rewarded with a place on the Booker shortlist for appropriating not just a generic mode, but the very work it has done in the areas that the self-same author chooses to disparage?

Well, perhaps Graeme Macrae Burnet can help. His Bloody Project has won its place on the shortlist whilst also being actually marketed as a crime novel. That is, this is no literary jeu d’esprit, no smash n’ grab raid on a genre from which it would prefer to maintain a snooty distance. It is a gritty, often graphic novel set in 1869, and the triple murder which is its focus takes place in the small hamlet of Culduie in the Highlands. From the novel’s first page, we are under no doubt of the perpetrator: Roderick Macrae, a seventeen-year-old crofter’s son, makes no bones of his culpability. The novel, however, very much does.

His Bloody Project is, if you like, a whydunnit, a crime novel which locates its mystery not in the mechanics of a murder but its metaphysics – it is obsessed with morality and mores, with the reasons that Roderick Macrae becomes a murderer, rather than with how he endeavours to get away with it. In other words, “what is at issue are not the facts of the case, but the contents of the perpetrator’s mind” [p. 250]. But take a look at the page number in those brackets: this is a 280-page novel which opens with the contention that “the evidence of his deeds does not speak of a sound mind” [p. 9], and so near its close is still circling the same subject is a curious beast.

The novel comprises several sections, made up of fictional documents the author pretends to have discovered in the archives. The longest of these is the testament of Macrae himself, supposedly composed at his advocate’s urging in the dank of an Inverness cell. This is easily the best part of the novel – it captures wonderfully the voice of a young man both keenly intelligent and horribly naive, with impressive powers of comprehension but little self-awareness. It also introduces the reader in mulchy detail to a crofting community, presenting not just the feudalism which powers it but the mindsets which prolong it. When Roderick’s father finally breaks under the ceaseless harassment of Culduie’s constable, Lachlan Broad, and complains to the laird’s administrator, he is given a lecture on the way of the world:

You are labouring under a misapprehension, Mr Macrae. […] If you do not take the crops from your neighbour’s land, it is not because a regulation forbids it. You do not steal his crops, because it would be wrong to do so. The reason you may not “see” the regulations is because there are no regulations, at least not in the way you seem to think. You might as well ask to see the air we breathe. Of course, there are regulations, but you cannot see them. The regulations exist because we all accept that they exist and without them there would be anarchy. It is for the village constable to interpret these regulations and to enforce them at his discretion. [p. 102]

That our modern state, and the Glasgow that exists in the world of the novel as an unimaginably distant separate planet of opportunity and luxury, are instead governed by written laws and codes ultimately makes very little difference in the course of the novel, and it’s here that its circularity finds its intended profundity. “We have heard, as we should, a great deal of discussion of the motives for these wicked crimes,” summarises a judge at the close of the novel, “but having been pronounced guilty, these motives are of no consequence” [p. 274].   In other words, once we agree that a thing is the case, all detail – any further demand for corroboration – is extraneous.

His Bloody Project thus bombards us with detail. In doing so, however, it abandons confidence in itself. In the section which purports to be Macrae’s testimony, it is quite possible to read all the devilish details between the lines: the young man’s dangerous mix of precociousness and innocence, the disconnect between his understandings and the world of the doctors and lawyers he encounters at the prison; those events in the village which conspire to create the circumstances for the triple murder he commits but which remain more or less invisible to him. Despite this skilful writing, the rest of the novel – and ultimately its bulk – is made up of witness statements rather too cute in their disagreements (“John Macrae is among the most devoted to scripture in his parish,” insists the village minister on page ten, and immediately on page eleven the schoolmaster insists he was “a reticent and slow-witted individual”); of a fictional work by a historical criminologist (“was it happenstance that put a croman in your hand?” [p. 171]); and, most difficult of all, of a recreation of the trial supposedly drawn from newspaper reports and court records (“The Clerk of the Court then read the indictment” and so on [p. 191]). These sections make explicit all the subtlety of Macrae’s testimony, but adds very little – indeed, rather detracts – from the plaintive mood of the novel, the cleverness of its characterisation and even the authenticity of its mise en scene.

Ultimately, in adding all this extra material, Burnet inevitably comes to focus on process as much as personality – and in so doing renders his novel a little less exciting than it might otherwise have been. It’s unreliable narrator recedes, hemmed in as by the walls of his cell by the paper combats that surround him. Perhaps that’s the point; but, just as Eileen felt less unusual that it believed itself to be, so His Bloody Project comes to read rather more like all those otheir ambiguous courtroom dramas you’ve read or watched.  At one point, Roderick listens to his advocate speak at length about the case, and concludes that “in his mania to employ his great cleverness he quite disregarded the most obvious fact” [p. 85]. Like Sinclair, Burnet had the kernel of a compelling narrative; and like Macrae’s advocate, it could be argued he over-embellished it.

That said, His Bloody Project remains a memorable, and pungent, read: its commitment in particular to the Highlands setting, and the opportunities this affords to make some interesting arguments about class and justice, give it a currency quite beyond its structural hiccups. “Why do such [bad] things happen?” one character asks of Roderick long before he becomes a murderer. “I hesitated for a moment,” he remembers, “and then said, ‘I would say that they happen for no reason'” [pp. 87-8]. He’s wrong, though not for the reasons he or we might first think; and the novel shows us – as well as sometimes less effectively telling us – why.