Books, sherlock holmes

On Peace at Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas, everyone.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, the rabble could. The rabble would.

He would lead the rabble in managing.

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Angry All The Time”: Fiona Mozley’s “Elmet”

Throughout my reading of Elmet, a debut novel which has been a surprise inclusion on the 2017 Booker Prize shortlist, I had a nagging feeling that I’d read it before. This felt odd, because in some ways, most obviously in its scenes of violence and revenge, Elmet is unusual and singular – its climactic scene will stay vividly with me for some time. This vividness is probably what secured its place on the shortlist – some of its scenes possess a sharpness, a stickiness, which simply outmatch anything in some of the shortlist’s high-profile omissions, such as Zadie Smith’s Swing Time.

But still it felt familiar. Most obviously, Elmet was the subject of a series of poems by Ted Hughes, and this novel’s author, Fiona Mozley, includes an epigram from that work in tribute. She doesn’t include the following passage, although it ultimately explains her entire novel for us:

The Calder valley, west of Halifax, was the last ditch of Elmet, the last British Celtic kingdom to fall to the Angles. For centuries it was considered a more or less uninhabitable wilderness, a notorious refuge for criminals, a hide-out for refugees. Then in the early 1800s it became the cradle for the Industrial Revolution in textiles, and the upper Calder became ‘the hardest-worked river in England’. Throughout my lifetime, since 1930, I have watched the mills of the region and their attendant chapels die. Within the last fifteen years the end has come. They are now virtually dead, and the population of the valley and the hillsides, so rooted for so long, is changing rapidly.

Mozley’s Elmet is a patch of land in the corner of a vast holding which belongs to a local businessman-cum-gangster, Price. On this patch, in a handbuilt house, lives the novel’s narrator, Daniel, his sister Cathy and their Daddy. The children’s mother, it is heavily implied, killed herself some years previously; early on in the novel their grandmother, too, passes away. Afterwards, Daddy, a semi-retired bare-knuckle fighter and hardman, selects a corner of the land his children’s mother once sold in extremis to Price – and claims it.

Daddy’s philosophy of ownership is oddly pre-modern, given Elmet supposedly takes place in 2017. He reminds me of Buccmaster, the protagonist in Paul Kingsnorth’s remarkable pastiche of Old English, The Wake – and not just because his dialogue has some orthographic quirks:

“[…] I knew we could care for this land in a way Mr Price never could, and never would. Mr Price does nothing with these woods. He doendt work them. He doendt coppice them. He doendt know the trees. He doendt know the birds and animals that live here. Yet there is a piece of paper that says this land belongs to him.” [p. 121]

Price is the Angles, Daddy the Celts. Price is also, in a slippage not as wholly elegant as Kingsnorth achieved in The Wake, late capitalism, and Daddy co-ordinates a strike across the enervated local village which damages his antagonist’s business interests. In-keeping with a novel which takes its title from the name of a doomed kingdom, the powerful sense of community and hope this engenders is greeted by Daniel with scepticism: “I could not help but feel that they too were dancing in the old style and appealing to a kind of morality that had not truly existed since those tall stone crosses were placed in the ground” [p. 143].

Daniel’s perspicacity, however, comes and goes. The novel begins in the way of Sam Taylor’s The Island at the End of the World, with Daniel and Cathy’s worldview almost entirely dictated by, and limited to, the experiences Daddy provides for them in their Elmet. “He wanted to keep us separate, in ourselves, apart from the world,” Daniel tells us [p. 48], and, like Taylor, Mozley has a knack for capturing the voice of an adolescent. “Sometimes we were more like an army than a family,” Daniel adds [pp. 57-8]. “Everything he did now was to toughen us up against something unseen” [pp. 82-3]. This hero worship persists throughout the novel, to its very bitter end – even when it is clear Daddy isn’t entirely in control or wholly aware of the world around him.

Mozley interleaves scenes at Elmet with odd scenes of industrial espionage engaged in by the children, or lessons in nothing much at all by the only educated person Daddy knows, the eccentric and attractive spinster, Vivien; there’s a bonfire party in the village and an illegal fight Daddy allows his offspring to attend. We see all this through Daniel’s eyes, and it is essential to the novel’s plot twists that he is not as perceptive as he might be – even when the author plays fair by offering slim clues as to what is truly going on. If this puts us at something of a distance fgrom the reality of the lives depicted in Elmet, the novel remains squarely embedded within the genre of rural noir, and in this reminded me again of other novels, such as Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing or Cynan Jones’s The Dig. The claustrophobia evoked in those novels, however, is never quite replicated here – perhaps deliberately, given how taken with trees and open spaces its characters tend to be, but also possibly because Elmet‘s prose is often more than usually plain:

Caring for a wood means huge stacks of trimming get piled up around the place. In order to let new growth fight through, overhanging branches, crumbled bark and fallen trees must be cleared. Weeds in the undergrowth must be managed. The right shoots must be let through and the wrong ones discouraged. Hazel needs to be hacked back to the stem so that it sprouts forth again severally next season like the heads of Hydra. [p. 163]

This is how-to-guide stuff, really, and it’s sometimes hard to see what, other than its transparent clarity, recommended Mozley’s style so highly to the Booker judges – particularly when that purity is at odds with the narrative’s essential occlusions. The central character of the novel, ultimately, is not Daniel but Cathy, who finds herself at the pointy end of the oppression and will to power that seems to block off all routes of escape to the villagers. “If I had fought by any kind of rules I would’ve lost,” Cathy sighs towards the end of the novel [p. 269], and Elmet comes to recommend violent disjuncture as the only option left to its oppressed multitudes. Nevertheless, this approach is destructive beyond its targets, and though Price may be hurt by such actions so too will Daniel.

There’s a determinist despair to all of this which gives Elmet a certain power. “I mean it doendt matter, does it?” Daddy opines. “I mean that things will always be as they are now, I mean that there will always be more fights and it will just get harder and harder” [p. 41]. It’s this hard-headed quality, I think, which has secured it a place on the Booker shortlist – from a certain perspective we live in times rather suited to novels of frustration and failure. That said, Mozley never quite emerges from the shadow of her influences. She may still do so, and here is a novel that marks her as a voice to watch; but it’s hard to see how Elmet deserves its place on the shortlist over another inventive and political and arresting longlisted novel of opression: The Underground Railroad.


“Still In The Middle of Happening”: Ali Smith’s “Autumn”

Ali Smith has a right to feel aggrieved by the Booker Prize. Her 2014 novel, How to be Both, won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize and was shortlisted for the Goldsmith – sign enough that it was a serious work of fiction, and in my estimation it could easily have been a Booker winner, too. It did not, however, make it past the shortlist, strong-armed out of the way by Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which some reviewers liked even less than I did. (“Do I love it?” I asked you back then, rhetorically. “I’m not sure I do. But will the judges? This one’s a dark horse.”)

Her shortlisting this year, then, may be seen as a chance to redress old injustices. Alas, Autumn is some way from being as good as How to be Both. That doesn’t preclude its winning – it would not be the first time that an inferior novel by a superior novelist won the prize. Nevertheless, and no matter how much Smith might deserve the recognition, the Booker should not not become a lifetime achievement award.

But how is Autumn minor Smith? Partly, perhaps, in conception: the novel was rushed out in the wake of last year’s EU referendum in the UK, and features the aftermath of that vote so fully that those who purchased the book on the day of its publication must at some points have been reading on its pages about the near future. As one might expect from a novel of such currency, occasionally it is a little bluntly close to the bone:

It is just over a week since the vote. The bunting in the village where Elisabeth’s mother now lives is up across the High Street for its summer festival, plastic reds and whites and blues against a sky that’s all threats, and though it’s not actually raining right now and the pavements are dry, the wind rattling the plastic triangles against themselves means it sounds all along the High Street like rain is hammering down.

The village is in a sullen state. Elisabeth passes a cottage not far from the bus stop whose front, from the door to across above the window, has been painted over with black paint and the words GO and HOME. [p. 53]

This is the stuff of a hundred op-eds churned out in the wake of the vote. It feels unusually obvious, curiously near-the-knuckle, for Smith, a writer usually characterised by how askance, rather than dead-on, her glance tends to be. When we read that “the power of the lie” is “always seductive to the powerless” [p. 114], it’s not that Smith is wildly off her mark, but that she’s placed it precisely where you’d expect; when “a bunch of thugs” stand in the street and chant, “First we’ll get the gyppos, then the gays” [p. 197], it’s not that Autumn doesn’t sound the sinister themes of our times – but that her readers could hardly have failed already to have heard them.

That said, this baldness isn’t the novel’s whole story. Autumn is the first volume in a seasonal quartet which Smith has been planning for years, and emerges as a meditation on identity. Understandably, having almost finished writing when Brexit came along, Smith felt she couldn’t publish such a novel without including the vote. That said, Brexit unbalances the novel, and cleaves apart its various moving parts, intricacy of the sort in which Smith specialises finding it difficult quickly to incorporate new elements.

Take her central characters, the fixed-term art history lecturer Elisabeth Demand and her centenarian friend, Daniel Gluck. The pair met years before the novel opens, when Daniel was neighbour to Elisabeth and her mother; we see many flashbacks to this and other periods as the novel builds a chronology from which its protagonists make sense of the depth of their connection, which the reader rather parses as elemental as much as anything else. The truth of Autumn, indeed, is that connections to the past are ephemeral, misleading: “memory and responsibility are strangers. They’re foreign to each other” [p. 160]. Autumn is that season which kills off what went before, resets the world around us so it may begin anew. “We have to forget,” Daniel says in his sickbed. “Or we’d never sleep ever again” [p. 210].

On the other hand, without memory how do we make connections? Even Elisabeth, Daniel’s great – indeed, last – friend, struggles to link up her atomised understandings of his life, to reconstruct a full person:

What did he do in his good long life? After the war, I mean.

Elisabeth realizes she has no idea.

He wrote songs, she says. And he helped out a lot with my childhood. [p. 170]

The inability to connect the legends of “the war” with the present, of course, also underpins the novel’s treatment of Brexit. But some of its other isolated points in time – the increasing focus on the feminist pop artist Pauline Boty, and on Catherine Keeler and the Profumo affair – feel less integrated with the whole, difficult to orient around the novel’s centre of gravity. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the inclusion of “the vote” has thrown the novel out of its putative equilibrium: it is such a vivid example of how identity and memory interact, often negatively, that the subtlety of its other, sometimes apparently truncated, sections simply pales in comparison.

This problem is mirrored, too, in the novel’s prose. In a revealing interview in the Guardian, Olivia Laing argues that “the and/and/and of life is what [Smith’s] fiction is so artful at revealing,” and she’s right. The ways in which Autumn strains to contain not just its themes but, most pressingly, their contemporaneity, however, push this approach to an explicit forefront, to the status too of method:

All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people felt they had done the wrong thing. All across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland. [p. 59]

This stuff goes on for three pages and becomes a motif repeated elsewhere: “Time-lapse of a million billion flowers opening their heads, of a million billion flowers bowing, closing their heads again, of a million billion new flowers opening instead” [p. 123] … and so on. Autumn, as befits the opening instalment of a seasonally-themed series, believes in circularity – “Seems the self you get left with on the shore, in the end, is the self that you were when you went” [p. 4] – but its attempts to embody it in the wake of Brexit are just a little on-the-button. In the novel’s most memorable episode, Smith manages to marry theme, form and politics in the mode of farce: Elisabeth enters a special circle of hell – the Post Office – to apply for a passport, and is trapped in a Möbius strip of bureaucratic demands which never quite resolve (“He writes in a box next to the other Other: HEAD INCORRECT SIZE” [p. 25]). This episode, however, stands alone in its wit.

One of the novel’s many sharp edges, Boty’s collages, make sense as an example of the femininised mosaics of identity the novel erects in opposition to masculine lines of chronology. And yet, beyond the Post Office, nothing quite coheres – even in their juxtapositon, as in a collage. This failure to explain or build may be part of the point of a novel about circularity, and Autumn renders itself as a sort of Brexity self-negation, a book about the present which insists that “it’s deep in our animal nature … [not] to see what’s happening right in front of our eyes” [p. 175]. It is as such one to wrestle with, but perhaps not to garland.