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the-machineJames Smythe’s Clake Award-shortlisted The Machine is like a wedding: it sports both something borrowed and something new. As refreshing as its focus on characterisation, mood and style can be when stood next to something as generically lumpen as Ancillary Justice, it also has as its McGuffin a device we’ve seen many times before: a contraption which can erase a person’s memories, reach into their subconscious and reshape it around a new story. Indeed, The Machine goes further in its weird resemblance to stories we’ve read before, asking questions not very dissimilar to those posited in the 2004 Michael Gondry film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: who are we without our memories, and how do we know we won’t make even worse mistakes without them?

Smythe’s answers are much grimmer than those offered by Gondry and his co-writer, the not usually sunnier-than-the-next-man Charlie Kaufman, and it is in the dour determinism of his novel that we can find the best argument for reading it. The Machine is in many ways a taut and tantalising horror story: the machine itself, fittingly resembling in its faceless opacity Arthur C Clarke’s own monoliths, is a classically implacable monster, squatting in the spare room of the novel’s lonely female protagonist, Beth, a schoolteacher based on the Isle of Wight. The gizmo’s mechanics are not understood either by her or the reader (and in this sense the novel isn’t science fiction at all, since the Machine essentially operates by magic); there is a constant nagging implication that it has its own purpose, its own agenda, and that it will pursue that goal remorselessly.

Beth has illegally purchased her Machine, since it and all other devices like it have been banned by the authorities following a series of disasters resulting from their use. Beth’s own husband, Vic, is one of them: now practically comatose in a specialist facility established for victims of the Machines, he was a soldier returning from the front with memories that tortured him. Like others, Vic opted for them to be removed – and, like others, emerged from the treatments a vegetable: “they’re more like the dead. There’s nothing inside them.” Beth blames herself: she rushed the treatments, she believes, in a desperate bid to get her husband back. The engine of the plot, then, is this guilt, this tragic weakness of the narrator (again, we think of horror).

Beth intends to undo the effects of the Machine on her husband by undertaking the Machine therapy in reverse. In one of the novel’s wittiest turns, she learns how to do so by logging onto internet forums resembling the ones we might search today if we wished to root our phones (this might immediately suggest to any reader unfortunate enough to have followed the wrong online instructions that matters will not go well). The first third of the novel, then, involves Beth’s preparations: the delivery men turning up, being given the excuse that the huge boxes of equipment contain a home gymnasium; their removing Beth’s window to get the parts into her flat (the first of many hints that Beth hasn’t entirely thought this process through); Beth whiling away the end of the school year until she can begin her project in earnest.

That so large a chunk of the novel is spent on build-up gives a sense of the languid pace at which Smythe tells his story. This gives him plenty of space for gentle, unobtrusive worldbuilding. Beth’s near-future is one in which global warming has made summers intolerably stuffy, and economic malaise has turned the young against the older, schools sharing the metal detectors and security guards of the American heartlands that “people the world over [once] laughed at as something that they would never need themselves”. There’s something woozy and dream-like about Beth’s world, since she drifts through it distracted and others stagger through it sweating; but it is also punctured by shocking acts of violence, of the estate’s feral kids threatening the local takeaway restaurant, or Beth herself, or being attacked in turn. Something simmers in Beth’s world, but Smythe’s story is not about the boiling point.

Instead, he moves on. First to the treatment: Beth plans to remove Vic from the centre, since “inside the Machine [...] are the exact constituents of what – who – Vic will be.” This is a painful process, physically gruelling and psychologically taxing; Smythe does not spare his reader the details, maintaining the careful spacing of incident in order fully to dwell on Beth’s own state of mind and on the costs of the Machine’s reverse therapy (“hasn’t she already decided that she’s going to live with him and his temper and – if they start again – the dreams?”). Of course, the Machine remains unknowable – and, Beth comes to think, not entirely to be trusted: “I didn’t put some story about you going back to war in you,” she says to Vic, “That’s from the Machine.” At one point during this painfully drawn-out period, she thinks of Greek statues, wondering how they were crafted: whether artists filled in the “seemingly unimportant parts – the flats of [the subject's] backs, or the flattened plateau of an inner thigh” – from memory or imagination, and whether that matters to the final likeness. The Machine is compared by its publishers to a modern Frankenstein, I suppose because Beth isn’t sure what it is she’s creating. But in a real way she’s worse than that other Vic, Frankenstein: he at least understood the process of creation, the body parts and the electricity; Beth simply has a Machine with a hard drive.

Perhaps it’s this uncertainty which leads to the novel’s slightly unbalanced final third: suddenly, Things Happen and all must be revealed, if not quite understood. An unfortunate catalyst for this change is one of the novel’s few mis-steps, Beth’s accidental best friend, Laura: another teacher at the school, Laura also turns our to be a caricatured evangelical, who hollers at Beth, as she plays with Vic’s soul, that she is bound for Hell and Damnation. “This is creation, Beth,” she rants (later she will pound on Beth’s door, spitting and snarling at her. “You don’t mess with creation, as it is the purview of our one God, Beth.” Leaving aside the fact that few people actually talk in this way, Laura’s fire-and-brimstone might reflect a theological turn in this otherwise successfully sketched-in future, but also seems by-the-numbers and crude, much like another scene in the novel’s final third, in which Beth takes clippers to her hair before a mirror. The familiarity of Smythe’s core conceit begins to re-emerge, then, as soon as he moves away from lingering on Beth’s perspective, her contorted vision of and relationship to her husband and his trauma. The novel’s final twist, though devastating, feels tacked-on and over-neat; there is a real fumble here in the final furlongs, as if the novel strolls nonchalantly and productively away from its borrowed elements for much of its length, and then, like Jim Carrey barrelling through his memory palace, sprints back towards them in order to find the exit.

Smythe’s spare and thoughtful prose may have here been better suited to a shorter length: at times, The Machine felt like a superb novella stretched, in that final third, a tad too far. It is in that prose, however, that The Machine more than earns its keep. Smythe turns a world as well as a phrase gently and yet powerfully, and this is a stylist’s trick often in short supply in a genre which conversely often lives and dies by the subtlety of its infodumping. If The Machine doesn’t quite spit out a product perfectly fashioned from those initial raw materials, watching it working is a pleasure.

ancillary justiceHere’s how my review of Ann Leckie’s rapturously-received – and Clarke-shortlisted – debut novel originally began:

I don’t get it. Ancillary Justice is by no means a bad book: it is competent, even rigorous, and despite some extensive longeurs it is also in places pacey and handily plot-driven. It has a certain singularity of voice, and something to say with it. It manages to tackle some big issues – gender, artificial intelligence, gestalt consciousness – with a real lightness of touch, an unshowy seriousness. It is solid. But I don’t get it.

The buzz for Anne Leckie’s debut novel has been, in tonal quality, closer to a thrumming bass note from a Marshall stack. From advance notice to considered think pieces, reviewers have fallen over themselves to get excited about this big oil’ slice of space opera, as if its mix of interplanetary romance and high-concept mil-SF really is something to write home about. To take the temperature of large parts of SF fandom on the topic of this novel has been to send the mercury soaring. It has been, in fact, rather like the hoop-la a couple of years ago around the US publication of Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, a book with which, since it has now been published in the UK, Ancillary Justice has quirkily enough found itself competing on this year’s Clarke Award shortlist.

Nevertheless, I’m not ooh-ing. My aahs are muted at best. I do not think Leckie has written a book as good as the punchily patchy God’s War, much less one about to reinvent the genre’s ratty old wheel. I don’t get it.

And, then, dear reader, I paused. I ruminated. I checked the jerking of my knee. I’m as up for offering entertainment in the form of wilful gadflyery as (more than) anyone, but my tastes are so often peripheral not just to ‘core’ fandom but a certain literary subset of it that for once – just for once, mind – I wanted to understand. So I fired up Google, and I found Nina Allan at Arc.

Oh, frabjous day.

Leckie [...] embraces the [science fiction] mission statement fully. Ancillary Justice gives us teeming galaxies, evil empires, a version of warp drive, and all without a hint of irony as the commonly accepted imagery of the particular version of SF that ranges itself against the mainstream as “a literature of ideas”.

When examined up close, however, the ideas contained in Ancillary Justice seem disappointingly simple: empires are evil, class systems are oppressive, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Ancillary Justice is an SF novel of the old school: tireless in its recapitulation of genre norms and more or less impenetrable to outsiders.

The novel I happened to read immediately after Ancillary Justice was Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. Both novels are debuts, both are the first instalment in a trilogy. Both deal with far future empires, both have war as a central leitmotif, both have important things to say about society, faith and gender. At a surface level at least it would appear that these two books have much in common, but in fact, I would argue, they are different beasts entirely.

Allan has written her review so that I don’t have to, nailing all the ways in which Ancillary Justice underwhelms: in its characterisation, in its prose, in the execution of its core conceits. She even makes that same comparison with God’s War, pointing out what a properly adventurous debut novel really looks like (the comparison is made all the more damning for Leckie when one considers that Hurley’s effort is itself far from flawless). Here is a novel which routinely inserts its worldbuilding just after a character makes a reference to it: “I’m having trouble imaging you doing anything improper,” one says to another, before Leckie informs us that, “The word was weighted in Radchaai, part of a triad of justice, propriety and benefit.” This simultaneously offers a pretence of depth and the nagging feeling that we are less inhabiting a world and more taking a tour around it. Likewise, dialogue again and again services the plot – characters speak in the same voice, primarily to tell us how to interpret events and where they may next be headed (“It started at Garsedd,” another character explains to yet another. “She was appalled by what she’d done, but she couldn’t decided how to react.” “Oh,” the other doesn’t – but may as well – say. “OK.”)

One one level, perhaps all this is deliberate: Ancillary Justice is set in a quasi-fascistic empire in which to be civilised is to conform totally, and around which we are directed by Breq, a first person narrator who was once merely a tiny component in a gestalt intelligence. Breq is Pinocchio – a Spock or Data figure who was once an outpost of a spaceship’s AI and who may well now, it is strongly implied, be capable of a kind of personhood, about to transmute into a real girl or, since genders are often satisfyingly uncertain in this book, boy. It is in this addition of just a dash of zest to a hoary, tired old conceit that Leckie’s project is most evident: she is not reinventing science fiction so much as holding up a mirror to the genre’s best possible side. Allan suggests that Leckie hasn’t written her novel with anything like a commercial motivation, and in many ways that’s true of what is ultimately a rather awkward debut; but I’d also ask what novel better rushes to the aid of a core genre more embattled than usual, defending itself from all sorts of accusations of gender bias, from the assaults of new fangled literary modes and speculative writers not entirely interested in the genre itself; by new means of production and new forms and fora of criticism. Why, how much that core genre needs a novel from its own patch which doesn’t use the male pronoun. Cue predictably rapturous joy. “We can do this,” cry the SF massive. “We are not yet defeated.”

None of which is necessarily bad, but some of which goes a little way to understanding why Ancillary Justice has been hyped beyond its capacity to fulfil expectations. If it is not quite pedestrian, it is a gently jogging novel with some nice ideas but a ponderous style. The excitement around a book like this reminded me of the work of Algris Budrys, some of which I recently reviewed for Vector but which has also been considered in much the same vein by Paul Kincaid, for Foundation and, briefly, on his own blog: in the 1970s and 1980s, as Kincaid writes, Budrys read science fiction through “a series of columns that turn again and again to John W. Campbell, Lester Del Rey, L. Ron Hubbard, Robert A. Heinlein and a host of writers of the same era”. In much the same way, Ancillary Justice does not feel like a new work of science fiction, but rather as a zeitgeisty iteration of the same old same old. (Lila Garrot at Strange Horizons, in a review full of praise for the book: “The novel’s core questions, such as the meaning of personhood in a world containing artificial intelligences and the meaning of individual identity in a world containing multi-bodied minds, are not new to speculative fiction, but they are combined in ways which shed new light on them, and Leckie never allows anything to resolve into a simple answer.”)

This leaves the Clarke Award looking more like a commemoration of what science fiction likes than it often prefers to seem: where Ancillary Justice ports SFnal conceits, it doesn’t transform or even bend them out of shape very much. It’s comforting and well-meaning all at the same time. On that level, at least, perhaps I do get it, after all.

hurleygodswarukOf the six novels shortlisted on Tuesday for the 2014 Arthur C Clarke Award, I’ve already reviewed two. One, God’s War by Kameron Hurley, was published in the US some time ago (and has already also been shortlisted for the BSFA award for best novel, in a tacit acknowledgement that the British sf publishing scene really needed some help ‘finding’ female authors to publish). Its shortlisting is a Good Thing: if the trilogy it kicked off perhaps didn’t quite have total follow-through, God’s War was a gutsy, pungent debut novel. I don’t have much more to say about it than I did way back in 2011:

Here is a novel simultaneously feminine and empowered—Nyx doesn’t “bend her knee to God,” let alone anyone else (p. 278)—which unlike many a lesser attempt to achieve the same effect strikes imbalances in an odd kind of equipoise. Will any other novel this year address issues of faith and gender quite so squarely, quite so entertainingly, and with such heft? The promised sequels may even iron out the first installment’s creases, caused almost entirely by the weight of background lain upon the structure and the story. Most pertinently, Hurley indeed creates in her lead character a thoroughly unlikeable, but wholly independent, female Conan. Actually, that’s wrong: Nyxnissa would quite clearly kick Conan’s ass. In her own words, “Women can fight as well as fuck, you know” (p. 64). Coarse and inelegant, but bold and pungent: Nyx’s retort might be this punchy, refreshing, and imperfect novel’s grating, gutsy epigram. Just what the genre ordered.

adjacentThe second of the shortlisted works about which I have droned on is Christopher Priest’s The Adjacent, also on the BSFA’s shortlist. This second review has, admittedly, not yet been published – I submitted it to Foundation‘s doughty reviews editor, Andy Sawyer, only a week or so ago. I won’t, however, pre-empt my review here, except to quote a short excerpt which I think helps explain my positive reaction to a curiously self-reflexive novel: “The Adjacent offers as pure a distillation of Priest’s peculiar art as he has yet produced, in which form matches subject and style substance [... it] refracts and reflects our own fragile, challenged present.” (I’ll let you know, dear reader, when the full thing is published – but in the meantime, subscribe to Foundation anyway.)

What strikes me most about my judgements on both books is my equivocation: they are each in their own way very strong pieces of work, and yet they each simultaneously have their characteristic and consistent weaknesses. They are, perhaps, birdies rather than holes in one. Taking my uninformed cue from the discussions which have surrounded the other shortlisted novels, my initial feeling about the shortlist was similar. for instance, Niall Harrison was entirely unimpressed with Philip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise; and whilst the buzz around Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice has been in some quarters ecstatic,  something about its spaceships-in-space setting has left it idling, unread, on my Kindle for weeks already.

Indeed, it’s hard not to receive the Clarke shortlist in the spirit of my recent piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books: “one of the challenges faced by contemporary science fiction is that our own present world resembles so much — and yet so little — the world imagined by the genre’s founding writers.” Much ink has been spilled about Paul Kincaid’s theory of generic exhaustion, and one critic or another might take issue with one or another of its elements; but this shortlist, too, has some cyberpunk and some space opera, some science fantasy and some first contact. Meanwhile, it is not just in its chosen subgenres that the shortlist feels a bit dusty. Despite a valiant attempt to argue the shortlist merely replicates the make-up of the works submitted, the demographics of the authors – two women, one person of colour, the Brits all male – feels like a lost opportunity. Science fiction, even when exhausted, is more diverse than this.

In a third way, too, the Clarke – ordinarily the most interesting of the science fiction awards to readers not embedded in the ‘core genre’ – disappoints this year. It can only shortlist those works which are submitted, and it can do little when those mainstream novels which were amongst the most interesting works of speculative fiction in the last year choose to remain outside of sf’s sphere of influence: this year, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is conspicuous in its absence. But why not reignite the ages-old Margaret Attwood debate, given MaddAddam has been generating some of her better reviews for some time; or acknowledge the warm reactions to Wu Ming-Yi’s The Girl With The Compound Eyes? Even Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time-Being, which was not to my taste, has many cheerleaders within the sf community. With so many options open to it, the final shortlist felt like less of an event than it often does.

This may or may not leave the Clarke Award looking, as Ian Sales has suggested, like another symptom of sf’s alleged primary interest in recycling its own history. One ignores Nina Allan at your peril, however, and in her opinion the shortlist is wilfully diverse: “these are far from conventional choices,” she says, “and they’re all quite different from each other, too.” Which, I suppose, is as good a nudge as any to cease writing about four books I haven’t read – and get down to this year’s Clarke reviews.

Here’s to unexpected surprises.

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I read ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ every Christmas Eve, and in that way it has become less a story to me and more a collection of familiar jokes, quirks and reminders. The cubic capacity of Henry Baker’s skull, the ill-tempered smugness of a Covent Garden fowl merchant, the Christmas dinner in which a bird will feature heavily: all of them are present and correct, in the best ways of tradition, when called upon.

But what actually happens in this story? What does it look like? In some ways, it is rather ugly: its very first sentence includes that higgledy-piggledy word ‘upon’ twice within the space of six words. Like Holmes and Watson’s wander through the frosty streets of the capital in search of the breeder of Baker’s gem-laden goose, the story dots and weaves rather abruptly through a number of brief episodes, to the extent that the detective’s insistence to the piece’s villain, James Ryder, that he has “all the proofs which I could possibly need” seems even bolder an assertion than usual. It has a wonderful atmosphere, but an ungainly shape.

On the other hand, it’s an excellent example of what Michael Chabon has called the Holmesian canon’s tendency to produce ‘story engines’, little perfectly-tuned motors of narrative which contain a cascade of plot and incident that helps propel the apparently meagre foregrounded story with considerably more impetus than it might otherwise have. ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, slight and swift as it seems, in fact contains a whole series of other tales, a sense of happening which fits a story that rests on the conceit that it is “one of those whimsical little incidents which will happen when you have four million human beings all jostling each other within the space of a few square miles”.

Even as Watson arrives at Holmes’s rooms – usually the start of a Sherlockian escapade – events are in motion. The good doctor finds his friend deep in contemplation – Peterson, the commissionaire, has already brought a beaten old hat and a goose to Holmes for inspection, and along with them a vignette of a boozy Yuletide evening in which high spirits became a violent altercation from which a man fled without his Christmas goose. That man, we discover, is Mr Henry Baker – whose story Holmes draws from the details of his cracked felt hat (“his wife has ceased to love him”). When Baker answers Holmes’s message – printed in those repositories of narrative, the newspapers – we discover yet more about him, including that he is party to a two dozen-strong goose club. (This latter fact gives us twenty-three other Victorian Christmases to ponder.)

We know by now, of course, that Baker’s goose contained the famed blue carbuncle, a priceless gem belonging to the Countess of Morcar which, Holmes tells Watson, “is a nucleus and focus of crime” – in short, a body around which countless stories orbit. We might wonder, too, how the Countess came upon this storied artifact, about the relationship between Lady Morcar and her lady-in-waiting, whose tip-off to the upper-attendant of the hotel in which her mistress was resident gave rise to this latest theft; we read of a previous conviction for robbery of John Horner, the man framed by Ryder for the carbuncle’s disappearance, and reassess Holmes’s later insistence upon the plumber’s total innocence; and, of course, we wonder what poor old Inspector Bradstreet, quoted in the press as to his certitude of Horner’s guilt, makes of Holmes’s involvement.

These are a lot of jumping-off points for a story so short, and help explain why there is so much space to explore within its apparently slight constraints. Holmes’s final act of festive forgiveness, allowing Ryder to flee, leaves open yet more possibilities: “there is the making of a very pretty villain in you,” the detective tells the villain, and his escape at the story’s close leaves his future career a matter for speculation.

But that, perhaps, is a story for the New Year. In the meantime, readers: merry Christmas to you, whatever your story.

The Lowland by Jhumpa LahiriIn his 2007 history India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha wrote of the militant Indian Maoists who emerged from the conflagration at Naxalbari in 1967: “‘Naxalite’ became shorthand for ‘revolutionary’, a term evoking romance and enchantment at one end of the political spectrum, and distaste and derision at the other.” [pg. 423] In her new novel The Lowland, shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, Jhumpa Lahiri plays with precisely these reactions, positing a long tail of consequences whipping outwards from a single Naxalite’s decision to fuse ideological fervour with murderous deeds.

The novel begins with Subhash and Udayan, two brothers living in the Kolkata suburb of Tollygunge during the 1950s. Subhash, the elder by a scant fifteen months, is cautious and prone to hesitation; Udayan “was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colours” [pg. 11]. Despite their differences, the boys are as inseparable as the twin pools wallowing in the topographical hollow of the title: “After the monsoon the ponds would rise so that the embankment built between them could not be seen. The lowland also filled with rain, three or four feet deep, the water remaining for a portion of the year.” [pg. 1] This governing metaphor emphasises not just the occasional indistinguishability of the brothers, but also how the consequences of events have a habit of squatting in our lives long after their initial happening: like water with nowhere to drain away, history lingers in the lives of each of Lahiri’s characters, turning brackish and stagnant.

The first section of The Lowand is consequently bulging with Cliff Notes history, context shoe-horned into a smaller story because without it the personal, soapy tragedies which proceed from Udayan’s inevitable radicalisation make no sense. “It was one of a string of villages in the Darjeeling district,” Lahiri writes of Naxalbari, “a narrow corridor at the northern tip of West Bengal. Tucked into the foothills of the Himalaya’s, nearly four hundred miles from Calcutta, closer to Tibet than Tollygunge.” [pg. 20] We get thumbnails of American history, too, since as Udayan becomes ever closer to his Communist friends, Subhash attends college in the USA. We read of India and of Udayan at arm’s length during this stretch of the novel (difficult because Indian news is not something one will “come across in any newspaper in Rhode Island” [pg. 87]), and Subhash returns to Tollygunge only on the news that his brother is dead, shot by soldiers who have homed in on his Naxalite activities.

Subhash’s life is transformed. Not only has he lost the brother who formed his other half; he feels obliged to marry Udayan’s pregnant wife, Gauri. Yet the only love affair Subhash has undertaken in the US has been desultory and practiced, involving “a woman whose company he was growing used to, but whom, perhaps due to his own ambivalence, he didn’t love” [pg. 77]. According to Subhash’s mother, meanwhile, Gauri has no material instinct or aptitude. We think at first this is spite, but learn as the novel proceeds in elliptic fashion that it is a judgement more or less fair. Indeed, Lahiri eschews the tumescent context of her first hundred pages once Gauri joins Subhash in the USA, dropping us into strings of vignettes separated by often large – and important – chunks of time. Gauri develops a love of academia and philosophy, attending lectures on the quiet; Subhash turns his studies into a career; and the daughter they pretend is his rather than Udayan’s develops a personality at a rapid clip (by the close of the novel she is in her forties).

Lahiri intends to write a family epic alert to the irony of unintended consequences – for her senior college thesis, Bela (long since abandoned by Gauri, now a college professor, and living an itinerant lifestyle with which Subhash is uncomfortable) chooses to study “the adverse effects of pesticide runoff in a local river” [pg. 221], encouraging the reader to recall those pools of water in which, we learn, Udayan attempted to hide before the soldiers found him. All of this has a certain piquancy, and the sad, stilted lives of the main characters do have the power to move: alone and adrift, for instance, Subhash feels “that this arbitrary place, where he’d landed and made his life, was not his” [pg. 253], and we feel for a man at sea in his own cast-off-course life, “linked”, like Gauri, “into a chain she could not see” [pg. 292]. But there’s also an obstinacy to The Lowland – all that insistent commentary, crystalline-but-crafted sentences, and punished protagonists (Gauri’s desolation, in particular, feels simply unfair) – which lends it an air of inflexibility. The Indian sections have a nice ambivalence – at one moment “the sour, septic smell” of Tollygunge [pg. 89], at another the “gestures of hospitality from shopkeepers” [pg. 113] – but, in the way of We Need New Names, the prism of America over-directs the novel’s light away from this valence of detail.

The Luminaries by Eleanor CattonDetail is not something lacking in Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, however. At 832 pages, it is by far the largest book on this year’s shortlist – which might be the reason that I’ve left it last to review. More than any other of its competitors, Catton’s novel is interested in capturing the sense of a single place – not evoking a milieu we view from a more familiar one (Bulawayo, Lahiri, Ozeki), not abandoning specifity (Crace), and not being so fiercely concise that all but the most essential details are pruned away (Tóibín). Catton’s 1860s New Zealand goldrush town of Hokitika emerges as a pungent presence, mapped and – aha – mined thoroughly in the course of what becomes a compendious tour. But what is remarkable – and a little thrilling – about all this detail is that the novel conspires to make it entirely irrelevant.

At yesterday’s Booker Prize shortlist event in Cheltenham, Catton discussed the dual meaning of ‘fortune’: the prospectors of Hokitiki are in search of riches, of course; but fortunes are told as well as found, and in this way The Luminaries – its title, too, offering a dual reference, to the novel’s cast of Hokitika’s leading lights but also to the celestial bodies around which Catton structures her action – considers determinism and destiny. Its first of twelve parts – we note the allusion to the Zodiac – is itself novel-length, introducing us to (again) a dozen characters who are each in some way implicated by circumstance in the death and possible murder of a rich prospector named Crosbie Wells. In the discursive style of the nineteenth-century novels which are read by the characters themselves, Catton introduces us to the most intimate aspects of each man’s self-image. New arrival Walter Moody “had studied his own reflection mutely, and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best” [pg. 4]; shipping magnate Thomas Balfour “liked very much to feel that he was at the vanguard of an era” [pg. 12]; cleric Cowell Devlin “spent the present moment in a state of constant visualisation, conjuring in his mind the untroubled future self he had determined that he would one day become” [pg. 87]. We come to know these characters entirely, and often through the medium of gloriously witty pen portraits.

But Catton’s story lies elsewhere, in a string of coincidences involving none of the characters who feature in this hefty first part – and who consequently never develop from those initial thumbnails. Significantly given the centrality of the moon to the novel’s vision of ‘fortune’, it is two women who emerge in the book’s second half as the engines of the story: the Hokitika prostitute Anna Wetherell and the scheming villainess first introduced to us as Crosbie’s estranged wife, Lydia Wells. That the tart-with-the-heart and the scheming adulteress are both wearied and wearying types is part of Catton’s project. Individuals are not the drivers of this novel’s action. At one point, Balfour’s main client, and a man himself inextricably linked with the vengeful Lydia, opines that, “Only a weak mind puts faith in coincidence” [pg. 63], but in fact life in The Luminaries is governed by it. Characters act not in relation to their painstakingly-rationalised self-perceptions, but to their star signs or schematic roles in the narrative (the corrupted chemist, the tragic Chinaman); stories have less a beginning, a middle and an end, and more a series of intersections between random events which can build accidentally into denouements; and, as the novel’s twelve parts reduce in length by a mathematical ratio, and the chapter summaries which commence each segment grow ever more rococo in inverse proportion to the wordcount of the chapters themselves, Catton plays with narrative, subverting the certainties and assumptions of precisely the nineteenth-century realism she pretends to ape.

The Luminaries is interested in the way in which the sense of self which novels impose upon us, that bourgeois conception of the individual as an independent agent making choices which forge destinies in the way of Lahiri’s brothers, might not capture the way in which the world really works. Anna is in love with Emery Staines, the richest prospector in Hokitika, a young man who disappeared on the same night Crosbie Wells died and on which Anna herself collapsed in the street; they were born, she finds, on the same day at the same time of the same year, and this seems to give them an uncanny connection, in which one feels the emotions of the other, or can forge their signature without discernible discrepancy. In this context, Staines’s individuality is not important – indeed, the way he intersects with other people and events is the real root of his character, and self-presentation or -perception merely a gloss. “Emery Staines knew very well that he created a singular impression in the minds of all those whom he met. This knowledge had become, over time, an expectation, as a consequence of which, his singularity had become even more pronounced.” [pg. 732] That is, the self is simply self-fulfilling prophecy.

Whether this radicalism is contained in a package effectively executed is a slightly different question; Catton is attempting to interrogate the novel using a novel, and this perhaps inevitably leads to a bagginess, at times even an awkwardness: all that detail, all those words, can come to feel recursive. There’s an extent to which Catton’s concept – perhaps fittingly – overtakes her material, and The Luminaries can feel stretched as a result. Indeed, I wonder if, at the other end of this shortlist’s spectrum, Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary isn’t both just as radical and significantly more disciplined and artful. If The Luminaries is certainly extremely clever, the Tóibín might also be articulate. One of these two should certainly win the prize (I’d probably plump for The Testament of Mary myself), but I wonder if Jim Crace’s reputedly final novel, the elegiac-if-inexact Harvest, might not be awarded the Jacobson-Barnes Award for Life-Time Achievement. The stars will reveal their alignment on Tuesday.

I mentioned, in my first pair of reviews drawing from this year’s Booker shortlist, the sad omission by the judges of M John Harrison’s superb Empty Space. This was a novel, it seemed to me, with all the poignancy and pregnancy the Booker seeks to reward, replete with the subtle craft and canny artistry it likes to encourage. In the comments to a recent post on the blog of science fiction author Adam Roberts, himself a previous recipient of the shoulda-woulda-coulda SF Booker badge, the estimable Matt Cheney agrees:

By your criteria here, it would be hard to make a case for even, say, Harrison’s Empty Space to make it to the list — and I think it certainly deserved to be there. But it’s complex, difficult, allusive, elusive. Certainly not primitivist, unless “primitivist” is stripped of much meaning.

The comment is part of a discussion about the criteria Cheney mentions, a set of propositions Roberts establishes in an attempt to argue not just for the importance of Young Adult fiction but for its primacy in contemporary literary culture. There’s a lot in Roberts’s post to like – I’m particularly intrigued by his idea that education and school represents a dominant strand of post-modern experience – but his position on YA seems unusually wobbly. This has led Nina Allan, who shares my admiration for Roberts’s criticism, to wonder if he isn’t, gadflyishly, playing Devil’s advocate; Allan also pre-empts most of my quibbles with the original post, but I wonder if encoded within it – and implicit in Allan’s response – is a more compelling ‘great definer’ of our age. But more of that anon.

a-tale-forthe-time-beingFor the moment, it’s worth sticking with YA, not least because Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being reads a good deal like fiction aimed at teens for a good part of its length. Half of its pagecount is handed over to Nao, a Japanese adolescent whose diary is found by Ruth, an American writer living on a sparsely inhabited island in Desolation Sound. In reading Nao’s journal, Ruth comes to feel impossibly close to the teen’s stories first of dotcom bubble prosperity in Silicon Valley, then poverty back home in Japan when her depressive father loses his job and takes to placing ill-fated bets as a means of maintaining the family income. Nao’s narrative truly revolves, however, around Jiko, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun who is also Nao’s improbably wise grandmother.

Into this tale therefore enters the concept of Oneness: Jiko’s philosophy is filtered through Nao’s naivety (“everything I write will be historically true and empowering to women, and not a lot of foolish geisha crap” [pg. 6]), resulting in a good deal of restatements of the gnomically obvious. “Being a Buddhist,” Nao tells us of Jiko, “she really understands impermanence and that everything changes and nothing lasts forever.” [pg. 27]   This Cliff Notes approach to Jiko’s beliefs infuses Nao’s half of the novel, in which we are treated to related wit and wisdom ranging across a number of contemporary hot topics: “Everybody in California has ADD, and they all take meds for it, and they’re constantly changing their prescriptions and tweaking their dosages” [pg. 161]; “September 11 is like a sharp knife slicing through time” [pg. 265]; “all the millions of people in their lonely little rooms, furiously writing and posting to their lonely little pages that nobody has time to read because they’re all so busy writing and posting” [pg. 26].

There’s a reductiveness to a lot of this which characterises the worst kind of YA, the type rolled out by lofty adults to help young people understand what it means to be proper people. (Not for the first time, m’learned friend Martin Lewis nails this problem with concision and vim.) Nao’s passages start off promisingly – the first chapter in particular reads freshly and cheekily, and made me genuinely excited for the novel – but it never really deepens or complicates itself. We might assume, then, that Ozeki simply suffers from the same malady which afflicts many such writers when slumming it by writing from a teen perspective: she simply doesn’t capture the sophistication of the voice. The difficulty is that this is true, too, of Ruth’s passages, albeit in a different way. They very often take the form of dialogues between her and another character – most often another improbably wise interlocutor, her husband Oliver.

“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“She says she’s writing it for you. So do you feel special?”

“That’s ridiculous,” Ruth said.

“Speaking about garbage,” Oliver said, “I’ve been thinking about the Great Garbage Patches recently …”

“The what?”

“The Great Eastern and Great Western Garbage Patches? Enormous masses of garbage and debris floating in the oceans? You must have heard about them … “

“Yes,” she said. “No. I mean, sort of.” It didn’t matter, since he clearly wanted to tell her about them. [pg. 35]

This format is fitting for the book Ozeki has written – which is essentially a disputation, a didact’s philosophy primer – but it grinds wearyingly on over the space of a 400+ page volume that insists upon presenting as a novel. Of course, the diary-reading and letter-writing at the heart of this story – emails and blogs feature, too, but only as spruced-up accoutrements to what is a fairly traditional epistolary structure – are all a metaphor for the act of creation undertaken in collaboration by a reader and a writer. Ruth and Nao are in a mystical way the same person, forming (in the oneness of the – geddit? – now) their story together. This is gratingly obvious early on, and the digressions and multiplying frame narratives Ozeki employs to complicate this schematic endeavour don’t sufficiently distract from a core predictability. By the 400th page – when, of course, Oliver reveals all (“the superposed quantum system persists, only, when it is observed, it branches” [pg. 397]), it comes as both relief and let-down. Perhaps this is true primarily for readers of novels like M John Harrison’s; perhaps there are those for whom the Ozeki will come as a revelation; but one wonders why a novel in the footsteps of Jostein Gaarder trumps a more complex novel with the same quantum-philosophical base.

We-Need-New-NamesWhich might return us to Roberts’s thoughts: “No SF? No YA? No Crime? Insular, backward looking shortlist.” Except that Roberts does not consider SF’s science to be as vital as YA’s, well, youth. Indeed, in his trio of defining contemporary characteristics, Roberts places technology on the lowest rung. Above it but below youth, in the role of our age’s Ronnie Barker, he sites globalisation. With self-conscious finesse, then, I direct your attention to NoViolet Bulawayo’s tilt at the Booker, We Need New Names.

Darling is another young girl in unfortunate circumstances: in her case, she and her single mother (who operates, at the edge of Darling’s understanding, as an occasional sex worker) live in a Zimbabwean shanty town known drolly as Paradise. She and her friends spend their days causing trouble and playing Find Bin Laden (all these international children are so interested in the War on Terror, one finds), stealing intermittently into the better parts of town to grab fruit from trees and gaze, wide-eyed, at the privilege they cannot quite imagine, “the big stadium with the glimmering benches we’ll never sit on” [pg. 2]. Globalisation, then, touches their lives in a myriad ways: the well-heeled visitor from London who will “throw food away” as if it’s nothing [pg. 7], the charity workers who arrive at the village without the language, who dole out rations and are mocked by the children; the teachers who have “left to teach over in South Africa and Botswana and Namibia and them, where there’s better money” [pg. 31]; and, finally, the family members who have already escaped to America, to work as cleaners and orderlies in luxury quite alien to Darling’s contemporaries.

Indeed, Bulawayo spends a lot of time in the first half of her novel on the degradations which contrast so vividly with these glimpses of the West: the woman with AIDS who hangs herself, and whose corpse is found, dangling, by the young tearaways; the girl who is pregnant with her grandfather’s child, having been repeatedly raped; the sinister village preacher, the satisfyingly monikered Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, who accuses women of witchcraft and demonic possession in order to abuse them. “There is just no sense in being afraid when you live so near the graves,” Darling says [pg. 132], and there is certainly an air of resignation to Bulawayo’s work. When Darling flies to America to join a relative there, her life – and the prose style itself – changes utterly. We Need New Names proceeds from Bulawayo’s Caine-winning short story ‘Hitting Budapest‘, which is here the first chapter, but the book takes a huge swerve at its centrepoint, shifting from a demotic, almost innocent style, to a breathless, almost bitter one: “If I were at home I know I would not be standing around because something called snow was preventing me going outside to live life.” [pg. 153]

This doesn’t lead very far, however: Darling watches pornography with her new group in America and grows into awkward adolescence; she dismisses the pain of a friend who is physically assaulted by her boyfriend (“I don’t think she had to be all over, like her face was a humanitarian crisis” [pg. 218]); and she returns to her village to be scolded and rejected by her former friends. All this, as in A Tale for the Time Being, is much as you’d expect, a sort of grand thematic tour. On the other hand, it is also written with more clarity and playfulness than Ozeki’s novel, and though it is in its own way just as insistent, it is much less didactic – because much more sprightly. Still, I find it hard not to agree, insofar as it is possible or reasonable for me to do so, with Helon Habila in the Guardian: “To perform Africa [...] is to inundate one’s writing with images and symbols and allusions that evoke, to borrow a phrase from Aristotle, pity and fear, but not in a real tragic sense, more in a CNN, western-media-coverage-of-Africa, poverty-porn sense.” Bulawayo has one of Darling’s childhood friends counter this accusation – “You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on?” [pg. 285] – but in her clear and understandable desire to document the deprivations of a country often invisible to inhabitants of the one to which Darling emigrates, she does somewhat load her novel with precisely the negative resignation one assumes she wishes to eschew.

Bulawayo ends We Need New Names on an ugly image of a dog crushed by traffic on a Zimbabwean road; her final sentence, however, emphasises the “delicious, delicious smell of Lobells bread” which wafts across the scene, as if – aha – to leaven the darkness, to emphasise that all in Africa is not dead dogs in the road. In her second novel, one hopes she succeeds in better achieving that balance. One worries, however, that Philip Hensher is right: that the inclusion from 2014 of American novels in the Booker race will hollow out the prize, render ever more predictable its shortlist; already, in three of these six shortlisted novels (the two reviewed here and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland), America acts as a prism through which more particular struggles are viewed. Hensher, I think, over-eggs his pudding, but concern about a flattening-out is valid: in his own Booker post, after all, Roberts notes that the youth culture he sees as permeating and defining our particular moment was “invented to relieve young people of their pocket money in the 1950s”; in her response to the post, Nina Allan points out that YA is written not for young adults but for “the young adult market“. The characteristic of our age – as Darling, imprisoned in her shanty town and pining for “the TV, the large radio, the beautiful things we don’t know” – is not the youth Nao and Darling share, but the commodification which places intolerable pressures on the lives of all around them, the packaging and repackaging of stuff. Selling to markets is the sine qua non of our technological, globalised, youth-obsessed culture, one in which leisure time expands and is filled not by more time for reflection but by more product – not by what Roberts calls ‘clever clever’ art, but by accessible mass media.

The Booker, one hopes, won’t reward books which play to those pressures.

Harvest, by Jim CraceThis year’s Booker longlist has been greeted with enthusiasm principally because it seems to offer an escape route from the conservatism of the last few years: Mantel, Jacobson, Barnes, Mantel is a list of consecutive winners which skews towards the establishment. However deserving Mantel’s Cromwell novels, and however passed-over Jacobson and Barnes have been in the past, four years of middle-aged Brits winning the prize might not be a trend worth continuing into 2013.

Despite Robert McFarlane’s on-the-record praise for one of 2012′s most exciting novels, M John Harrison’s Empty Space, the longlist remains in style much as it has before (Richard House’s The Kills confirms crime fiction in its position is the ‘respectable genre’). But youth and internationalism characterises the selections, and this seems enough given what we have come to expect of the types of book the Booker chooses to recognise and reward.

The Testament of Mary, by Colm ToibinIf the establishment has its champions on this longlist, the mantle (a-ha-ha) must rest rather awkwardly on them. Both Jim Crace and Colm Tóibín have been previously shortlisted for the Prize (Tóibín, of course, won with The Master, his magisterial evocation of the life of Henry James); both are regular commentators in the national and international press; both are middle-aged and both are – dear reader, ineluctably – male. On the other hand, neither quite sits as neatly at the top of that tree as a Jacobson or a Barnes: Crace is based in Birmingham, not London, and though my suggestion that he had made a good living taking the mickey out of contemporary and classic fiction alike is obvious nonsense, he continues to sit to one side of contemporary literary culture. Tóibín, meanwhile, may well be one of the English language’s most important, dynamic and perceptive writers – and that makes him very difficult indeed to dumb down, reposition or, that dread word, ‘sell’. (His last novel, Brooklyn, was longlisted for the Booker but didn’t make the grade in the year Wolf Hall won.)

For those rooting for more of their same from their Booker winner, both writers offer a lot of encouragement. Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary is slim, almost The Sense of an Ending-ish, and yet preponderantly well-turned. It is narrated by a woman in first-century Ephesus whose son, a man in his early 30s who is wanted by the authorities, has just been crucified. Tóibín is less coy than my précis – there is in The Testament of Mary no attempt to debunk or debase the story of Jesus, and though Mary is shuffled off gently from the wedding at Cana so that we never read her direct observations of the water and the wine, she does witness Lazarus walking around as if he had never been dressed for burial.

The pooh-poohing of miracles is too facile a pastime for Tóibín; rather, his Mary is a witness to their aftermath (“the hordes had moved on, she said, followed by an even larger caravan of hucksters, salesmen, water-carriers, fire-eaters and purveyors of cheap food” [pg. 37]). Mary’s is the female voice raised against the male transformation of Christ’s work into Christian cult. Mary is attended each day in her Ephesian exile by two of Jesus’s disciplines – they are never named – and Mary instinctively understands “the elaborate nature of their desires” [pg. 3], desires which are thrust upon her son, who is told “that he was not a mortal as we are mortal, but [...] that he he was the one we had been waiting for” [pg. 33]. These expectations, this worship, transforms her son: “There was nothing delicate about him now,” she observes as Jesus takes his place at the centre of the crowd, “he was all displayed manliness.” [pg. 49]

In part, this is a tender story of a mother letting go of her son – Jesus becomes “a power that seemed to have no memory of years before, when he needed my breast for milk” [pg. 54] – and Tóibín very much casts his Mary as a representative of a conflicted, everyday humanity distinct from the impossible perfection of the Gospels. Mary worships both at the temple of Artemis and of the one God; she begins her narrative improbably modern – “I disliked weddings [...] the bride and groom more like a couple to be sacrificed” [pg. 27] – but ends it identifiably compromised (she chooses, despite the stories concocted after, to flee the site of the crucifixion rather than wait to bury her son, “to protect myself” [pg. 84]); and, ultimately, she stands for contingency over conviction (“Now I know how random it was and uncertain” (pg. 88). All of this makes for a quite astonishingly resonant novella, and a beautiful, poised piece of ventriloquism. It also speaks to the religious questions of our own age, in which women are again subjected, “within this group of men [... to] a set of hierarchies” [pg. 66], and their truths treated as inconvenient (“It will be as though what I saw did not happen” [pg. 99). The Testament of Mary is as exquisite, as slight, as a scalpel.

Crace's Harvest is, in comparison, a doorstop - and yet is itself significantly shy of three hundred pages. Set in an indeterminately early modern decade, probably around the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, Harvest takes place entirely within the confines of a tiny hamlet, overseen by a manor house but more properly subject to the tender mercies of its land. Our narrator, Walter Thirsk, first came to the village some years earlier as the manservant of the new master of the manor, a man now in turn to be supplanted by the rightful heir - his dead wife's wily cousin. At first, however, we like the villagers have no notion of the outside world, and the novel begins with two plumes of smoke - the first a fire at the manor house, the second a sign that interlopers have arrived at the edge of the village's bounds.

It is remarkable how deftly Crace then spools outwards his plot from these two innocuous spots of grey on an otherwise vivid skyline. He writes about the natural world with spare, evocative economy: "There is a silent ripeness to the air, so mellow and sappy that we want to breathe it shallowly, to sip it richly like a cordial." [pg. 60] Yet this is no Arcadia, or Romantic idyll: “The countryside is argumentative. It wants to pick a fight with you.” [pg. 63] The village is isolated, two days’ ride from the nearest market town by even the fastest horse, and this has led to inter-breeding – Walter stands out in his colouration and facial features, and observes that “we are too small, and getting smaller” (pg. 4) – but has also played host to a real, if exclusive, community and an umbilical connection with the jealous soil. Indeed, the villagers have yet to bother building even a church, so busy are they with survival, but also, like Mary, with the simple common-sense knowledge that God is not the active agent which sustains them.

Into this centuries-old lifestyle steps first the man the villagers come to name ‘Mr Quill’, a map-maker whose work “has reduced us to a web of lines” [pg. 39], and then the master’s cousin himself. In the stocks, meanwhile, are the itinerant countryfolk responsible for that second plume of smoke – themselves likely displaced by enclosing maps such as Mr Quill’s. Four or five outside individuals are enough thoroughly to destabilise the village’s ancient but precarious balance: by the close of the novel it has changed irrevocably as a consequence of the latest innovation being applied to unprofitable villages such as Walter’s: sheep. “I’ll only have to touch them with this candle flame,” Walter observes of his master’s brittle documents of ownership, “and they will leap with fire.” [pg. 269]

“These are sad and hasty times,” the master sighs at one point [pg. 189], and Harvest certainly twinges a little for what has been lost: as the sheep-farmer’s retinue marches across the nameless fields, Walter sees “Privilege in its high hat. Then comes Suffering [...] Malice follows [...] afterwards, invisibly, Despair is riding its lame horse.” [pg. 202] On the other hand, Mr Quill is one of the novel’s most sympathetic characters, an artistic dupe for the cousin’s more brutal schemes, perhaps, but still a bringer of beauty and of culture: “His endeavours are tidier and more wildly colourful – they’re certainly more blue – than anything that nature can provide.” [pg. 133] Harvest offers a wise and inconclusive picture of what living more closely in harmony with the land means, and, conversely but simultaneously, what a more developed society can offer – Walter’s village, unchecked by the mores of the town, shaves women’s heads and charges them with witchcraft if they speak out of turn. There is little need to point out how this parable, too, is of urgent contemporary relevance.

In some years, both Crace and Tóibín would make the shortlist: The Testament of Mary, I think, pulls off the preternaturally difficult trick of being simultaneously the tauter and more supple work, but it is only a nose ahead. Given the inclinations of the longlist, however, it would seem odd if both men make it through. Crace has suggested Harvest is his last novel – in a press release, the Man Booker hopes its longlisting might change his mind – and so his might be the book to watch. Whatever. Both are superb, inspiring, important pieces of fiction, and though perhaps the Booker could do with some visibly fresh thinking, we could all do with more novels like these.

life-after-life-coverIn the moments after completing Kate Atkinson’s often intense alternate history, Life After Life, I couldn’t help but compare it with Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls. I put this down to having recently reviewed the latter, but the longer Atkinson’s novel has sat, read but unreviewed, on my shelves, the more the comparator has seemed to me useful as a means of explaining what it it does so well.

That review of Beukes’s gory thriller appeared alongside a piece by Jesse Bullington that faithfully echoed the wall-to-wall praise of the novel which has appeared in the wake of a formidable PR campaign: “a work that does everything right, teasing the reader with potential paradoxes yet always restoring a consistent narrative, and one where the time travel element never overshadows the emotional core of the novel yet is essential to the plot.” My own review was far more equivocal, and has since been joined in its lonely dissent by D. Harlan Wilson in the LARB:

Obviously I wanted more from The Shining Girls — something, perhaps, that approached the artistic chi or aura of the shining girls themselves. But the novel is precisely what it wants to be: a creative recycling of old ideas and characters that will appeal to popular audiences on the page and on the screen. Given Beukes’s command of language and storytelling, it will certainly be among the best-written books on sale at Walmart.

The Shining Girls features a time-travelling serial killer who picks off women contributing to society above and beyond the restrictions imposed upon their sex; the reasonable argument is, one supposes, that violence against women transcends era. In practice, though, the book fumbles its central case: the individual women get short shrift, reducing the vividness of their particularity; the serial killer in question, rendered far more vividly than any of his victims bar the novel’s protagonist, can be read as the agent of his House, which enables his travels through time and seems to force him into them, too; and, though dexterously structured, the novel ultimately comes unstuck even at the point of its insistent denouement, a tried-and-tested final confrontation.

Life After Life, on the other hand, focuses squarely on Ursula, a woman born in 1910 to the kind of comfortably-off family familiar to us from DH Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and Ian McEwan. It takes place across much of the twentieth century, taking in both World Wars, the Weimar Republic, and the sexual revolution; and in the course of its pages Ursula dies many times – at the hands of Spanish ‘flu, or of an abusive husband, or in the horror of the Blitz. After each death, she returns to the moment of her birth (in one life she is strangled within seconds by the umbilical cord), and begins to be aware of this endless reliving – resulting first in therapy, and then in an attempt to shape her own life, and then the world around her.

Written both with tenderness and an unflinching eye for grisly detail – Ursula’s murder is less cartoonish, but more horrifying, than anything in The Shining Girls, whilst in another life her ARP patrols are littered with body parts and dead babies – Life After Life succeeds rather wonderfully in evoking both the cosy verities of the Edwardian English novel, and exploding the form outwards. Like Beukes’s House, Atkinson’s recursive reincarnation is never explained – and yet, unlike the serial killing of The Shining Girls, the repeatedly truncated lives of Life After Life come to stand both for a good deal more than violent misogyny, and more robustly and completely for that, too.

“The toll of the dead had been her business during the war,” Ursula’s supervisor Miss Woolf reflects at one point, “the endless stream of figures that represented the blitzed and the bombed passed across her desk to be collated and recorded. They had seemed overwhelming, but the greater figures – the six million dead, the fifty million dead, the numberless infinites of souls – “were in a realm beyond comprehension.” [pg. 137]  Life After Life seeks to rehumanise those figures not by attempting to depict as many of those souls as possible, but by plumbing the infinities of a single soul. Ursula’s many lives, her unnecessary deaths and endlessly repeated mistakes frustrating a smaller number of fuller existences, come to stand for all of those snuffed out by war or violence or bigotry. Where Miss Woolf cannot comprehend the Blitz or the Holocaust, Atkinson’s readers come to understand Ursula.

Ursula’s own mother seeks to deny all this potential by forcing her into the stencils of womanhood supplied by the unjust society to which she belongs. “Perhaps you will never marry,” she sighs during a life in which Ursula embraces singledom, “as if Ursula’s life was as good as over.” [pg. 275]   Ursula’s fight for her individuality powers her better lives, those in which she does not succumb to alcoholism or undergo a backstreet abortion. But it comes at the cost of ‘respectability’, and her best life ends alone on a park bench, a moderately successful civil servant but somehow still incomplete. “I admire you, really,” says her sister, “Being your own woman. Not following the herd and so on. I just don’t want you to be hurt.” [pg. 244]  Ursula is too late for her mother’s Victorian values, too early for the liberation of the 1960s. (“What an old fuddy-duddy she sounded, she had become the person she always thought she would never be.” [pg. 429])   Just as she comes to stand for all the twentieth-century lives lost to war, then, she comes to stand for all the woman never quite allowed to be.

That Ursula’s best lives emerge from – huzzah! – the empowerment and emancipation of a solidly gentrified university education is the only slightly heavy note in an otherwise delicately played suite of  bittersweet brilliance. The ‘message’ never overtakes the ‘medium’, the grand theme always serving Ursula’s intimate plots rather than vice versa. Atkinson’s prose is supple yet probing, sensitive and yet defiantly robust. Even her happy endings – the assassination of Hitler, or the return of a doomed hero – are explicitly liminal, against the odds and unusual, like Ursula’s survival amongst limitless lives in which she and her family succumb again and again to the 1918 influenza pandemic. The balance and resonance of Life After Life is impressive: hit any part of it, and every segment sings.

Maybe the novel isn’t quite so “accessible and original” as the Women’s Prize judges obviously found May We Be Forgiven, a work rather less perfectly formed but more concious, perhaps, of its literary purpose. But if, in my gadfly judgement, The Shining Girls is a “schematic, occasionally melodramatic novel”, then Life After Life is that altogether better thing: a detailed and deep melodrama, both evocative and intelligent.

whered-you-go-bernadetteI didn’t quite know how to take Where’d You Go Bernadette, Maria Semple’s second and Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel. On the one hand, it presents as a zany comedy befitting the pen of an erstwhile member of the Arrested Development writing staff, all kooky characters and unlikely farce. On the other, it’s a novel about long-term depression and the creative impulse, which sidles up embarrassingly closely to its Women’s Prize competitor, the lengthy but well-crafted May We be Forgiven. Perhaps reading these two novels back-to-back didn’t help, but Where’d You Go Bernadette felt slight, undercooked and confused.

When we first meet Bernadette Fox, she is a borderline-agoraphobic stay-at-home mom, lurking in a crumbling old mansion on a plush street of otherwise politely contemporary homes in her adopted city of Seattle. We peer at her through an accretion of documents – emails, hand-written notes, an expanding list of ever more unlikely paraphenalia – which are curated and connected by Bee, Bernadette’s precocious teenage daughter. About to be shipped off to boarding school by her own volition, Bee is attempting to understand what we come quickly to discover is her mother’s disappearance, by piecing together the weeks leading up to it, the uneasy marriage of her parents (her father, Elgie, is a big noise at Microsoft, the star of the fourth most-watched TED talk ever), and the petty politics of her middling prep school, Galer Street.

Bee is as unlikely a narrator as her fifty-something mother is an unlikely former genius architect and recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award, but thus we learn she is and was. The frustrations of Seattle life, the regrets of an artistic life abandoned, and the difficulties of a marriage in which communication has become dangerously combustible, lead to a series of misunderstandings that culminate in Bernadette feeling she has no other option but to abscond without notifying anyone of her intended whereabouts. Both on the novel’s cover and in the course of its pages, Bernadette is painted in a whimsical fashion – “She wore dark glasses, trousers and loafers, a men’s shirt with silver cuff links, and some kind of vest underneath her raincoat” [pg. 65] – but in truth she is deeply unhappy, constantly projecting her own neuroses onto the perceived deficiencies of Seattle, “the U.S. city with more millionaires per capita than any other [but] overtaken by bums”; “There are two hairstyles here,” Bernadette gripes: “short gray hair and long gray hair.” [pp. 124-5]

Bernadette’s bitterness is, as you may gather, of a particularly petty kind, and her greatest architectural achievement, the MacArthur-winning house in Los Angeles constructed entirely of material sourced from within a twenty-mile radius, was demolished by a neighbour as part of an ongoing feud over a parking space. This event is seen by Bernadette, and eventually everyone else, as the beginning of her spiral into Seattle-bound depression, ensconced in a house she cannot bring herself to improve; but her objection to her neighbour in LA, and later to her neighbours in Seattle, “had,” according to her erstwhile architectural mentor, “nothing to do with architecture” [pg. 112]: that is, Bernadette dresses up her contempt for those around her as based on art and aesthetics (she dresses as she does in protest at everyone else’s terrible fashion sense), but infact rests upon her own assumption – and simultaneous denial of – privilege.

Semple foregrounds this tension: in an email to the Indian personal assistant whom she pays 75 cents an hour to arrange her life so she does not have to, Bernadette asks, “You know what it’s like when you go to Ikea and you can’t believe how cheap everything is [...] Of course you don’t” [pg. 23].   And yet the novel’s curious coda, in which the epistolary form is abandoned as Bee joins her father in the search for good old, crazy Bernadette – who has, bear with me here, escaped to a scientific research outpost in the Antarctic – does not disabuse her of this privilege, but simply allows her to learn to live with it. “Do you know how absolutely exotic it is that you haven’t been corrupted by fashion and pop culture?” she asks Bee rhetorically [pg. 320].  Likewise, the novel spends a good amount of time lampooning Bernadette’s Galer Street nemesis, the pushy and pretentious parent of a drug-pushing tearaway (“Today at Whole Foods, a woman I didn’t even recognize recognized me and said she was looking forward to my brunch” [pg. 45]); and yet Semple ultimately turns around our first impressions in an authorly about-face (“Angela Griffin is an angel,” Bernadette writes [pg. 306]. Semple’s message seems to be: hey, rich people aren’t so bad! It’s good to know this novel is here to defend the upper middle class. (Incidentally, there is only one non-white character in the novel, an Asian-American woman over whom all the characters agonise when Bee compares her to Yoko Ono.)

Where’d You Go, Bernadette isn’t without its charms: it is fiendishly well-constructed, its various documents casting light on each other in a way which is impossible to criticise except on the grounds of improbable perfection. The dialogue, as one might expect of a former writer for television, is zingy if occasionally over-cute. And there are, inevitably, moments which raise a smile and even an out-loud laugh. But all of this has the air of contrivance, of the unreal. There’s a terrible sequence in which Bee listens to Abbey Road – an album released in 1969 which is nevertheless this mid-teen’s very favourite record – and pieces together the studio history of its famous second-side medley. “That [final] instrumental was also constructed by Paul in the studio after the fact, so it’s just a bunch of fake sentimentality,” she concludes, refusing to change her opinion of the record but accepting its essential phoniness [pg. 77]. The passage, with spaded-on irony, reads not at all like the musicology of an enthusiastic adolescent, and more like a plea for the novel in which it appears.

There’s a tiresomeness, then, not just about Bernadette’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it entitlement – “If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society,” she is exhorted [pg. 133] – but about the manner in which the novel goes about examining it. We are routinely delivered the canards that Bernadette has something against community, and that she and others in the novel are practising reality avoidance (Elgie’s big project is a device which enables someone to lie on their coach and bring a bowl of popcorn to themselves via telekinesis); the finale of the novel, however, in which Bee’s voice becomes almost indistinguishable from her mother’s – she experiences the same seasickness as Bernadette, develops the same sniffy misanthropy – feels like a blissful collapse back into not a real wider awareness – “When your eyes are focused on the horizon for sustained periods, your brain releases endorphins,” says Elgie optimistically [pg. 287] – but back into the cosy Seattle club Bernadette begins the novel despising but with which she secretly shares her snobberies (Bee doesn’t go to boarding school, but does get into the Seattle-based dream school). It’s a disappointment that the moral of Where’d You Go, Bernadette is just to despise snobbery less (“we need to start living like normal people”, whatever normal is [pg. 319]), rather than to treat those two impostors just the same.

 For those of us who have always been sceptical of the aphorism with which Tolstoy began Anna Karenina, A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven is both disappointing restatement and overdue corrective. All happy families, one might reasonably demur, are demonstrably not alike; their contentment is as variegated as the miseries of their less fortunate neighbour. In Homes’s novel, Harry Silver is a frustrated Nixon scholar and bachelor, teaching by the skin of his teeth at a middling liberal arts college and experiencing often intense jealousy and loathing for his successful, boorish, married-with-boarding-school-children TV executive brother, George. What’s remarkable about this set-up is how quickly it is washed away by a great torrent of story in the novel’s first fifty pages: there is a car accident, an affair, a murder, a death, a transfer of power of attorney … in short a total up-ending of both Harry and George’s lives; what’s more remarkable is that, somehow, Homes then continues for more than four hundred further pages.

This doesn’t become quite as attenuated as it may sound (though repetition and derivation are keynotes of the book). Rather, May We Be Forgiven becomes a lengthy picaresque satire, more Humphrey Clinker than Brothers Karamazov, in which an extended family is put under the microscope and poked a bit. The children from George’s marriage come to be in the care of his brother; Harry himself begins to meet women from the internet for anonymous sex; cousins and grandparents drift in and out of unsteady orbits. Homes’s first assumption is that modern American society is atomised – from the canned laughter on sit coms (“You know it’s not real people laughing,” Harry informs one of his conquests; “It was once,” she replies [pg. 254]) to the “electronic minders” which prod children to click a button, then inform their parents that they are OK (“if we don’t respond it calls a list of names” [pg. 91]), distance is the very character of all the novel’s relationships.

There are some gestures towards the sins of the baby boomers – “I am a grown man who has barely grown,” Harry opines [pg. 151], whilst also noting that “my parents expected George and me to grow up and be president, [but] they didn’t believe were actually even capable of crossing the street on our own” [pg. 201]. But analysis of how Harry and his cohort got here isn’t the novel’s strong point, or its purpose. This is a humorous book in which Don DeLillo appears as a homeless man, and the ghost of Updike’s Henry Bech is conjured only later to be exorcised; it is profoundly intertextual, but is less interested in all that ‘state of the nation’ posturing than it is in what might happen next. May We Be Forgiven satirises not just America, but also, and perhaps primarily, American letters: in the sexual neuroses of Harry, in the institutional adventures on campuses (Harry is, of course, fired) and in hospitals (one of which is, of course, converted into a conference venue), and in its pictures of small town Westchester life, May We Be Forgiven feels very often like a mildly subversive recapitulation of all that has gone before.

The difference here, of course, is that Homes is a woman intent on exploding the sterility of the Updikean pose. One of Harry’s most significant sexual encounters, for instance, is with a woman who refuses to tell him her name, initiates all contact, and disappears as soon as she has had her way (“I am not someone that things happen to” [pg. 301]; this at first seems a fairly de rigeur denial of the masculine agency of which we might expect Harry to boast in this sub-Villages set up, but later his interloctuor, revealed eventually to be nursing two elderly parents and named Amanda, exposes her true identity (“I MAKE FUCKING QUILTS” [pg. 326]), and Harry is denied even the mysteriously sexy lust figure. Elsewhere Harry realises, “Part of building my relationship with the kids is talking with them more often and more honestly, as though they’re real people” [pg. 262], and such is Homes’s project: to humanise not just the central protagonist in this classical American tale, but to renew the argument for a more social vision both of the novel and an individual’s place within it. May We Be Forgiven is anti-Updike, agit-pop Roth.

On the other hand, the resolution feels too pat. We see that to be a happy family is to take into consideration all the many idiosyncrasies that lie within it, rather than exercise any kind of totalising template. But did we need to learn that? When Harry discusses his life with Amy, “all that comes out is so short, as though the story has sucked itself back into a deep ether” [pg. 299], and the reader wonders why, then, he has spent 477 pages bombarding us with so much more detail. It is certainly there that the devil lies throughout the novel, but Homes’s recursive satire begins to wear thin as the layers are peeled away to reveal more of the same. When Harry observes in conversation with his de facto daughter, Ashley (herself enmeshed, in a book that develops sub-plots like a game of Whack-A-Rat, in an abusive relationship with a teacher) that no family is quite what they seem, we get it; when he rants that “George is a paranoid bully who doesn’t see what’s good for him and looks at me as the enemy no matter what I do”, and a shrink replies, “And Nixon?”, we should be allowed a groan [pg. 448].

It is as if Homes’s prose cannot quite stretch itself across the chasm between Cheever-DeLillo-Roth’s stripe of Americana to a more holistic, compassionate form. May We Be Forgiven exhibits that usual kind of minimalism that inhibits so much contemporary American fiction in the first place; it is dialogue-heavy, description-light, and revels in bathos as an effect. That makes it an interesting but not entirely successful satire: aware of the limitations of American life and letters, but less sure how to compensate for them. It is at times rewardingly funny, and its individual episodes are expertly constructed – it belongs on the Women’s Prize shortlist if only for a brilliant passage in which Harry attends a school sports day. But it doesn’t quite hang together, even allowing for the bagginess natural to any picaresque, and – in a novel clearly straining to square a circle – that’s a shame.

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