“It Felt Like An Alien World”: Lavie Tidhar’s “Central Station”

Let us cease this charade: Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station must win the Arthur C Clarke Award of 2017.

I say this without having yet completed the shortlist; but the notion that a work as important or lyrical or entertaining has been published in the last five benighted years of science fiction seems unlikely, much less that by chance two, like iridescent buses, have come along at once. Here is a linked series of short stories, ones published in many cases years apart and miles away, rethreaded with additions and dilations into not so much a whole as a tesselation. This is the anthology as mosaic, the collection as gauzed screen. In the gaps of these careful overlappings, you understand, is the work’s singularity.

Tidhar’s titular spaceport is on the site of modern-day Tel Aviv, and finds itself in the heart of a land both non-nation and joint Jewish-Palestinian cohabitation. Here lies the first of the book’s withholdings: we never learn how this utopian end was reached, except insofar as we come to see it is anything but. That is, what seems to our current divided world an almost impossible resolution is given a treatment as grimy, lived-in and imperfect as any other modern SF setting might turn out to be. This is one of the ways, I think, in which Tidhar avoids many of the traps into which any work with this environment as its setting may have fell. There is no preaching and no tweeness, no corner-rounding or lecturing; Central Station is anti-didactic in every way, and this is what enables its success. Early on, we meet Miriam ‘Mama’ Jones, proprietor of a vaguely disreputable tavern and adoptive mother of Kranki, one of many children in Central Station whom everyone believes are more than human in ways yet unknown:

In North Tel Aviv the Jews lived in their skyrises, and in Jaffa to the South the Arabs had reclaimed their old land by the sea. Here, in between, there were still those people of the land they had called variously Palestine or Israel and whose ancestors had come there as labourers from around the world, from the islands of the Philippines, and from the Sudan, from Nigeria, and from Thailand or China, whose children were born there, and their children’s children, speaking Hebrew and Arabic and Asteroid Pidgin, that near-universal language of space. Mama Jones looked after the boy because there was no one else and the rule across this country was the same in whichever enclave of it you were. We look after our own. [pp. 7-8]

All of Tidhar’s writing in Central Station is as elegant as this. All, too, is as capacious: note that identities in his world are still exclusive, and yet also come to accomodation; note that space, not just earth, is now a place from which people may hail; and note, too, that inequalities and inequities still persist – just differently than we may in this moment now predict.

Only science fiction can build such a world in which ideas may be tested; and, in also creating new identities to inhabit his storied Central Station, Tidhar demonstrates how. Miriam’s brother, Achimwene, is one of the few humans not able to access the “Conversation”, a sort of immanent Internet; he and his fellows – mostly men – feel “broken in some fundamental fashion” [p. 133], and are treated so by others. Boris Chong, Miriam’s erstwhile lover, is bonded with a Martian “Aug”, which has the habit of “feeding him alien thoughts, alien feelings” [p. 45]; he is also a descendent of Weiwei Zhong, an early settler at Central Station who persuaded an Oracle, a human joined in turn with one of the highly evolved AIs known as Others, to grant all his descendants a shared memory, allowing each to relive their times past. Boris once had an affair with a data-vampire known as Carmel, and some of the worst persecution in the book is doled out to her upon her arrival in town, since she is seen – in an echo, perhaps, of witch trials – as a threat to the “normal” community.

There are many other distinct identities: the Robotniks, decommissioned cyborg soldiers; the possibly immortal Ibrahim, a rag-and-bone man and much more, or the god artist Eliezer; and members of the many faiths of Central Station, both familiar to us and less so, some of whom are ministered to by R. Brother Patch-It, a tragic figure and a robotic priest. It’s hard not to reach for superlative comparisons in all this, difficult not to suggest, however helpful or otherwise, that Tidhar matches the invention and wit of Le Guin or Harrison, Wolfe or Tiptree. To return to the motif of layers, Tidhar situates himself in this most august of company in the ways he places invention on top of borrowing, intimation across parallel, until he creates from whole cloth a world which also feels startlingly relevant. Again: you cannot achieve the effects Tidhar here achieves in ways other than the science fictional.

Not being a novel, too, Central Station does not feel the pressure of resolution. The story sequence has an ending, but in truth it is no more final than any of the other many closures that take place throughout the work – and nor is the collection’s final scene very much more than a vignette, similar to many such moments in far earlier stories – Isobel, a ship’s captain in one of the Conversation’s most popular environments, the Guilds of Ashkelon, putting her head to the cold chest of her Robotnik lover, or Ruth Cohen, descendant of the evolutionary scientist who gave rise to the Others, accepting the irreparable fusion that will transform her into the Oracle. The final pages of Central Station don’t really tell us who or what Kranki is, or how and why Israel and Palestine are now names from a distant past. “You couldn’t answer everything,” the robo-priest ruminates at one point. “You could only believe there were answers at all” [p. 112].

This would be mysticism if it wasn’t so plainly proven in the pages of the collection. Partly, it is seen to be so out of  necessity. “You need to have faith,” insists Miriam to the sceptical Boris. “It is hard enough just being alive. You have to have a little faith” [p. 97]. But, equally, faith becomes a by-word for tolerance, for coexistence – and in this sleight of hand Tidhar flips our current moment into a hopeful – because plausible – future. When Matt Cohen, eventually to be venerated as St Cohen of the Others, faces protestors outside his computer lab as he agonises over whether to delete or free the digital entities he and they believe may be capable of sentience, he reflects on his method:

… It’s what Life magazine called him, back in the day. A Frankenstein; when all he wanted was to be left alone with his computers, knowing that he did not know what he was doing, that digital intelligence, those not-yet-born Others, could not be designed, could not be programmed , by those who wrongly used the term artificial intelligence. Matt was an evolutionary scientist, not a programmer. He did not know what form they would take when at last they emerged. Evolution alone would determine that. [p. 207]

Queasily, the protestors, like anti-abortion activists now, believe in Cohen’s creations’ right to life – it is they, not he, who ensure the Others’ survival when they storm his laboratory. But he enables their existence by accepting that things must be allowed to be what they are – or what they will be.  Science fiction is often opposed to this que sera sera approach, since its protagonists tend to have the technological or epistemological power to change things. Central Station allows for these figures, but also repurposes religion – another traditional bête noir of science fiction (a difficult and increasingly problematic blind spot to have when interpreting our current age) – as a sort of next-step for these intelligent designers. When it emerges that Boris had a hand in the creation of whatever set of super-children Kranki represents, Miriam scolds him: “What’s human? […] They’re children, Boris. For all that you birthed them, for all the designer care and the fluids and getting your hands dirty, you never understood that” [p. 189]. In other words, we must accept the agency of others before we can live side-by-side.

It’s worth saying that Central Station also exhibits all the gleeful perversity for which, perhaps because of its gross-out prominence in works like the Hitler-gumshoe fable A Man Lies Dreaming, Tidhar has already created a rather bigger name than he has won for his wisdom. Here we encounter a “Golda Meir automaton [which] journeyed to ancient Mars-That Never-Was, and changed from the course of a planet” [p. 53]; we hear a player who died in-game crow, “That was awesome! […] Flatlined! In a singularity! I won;’t have to buy drinks for months!” [p. 200]; and we learn that Ogko, to whom there is a shrine almost everywhere in the world of Central Station, “cheerfully admitted … [he] was a liar” [p. 72]. Tidhar has given up none of his humour; rather, he has worked it into a wider worldview.

In a meditation on Central Station, the current Shadow Clarke jurist Jonathan McCalmont reflects on the novel’s almost urgent relevance: “To believe that multiculturalism can be overthrown or defeated by even a powerful political movement,” he argues, “is to ignore how subjectivities and identities are even formed.” McCalmont may be waxing uncharacteristically optimistic here. Regardless, what Central Station does beautifully, and does so because it is such a well-written piece of well-conceived science fiction, is to depict precisely how identities form, why they are important – and the ways in which we might imagine them as both inviolable and non-exclusive.

Let us cease this charade.

“Its Owner Is Unknown.”

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

“You Can Imagine The Details For Yourself”: Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Eileen”

Ottessa Moshfegh is one of those debut novelists whose first book in fact comes freighted with expectation. Beloved of The Paris Review, recipient of several awards, and, despite her much-heralded absence from social media, something already of a “personality” in literary circles, Moshfegh’s appearance on the 2016 Booker shortlist is not the surprise triumph of a rank outsider that it first appears to be.

That Eileen impresses despite all this is testament to the quality of its craft. Set in 1964 New England, and focusing on the eponymous protagonist during the week leading up to the Christmas of that year, the novel has all the claustrophobic intimacy of the short story – the form’s tart phrase-making, its taste for vivid imagery – and yet is expertly paced and packaged as a novel. Moshfegh leaps and bounds, then, over the hurdle which usually does for short story writers tackling their first novel-length project. This books works thoroughly as a novel, is a total formal success: it is both a compelling page-turner and an expansive conjuration of interiority.

Which brings us to character. Eileen has little time for any individuals beyond its titular anti-heroine – even the novel’s change-maker, the beautiful and mysterious Rebecca Saint John, is given a cliched, noir-ish treatment which renders her inaccessible as an individual. We experience her, and every other character – from Eileen’s alcoholic father to Randy, her oblivious crush at the young offendor’s institute where she works – through the filter of the narrator’s consciousness. It is a function of the extent to which Moshfegh conjures Eileen in her entirety that it therefore becomes almost impossible to read the other characters any more deeply than Eileen herself does.

This might be a flaw in another novel, but Eileen is ultimately a book about understanding and comprehension. Eileen is profoundly estranged from her own body. She abuses laxatives, is revolted by her own sexuality, and eats only compulsively (“I went in and bought a Boston cream, ate it in one gulp, as I was wont to do, and walked out immediately remorseful” [p. 56]). When she reflects at one point that “a friend is someone who helps you hide the body” [p. 97], she is not just teasing, as she does throughout, the crime she warns us from the off to expect. As a child, Eileen experienced no love from her parents – in one of the most memorable of the novel’s many flashbacks, Eileen recalls “a yellow rectangle of light” turning to blackness as her mother closed the door to the dangerously steep cellar stairs down which her daughter had just, unforgivably, fallen (p. 66). Her mother long dead and still stuck in her childhood home at 24, Eileen’s house-bound, raging father continues to abuse her and their relationship: “The worst crime I could commit in his eyes was to do anything for my own pleasure, anything outside of my daughter lay duties” (p. 158). There are intimations, too, of incest.

This twisted upbringing, which forms the sum total of her experience, has left Eileen unable, too, to understand others. She is filled with frustrated rage, is herself an alcoholic, and hates everyone and everything as the novel opens, imagining herself as a Joan of Arc accidentally born into the life of a nobody. “I was the only one whose pain was real,” she insists at one point (p. 118). She is thus unlikeable in almost every way, up to and including abusing others in her turn: in one darkly comic moment, her father drunkenly complains to the police that his daughter hides all his shoes from him to prevent him leaving the house; they discard his report as the ramblings of a crazy old man, but in fact his shoes are indeed locked permanently in the trunk of Eileen’s car. It is one of the novel’s quietly radical statements to render a female character so repellent: we are used, perhaps, to Holden Cauldfield and Patrick Bateman, both of whom Eileen resembles to one extent or another, but less so to Esther Greenwood; Eileen is a reminder that The Bell Jar was written fifty-three years ago (and published the year before the one in which Eileen is set) … and that we still haven’t got over the very expectations which so trap Eileen and the turnings of blind eyes which facilitate the abuse that has bent her so fully out of shape. “There are no prizes for good little girls,” she reminds us at several junctures (p. 73).

Eileen objectifies the men and women in her life, has no sympathy for the brutalised boys resident at her place of work, and even when apparently enraptured by someone can develop no empathy for or connection with them. That almost everyone else in the novel is similarly attenuated gives the novel a terrible bleakness that its narrative frame, set at a half-century’s remove from the main events and told from the point of a view of a much older Eileen, cannot entirely dispel. “It’s hard to imagine that this girl, so false, so irritable, so used, was me,” this older Eileen opines; but her references to repeated marriages, numerous empty flings, and her apparent continued lack of understanding of many of the drivers of her story’s plot, provide little redemptive material for the attentive reader.

In fact, at times I read Eileen as I do America Psycho: as the essentially deluded outpourings of a narrator so unreliable as to make them an outright liar. Indeed, the over-riding tone of the novel and its climactic events seem so generically and stylistically divorced that we seem positively encouraged towards this reading. Stylistically, the novel throughout is Eileen’s work rather than Moshfegh’s – though sentences and paragraphs are turned expertly, often diction and turn of phrase are naive (“It was 1964, so much on the horizon” [p. 17]) – but those scenes in which the crime at the novel’s centre and climax is revealed and explained seem in some ways to belong to a different, less interesting and conflicted, book. There’s nothing explicit in the novel that confirms Eileen as a novel of this sort; but there is a generic slippage, from literary to noir to gothic and back again, that doesn’t quite have the proper intonation. The rest of the novel is so well-crafted that it is hard to write this off as poor writing; it is surely a feature, not a bug.

All that said, and for all its scatological content and bold approach to gender and issues of abuse, Eileen also feels curiously old-fashioned. Its 1960s setting renders it a little safely distant, and its relatively straight-forward first-person voice adds few wrinkles to the usual template of the unreliable, unlikeable narrator. It is part of its success, perhaps, that the novel reads like a period piece – like Patricia Highsmith for the Vice generation. That it reads already like a rediscovered classic is one of the reasons, I am sure, it has been shortlisted for the Booker – and a very good reason, I suspect, why it should be considered a favourite. But the canonical air belies the novel’s decidedly more violent, and more vituperative, heart. Eileen is a novel that persuades us to gulp down an awful lot of nasty stuff, and experience it as a pleasure; its familiarity may be part of its spell. But familiar it sometimes feels regardless.

Quis Corbyniet Ipsos Corbynes?


It has taken me months – more or less fully the close-to-a-year that he has been leader of the Labour Party – to find the courage to write about Jeremy Corbyn. Undoubtedly, courage is what is required – never in my lifetime has Labour politics in particular, but British politics in general, been so querulous and febrile. That our politics requires courage is not, I think, a bad thing – for decades it has been more often characterised if not by cowardice then a queasy caution. Even Thatcherism, lionised by some and despised by others for its hatchet-job temerity, strikes me as a form of capitulation – to American hegemony or global capital or simply compensatory managerialism. It is this technocratic approach which is most despised by those flocking to Corbyn’s banner. That it requires courage now to be political speaks of a moment in which we might actually be doing something.

But doing what? Part of the courage we now require is simply in predicting events – the kaleidoscope is over-shaken. What next depends, of course, upon whom you ask. For my part, I haven’t shifted on the subject of Corbyn from initial scepticism: for all the rapture which welcomed his original leadership campaign – the huge turn-outs, the excited spike in membership, the unassailable mandate – it never seemed to me that what Corbyn was saying was terribly interesting in anything other than its distinctiveness from the barren pronouncements of his opponents. “If the best the left can do is go back to the planned economy, we are screwed,” I texted a friend last July, who seemed surprised I wasn’t embracing Corbynism’s first flush with enthusiasm. Corbyn is a Bennite; for many this is his selling-point. For me it is the best expression there might be of the wider malaise of the left. Corbynism badly needs a Jeremy Corbyn figure to shake it up and put it on a righteous, radical path.

But Owen Smith has matched Corbyn policy-by-policy (except on keeping Trident and inviting ISIS to tea) – and why vote for an unimaginative retreat to a 1970s comfort blanket when you can vote for an unimaginative retreat to a 1970s comfort blanket that really means it? Where are the bright ideas from Corbyn’s leadership – even bright ideas, like those of Paul Mason, which seem doomed to remain in the middle chapters of lesser-read Charlie Stross novels? Why has he failed to do anything more with his ascent to the apex of his party than continue to advocate for his ascent to the apex of his party?

Because, Corbynistas will retort, he has been given no room to express an agenda, and no space to relax into the role. That is, the ‘Labour right’ has prevented anything but an immediate bunkerisation of the Corbyn project. I no longer know what is meant by the ‘Labour right’ – the old right of John Spellar or the “Blairism” of the King over the water, David Miliband? Or perhaps what was once the soft leftism of Angela Eagle, or the plain-speaking bullishness of Margaret Hodge. The ‘right’ has morphed into a bogeyman, a label with which to tar and defang Corbynism’s opponents. The breakdown of meaningful dialogue between heterodox political positions characterises our new hard-knock politics more than any other phenomenon: Brexiters and Remainers, one half seemingly hardly knowing a member of the other; Cameroons and Mayites, unable to serve in the same Cabinet even when the transition period between the two regimes is wafer thin; the one per cent and the ninety-nine; the Scots and the English.

But Corbyn’s heart is in the right place – Corbyn wants to stop all this. His is a kinder, gentler politics. He means well. With much of this it is hard to disagree, since his has been a career defined by stubborn advocacy for the under-dog; but my issue is that I have never been sufficiently tribal to believe that at least a fair number of Tories, too, also bleed if we prick them. What matters is not intention but plans of action; we all want that which we define as “best”. But what is that? And how will you achieve it? Robert Halfon wants to tackle poverty, just like Jeremy Corbyn. I know how he proposes to do so, and disagree; Jeremy shrouds his strategy in good intentions.

Perhaps all of this is due to the failure of communications ably identified by (for it is he) Owen Jones. But the dispassionate observer might instead conclude that the principal project of Corbynism is not to craft a platform for government but to build a means of achieving creative destruction within the Labour Party. From the forming of a social movement to the application of extra-parliamentary pressure on legislators, the Corbyn project is so inchoately anti-establishment that it can attract even anarchists like Alan Moore as fellow travellers. This is yet another sign of the abject collapse of the social democratic left. This moribundity can be observed across Europe and beyond; but its ubiquity offers no defence. The lack of a compelling narrative from Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper in 2015; the ham-fisted incompetence of the so-called coup against Corbyn; and Ed Balls’s abject appearances on Strictly Come fucking Dancing are all symptoms of this malaise. But no consequence of social democracy’s senescence is as eloquent as the rise of Jeremy Corbyn.

Indeed, the malaise may well require the sort of revolution Corbynistas hanker for. If Owen Smith is the solution being sold, surely everyone must go to another store. The issue is, however, that the Corbynmania whipped up by the Socialist Campaign Group in order to win last year’s election serves to occlude any policy platform they might now wish to develop: in this excellent piece (the most balanced I have read), the LRB’s Tom Crewe writes that “the failure to separate Jeremy Corbyn from the project of a revived left … obscures (and by extension denies) the existence of legitimate concerns about his leadership.” That is, while you’re busy sharing all those stories from the Canary about how the attacks on Corbyn are all one big conspiracy, you are failing to take the log from your eye. Where are the propitious signs which do not rely on blind faith that Corbynism can, in Moore’s words, “struggle towards a future that we and all of the people who came before us could breathe in”?

I worry. How devastating that UKIP’s Douglas Carswell often seems to express the world-historical underpinnings of our particular moment better than John McDonnell. How fractured a left that cannot occupy or express any truly radical position until it has destroyed itself.

Owen Smith is not the answer to all this, of course. But is Corbyn-as-Moses any more a solution? Who could salvage from Corbynism’s under-whelming performance the trailblazing transformation that was promised? Might Jeremy lead his people to the promised land but never enter it, leaving the storming of the land of milk and honey to McDonnell or Clive Lewis? In the face of a possible early election, an uncooperative parliamentary party, an unprecedented period of constitutional flux and an at-best nascent movement outside Parliament, this seems a slim possibility. It might be made more likely by a war of slow attrition inside the Labour Party – the only body in Britain today, by the way, even faintly capable of mounting a proper opposition to Conservatism. Should Corbyn win on Wednesday, there is little doubt that his allies will recommence with renewed energy exactly that project. But while they are helping themselves, who is helping the people in whose name they are recreating their party? How many years will it take to reach the promised land, and how many of us will fall down during the long trudge through the desert?

The Labour party is Corbynism’s cocoon, and it is struggling to make its way out. What it will look like if it ever does manage to emerge is uncertain – as is why anyone, as a consequence, might feel at all qualified to vote in the party’s current leadership contest with anything but trepidation.

“It’s All Just Ink-Blots”: Tom McCarthy’s “Satin Island”

imageTom McCarthy’s Satin Island was the only novel on the 2015 Booker shortlist that I had already read. When I try to recall it, recpature the experience of reading the thing in order to write a post hoc review of it, what I come back with primarily is blankness. This is no doubt inspired in part by the glooping blackness of the cover art, and also by the empty post-it notes which are evoked in its endpapers; but it’s also, I think, more or less the effect McCarthy was after: a literary lacuna, a mordant glance askance at our superficialised milieu.

Here’s what I noted down about it in my reading diary (this entry of which is preserved in our What We Like Section on this very blog):

This is not C: it is not freewheeling and compendious, or expansive and confusing. A satire of late capitalism, Satin Island is the story of an anthropologist working as a researcher for a variety of consumerist brands, and he is open from the first about his bull-shitting trade; as the novel proceeds, however, even those ideas and thoughts he believes to have substance are revealed to have little purchase on significance. Almost everyone in the novel, regardless of their employer, is at work on the same Big Data-ish project, though none understand it; almost everyone searches for meaning and then doesn’t find it; and the novel ends, Gatsby-like, with a character letting a boat flow ever onwards … not into an ineffably recursive future, but a dirty harbour. Did we need Satin Island to know that late capitalism is a morass of self-negating contradictions? I’m not sure.

I’m not sure I need to add much to that, to be honest. Satin Island is far greater than its slim girth might suggest – it feels like an important novel in McCarthy’s pantheon,unlike, say, David Mitchell’s recent placeholder between projects. But by the same token it in some ways feels like a novel McCarthy would of course write, rather than one which surprises or startles. His earlier novel, C, was also nominated for the Booker but, in its twisting of the bildungsroman form into new shapes, or its frankly eccentric diction, it felt like a novel busting out o jail. Satin Island, meanwhile, draws a faithful scale drawing of the prison.

In the course of the novel, the narrator speaks directly to us at length about his life, and yet we are left more or less mystified as to its contexts. We follow him through episodes or even over-arching quests – interviews whi his gnomic boss, the ideas man Peyman (based, apparently, on McCarthy’s real-life friend and sparring partner, the Serpentine’s emperor of the contemporary, Hans-Ulrich Obrist), or visits to a colleague with cancer, or his continuing attempts to write something he calls the Great Report (a task for which he is supposedly employed by the corporation, but which never comes close to being begun, much less completed). These remain in weird ways like marooned components of an unfinished collage, however – floating between each other like underwear on a sparsely-populated washing line, identifiable but absurd.

The Great Report, of course, is both signifier and metaphor for this novelistic approach: like the Koob-Sassen Project, the great Big Data mission on which everyone the narrator encounters is working, it is ineffable and yet all-encompassing, both total and invisible. It is utterly pointless and worthy only of abandonment, and yet life without it would lack purpose of any kind. “The truly terrifying thought,” the narrator muses at one point, “wasn’t that the Great Report might be unwritable, but – quite the opposite – that it had already been written” (p. 123). That is, that it is in some way not being done by the narrator but being done to him, the system grown out of control.

On the very first page of the novel, we’re told that “people need foundation myths,” and if anything Satin Island is interested in being anti-origin story, a recursive feedback loop without any of the consolations or comforts of repetition. “There were scores of wakes,” the narrator observes of that dirty harbour at the novel’s end, “crossing each other in irregular and tangled patterns” (p. 171).  At another juncture, he imagines himself in the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a man puttering down an endless hall, artefacts just as priceless as the one he is currently carrying stretching off to infinity. In this way, the narrator – like us all – is trapped within a self-replicating system of such bewildering fecundity that to cultivate any part of it is to allow a dozen others to grow wild. The Koob-Sassen Project – unknowable, unfinishable – is winning.

The thing is, I knew that Tom McCarthy – and most everyone else – though that about post-modernity, and Satin Island doesn’t add a great deal to ‘what next’ (even if ‘what next’ is a scenario straight out of a Charlie Stross novel, which it may well be).  Perhaps ‘what next’ is another way of saying ‘so what’; perhaps requiring a next or a what is just my urge for a foundation myth whispering; either way, I think Satin Island gets its contrarian way with me. But what’s next?

“The Dead Never Stop Talking”: Marlon James’s “A Brief History of Seven Killings”

abhoskLife beyond this blog – that insistent, inconvenient thing – has been so full of late that I have failed, this year, to read the Man Booker shortlist prior to the announcement of the prize’s winner. In fact, I’ve failed yet to read the whole shortlist full stop. But this won’t, you will expect, prevent me from pronouncing upon it.

In no small part my keenness still to pontificate is based on the day on which I began the shortlist – two before the glittering shindig where the winner is crowned – and the book I chose to start with – Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, which was, of course, the eventual winner. What this tells me is that there’s no reason to read the shortlist at all, if your game is picking the winner – just sit on the sidelines, vaguely pick up on the background mood music, and you’ll be about right.

This may or may not be fair on James, even if it more or less nails the Booker. I picked his novel as my belated opening Booker gambit because I lacked the pressure to read the lot and lacked the time to spend on so-so novels; I’d heard good things about A Brief History, appreciated the jacket art and copy, and thought I’d give it a go. This seems the way we should always pick books to read, right?

Still, back to the horserace (because that’s what matters, natch). When I started the James, I immediately wondered how any other book on the list might manage to compete: the story of a number of character orbiting around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976 Kingston, the novel has such a range of voices, so well-conceived and -executed, and such a pace and sense of energy, that I found myself excited to wonder what the rest of a competitive shortlist might be like.

Of course, before I’d even finished the book it had been announced the winner and I inevitably wondered whether I should bother with the other five at all – at least in part because the middle third of James’s novel is a good deal baggier and less taut than its opening section. This was not, that is, the perfect winner … so, given it still could not stand up to the in-the-event slightly less impressive competition, was the rest of the shortlist up to much?

On deeper reflection, this is certainly unfair on James. That opening third – which introduces a range of characters, from youths on the lowest rung of the gangs which rule Kingston’s various subdivisions to American rock journalists, and conflicted daughters of good, light-skinned, middle-class Jamaican families – really is worth the price of admission alone. James sketches a bewilderingly complex culture and society in which each side seems to be playing all the others (the dimmest character in the book, and the most straight-forward, may not coincidentally be the CIA’s operative in Kingston, Barry DiFlorio); politics shade into organised crime, organised crime into Cold War espionage. Christopher Tayler in the LRB is good on how closely this all cleaves to the reality (in short: pretty).

But in many ways the question of James’s accuracy is the least interesting thing about his novel. Like James Ellroy, who is an impossible comparison to avoid here, James is sneaking his fictions between the cracks of official history; unlike his American counterpart, he eschews real-life names and settings (only Marley is referred to by the name he had in our own world, and even he is largely known throughout as ‘the singer’): the novel’s gangsters, its towns and its reporters, all have new sobriquets. If the background figures – presidents and prime ministers – remain the same, everything else changes. I wonder about this: is there some cowardice here, in dressing up a more or less real-life event in names to protect the decidedly not innocent? What fictive game is James playing?

In part, he’s playing a game of truth or consequences, and the unreal names allow him to posit his own poetic justices for the historical acts he fictionalises: the internal lives of all these men and women are conflicted and shot through with not a little philosophising; the fake names in this way operate as dramatic masks to place over the verifiable historical truth. This is where the novel starts to creak, though: the first third, which sticks closest, except in its interior speculations, to what we know about the history it recounts, bleeds into a rather awkward second section, which strains in every way to pivot the novel to its final furlong, in which chickens come home to roost for all of the characters, transplanted now to the USA and New York’s grim 1980s. James has a beginning and he has an end (his truth and his consequences); at times it feels like he lacks a middle. This is a problem, of course, because the middle is where a book lives.

I don’t often do this sort of thing in a review, but let’s compared and contrast at length:

We see and wait. Two men bring guns to the ghetto. One man show me how to use it. But ghetto people used to kill each other long before that. With anything we could find: stick, machete, knife, ice pick, soda bottle. Kill for food. Kill for money. Sometimes a man get kill because he look at another man in a way he didn’t like. And killing don’t need no reason This is ghetto. Reason is for rich people. We have madness. (p. 9)

Is lie you tell me. Two Friends night club never deh ’bout in 1977? It didn’t open ’till ’79? Then is which club me run into Rawhide, Turntable? No star, me can’t imagine it being Turntable, boy, even the Prime Minister used to go there so. People from the good side of life mingling with middle-class people to feel like them connect to some culture, you know how it go. (p. 471)

Shit just blew up in Iran. Well, it blew up back in January, but fallout’s just reaching us now. Shit is blowing up all over the world. Chaos and disorder, disorder and chaos, I say them over and over like they have anything to do with each other, Sodom and Gomorrah, Gomorrah and Sodom. […] Jesus Christ, I think I’ve caught some Nixon fever. (p. 314)

The last of those three passages is from the troubled middle, and I think you can tell: it is more focused on exposition, on bridging gaps; it is admittedly written in the voice of one of James’s American characters, Barry DiFlorio, but even its rhythm and diction seem less natural and conversational than the first two. Where in the opening passage the accidental gang-member Bam-Bam offers a pungent-but-nuanced vision of life in the ghetto, and in the second an incarcerated former crim pokes the sort of metafictional holes with which James delights in peppering the whole novel, in the workaday central section the novel works hard. Were other parts of the novel not so very bloody good, you wouldn’t notice; as it is, the struggling second movement (“Doctor Love just fly to Miami saying he has a president to get elected” [p. 399]) tends to emphasise that A Brief History of Seven Killings hasn’t quite the iron-clad solidity of an Ellroy (not necessarily a bad thing given how thoroughly that author can be distracting by unity, but a thing all the same): it has a great setting, and some potent denouements (“I’m on the stool and I’m a fucking man, I want to say I’m a fucking man and you can’t treat people like this … but … my brief gets wet and yellow” [p. 656]); but it doesn’t always seem quite sure how to shape its material.

In one of the novel’s most compelling characters, however, there is a line of sight. Nina Burgess begins as the well-behaved daughter of a middle-class Jamaican family, resentful of her “rasta” sister and secretly pining after her one-night stand with the singer. Events conspire to force her into name changes and wide travels, but as she swaps locales and identities she comes, in her many-faced degradations, to stand for a range of roles and individuals in a way few of the other characters, locked in their self-definitions, can. At one point, she realises she “could kill anybody, even a child” (p. 284), and in many ways she in this moment resolves the theme of the novel: that murder is not uncommon or unusual, but endemic and central to the systems that govern – secretly and less so – our societies. The white man with a family at home who abandons her when his secondment to the Caribbean is over, the abusive father who casts her out of the respectable family home, the unthinking New York upper classes who pay her a pittance to care for their families: all of these are four, five, six or seven degrees of separation down the chain contributing to the quality of life of a Bam-Bam (buried alive), a Josey Wales (burned to death) or a Tony Pavarotti (stabbed in the neck by a panicked journalist). And the novel forces its readers not just to understand but to feel that.

That still leaves me wondering about the pseudonyms and about the structure; but the clarity of this novel is in its tone and voices, its pretty astounding ventriloquism. If having read it I might be able to see how there was room for any debate at all around the Booker judges’ table, I remain impressed that they chose it as the winner: tough and uncompromising, it may be imperfect – but it’s never less than vital, relevant and passionate.

“Blindly Following The Lead of Others”: Kamila Shamsie’s “A God In Every Stone”

agodineverystoneWhere all three of the Baileys Prize shortlistees I’ve so far read have opted for depth in one way or another, Kamila Shamsie opts in A God in Every Stone for breadth: this story opens at the dawn of the First World War and continues across Turkey, France, England and colonial India, only ending in 1930 (and with an epistolary epilogue written from 1947). All this leads to some reliance on the readers’ received knowledge of a given period – British women of the Great War got jobs they hadn’t before been permitted when all the men went away, Edwardian men felt excited by the glimpse of a female ankle, the British Empire was a bit racist – which at times feel like gestures at detail rather than the real stuff of these characters’ lives. “‘MORE ARMENIAN HORRORS,'” reads one character in 1915 at one of the novel’s particularly heavy moments of eye-rolling irony. “Surely the propaganda department was overplaying its hand?” [p. 116]

In the summer of 1914, Viv Spencer, the headstrong 23-year-old only child of a British chap thoroughly of the nineteenth century, joins her father’s old friend Tahsin Bey on an archaeological dig in Turkey (the ambitious Spencer patriarch wishes for her to be “son and daughter both – female in manners but male in intellect” [p. 13]). When the war begins, she is quickly whisked away from Ottoman territory, carried to English travellers by her new German friends (“The Germans said they shouldn’t be with her when the English couple arrived, it would only create discomfort” [pg. 29]) – but not before Bey, with whom she is falling in love, reveals himself to be an Armenian patriot. Back in England, the naïve Viv lets slip this information to impress a young intelligence officer. Two years later, whilst on a dig in Peshawar, she learns that just days after the German interception a British wire containing his secret, Bey was shot dead in Turkey.

Betrayal, then, is a key theme of the novel, and is mirrored in the journey of its other protagonist, the Pashtun Muslim, Qayyum Gul. We first meet Qayyum as a soldier in the 40th Pathans, in which capacity he quickly loses an eye at Ypres. Back in Peshawar, his younger brother Najeeb misses the train on which Qayyum returns home from his Brighton military hospital, but does meet up with Viv, who has unbeknownst to them all shared a carriage (scandalously) with Qayyum on the train from Kabul. Najeeb consequently becomes a lover of European culture; Qayyum falls in with Ghaffar Khan. “Everyone, even Najeeb, assumed Qayyum’s stand against Empire stemmed from Vipers […] But he had never felt closer to the English than on that day. […] It was later, at Brighton, that the questions began. It was because of the nurses.” [p. 293]  That is, his shabby treatment in England had betrayed his sacrifice to the British Empire, which he in turn betrayed with Khan; and Najeeb betrays that emergent Indian identity by wearing a frock coat at the Peshawar Museum.

Again, then, we arrive at breadth. The novel foregrounds this sweeping aspect of its narrative by imposing a Classical frame around the interlocking stories of betrayal: it begins with a prologue set in 515BC, when the Persian strongman Darius sends his trusted Greek friend and adviser, Scylax of Caria, on an exploratory expedition beyond the bounds of his empire to Caspatyrus (modern-day Peshawar), from which distance Scylax begins to write great anti-imperial tracts. The circlet that Scylax was granted by Darius before his departure to Caspatyrus is the archaeological artefact which powers first Tahsin Bey’s excavations, then Vivian’s, and then Najeeb’s: it becomes a symbol not of betrayal but of potential redemption. What comes to matter most to each of them is not the imperial bonds between Darius and Scylax, which the latter broke in supporting his people’s revolt against the Persians, but in their personal friendship – and in the individual bonds which link people to those around them rather than to distant powers, such as those between Scylax and Heraclides, the Carian hero whose history the former wrote: “Continents are cut up this way, and that way,” Najeeb imagines Scylax telling Darius’s widow. “Islands extend themselves across seas and mountains. What is any of that when compared to Heraclides?”[p. 386]

Perhaps inevitably, not all of this comes quite to line up in the course of just 350-odd pages – Shamsie has taken on just a little too much. How do the biological brothers, Qayyum and Najeeb, map onto Darius and Scylax? How does the feintly inappropriate burgeoning relationship between Tashin Bey and Viv relate to the frowned-upon yet somehow more wholesome love between Najeeb and a girl originally promised to another man? Shamsie is interested in how layers of history fall one upon the other to create a texture which surrounds and perhaps defines us despite ourselves – “I know the stories of men from twenty-five hundred years ago,” Najeeb sighs, “but I’ll never know what happens to you [today]” [pg. 160] – and so exact parallels aren’t necessary. But in the competing architectural styles of Peshawar, or the city’s urban myths featuring real historical figures – “children were still threatened into good behaviour with warnings [of] the terrible [Maharajan Italian mercenary Paolo Avitabile, or] Abu Tabela” [p. 183] – Shamsie conjures with history without producing the trick. Perhaps the novel is ultimately about throwing off history – “To you history is something to be made,” Najeeb says to his brother, “not studied” [p. 228] – but if so it spends rather a lot of time in the past.

Within these broad and slightly sketchy bounds, however, Shamsie alights upon a range of the competing power dynamics of colonial Peshawar to some good effect. In the relationship between men and women, and English and Indian, in particular she shows how segregation and delineation serve to preserve and empower existing privileges and elites. Perhaps most memorably, Viv reflects on a peculiarly Anglo-Indian example:

Memsahib. […] In this country filled with titles and honorifics nothing pre-existing had suited Englishwomen; while the ubiquitous ‘sahib’ came to rest comfortably on the shoulders of Englishmen, something other than ‘begum-sahib’ had to be devised for their female counterparts. As if to say that Englishmen and Indian men, for all their differences, could still be described in the same language but the women of the two races were so far apart that they had to be categorised separately, kept separate. [p. 300]

A God in Every Stone is at its most perceptive in moments like this. History again plays a part here, as a story told by whichever party wishes to control another: “Of all the fantastic tales you’ve ever told,” Qayyum writes to Najeeb, “none is more fantastic than that of the kindly English who dig up our treasures because they want you tk know your own history. Your Museums are all part of their Civilising Mission, their White Man’s Burden, their moral justification for what they have done here.” [p. 232] Najeeb never comes quite to agree, but by the same token comes to be the novel’s balancing figure, the one the reader assumes embodies its core message: he ends the novel both as as “campaigner for freedom from Empire for the people of India and Britain”, and, despite his mother’s intitial refusal to allow him to study “this English word, this ‘Classics'” [p. 168], also Viv’s archaeological assistant. That may be an over-neat resolution for a tightly-plotted, immensely readable, but thematically baggy novel; but perhaps indeed all fruitful new relationships involve just a little betrayal of the past.