“An Impossibly Complex System”: Maggie Shipstead’s “Great Circle”

It has for some time now been fashionable to suggest that writing big books is unfashionable. Grand narrative is not, according to this shibboleth, en vogue; the saga, the epic, the sweeping story, is a preference of a bygone age. Every time one of these sorts of book pops up, then, it is posited as going against this notional grain.

But this cliché is demonstrably untrue. The dominant narratives of our time are all megatexts, entire worlds whose stories are expanded outwards constantly: the Marvel Cinematic and Star Wars Universes are the obvious examples, but modern media’s taste for adapting and re-adapting makes this ever more the case: from Lord of the Rings to The Wheel of Time, big books are once more not just fashionable but the default.

This isn’t just a genre or cinematic phenomenon, however. In the literary world, too, the big book – if it ever went away – is now once more common, and among the most popular example of the form. Hilary Mantel has won the Booker Prize twice for doorstop novels with a spread of decades; Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries was intricately plotted and expansive; from Could Atlas on, David Mitchell has cobbled all his novels into a megatext. All three of these writers have been adapted for television; surely Paul Auster’s shortlisted alternate histories of 4321 will also get their time.

The appearance of Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle on this year’s shortlist, then, is not the oddity that some reviewers might suggest it to be. In the New York Times, Lyn Steger Strong suggests that, “At a moment when so many novels seem invested in subverting form, Great Circle follows in a long tradition of Big Sweeping Narratives”; as I’ve argued, Great Circle is part of a zeitgeist, not running against it; but Steger Strong gets other things right: “it’s at the level of the sentence and the scene, the small but unforgettable salient detail, that books finally succeed or fail,” she writes, subtly suggesting that the novel’s greatest achievements are not in the execution of its breadth, but in its many solitary moments of depth.

Certainly the novel is discursive, and much of it is concerned with plot, with stuff happening: ships are wrecked, cars are crashed, the Lindberghs spy on Germany, Amelia Earhart goes missing; wars happen, lovers love, people die. The novel’s two main strands – one following the life of an Earhart-ish figure named Marian Graves, who goes missing in 1950, the other focusing on Hadley Baxter, a Hollywood startlet who takes a last chance to save her career by playing Graves in a movie of her life – are constantly interspersed with the stories of other characters, families, localities, nations. The earliest event described in the novel happens 15,000 years ago. Shipstead is not afraid of scope.

Amid all this, the novel’s length – around 600 large pages – is the way it works enough human-level detail into proceedings to make us care. Marian and Hadley alike struggle through worlds not set up to make life easy for them; they, along with many other women in the novel, suffer sexual assault and abuse, but – like all the other women in the novel – they also persevere. Marian’s story is told in the third-person, Hadley’s in the first – but both connect, albeit in very different ways (perhaps Marian’s as tragic-comic, Hadley’s as comi-tragic). They include a rich cast of secondary characters, and a repeatedly euphonic set of recurring motifs.

From sea-going vessels to flight, complicated romances to the perils of public opinion, the relationship of small things to larger is the critical theme of the novel. For one new mother, “the horro of the birth had merged with the horror of the war” (p. 24); for another the movement is in another direction, all the ambition of “her labour […] almost forgotten to make back what had been spent” (p. 135). Ultimately, the novel moves through a world in which “ungovernable forces come to roost inside heroic human bodies or are shrunk down and carted around in vials and briefcases” (p. 107).

The great circle of the novel’s title is the circumference of the cut side of a sphere’s perfect half, “the largest circle that can be drawn on a sphere” (p. 3). This emphasises the interrelatedness of everything in the novel, the mirror images and fitted echoes that structure its often baggy storytelling. Characters from one narrative show up in another, older and with messages from the past; the editorial choices of Marian’s biographers, and in turn the director of the movies made of those books, reflect and refract the realities of her life; Marian’s heroism – but also the facts of her quotidian existence – inspire and enhance Hadley.

A recurring concept in the novel is that of bravery: Marian is routinely described as courageous, but as a pilot she is trained to be “safe, not brave”. Another character is accused of cowardice when he acts to save two children, even imprisoned for it; on Hadley’s social media it feels, in the face of the legion of trolls online, bold even to post a photo. In the ambivalent way it treats courage – is it selfish to be bold? – the novel offers a complex treatment of an issue many of its characters are seeking to reduce to an over-simplistic core. The central figure of Marian – literally and unexplainably absent at the heart of her own story – offers a fulcrum around which they gather. To them, she is a cipher; to Shipstead’s reader she is anything but.

At one point, Hadley expresses scepticism about a biography of Marian: “it was trying to force Marian to be something – someone – more familiar and reassuring than she actually was” (p. 257). Certainly in its capacity for granular detail as well as sweep, Great Circle creates in Marian the figure of a real human being, complex and difficult. But I’m also less sure that the novel creates truly strange human beings; it reads much as one might imagine a book of this sort to read, like Sunnyside by Glen David Gold or Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: episodic and wise, informed by history but also willing to take liberties with it. This novel, too, could rather easily be adapted – perhaps into a Netflix limited series. It is not unfamiliar.

That expresses my experience of reading Great Circle in a nutshell: for all its imaginative sympathy, roving focus and layered themes, it didn’t feel like a transformative novel. Throughout Great Circle, characters try in various ways to take flight; it closes with one of them “held aloft by pure possibility, as though she were about to see everything” (p. 589); the novel tries to evoke that feeling whilst also compensating for the distance height provides with copious on-the-ground detail. I’m not sure it quite achieves the right balance here, and ultimately the novel felt to me rather more firmly anchored than it might have been – even, perhaps, a tad leaden.

That being the case, which of the shortlisted novels should win this evening? I’ve not yet written about Richard Powers’ Bewilderment here – that review will be appearing soon (ETA: here, in fact!) – but, spoilers, I don’t think it should win … yet it’s possible, in its capturing of the COP26 moment of existential dread, that it might do. The best book on the shortlist – as opposed to its most relevant – is, however, Damon Galgut’s The Promise. Like Great Circle, it achieves breadth; but like Bewilderment it also has focus. It is neither reductively aphoristic like Patricia Lockwood’s novel nor overly abstract like Anuk Arudpragasam’s. Perhaps for me it’s biggest rival is Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men – but Galgut, I think, not just avoids Mohamed’s structural issues but has written a novel which is entirely without seams. Indeed, I’m not sure the contest is even especially close: The Promise is the finest novel of these six by some margin. Good luck to it tonight.

“All Of Us Fighting Over Crumbs”: Nadifa Mohamed “The Fortune Men”

The English novel (as distinct from the novel-in-English, which has thanks to American literature in particular long been better served in this regard) has only a relatively recent tradition of the social novel that focuses on race. Notable exceptions such as Eliot’s Daniel Deronda aside, it is only really in the twenty-first century that the novels of England have considered the experiences of people not of the imagined “ethnic majority”: from Hanif Kureishi to Zadie Smith, a generation of writers who came of age at either end of the 1990s heralded a movement which has created much of the best literature in England of the past twenty years. Sunjeev Sahota, Taiye Selsasi, Mohsin Hamid and Diana Evans have all in recent years produced memorable and successful novels which have focused on elements of English society which were entirely invisible in much of the work most prominent even as recently as the 1980s (in, for example, the work of Amis, Barnes, Byatt, Drabble et al).

This has immeasurably enriched English literature, and it is notable that these are the writers which have managed for the most part to keep authors of the British Isles in the Booker shortlist now that the panel is able to select novels from across the English-speaking world, rather than from the rather hokey notionality of the “Commonwealth”. Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men is an extremely good example of the form. Somali-born, and resident in Britain since the age of four, Mohamed’s capturing of the 1950s Wales in which the novel is set is pitch-perfect, as evocative a work of historical fiction as Sarah Waters might ever manage; but her depiction of the Somali community in Cardiff at that time is also fierce and full, notable for its controlled but unmistakable elucidation of the impossible injustices that were contained within a Tiger Bay replete with cultural diversity even as the authorities sought to maintain a ruthlessly genteel majoritarianism.

The novel’s central figure is Mahmood Mattan, a former sailor who has, in order to stay near his estranged Welsh wife and their children, adopted a more stationary life at the edges of the maritime economy: a fixer, odd-job man, gambler and even would-be rake, he adopts – even when he cannot afford – the trappings of dandyism in an attempt to break out of the subordinate role it is demanded he assume, even as his activity is essential to maintaining the luxury of his betters. In this, he is no different to anyone else in the polyglot community of Tiger Bay, where “everyone [is] bending the law a little to make life easier”: after all, the law was not made for them. Still, Mohamed doesn’t make him relatable or likeable per se – his view of women is not entirely enlightened (he tells his mother-in-law that he will “kill [his wife] dead if he saw her with another man” [p. 77]); his obstreperous arrogance can be frustrating; he makes some poor choices. But Mohamed also encourages and achieves an intense empathy for Mattan’s positionality, the relationship with authority and wider society that is is not chosen by but forced upon him.

Mattan’s reckoning with his situation is complex. Early on, he visits the Employment Exchange in an attempt to obtain some regular – and respectable – work. Given his experience as a boilerman on sea-going vessels, he is an ideal heavy industry man. But there is a problem. “There is one foundry job here,” the woman behind Counter 4 tells him “but I don’t think you will be suitable.” She leaves “the rest unsaid”, and Mattan “meets her gaze, swallows a bitter smile” (p. 23). Proper work – factory work – is for white men, of course. Mahmood knows, too, what those white men think of him: “‘The blacks take our jobs and take our women.’ They talk like that in all the papers, and say it to your face if they’re feeling bold” (p. 231). This knowledge he learned on leaving Somalia, on the various vessels on which he found work: “the ship revealed to him the gulf between the life he had been living in Africa and the world beyond” (pp. 232).

On the other hand, Mattan labours under the belief – the hope, the delusion? – that he can join this other world, become part of the world of privilege that exists in another sphere to the land of his birth. With his clothes and his Welsh wife, he believes himself to be achieving a toe-hold in this new world – but he soon comes to understand that in fact such entrance is denied to him, that so-called tolerance is always conditional. “Isn’t this what the world is like?” he reflects late in the novel while looking at a chequers board. “With countries and seas instead of black and white squares, the white man spread all over, the black man picked off wherever he might be and left to eke out a life on the fringes if the board” (p. 321). Mattan ruminates in a cell on death row, awaiting his execution for a crime he did not commit – but one for which he has been convicted by, of course, an all-white jury.

All this is based on a true story. Only one name has been changed – that of the murder victim, the Jewish shopkeeper Lily Volpert, here referred to as Violet Volacki. This understandable delicateness somewhat informs those of the novel’s passages – common in its first half, rarer as it proceeds – that focus first on Violet and then on her sister, Diana, and and niece, Grace. These sections are sometimes overly polite, somehow less incisive or as deeply characterised as those which revolve around Mattan; Violet is defined by work, Diana by grief. Compare this with the layered depiction even of the secondary characters in Mattan’s chapters – Laura, who is “using black men knives to hurt herself with” (p. 76), or Mattan’s benefactor, Berlin, who from his seafront bar “struggles to keep old worlds alive; friends, lovers, even children seem to deliquesce when he turns his back” (p. 39); it is little wonder that the Volecki sections reduce in number until they cease to insert themselves into Mattan’s narrative.

This may or may not be a missed opportunity, but it certainly makes the novel a little bumpy in its structure. So, too, does the switch to scripted dialogue when the narrative moves to the trial of Mattan for Volacki’s murder, on the basis of mere circumstantial evidence and – of course – racist suspicion. The sudden shift from prose to transcript feels unnecessary, and works against the novel’s otherwise ever-present imaginative sympathy. This is a pity, since an exploration of why the diversity of Tiger bay does not help Mattan would have immeasurably deepened this section of the novel: “They have a West Indian, a Welshman, an Arab, a Maltese, an Indian, a Jew, almost the League of Nations accusing him” (p. 210); Mattan has no friends even among those who are also subject to arbitrary authority. “YOU WOULD NOT HANG A DOG ON HER EVIDENCE,” rages Mattan of one of his accusers, and yet there is no stopping a prosecution case which seems paper-thin.

Mattan is blamed even for this. “You seem to be forgetting your own role in this debacle,” his defence lawyer tells him. “[You] came across as belligerent and shifty” (p. 307). What other choice would a man in Mattan’s position, falsely accused and asked absurd questions based on the testimony of malicious accusers, have? It is the corner into which he has been knowingly forced. Some of the novel’s most poetic moments come when Mattan first adopts and then rejects Islam as a consoling influence in prison; ultimately he can find no satisfactory explanation, not justice, in his situation. “They’re doing this because they haven’t broken me,” he ultimately decides. “If I had lost my mind and sat weeping in my own shit, maybe then they’d be happy to send me to a madhouse” (p. 361). Reader, Mattan is not sent to the madhouse; he instead goes to a gallows hidden behind his own wardrobe.

The Fortune Men espouses a cold anger – its rage is incisive for its patience. If the novel might have been even more focused – if it makes a few mis-steps here or there in its attempts to encompass its case – then it nevertheless remains an unusual and challenging mixture of conviction and conditionality, a novel clear as to what it thinks but also open to the complexity of real life. Real life, indeed, is its subject: not the myth of Britain, but the reality of its locaity’s “post-colonial” experiences, the truth of its various communities and the reckonings that they require. For the Booker to be able to shortlist a novel such as this – which is not just critically about but of Britain – is a sign itself that writers such as Mohamed are, slowly, but with undeterred diligence, having their desired effect.

“The Circular Daydream of Everyday Life”: Anuk Arudpragasam’s “A Passage North”

There was a moment late in Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North when I experienced if not a revelation then certainly a realisation. It came as the novel’s protagonist, Krishnan – a young and bookish Tamil academic who knows Sri Lanka has been through trauma but who has been displaced from it both while studying in India and as a function of his wealth and status – is part of a rural funeral procession. As the mourners carry the bier holding the body towards the place where it will be burned, Krishnan looks out across the beautiful landscape of the deceased’s native Northern Province, and is in particular drawn by a beautiful body of water he feels he has seen before. I quote at length because, in this novel, style matters:

It was hard to say whether the lake had formed naturally or whether it was one of the man-made tanks constructed centuries ago by old kings and chieftains, tanks that had been around so long that they were now an intrinsic part of the ecology, but studying it as he continued walking, the water calm and waveless, lapping softly and peacefully upon its banks, the feeling grew in Krishnan that he’d been to this place before, that he’d walked across this same path and sat there by the banks of this same lake. There couldn’t have been many bodies of water this size in the northeast, he knew, and taking out his phone he tried to see if he could find the place on Google Maps, which was unhelpful since there was, he saw, no signal on his phone. He wondered whether it was possible he’d passed it on one of the visits he’d made to the district back when he was based in Jaffna, but he knew for certain that he’d never been to Rani’s village before, and couldn’t remember having spent much time in the general vicinity before either. He could ask one of the men in the procession for the name of the lake, but none of them seemed to be paying it any attention and it would have been out of place to ask in any case, he felt, especially when everyone seemed so lost in their own thoughts. (p. 237)

Out of context, no doubt, this passage lacks the flash of light I experienced when first reading it. But it comes at the end of a novel which emphasises the dilatory, and after a series of persistent – and lengthy – sidebars in which Krishnan occupied himself with a range of reveries which rarely, if ever, felt apropos of much at all. This passage is the first time that he acknowledges – as if he is himself experiencing a revelation about subjectivity – that his own preoccupations may not be central, that in fact everyone experiences the same uncontrolled streams of consciousness, the same uncertain and often inapposite enthusiasms, very similar senses of their own disjunctions. In the novel’s final pages, Krishnan reflects that “people also carried deeper, more clandestine trajectories inside their bodies … trajectories which were sometimes strong enough to push people in certain directions despite everything that took place on the surface of their lives” (p. 283). A Passage North’s exercise in disconnect, then, may well be its point.

A Passage North has an extremely simple plot. A woman who has until recently been the carer of Krishnan’s sick grandmother – herself having in her dotage retired to the countryside of her childhood – dies after falling into a well. Krishnan travels from Colombo to the Northern Province to represent the family. That’s it. That’s the book. The key element of the novel that is missing from this summary is Krishnan’s relationship with Anjum, a Sri Lankan activist whom he met during his student days in Delhi; he still mourns their break-up, and he is reading a new email from her when the news of Rani’s death reaches him. “He felt not so much sadness as a kind of embarrassment for the way the news had caught him, in the midst of his self-involved thoughts about Anjum’s email” (p. 14), and this tension between what Krishnan feels deserves his attention and what in fact is absorbing it persists throughout the novel.

Krishnan and Anjum’s romance was intense but brief, meeting in the faintly radical confines of student social spaces but drifting apart as Anjum’s activism proved to be rather more consistent than those of her peers – Krishnan’s included. Nevertheless, Krishnan pours over their short relationship, “the sterm beauty of her face and her distinctly southern darkness” (p. 105), seeking meaning and significance where perhaps there is none:

Falling in love, or what deserved to be called falling in love, he had realized that night, was not so much an emotional or psychological condition as an epistemological condition, a condition in which two people held hands and watched in silent amazement as the world around them was slowly unveiled … (p. 157)

There is a lot of this stuff, and it ultimately goes nowhere: “she was resistant to becoming too close to him” (p. 138). The ever-decreasing circles become tiresome because, short of that email at the opening of the novel, Anjum’s voice is entirely missing – she is an object only, a focus of attention rather than an attending entity herself. This might again be fitting – given that Krishnan’s student relationship proves really to be a proxy for his sense that he has not been sufficiently connected to or active in Sri Lanka’s civil war and its aftermaths, his knowledge that “some forms of violence could penetrate so deeply into the psyche that there was simply no question of fully recovering” and yet his absence of any such experiences of his own – but it remains undeniably recursive.

Still, Krishnan does little except reflect in this novel, which after all primarily takes place over the period of time he spends travelling – slowly, by train, with only himself for company – from Colombo to the Northern Province. Arudpragasam is often praised as a prose stylist (Peter Gordon in the Asian Review of Books: “what might feel affected or even tedious in the hands of a lesser writer becomes atmospheric in Arudpragasam’s extraordinary prose”); but for me his writing – in the curiously diffuse precision that is so often lauded by critics – fails really to grasp how humans truly think. Routinely throughout the book, Krishnan remembers texts or films or speeches that he first read or saw or heard years ago; he remembers them in perfect detail, his précis of one poem or another often lasting for many pages, his plot summaries of this or that epic or documentary offering granular detail which matches not the true nature of human recollection but Arudpragasam’s literary purpose at that juncture in the text. In particular Krishnan’s recollections of Sri Lankan literature certainly place A Passage North in important dialogue and relation with the culture its characters inhabit; but they only work to enhance, rather than illuminate, the feeling the novel creates – and which was for me only broken at the climactic funeral – that much of its contents is orthogonal to its matter.

If the violence of a civil war that has largely passed him by is what most animates Krishnan beneath the surface of his concerns that Rami’s death was a suicide and not an accident, or only one layer deeper his obsession with Anjum, then the implications for human beings of the sort of trauma it represents is the end-point of the novel’s philosophical journey.”Krishnan’s notion of the elderly had always been of people who accepted [their] condition” (p. 53), but in the figure of Rani – who fled the Northern Province to serve as a carer precisely to escape the war, and whose sons were killed in it – the true consequences of conflict are made flesh for him. Despite this, he still struggles to connect: Rani’s habit of chewing betel had been a response no doubt to everything she’d seen and lost during the war, but […] Rani was so different from them […] Krishnan found it hard to believe […] that their lives intersected in any substantial way at all (p. 72). Similarly, years earlier it took Anjum to show Krishnan how “years of being subject to these [male] gazes [had taught] women who lived in the capital […] to curb the movement of their own eyes” (p. 119) – that is, Krishnan finds it hard to see how people are shaped by experiences he does not himself share. But his solipsism – the novel’s bug – is a feature of the continuation of those experiences for others.

A Passage North is in this way an argument for presence in the world. It begins by propounding that “the present […] eludes us more and more as the years go by” (p. 5), but ends with Krishnan newly alive to focusing not on the lake on the horizon but the people around him. None of this is simple – “moments of violence [are] for some people were just as much a part of life as the moments of beauty [… and both limit] how far we [are] subsequently able to see” (p. 261) – but there remains in the novel a clear sense that some have more privilege than others – “those for whom coming and going wasn’t simply a matter of choice” (p. 191) – and that it is for those people to offer service to those with less. “The purpose of all the government’s demolition and renovation in the northeast had, of course, been to erase any memory that might spur the Tamil population back toward militarism” (p. 226); bearing witness has value and force.

Ultimately, however, I think the novel makes heavy weather of all this. Even reviews which are broadly positive about this “intensely introspective” novel – such as Tara K. Menon’s in the New York Times– note that “sometimes sentences strain under this heavy burden”. Arudpragasam is routinely compared to WG Sebald (here’s Nilanjana Roy doing this in the FT), but Sebald – while superficially adopting the same air of immersive reverie as is attempted here – is far less programmatic, his prose much less leading, his allusions always lighter. Much of this is because, I think, Sebald’s preference – albeit in Anthea Bell’s crystalline translation –  for shorter words and tighter sub-clauses works against their container – those dilatory, drifting recollections. A body of water features, too, in Austerlitz:

And then, Austerlitz continued, somewhere beyond Frankfurt, when I entered the Rhine valley for the second time in my life, the sight of the Mäuseturm in the part of the river known as the Binger Loch revealed, with absolute certainty, why the tower in Lake Vyrnwy had always seemed to me so uncanny. I could not take my eyes off the great river Rhine flowing sluggishly along in the dusk, the apparently motionless barges lying low in the water, which almost lapped over their decks, the trees and bushes on the other bank, the fine cross-hatching of the vineyards, the stronger transverse lines of the walls supporting the terraces, the slate-grey rocks and ravines leading off sideways into what seemed to me a pre-historic and unexplored realm. While I was still under the spell of this landscape, to me a truly mythological one, said Austerlitz, the setting sun broke through the clouds, filled the entire valley with its radiance, and illuminated the heights on the other side where three gigantic chimneys towered into the sky at the place we were just passing, making the steep slopes on the eastern mountains look like hollow shells, mere camouflage for an underground industrial site covering many square miles. (Austerlitz, pp. 317-8)

The precision, the humour, the diction, the frame: I’d suggest that in every aspect Arudpragasam’s purported cover version of Sebald’s style is much the inferior. Indeed, I’m not at all sure the comparison does either writer any favour, and that Arudpragasam should be afford the courtesy of standing alone as a writer of much promise but as yet an under-developed sensibility. In this, I’d echo Marcel Theroux in the Guardian: “the detail and particularity of memorable fiction requires a form of wondering that is both deeper and less abstract than this.” I can see why the Booker jury felt that A Passage North, in its ambition, theme, subject and promise, deserved a place on the shortlist; I am much less sure that it should detain them for long when they meet to arrive at their winner.

“Really More Of A Magician”: The Women’s Prize, 2021

I have tended, in the past, to review literary awards shortlists before their winner is announced. In this, as in so many other things, I suppose I am disappointingly conventional: joining in the game of guessing the victorious volume is part of the generally accepted point of shortlists, which encourage us after all to buy six novels where we might otherwise only buy one. This is the way it’s done: read the shortlist, pick a winner, explain your reasoning. Then rage at the jury who choose otherwise (and therefore unwisely).

Fortunately I – and you – have been spared that spectacle this year, at least when it comes to the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Mostly because I simply didn’t manage to read the whole shortlist before the announcement of the winner on September 8th (about which more anon), I’m left offering this somewhat redundant post-match analysis. Except – and here you’ll forgive me for rationalising my own failures – reading the shortlist from this perspective is probably more instructive than doing so in the usual way: it guides the reader towards not bemoaning the jury’s selection but seeking to understand it.

In fairness, the Women’s Prize jury for 2021 picked what for me was the right book – in other words, we agree, and so I don’t need to work their decision backwards in order to parse it. I read Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi some months ago, and Facebooked briefly about it at the time. As I began to read the shortlist – starting with Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom and continuing on to Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This – I began to suspect that my love for this novel was not about to be supplanted by any other volume on the shortlist. It turned out I was right: I completed my reading of the shortlist well after the announcement (I came to Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground last of all), and none of the five other books struck me as better.

What is odd about this in the context of the Women’s Prize, however, is that Piranesi is very much the shortlist’s odd-one-out. Each of its other five books are quotidian and granular: they focus on the everyday lives of a relatively narrow set of characters, lingering over the details of how they live them. In Cherie Jones’s How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, for example, we are treated to pungent descriptions of its Barbadian milieu: “The beach stinks of stewing moss, sargassum seaweed and the putrefying guts of beached fishes, rotting in the warming air” (p. 139). In Unsettled Ground, Fuller’s no less degraded English countryside is similar picked over, in a sort of sub-folk horror mode that reminds one of Fiona Mozley’s Elmet: “The sun turns the tomatoes a deep red, searching the skins until they split, while its heat dries out the cottage thatch and drives the mice and insects further in” (p. 263).

This recurrently lyrical focus on the rather ugly features of their characters’ daily routines lends the five losing books on the shortlist the air of a shared approach, a similar mode. This will be a familiar style to many, since creative writing classes often emphasise the important of an accumulation of detail in achieving a sense of versimilitude. According to this orthodoxy, lists lend authenticity. Here’s a passage from The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (MFA, University of Michigan), the story of two twins and their daughters who must negotiate the racial politics of the second half of the USA’s twentieth century:

The winter she saw Jude Winston again, Kennedy starred in an off-off-Broadway musical called Silent River. She played Cora, the sheriff’s rebellious daughter who longs to run away with a rugged farmhand. For months, she obsessed, more than normal, about getting sick. She drank so much hot tea with lemon that by February she could barely stand the smell of it and pinched her nose, gagging it down. She swallowed chalky zinc pills and triple-wrapped her neck in a scarf before stepping outside. She scrubbed her hands furiously after she climbed off the subway. She wasn’t build for a New York winter under any circumstances; landing her biggest role since she’d moved to the city certainly fit the bill of extraordinary. (p. 294)

None of this is important to the main plot, except the final – in context, rather pathetically phrased – note that the role is Kennedy’s biggest to date. The Vanishing Half piles incident and information up in this way to create a sense of reality which ultimately it doesn’t quite know what to do with. At times – for example, its scenes set in an arid sixties suburbia familiar to readers from the first seasons of Mad Men – the details work to create atmosphere. In others – and 1980s New York is one of them – they simply … exist. Increasingly, The Vanishing Half lacks follow-through. It proves to be all set-up, all scenery.

This is a fault not limited to Bennett. I mentioned that my progress through the shortlist was slow, and unfortunately the book I stumbled most on was the fifth I read, Jones’s. Like Bennett’s, How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House seeks to be a multi-generational family epic; but these are hard to do well, and sweep can sometimes come at the expense of nuance. Lists are no replacement for avoiding cliche. Where Bennett ticks all the boxes of a received vision of post-war America, Jones at least gives us a vision of Barbados which deliberately sets itself against the common-in-the-West positioning of it as a joyful paradise. The novel derives its title from a tale told to its protagonist, Lala, bu her grandmother, Wilma, in which a curious girl loses her arm to a monster living in the hole into which she thrusts her limb; Jones tells us to watch where we put ourselves. But it doesn’t feel to me that she achieves this as well for Barbados as for example Tsitsi Dangarembga achieved it for Zimbabwe: How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House lacks the cross-currents of the latter’s This Mournable Body, and the reader misses that ambivalence. The novel closes with the contrast of a police car – a prison on wheels, a moving cell – and a aeroplane – movement, freedom, escape. For all the novel’s detail and sense of place, that still feels a contrast too pat to sustain itself.

Patness is a fault also found elsewhere in the shortlist’s quintet of runners-up. Patricia Lockwood is a poet and critic I’ve come to rely on, especially in her pieces for the LRB (her 2019 review of Updike was in particular resplendent). But in No One Is Talking About This, her debut novel – which pushes the list approach to a calculated breaking point, eschewing traditional narrative in favour of a constant barrage of bite-size vignettes and reflections – she ultimately falls into an unfair and unproductive bifurcation not dissimilar from Jones’s. M’learned friend Adam Roberts has sought ingeniously to spring Lockwood out of this trap she has set herself, arguing that her novel adopts a deliberate “two-ply” structure to introduce precisely the countervailing tendencies I argue above are missing in the Jones. I think this is an overly generous reading of a novel which, in its first part, skewers Twitter (what Lockwood calls the “portal”) for its emptiness and immaturity, following its protagonist in her successful but ultimately pointless manipulation of, and celebrity within, this atomising algorithms – and in the second hits the rather mawkish breaks when a very sick baby is born to her entirely innocent and rather decent sister. Her intent here is entirely obvious, and – alas and again – rather bathetic: “No vehicle ever invented for the transmission of information – not the portal, not broadcast radio, not the printed word itself – was as quick, complete, or crackling as the blue kiosk ball that the baby kept tucked against her chin as she slept, her small mouth open to say oh my answers” (p. 179).

That said, Lockwood writes beautifully. If her aphoristic style – all short, summative sentences, whip-smart references and hipster ennui – doesn’t quite nail the psychological experience of living in an information age with the same totality as something like Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, I’m not sure that is either quite its aim. Despite its ultimately unconvincing – because overly loaded – juxtapositions, I think No One Is Talking About This is the work of a great prose stylist who has yet to find the appropriate mode or subject. Indeed, I enjoyed Transcendent Kingdom far more in terms of its rather better balanced story – even if structurally and on the sentence level Yaa Gyasi cannot yet quite match Lockwood’s verve. The story of a Stanford biology grad student whose Ghanaian mother’s deteriorating health means she must learn once again to share her life, the novel reminds one a little of Brandon Taylor’s Real Life – another recent laboratory-bound story of coming to terms with one’s past, and with the structural racism of one’s host society. But it has more charm, and more hope, than Taylor’s novel (though perhaps neither of these things are warranted or desirable). In particular, though, I found its exploration of the place of Christianity in modern society fascinating: the novel ends with the protagonist gazing on Christ’s ecstatic face, and in examining the pressures she feels both to hide her faith and accept its failings, the novel offers a subtle treatment of a theme that is not often explored with this kind of sensitivity and insight.

Transcendent Kingdom boasts a genuinely unique flavour, then, that its competitors, for all their superficial differences, could occasionally lack – although its ending is rushed and its prose itself is usually more transparent than it is characterful. On balance, it belongs in the top tier of the shortlist alongside Piranesi and for me what is the shortlist’s sleeper hit – Fuller’s Unsettled Ground. It’s not that this novel is surprising or revelatory, transformational or even shocking (of its several plot twists, I was surprised by only one); it is simply that it is extremely well tooled. It’s a professional job, is Unsettled Ground. It is also quietly bold: in order for the novel to work, Fuller must ensure that its protagonists – two fifty-one year old twins who have lived their whole life in an isolated cottage with their apparently hermit-like mother – have our sympathies; but she insists upon their oddness, and in many ways the reader cannot engage with them. Julius and Jeanie are stiff and forbidding, frustrating and forlorn; their absence from society has rendered them unable to participate properly in it, but driven them towards often harshly partial judgements. In its quiet weirdness, it reminded me of Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, tracking as it does the unsightly underbelly of the English pastoral. Had the shortlist been rounded out by a sixth quotidian novel seeking to immerse its reader in telling detail, Unsettled Ground may well have been my pick of the pack.

But instead – and I’m not sure why or how – the jury topped off its half-dozen contenders with Piranesi, a novel which so entirely eschews the quotidian as to punch right through to it. In other words, this depiction of a man who lives in a huge, ruined and possibly endless neoclassical country house, who spends his days inspecting statues and avoiding floods, captures in its neat evocation of ontological disorientation precisely the feeling of living in a period of dislocating change, in which all that is solid melts into not just the air but the ephemeral ether. As the novel’s protagonist undertakes the tasks given him by the Other, the reader cannot fail to ask hurriedly: where is this? Another planet, an apocalyptic future? An experimental lab of some sort, a parallel universe? Purgatory? The answer is none of these – Clarke offers something genuinely new, and she does so by expertly walking the line between realism and fantasy that David Mitchell has of late been routinely tripping over: when, as in all the shortlist’s other novels, Piranesi‘s mysteries and questions begin to break down into something clearer and more resolvable, there is no sense of let-down, no sense that the set-up has not been worth the pay-off. Piranesi holds the attention to the last.

Why? I think because it is a distillation. I was not a fan of Clarke’s previous novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which though popular with SFF fans and even general readers – it was dramatised by the BBC, no less – felt to me of a mid-2000s piece with novels such as The Crimson Petal and the White, mistaking mere girth for seriousness or world-building. What’s so fascinating about Piranesi‘s relationship with he other novels on this shortlist is that it has no interest – despite what might have been the understandable expectations of Clarke’s readers – in the accrual of detail as an end in itself. Instead, it contains so much history and philosophy and art and metaphysics but also reads like a dream. It is no portmanteau of ideas – it is, like the house in which the protagonist finds himself, a singular construction that is entirely itself whilst also suggestive of much more besides. This is a – perhaps the – singular artistic achievement. As I suspected, the other books didn’t stand a chance.

“I’m In An Alien Country Without Rules”: Angie Cruz’s “Dominicana”

Dominicana coverWhat a curious time it is in which to read novels as if they matter. The shortlist for this year’s Women’s Prize has been overtaken almost entirely by events: these six books demand more attention than many readers will have been able in this chaotic year to muster. In spring, I went through a period myself in which I was unable to read a great deal of anything, much less a series of demanding fictions. That I have now managed to reach a place where I can devote time and focus to books is a token of privilege more than it is any sort of personal victory. From pandemics to protests, much of what is currently vital is taking place far beyond the pages of literature.

In many ways, too, Dominicana by Angie Cruz is the quietest, the most unassuming, of any of the six novels in contention. Its first-person protagonist, Ana Canción, is aware from very early on that “a ravenous world waits outside”, but for much of the novel she spends her life in a series of aggressively closed environments: first the strict family home she grows up in, and then the small New York apartment in which she finds herself when she marries at 15 a migrant worker in his thirties, Juan Ruiz. In both contexts her behaviour is closely monitored and controlled – in the Dominican Republic by a mother for whom she is primarily “the ticket for all of [the family] to eventually go to America”, and in the US by Juan himself, for whom she is, on her arrival in the city, “now a wife [… who has] duties”.

I was reminded repeatedly while reading this novel of the work of Miriam Toews, and in particular of her Irma Voth (2011). Toews has solved the problem of passivity: her narrators and protagonists are done-to rather than doing, but they remain magnetic presences. Similarly, despite being the narrator of Dominicana, Ana is its most passive presence, a teenage girl of whom much is asked – and yet to whom little is given. Almost the entire novel drifts by before she does anything for herself, since she has been conditioned to expect only to serve the community.

In Toews’ work, too, women are most often expected merely to play their part – work only to actualise the needs of the community which grips them, rather than form anything like a symbiotic, mutually beneficial, relationship with it or anyone else. Cruz’s novel adds to Toews’ almost peerless evocations of claustrophobic control  the experience of the immigrant (in Irma Voth, the Mennonite protagonist has left their native Canada to hide from the modern world in rural Mexico, but this isn’t quite the same journey made by the desperate-but-enterprising migrants of Dominicana). “How in the world does anyone say good-bye to everyone they love, everything they know?” Ana asks herself at one point; the answer is simple: no one can. Dominicana is a novel of loss, and of accommodation to it.

The gains promised by economic migration – in the Canción family home, “Money [ … and] papers [… are] always the main subject” – turn out by contrast to be thin. “In September,” Ana is told by Juan, “you’ll go to a secretarial school so you can learn how to type. And you’ll work at my friend’s agency. Don’t you worry, everything’s been decided.” This isn’t the freedom New York was meant to embody – and in the absence of everything she has ever known, Ana feels in fact more imprisoned than ever. When Juan takes by degrees to domestic abuse – “A slap’s one thing, a dent in the wall another, but choking?” – Ana’s situation feels untenable, and yet is entirely inescapable. A nurse at the local pregnancy clinic slips Ana a leaflet featuring “a photograph of a woman with a busted lip and a black eye filled with panic”, but with her non-existent English and total lack of support networks beyond Juan’s circle, Ana is at a loss as to what to do with it; in the event, Juan finds the leaflet, and is sent into another rage by it.

Ana accommodates herself, too, to this. But as time goes by, she becomes more comfortable with the city –  fire alarm, a police siren, a bus halting at its stop … at first they were so loud, […] but now they sound as pleasant as the radio” – and also with the idea of agency (“Puffer fish can kill you if you eat them, yet some people take the risk and die”); she begins as affair with Juan’s brother, César, who helps her begin to earn some money of her own, which she hides in a ceramic doll. Ultimately, however – and here Cruz surely deliberately wrong-foots the reader – Ana chooses her family, and breaks it off with César. Doubling down on settling in, Ana invites her mother to live with her and Juan in New York, locking herself further into the pretence that is her marriage. When her mother arrives, she too seems underwhelmed: “She had wanted New York. She has pushed for it. So this is New York, she says with a weak smile.” The dream pulls along the dreamer.

This is a novel that constantly threatens to broaden out beyond Ana’s perspective – Dominican politics plays an important role in the book, driving many of its events although Ana remains only dimly aware of how, and her apartment sits in the middle of a part of New York, Washington Heights, that is full of stories similar and complementary to her own – but Cruz, for better or worse, sticks to the limited first-person (admittedly cheating every now and then, with Ana suggesting she’s over-heard something or pieced scenes together from gossip). This means that Dominicana lacks of the polyphony of Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other – and in its mission to add warp, weft and detail to our understanding of the immigrant experience this feels a shame. There’s also something else going on here, though. When I read Evaristo’s novel after it was included on last year’s Booker shortlist, I wondered if it didn’t offer a “Radio 4-friendly version of British blackness”; I think Dominicana offers in its level of detail and intimacy a less comfortable vision of the minority experience. In an afterword, Cruz explains that Dominicana is a version of her own mother’s life, the sort of story which, “although common, [is] rarely represented in the mainstream narratives available to us.” In this aim, Dominicana succeeds.

Still, in the year since Girl, Woman, Other won the Booker (alongside, unnecessarily, Margaret Attwood’s The Testaments), evidence has been ample that what I thought of as that novel’s “soft-centredness” will strike many, many others as radical and even alienating: the conversation is not as advanced, well distributed or as nuanced as any criticism of Evaristo’s novel as “pulling its preaching punches” seems willing to acknowledge. This brings me back to my privilege as a reader: perhaps only someone in a happy position would suggest that Girl, Woman, Other needed to be more. Given, then, the ambition of Evaristo’s novel elsewhere, and the clear canniness of its approach, it must be a leading contender for the Women’s Prize, too; if Mantel remains the bookie’s favourite for her star-quality, I might suggest that the plague-novel Hamnet beats out The Mirror & the Light by dint of the latter avoiding many of the faults with the former that Colin Burrow identified  in his nevertheless generous LRB review. Let it be between Evaristo and O’Farrell, then – either novel seems a fiction well tuned to our times … which might at least allow us all to accept or believe that, even in days such as these, reading novels might still matter.

Albums of 2019

First, a confession: my listening has been less extensive this year than in ones past. (In my defence, my reading was much wider.) Second, a question: has this year truly been as underwhelming as it feels to my admittedly under-exploring ears? Good music has abounded, but perhaps in not quite such volume as in some recently: we’ve been through a purple-patch of new music it seems to me; 2019 felt slower, but perhaps I wasn’t paying sufficient attention. A resolution for 2020 is to do so better.

All that said, there are a bunch of records competing for this year’s gong: Edd Donovan’s plangently hopeful Guardians of Our Time, and Jake Xerxes Fussell’s scruffily sinuous Out of Sight; Maya de Vitry’s dilatory Adaptations, and Dan Walsh’s galloping Trio; Bill Callahan’s maze-like Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest stands out, too, as does Jenny Lewis’s On The Line. I’ve yet properly to listen to Lana Del Ray and Angel Olsen, slowthai and Solange.

But, as ever, I picked five anyway – and here they are. As usual, I want an album to do something new or interesting – for the band or the musical mode – and don’t always pick the ones I’ve listened to most (although sometimes these two criteria do coincide, in this year more than many). Enough preamble! Let’s cut to the no-particular-order chase.

Iron & Wine and Calexico – Years to Burn

Look, the minute I dropped the needle on this one I knew: from the first note I was sure I’d get on with an album that has been fifteen years in the coming (these two bands last collaborated on 2004’s In The Reins EP). Beautifully produced, this is a warm record that never risks the syrupy, a romantic one that never turns to mush. Nostalgic and open-hearted, it is also forward-looking and brave for both acts – though both play to their strengths, with Sam Beam’s vocals front and centre and John Convertino’s tastefully smart drumming forming the foundation, this is also truly a collaborative album which feels neither like an off-cut or a glorified solo album from either quarter. The songwriting, too, is top-notch – among the best either Beam or Calexico’s Joey Burns have penned in years (and Burns in particular has had a strong decade). “What Heaven’s Left”, “Outside El Paso”, “In Your Own Time” are all classics of their shared oeuvre. Years To Burn is, in fact, one of their masterpieces.

Ezra Collective – You Can’t Steal My Joy

This is the record that Britain needed in 2019 – excited, exciting, communal, far-sighted. That despite this, and despite playing one of the best sets at this year’s Glastonbury festival, Ezra Collective remain just below public notoriety says something about the British distrust of jazz … but mostly about the UK’s terrible, cagey year. We had no room for this sort of groove-laden, genre-defying, exultant tune-age. Ezra Collective often sound like a Dixieland jazz band brought up to date, since they largely eschew the cult of the solo break in favour of band-mediated good-time music. This plays to my own jazz prejudices, but also proves a powerful political project in a multi-cultural Britain suffering an identity – and confidence – crisis. The title of this album was chosen assuredly and advisedly. This is generous music, and we will need more of this stuff in 2020 and beyond – it’s the future, and on this record you can hear it calling happily.

Grande Valise – Glass & Keys

Full disclosure: I’ve known Becky and Andy, the duo behind Grande Valise, for years – and made music with the for just as long. (They are joined here and on stage by Carl Bayliss on drums and John Napier on bass, alongside numerous others including yours truly.) But Glass & Keys is a very special record regardless, since it includes some inspired songwriting on the topic of just the sorts of communities and histories that have sat at the heart of music the political wrangling past which Ezra Collective successfully squeeze. This slice of Black Country synth-pop includes songs about the impact on employment of automation, of the withering away of local amenities likes pubs and clubs; it includes songs about venerable figures of the industrial revolution like the Chubb brothers, Charles and Jeremiah, and that Wolverhampton marvel of automotive engineering, the Sunbeam. And yet it is also quite the catchiest record I’ve heard all year – hooks and melodies and vocal harmonies to die for are layered on top of one another with almost showy abandon, producing an effect of celebration rather than wake. It’s brilliant, and defies all the barren shibboleths of our present discourse. Go and buy it, and then dance.

Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride

This is going to be a controversial choice. Vampire Weekend have never been the coolest of bands – their preppy image and unapologetic adoption of polyrhythms saw to that. But on Father of the Bride they lean in to that caricature, and there’s no way around the fact the record is occasionally simply very cheesy and unfashionable, not least in its length. There’s a lot of vibrato and chorus on the guitars, too, and there’s quite a few backing choirs, as well. But here’s the thing: it works. The production here never feels gloopy or leaden, but instead comes across as refreshingly crisp, uncomplicated in some obscure, post-cool fashion. The album also includes some of the best individual songs of the year – most obviously “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin”, but also “This Life” and “Married In A Gold Rush” – and that shouldn’t be over-looked in the rush to dismiss Ezra Koenig as a bit of a douche. Stop trying to be cool, guys. It’s sad.

Our Native Daughters – Songs of Our Native Daughters

This record could so easily have been a museum-piece. Of course, once its personnel were chosen – Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell – there was never any chance of that happening. But choose only one of them, or choose a different quartet, or give them a different brief, and the resulting record could have been polite and respectful – but not also vibrant and creative and inspiring, as this set is. Released by Smithsonian Folkways, and played on acoustic instruments in a – dread word this – authentic roots Americana style, Songs of Our Native Daughters is, rather like the work of Hurray for the Riff-Raff in fact a work of stealth revolution: songs that sound like standards which are in fact original compositions that reclaim musical forms for the dispossessed. It proceeds out of Giddens’s own explorations of slavery and the history of the banjo (most obviously on 2017’s Freedom Highway), but the inspired decision to make the project fully and wholly collaborative transformed a fascinating project into a vital one. These are great tunes, beautifully performed and affectingly sung; but taken together they are also something else that happens meaningfully rather less often: they are a manifesto. The second album cannot be far away, and the movement is already here.

“It Felt Like A Memory File”: Becky Chambers’s “A Closed and Common Orbit”

aclosedandcommonorbitThe winner of the 2017 Arthur C Clarke Award will be announced this evening, only a day after the publication of a longlist for the 2017 Man Booker Prize. This coincidence offers some salutary lessons: of the thirteen books on that longlist, one was also shortlisted for the Clarke (the Whitehead), several more will be seen as the usual suspects (Barry, Smith, Smith), and others have been the recipients of critical monsterings (most memorably the Auster). That is, at the very pinnacle of a literary culture sits a list of books that is open to in some cases even shared sniping and squabbling, and debates about what an award – what literature – is for.

The Clarke is not so special nor so different; it is certainly in many ways not so very much weaker. This year’s debate has to some extent revolved around the Shadow Clarke jury, and in a post on their blog Helen Marshall has more or less confirmed what we all knew about its founding  assumptions and purpose: “Fandom is changing,” she argues. “Having spent much of the twentieth century on the edges of literary culture, what was once marginal is now thoroughly mainstream.” In other words, the Clarke has begun to reward works which reflect that shift, and the Shadow Clarke was established to push back a little. This might seem serious, but I refer you again, dear reader, to that big kahuna of literary awards: just a few years ago, a huge Booker furore exploded upon Chris Mullin suggesting that a book being a good read might be a reason to give it a prize. Consequently, the Folio Award was established as a sort of snobbier Booker. These sorts of internecine skirmishes are not exclusive to science fiction, and they are not fatal for the Clarke.

In their roundtable discussion of Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit, the Sharkes came closest to foregrounding the despair they feel over the direction perhaps not just of the Clarke but the genre it celebrates. “The only thing I can equate it with is binge-watching something unchallenging like Gilmore Girls,” says Victoria Hoyle at one point, “which is something I also do from time to time. It’s no work at all; it keeps my brain monkeys busy and it’s distant from the tension and challenge of the real world.” Jonathan McCalmont suggests that in the course of the book, and in the tradition of a certain stripe of SF, instead of “tediously delivering watered-down physics lectures, the characters deliver diversity 101 talking points!” If you listen carefully, you hear the dread words “accessibility” on the air. Vajra Chandrasekera delivers the coup de grace: “I do very much think that books like ACACO get included in award shortlists because the current state of the discourse is such that (a) not only is there is no distinction being made between “I like this” and “this is good”, much less “this is popular” and “this is important”, but (b) there is a widespread perception that making those distinctions is elitist or exclusionary.” I fear it may have ever been thus.

There has been throughout the Shadow Clarkes’ deliberations a sense of frustration that science fiction may have changed its guard, swapped its gatekeepers. One of its members, Paul Kincaid, was once the award administrator and even chair of the judges; a certain sort of Brit SF fan has long felt an ownership of the Clarke. Under its current administrator, Tom Hunter, the award has moved away from the ground it once occupied – and arguably toward a more marketised vision of the genre. As I’ve suggested in my pieces on the shortlist so far, however, I think this shift can be over-emphasised. Ninefox Gambit may seem to be mil-SF and may have a spaceship on the cover; but I think it’s doing rather more interesting things with the genre than Occupy Me, a novel by something of a Clarke shortlist stalwart.

All that said, if the Sharkes have a single effective weapon aimed at this softest tissue of the current Clarke, it is A Closed and Common Orbit. This is a novel which eschews high style (“Run!” Her muscles said it, too: Run. Run! So she did”). It is a novel which is over-declarative (“A whole generation of kids grew up with this, and I shit you not, about ten standards later, you start seeing a big shift in Diaspora politics”). It is a novel with a programmatic structure – alternating chapters from alternating points of view, delivered from clear and controlled points in narrative-time – and in which every science fictional conceit is well-worn and familiar (robot bodies, interstellar travel, clones and smugglers and humanoid aliens). It’s a sequel (to a novel shortlisted for the Clarke last year). It’s part of a series. It’s comfortable.

But as Mike Vago at The AV Club points out, for all these trappings the novel is actually a quite coherent character study. Linda Wilson and Maggie Clark at Strange Horizons – no slouch, either of these – read and enjoyed first Chambers’ debut and now this second book. “Life as we think we know it can change at any time,” argues Clark – and in this there is a rationale for the book’s often gentle worldbuilding … because its characters are as children. Of course, this opens the novel up to Maureen Speller’s criticism in that Sharke roundtable that A Closed and Common Orbit – purportedly the story of a clone on the run from the slave labour in which she grew up, and an AI implanted into a “kit” body desperately trying to cling to an identity prejudice would remove from her – is, in its understated and over-demonstrative style, more like the Famous Five than Blade Runner: all jolly hockey sticks and cosy danger. There’s some truth to this; but there’s also something missing from the analysis.

Progressives tend to rest on their laurels. Once “woke”, individuals tend to assume the eternal nature of their verities. Science fiction of the Shadow Clarke stripe is progressive by inclination and effect – and it can be frustrating to refight old battles, indeed to wrap up the lessons of the New Wave in the accessible format of the Golden Age. We did that, right? Have we lived and fought in vain? But only yesterday, the President of the United States tweeted that transgender people are no longer welcome in “his” military. Sometimes SF should, must and will go over old ground. A Closed and Common Orbit is a big-selling novel that uses the trappings of SF, and its new-found mainstream audience, to clumsily and occasionally cloth-earedly tell an important story of an AI swapping their body and choosing an identity anew:

If you had asked me what my purpose was, I would have responded [that I was there to protect people]. It would have been the truth, and it would’ve satisfied me. But the moment I was put into this body, that was no longer the case. […] After you helped me be able to edit my own code, scrubbing that file clean was one of the first things I did. But I didn’t delete the file itself. I couldn’t delete it, because I wanted to figure out what should be written there instead. And that’s the trick of it, see. That’s the logical fallacy that was passed on to me. If I’m nothing more than a tool, then I must have a purpose. Tools have purposes, right? But I’m more than that. […] I know I’m a person, even if the GC doesn’t think so.

Sometimes, alas, we all need to retake Diversity 101. The Clarke is not an award for the most well-meaning SF novel of the year; but it is no great sin that in these days it may see part of its remit in this way.

“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.

“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?

corbynsmith

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.