“People Don’t Change”: Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life”

Hanya Yanagihara-A Little LifeI’m not sure I can recall off-hand a reading experience quite so odd as the one I had whilst making my way through Hanya Yanagahira’s A Little Life. The last of 2015’s Booker-shortlisted novels I had to read, in many ways this novel is, excepting Marlon James’s winner, the most memorable: 720 pages long, it is a bizarre mix of bildungsroman, misery memoir, Franzen-ish lit, and family saga. It begins with four friends in college, and makes its way to their 50s and 60s in simultaneously dilatory and episodic fashion, slowly writing each of them out of their own story until the last word is given to a character who has always been on the outside of their cohort. It is a novel with often unreadably detailed descriptions of self-harm and sex abuse, which in reality spends a much larger part of its time on pure math and modern art. It should be a thorough mess, and yet it is entirely immersive. I’m not at all sure it works, but I was never bored by it.

This discombobulation is, for the novel’s most vocal cheerleaders, its point:

To understand the novel’s exaggeration and its intense, claustrophobic focus on its characters’ inner lives requires recognizing how it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera. The book is scaled to the intensity of Jude’s inner life, and for long passages it forces the reader to experience a world that’s brutally warped by suffering.

Jude is the novel’s central character, the member of that opening quartet who is, at first, the quietest and most mysterious – but whose story soon comes to dominate the others’. Indeed, ‘dominate’ is the only possible word: such is the extent of Jude’s suffering that its devastating effects both on his body and his psyche come to make greater and greater demands upon those closest to him. Found, abandoned a baby, by a group of monks, Jude is sexually abused at their school for boys before escaping with Brother Luke, the only member of the fraternity who has shown his kindness; Luke proceeds to pimp Jude out to other men, ultimately also taking the nine-year-old boy as his own lover; years later, Luke hangs himself in a hotel bathroom adjacent to Jude’s bed when the police finally make their raid. After further abuse by the counsellors and care home staff charged with his safe-keeping, Jude breaks out on his own and becomes a male prostitute; one night he is found by Dr Traylor, who promptly locks Jude in his basement for months on end and subjects him to sexualised beatings; when Traylor finally lets Jude free, it is only to chase him down the road in a car and repeatedly run over him, breaking Jude’s back.

The point of A Little Life is that it is impossible – utterly and entirely – to get over that sort of abuse. The likelihood of that sort of abuse actually happening is not addressed. In this, it short-circuits the routinely redemptive, and mostly mimetic, promise of the novel as a form, which insists people can change and grow over an allotted time, defeating their personal demons and growing stronger through trauma. This happens to no one in Yanagahira’s book – everything more or less stays the same. So, too, does the setting: from the day Jude meets his new college buddies (the angelic social worker who takes charge of Jude’s case following the Traylor incident manages to encourage Jude to apply to university right before dying of a terrible cancer), it is impossible to locate the novel’s events in time. We appear to be in an eternal present, where everyone always has a cellphone and no one ever discusses politics. This, more or less, is the reason A Little Life fails to impress its detractors:

In proper melodramatic manner, Jude goes from the pits straight to, if not the top, the upper middle class. The ghastly litany of his childhood sufferings is at least coherent. Jude, an adult player in a melodramatic lifestyle novel, in which the point is to observe the way the passing of time affects the cast of characters, is static.

That’s from Christopher Lorentzen’s entertainingly vicious review of the novel in the London Review of Books. He also cites the review from which my first quotation was taken, Garth Greenwell’s in The Atlantic. Their readings are two sides of the same coin: Greenwell supposes that Yanagihara’s project is to queer the Great American Novel; Lorentzen that this may well be the case but that you can’t ignore the demands of the form in which you choose to write. I think Lorentzen over-emphasises the novel’s focus on the abuse and self-harm – it takes up but a fraction, albeit an indelible one, of the whole novel. But I also think that Greenwell forgives the novel’s trespasses in an attempt to prove his theory: that, in his words, Yanagihara’s “characters suffer relatively little anxiety about the public reception of their sexual identities” may help him prove his point, but is very much part of the novel’s strange weightlessness, its sense of unreality.

The novel’s less partisan reviewers have accepted this whilst arguing that its immersiveness, the intensity with which I, too, found the novel gripped me, allows it to go astray in other ways: “The novel is brilliantly redeemed by Yanahigara’s insistence on Jude’s right to suffer,” suggests Alex Preston at the end of a review in the Guardian which seems negative until its final moments; likewise, Jon Michaud is ambivalent in the New Yorker, arguing that, “Like the axiom of equality, A Little Life feels elemental, irreducible—and, dark and disturbing though it is, there is beauty in it.” Why the need for this special pleading? Implicit in the need to argue for the novel is an acceptance that there is an awful lot of room for improvement in this young writer’s work -Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life was written in just eighteen months following the surprise success of her first. In a weird way, the reception of the book reminds of the rapture that greeted James Frey’s now much-maligned A Million Little Pieces: people sort of know it’s wrong, but it’s just so readable (Brigid Delaney offers excellent chattering-class evidence of this in the Guardian).

I also think, though, that it’s because the novel contains so much material. It is full of stuff – about gender and race and poverty and consumerism – and in its almost naive insistence that it can and should be able to talk about everything without having to pause to explain itself I think it makes a connection that is unusually personal with its reader. At one point, Jude – who understand how lucky he is to have been literally adopted by the upper middle class of an improbably liberal and wealthy enclave of New York City that is so detached from the world beyond, and so shocked when that world intrudes, that the novel’s society sometimes reads science fictionally – sighs that he is wasting his talent in corporate law, and perhaps should have remained a poorly-paid public attorney. We gasp that A Little Life has the chutzpah not just to short circuit the pleasures of the bildungsroman but court our frustration at its central character’s apparent lack of gratitude for his improperly fortunate lot in later life (at this stage, he has partnered off with the impossible good-looking Willem, a movie-star actor and a member of the opening quartet, which is rounded off by a lauded international artist and a star architect).

The novel can be seen to boil down simply to a parable about us all, about the impossibility of finding meaning: “He wants you to tell him that his life, as inconceivable as it is, is still a life.” [p. 563]  It barely matters that Jude’s rags-to-riches story is implausible, his abuse improbable and his self-harm gratuitous; what matters is that, in experiencing both extremes, his remains ultimately “a little life”, rendered meaningful not by his suffering or his success, but by friendship. Near the end of the book, Willem – Jude’s only love, remember, and the only person with whom he can even come close to consummating an adult relationship – dies in a horrid car crash. Before he does, however, he opines: “‘I know my life’s meaningful because’ – and here he stopped, and looked shy, and was silent for a moment before he continued – ‘because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.'” [p. 688]  That’s it. 720 pages, and the novel has so apparently tiny an ambition for us all.

That Janus-faced quality – the huge girth for the bathetic moral, the graphic violence for the coy context – is both the novel’s project and its great frustration. This brings us back to Lorentezen and Greenwell, of course: so which of them is right? Is the novel a trainwreck or a masterpiece? I think, perhaps like Jude, it is neither one extreme nor the other, but something contingent and cobbled-together. I think it may well become a classic cult novel. I’m certainly still turning it over in my head, and it reveals new sides to itself each time – surely one sign of a rich text.

But, on that ever-present other hand, it’s also the sign of a confused one – and the prose style, rarely incompetent but regularly hammy and distended, doesn’t help. I keep worrying away at something: that Lorentzen and I share a favourite character from the novel in the shape of JB, the out-spoken artist of the quartet of friends who gives lone voice to any of the novel’s politics or contexts (he gives Jude the nickname ‘Postman’, because he is post-racial, post-sexual … post-everything). “He’s temporarily ushered out of the narrative,” writes Lorentzen, “after he says to Jude: ‘You like always being the person who gets to learn everyone else’s secrets, without ever telling us a single fucking thing? … Well, it doesn’t fucking work like that, and we’re all fucking sick of you.’ JB’s also the one hooked on crystal meth. What real person trapped in this novel wouldn’t become a drug addict?” The person, perhaps, who is addicted instead to this faintly false, wilfully trippy, trance-like novel. And, ultimately, I’m not sure literature should act like meth.

 

“Just A Body Needing To Be Clothed and Fed”: Sunjeev Sahota’s “The Year of the Runaways”

The Year of the RunawaysVery late in Sunjeev Sahota’s Booker-shortlisted The Year of the Runaways, Avtar, a young Indian man whose preceding twelve months of illegal work and dodging immigration officials in England we have followed for more than four hundred pages, calls home.

He could see her frowning. “Anyway, what have you been up to? Anything fun?”

He opened his mouth but no words came out. He had nothing, absolutely nothing, to say to her. (p. 436)

If it aims for anything, The Year of the Runaways intends to ensure that, were we on the other end of the telephone line to Avtar, he would be able to share – and we would be able to understand. It is as evocative, engaging, and convincing a depiction of the immigrant experience as I have read. By this, I mean it is not about second- or third-generation communities seeking fused identities, as in Chimamandah Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and that likewise it is not a piece of over-dramatised pedagogy like Rose Tremain’s worthy but thickly-egged The Road Home. It most reminds me of the sections in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names in which its protagonist arrives and begins to build a life in America; but Sahota’s characters are adults, not children, and each of them is stressing not the need for assimilation but the temporary nature of their arrangements: stay a few years, earn a lot of money; marry an Indian man so he can gain a visa, and do good by sacrificing just a year of matrimony.

Of course, these best laid plans go inevitably awry: the student finds it difficult to pass his exams, and thus retain his visa, whilst also working the two jobs he needs to barely pay off the loan sharks who funded his transit from India; the British-born wife realises all too quickly that “just a year” is time enough for everything to change; and still others, such as the high-caste Randeep, with whose sister Avtar is in love, have as the end-point of their endeavour residency in Britain – and the opportunity permanently to bring their families with them.

All this takes place in 2003, when marriage and student visas were easier to come by; but the variegated humanity of so-called “economic migrants” is of acute current interest. Randeep is mockingly referred to as “prince” by other denizens of the packed house he and Avtar share with nine other illegal workers at the novel’s opening; he will eventually become homeless, and be turned away from a gurdwara that might once have coveted his place in their congregation. Another of the house’s residents, Tochi, is of a low caste – whenever his attempts to hide his roots fail he is failingly ejected from Indian communities both immigrant and British-born – and yet makes far more money, is a cannier earner and saver, than the more middling – and more widely accepted – student, Avtar. In this way, the reader is shown how the immigrant experience can be flattening – it forces all who go through it into certain shapes, regardless of their past experiences or positions; but also, and most importantly, the novel stresses the characters’ continuity of personality and perception: that is, it teaches us to consider the immigrant’s individuality whilst also emphasising the degrading competition in which they are engaged. In a year in which the British press has dealt up dehumanising copy by the column-foot, this is a timely literary effort.

The novel’s key theme is duty. Very early on, Randeep and Avtar discuss what drove them to leave their native country:

“He said it’s not work that makes us leave home and come here. It’s love. Love for our families.” Randeep turned to Avtar. “Do you think that’s true?”

“I think he’s a sentimental creep. We come here for the same reason our people do anything. Duty. We’re doing our duty. And it’s shit.” (p. 7)

From Randeep’s duty to his family to Avtar’s to his creditors; from the religious piety of Narinder, Randeep’s visa wife to Tochi’s orphaned responsibility to himself, The Year of the Runaways breaks down each character’s set of obligations and forces upon each unpalatable choices. No individual emerges from the impossible dilemmas they are set, and even good intentions have little chance of turning out for the better – Narinder’s choice to marry Randeep is powered by a previous refusal to marry another Indian migrant, who was later found dead on the side of a Russian road, and yet things do not go well for either of them. The novel describes a series of practical challenges requiring utilitarian solutions – and doesn’t pretend that anything is perfect.

Indeed, The Year of the Runaways rather insists on the unsatisfactory nature of any response to the complex factors that drive migration and the black and grey economies which depend on it. It is the reader’s duty, indeed, to come to understand this – to empathise with and advocate for individuals simply trying to make a good fist of slim hands. This is a novel with modest hopes. “Happiness is a pretty precarious state, Randeep,” Narinder says in the perhaps too-neat epilogue. “I’m content. That’s more than enough. That’s more than most.” (p. 462)

If the national – indeed, international – conversation around migrants and migration were of a higher quality, we might not need a novel like this. As it is, a call to understand migrants on their own terms is a radical enough thing to do, and The Year of the Runaways – well researched, delicately written and humane – feels like an important novel. It has a breadth of emotional vision, an imagination, that lends it a calm wisdom. On the other hand, it is almost quaintly straight-forward – its twelve-month structure split into four seasonal parts, no less – and feels almost old-fashioned in its strict third person limited style, its linear narrative with its polite flashbacks, and its social realist perspective. Its interest arises from its complicated ethics and its refusal to talk down to its readers (there are no translations of its frequent Punjabi phrases, for example). But I can’t help but feel that its place on the Booker shortlist is as much an expression of how bad our novels and our nation have been at talking about the things this novel talks about as it is of its considerable, but often conventional, qualities.

“The Real Palpable Reach of Loss”: Chigozie Obioma’s “The Fishermen”

imageWhen Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen is good, it is arresting. In these moments, it’s not hard to see how this story of four Nigerian brothers in the 1990s put its nose ahead of the competition to become  the only debut on this year’s Booker shortlist: its carefully paced moments of sudden and irrevocable violence rip through an often temperate narrative, offering – and you’ll forgive the alliterative assonance – pungent punctuation to what increasingly reads like a fable, an allegory of lost opportunity and squandered hopes.

Early on, the boys experience an encounter with the man they know only as “MKO”, whom the reader may or may not know better as Moshood Abiola, the ill-fated Social Democratic candidate for president during Nigeria’s controversial 1993 general election, who ran on the slogan, “How To Make Nigeria A Better Place for All” – and whose presumed victory was never announced, the candidate instead eventually finding himself in prison. The great man gives the brothers a calendar which they keep from then on as a treasured possession – its trashing is a key episode in the slow decay of their relationships – and his career is imparted dimly but deliberately as he recedes from the daily life of the children and Nigeria slides, with consequence but almost invisibly in the narrative, towards the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha.

The storyteller’s priorities lie elsewhere. Our narrator, after all, is a child. More correctly, Ben, the youngest of the four central brothers, is  telling the story from a vantage point in the future, but his style is tricksily naive: there is very little hindsight inserted into his telling (thus the sketchy understanding of the political context of MKO’s career), and this more than anything else is what gives the novel its fable-like quality:

The winged insects, as small as the brown brush flies, would leap out of porous holes in the earth in a sudden invasion and converge wherever they saw light – it drew them magnetically. The people of Akure often rejoiced at the arrival of the locusts. For, rain healed the land after the dry seasons during which the inclement sun, aided by the Harmattan wind, tormented the land. […] But the rain would come down – usually on the day after the locust invasion – with a violent storm, plucking out roofs, destroying houses, drowning many and turning whole cities into strange rivers. (p. 134)

This sort of allusive style – almost showily eloquent whilst also oral and demotic – is dominant throughout. Each chapter, for instance, is named after an animal, with the creature assigned to a particular character or feature of the story (“Father was an eagle”, “Ikenna was a python”, “Hope was a tadpole”). This in particular becomes a little wearisome, and not a little pat for a story that stretches the boundaries of the parable form: despite the mythic resonances, there are no lessons to be learned here, no great moral victories are won. At the close of the novel, the characters having been ruthlessly punished for various transgressions, Ben is told by his father, “What you have done is great.” (p. 285)

Indeed, the boys’ father is in many ways the central tragic figure of the novel: an upwardly mobile member of the emerging middle class, he over-reaches his grasp by disastrously little; he punishes his boys brutally for failing to live up to his often arbitrary expectations; leaves the family for a big job in the city, returning only when it is too late to put events back on track; and, at the end, cannot see the ways in which his demands and dreams have both contributed to and been negated by the actions he endorses.

If anything, his wife is even more carefully characterised: a woman of huge heart and discipline, she tries her very best – and far harder than her would-be grander husband – to ensure a harmonious family. When she inevitably, unsupported, fails, she is more viscerally affected than anyone, and yet never loses her moral compass (the father does not congratulate his son in her earshot). “She owned copies of our minds in the pockets of her own mind and so could easily sniff troubles early in the forming, the same way sailors discern the forming foetus of a coming storm,” Ben tells us in one of the novels many supple and apposite expressions of the bonds of family. (p. 103)

If I’m being cagey about the precise nature of that storm, it’s because those explosive moments of violence are best experienced without foreknowledge – they need to arrive with the same unsurprised shock that a sailor will experience the first thunderclap he half-expected. The trouble begins, however, early on, in the sort of encounter one finds in the Bible or Aesop: on one of the boys’ clandestine fishing trips (“I sweat and suyffer to send you to school to receive a Western education as civilized men,” their father rants, “but you chose instead to be […] Fish-a-men!” [p. 39), a madman tells the eldest brother, Ikenna, that he will be murdered by one of his fellow fishermen – in other words, by a sibling. This seed slowly germinates throughout the novel, needlessly but inevitably bearing bitter fruit. The senselessness of this cause only emphasises the fatalism of its effect: “we cannot flip precedence,” sighs the third of the brothers in age, Obembe. “We cannot bring forward what is behind, nor can we bring what is forward back.” (p. 197)

In this way, and despite being occasionally if only faintly over-worked, The Fishermen becomes an anti-fable, a story with all the grace notes and chord structures of a parable, but none of its codas – and certainly nothing approaching the moral certainty of its plagal cadences. The novel would be an elegy for lost hope if, figured as a tragedy from the start, it had any to begin with; as it is, it’s a valuable lesson in how unnecessarily self-defeating human beings can be, and how sad it is to watch them be so. I can quite see how this novel, which closes by calling on young Nigerians to become one of the “wool-white birds that appear in flocks after a storm”, would have been the one to give Marlon James a run for his money.

 

“It Happens All The Time”: Anne Tyler’s “A Spool of Blue Thread”

Anne Tyler-A Spool of Blue ThreadWhilst reviewing the Women’s Prize shortlist earlier this year, I never made it to what is reputed to be Anne Tyler’s final novel (bar an entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare series). I did, though, wonder about its reception in my review of Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests:

The only novel on the prize shortlist I’ve not yet read is Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, but others have already written “defences” of her more traditional style: “the question of whether Tyler’s work errs too heavily on the side of consolation has lingered, despite (or because of) her immense and loyal readership and high-profile fans such as Nick Hornby and John Updike.”

I went on to consider Waters’s current reputation, so stratospheric that she doesn’t require defenders. But of course upon reading A Spool of Blue Thread as part of my belated Booker catch-up, I thought back to the words of John Blades: “annoyingly synthetic”, “cockeyed humanism”, “deliberately ingratiating”. Reader, I confess: I find it hard to disagree with him on the evidence of this book (Tyler has otherwise escaped my reading).

A Spool of Blue Thread takes place in a sort of timeless 1950s, in which lugubrious gentlemen drive their Datsuns and Buicks to the train station to pick up the prodigal son, and women in cotton dresses disagree about how best to do the washing up; its characters, social workers and carpenters, build things and nurture them (I will leave you to guess which gender is assigned which role); should the Baltimore in which this novel is set resemble in any way the decaying American dystopia of David Simon, I can only assume that the characters are unaware. There are certainly refugees and homeless, and they are invited for dinner to the large home that forms the epicentre of this family saga; but we never follow them back to their own homes, where they are sent with the leftover dessert in a box, and are given the distinct sense that, even in the simple act of reaching out to Them (and they are absolutely Other), some sort of moral victory has been won.

I’m being a bit unfair: the social worker of Tyler’s Whitshank family, its matriarch Abby, is shown to be a woman whose children feel neglected by her in favour of her “orphans”; the novel doesn’t quite endorse her apparent belief that inviting people to a large meal at which they’re made to feel a bit uncomfortable is some sort of virtue; and, most brutally, the novel afflicts her with dementia, as if to emphasise the process of forgetting in which the entire family is explicitly engaged:

The disappointments seemed to escape the family’s notice, though. That was another of their quirks: they had a talent for pretending that everything was fine. Or maybe it wasn’t a quirk at all. Maybe it was just further proof that the Whitshanks were not remarkable in any way whatsoever. (p. 74)

Which is all well and good – the bizarre stasis bubble in which the novel takes place is part of the point. But that passage is also what is wrong with the novel, as well as explanation of it: that flattening of its contours inherent in the universalisation of what at first seems to be being held as an angular, problematic quality; that breezy tone which appears not to want to hover over or consider anything very deeply; and, of course, the deadening homespun insistence on telling you What The Moral Of The Story Is.

“An outsider might say that these weren’t stories at all,” we read at one point (p. 71), and the novel seems to have a direction – to make us care, but also to complicate the Whistshanks’ own self-obsession. If indeed any of this was imparted in that sort of arch ironic tone of Austen (and Tyler shares a lot else with her, in deceptive complexity of her structures and dogged insistence that the “domestic” isn’t somehow lesser material for the novel), then I’d be fine. But I’m not sure it is: Tyler’s novel has nuances, for sure, but they are details pushed into high relief. Take Denny, the black sheep of the Whitshanks, the only member of the family who lives away from Baltimore, keeping his private life exactly that and refusing to engage in their heartland conservatism of home and work. The novel begins and ends with him, even though he is absent for much of it (as a way, I think, of emphasising that life does exist beyond the Whitshanks’ home); and yet, of course, he is intensely interested in all the most important parts of the family’s life – he’s the guy who points at what we’re meant to notice.

“In my opinion,” Red said, “going to Florida for the winner is kind of like … not paying your dues. Not standing fast for the hard part.”

“Are you calling Baltimore summers the easy part?” Merrick asked. Then, as if to prove her point, she said, “Whew!” and left off petting Heidi to bat a hand in front of her face. “Can somebody turn that fan up a notch?

Stem rose and gave the fan cord a pull.

can see why you might want two houses,” Denny spoke up. “Or even more than two. I get that. I bet sometimes when you wake in the morning you don’t know where you are for a moment, am I right? You’re completely disoriented. […] I love that feeling. […] You don’t know your place in the world; you’re not pegged; you’re not nailed into this one single same old never-ending spot.” (pp. 169-70)

Do you see?

There are a lot of names in the above, no? Red is the pater familias, the crotchety-but-good-hearted proprieter of the family construction firm; Stem is the favoured son, in fact adopted as a boy when his indigent father, a worker of Red’s, died unexpectedly. Merrick is the upwardly-mobile aunt. And so on. Few of these characters emerge from their sketches; they are pegged, as Denny is intended to show, in a family in which 22 is too young to marry if you’re male and too old not to be married if you’re female. And yet this conservatism is never indicated to be the problem, rather encoded into the novel as a whole: the Whitshanks, it holds, are “one of those enviable families that radiate clannishness and togetherness and just … specialness” (p. 19, my emphasis, but not my adjective).

Much of the novel is imparted in flashback – to Red and Abby’s courtship, to the youths of their children and further back to when none of them were born but the house in which they have all spent their lives was being built by Red’s father, Junior, about whose past nothing is otherwise known (“Where he came from was never documented, but the general feeling was that he might have have hailed from the Appalachian Mountains” [p. 52] – of course he did!). The world in which Junior built that house – in 1936 – and fell in love with it, eventually conspiring to “convince” its owners to leave – in 1941 – is tonally identical to the one in which Denny pokes holes in his own dad’s pieties. The policemen are friendly and don’t dig too deeply into Junior’s machinations; the road on which the house is built, Bouton, plays host to family parties on the porch; downtown is a quick drive away, and there are clubs to join and stores to visit for upholstery. It all feels adrift, listless.

In the novel’s defence (see how it needs one?), part of its purpose is to undermine these family myths by in its first half having the family endlessly retell them and, in the second, imparting them in full flashback. And on the level of its sentences and paragraphs, indeed in long passages, it does so beautifully: Tyler writes so apparently effortlessly, so smoothly and wittily, with sensitivity and empathy and all of that, that reading her is a pleasure. But the writing goes nowhere, and the flashbacks aren’t in nearly as much disagreement with the rosy family hagiographies as they would need to be to cast light on that weird stasis the family – and their town – seem to be in. There’s a super example, if I do say so myself, towards the very end of the second half’s long flashback to a vaguely more complicated, and certainly more filled-in, Junior and his slow movement towards moving into that house. Having made all that complicating effort, Tyler reaches the same point that Red reached hundreds of pages before:

Under the shelter of the trees the front of the house didn’t get the morning sun, but that just made the deep, shady porch seem homier. And the honey-gold of the swing, visible now through the balustrade, gladdened Junior’s heart. He had to stop himself from saying to Linne, “See? See how right it looks?” (p. 438)

That is, the interest in A Spool of Blue Thread lies in its prose and its flashbacks; which is also precisely where what is wrong with it can be situated. In other words, it has itself pegged.

“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.

“How Will You Love, If You Fear So Much?” Neel Mukherjee’s “The Lives of Others”

The Lives Of OthersFor the second year running, the Booker Prize has recognised a novel featuring a Naxalite as a protagonist. Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others takes place in the late-1960s, at the birth of the radical Indian Maoist movement, charting the rise and dispersal of a west Bengali family through years of intense but not always overt social conflict. Last year’s The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri, covered similar ground: family epics with a radical at its centre, the novels’ primary structural differences lie in the figure of the revolutionary himself – in Lahiri’s novel, the Naxalite dies early on but his legacy penetrates deep into the future, whereas in The Lives of Others he is granted a narrative strand of his own – and also and more importantly in the approach to time taken by the two authors.

Lahiri made often violent use of the ellipsis. This necessitated in the novel’s first third a profusion of exposition and backstory. Mukherjee’s novel is much fatter and much slower: it takes its time to build up detail and depth, and though its own forty or fifty years proceed from 1967 backwards, unlike Lahiri’s more contemporary work, its own gaps and omissions work not against the flow of the narrative but in its favour: a missing child or unmarried daughter, a broken marriage or a failing paper mill, seem at first to be simple facts of life, but the delicate flashbacks – never explicit, never showy – serve to fill in, rather than draw attention to, the gaps. This makes it, perhaps, a less frustrating novel – but not always, I think, as successful a one.

The reason for this apparently paradoxical situation, it seems to me, is the novel’s totalising project. Its focus is the Ghosh family, a tribe of well-to-do north Calcutta paper magnates, heirs to the self-made fortune of patriarch Prafullanath (born, according to the family tree – for there is one here, along with a map – in 1898). Fairly early on, it’s plain that the Ghoshes are intended to operate as Indian society writ small, or at least the creaky, shaky elements of Indian society, its inegalitarian impulses and unequal distributions. The Ghoshes are a conservative family, nostalgic for the past and wary of change. At the dawn of Independence, for instance, Prafullanath groans: “Gandhi … wearing his louncloth and walking barefoot – all this unbearable rubbish!” [pg. 239]   The deadening system Prafullanath represents is seen to be self-perpetuating, accepting by those most oppressed by it. For example, the widow of Prafullanath’s dead son is forced to live little better than one of the family’s barely-visible servants, stowed along with her two children ‘below stairs’: one granddaughter has never “thought this set-up to be unfair, in the sense of assigning it that particular term and being consequently moved along the path of enquiry on causes and reasons.” pg. 18]   It is precisely this despair that another grandchild, Supratik, runs away with the Naxalites to overturn.

It is all, then, allegory: “the family is the primary unit of exploitation”, Supratik insists at one point [pg. 79], and it’s never a position against which the novel really stands. Its interests are too squarely in mapping the Ghosh family’s fate onto India’s. One of the first adult emotions experienced by one of the favoured granddaughters, after all, is desire, in her case for a sparkly pencil case; the acquisitive drive first of Prafullanath and then his favoured son, Adinath, is seen to power their mistreatment of workers at their paper mills, and their distrust for positive social change which will nevertheless impact negatively upon their ageing business models. (“Why did words such as “sufficient” or “enough” have no meaning, no traction in our lives?” [pg. 99]  From the frustrated Chhaya, too dark-skinned to win a groom and in any case in some form of love with her beta-male brother, Priyonath (himself a repressed coprophiliac), to the defeated poet Bholonath, each of the children whom Prafullanath leaves almost entirely to his reactionary wife, Charubala, are in one manner or another undone by the suffocating atmosphere, its strangled will to power, within the household.

Like India in 1967, then, the Ghosh family is at war with itself. Yet what to Mukherjee is necessary analogy also sits side-by-side with his novel’s other theme, the one from which it derives its hope: that families are also the one place where we can best learn to know the other. The ill-fated fifth child, Sona, appears to experience some form of autism, and at one point, whilst enjoying one of the many equations to which he sets himself, he “lets out an exultant cry, part one note laugh, part shout – his magic number, his old friend, his saviour on the winged horse: one.” [pg. 205]  In Mukherjee’s novel, one is not a propitious number. As its title suggests, what The Lives of Others is most interested in is promoting understanding, and in its many pages of scene-setting it absolutely conjures its world, allowing the reader at least to enter very much into the heads of its characters – each of whom are distinct whilst also being identifiably related. Bhola often experiences “the gap between feelings and their articulation in language” [pg. 141], and it is this chasm, bridgeable only with a sort of honesty and frankness unwelcome in the repressed confines of the Ghoshes’ home, that Mukherjee’s novel taken as a whole seeks to bridge: that is, he takes a broken society, and a broken family, and seeks in depicting the ways in which both are defective to propose the fix.

This is an ambitious and elegant trick for a novel to pull off, and in the novel’s closing stages – which I won’t spoil here, but which alternate, like the rest of the book, between a third-person omniscient, time-unstuck narrative of the Ghosh family, and a much tighter, first-person chronicle of Supratik’s adventures in rural radicalisation – the pace doesn’t so much pick up as begin to proceed in a rhythmic pattern that is not predictable but does offer momentum. Undoubtedly The Lives of Others is completely conceived. I can’t help but feel, though, that it might have benefitted from some of the occassionally over-ruthless editing found in the Lahiri. If last year she went too far, perhaps this year Mukherjee hasn’t gone far enough.

That Goldilocks note seems a good one on which to segue into the prediction game. It seems to me that the three big novels on this year’s shortlist are Smith’s, Flanagan’s and Jacobson’s. Of those, perhaps as a function of my having had longer to do so, it is the latter which has led me most to thought having read it. On the other, Jacobson’s is so personal a vision that it might alienate enough others to preclude it from the prize. I more or less decided between Smith and Flanagan in my review of the Australian novel: How To Be Both feels, appropriately simultaneously, ambitious and playful enough to achieve something really remarkable whilst also covering a breadth of mood. For me, therefore, it is Ali Smith who should win the gong.