“Multiple and Conflicting Answers”: Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”

A recurring theme in my reviews of this year’s Booker shortlist is originality – or, more accurately if informally, “samey-ness”. Both Eileen and His Bloody Project felt familiar in one way or another, even where they made claims for being otherwise; so far in my readings only The Sellout had a voice and a purpose all its own. This state of affairs is not altered by Madeleine Thien’s nevertheless tenderly written family saga, Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

In part, Thien is unfortunate to publish her novel of musicians in a totalitarian regime in the same year that Julian Barnes published The Noise of Time. Perhaps this novel has been overlooked for the Booker because it retreads ground previously covered by his prize-winning The Sense of an Ending; but The Noise of Time still feels slimmer, swifter and more sly than Thien’s shortlisted effort. Her novel is far more expansive – The Noise of Time never leaves the consciousness of Dmitry Shostakovich, whereas Do Not Say We Have Nothing features an ever-expanding cast of characters spread out over more or less one hundred years. But Thien, too, is interested in how artists – how people – can be true and authentic in a society like Mao’s China, and she quotes not just Shostakovich but Prokofiev, too.

At the centre of Thien’s novel are three musicians who each take a different route through China’s mid-century catastrophes, barely surviving the Great Leap Forward and destroyed by the Cultural Revolution. There is Sparrow, a composer who adopts a sort of soft pragmatism, giving up on music and stepping as far out of sight as her can. There is the violinist Zhuli, Sparrow’s cousin and a woman who reacts to the arbitrary and yet irresistible forces of Maoist revolution with confusion and consternation. And there is the pianist Kai, with whose Vancouver-based daughter the novel begins – and whose accommodations with the regime are more muscular than Sparrow’s, and who therefore spends much of the novel, though he is dead by its opening, atoning for sins of denouncement.

I’m not sure the novel ever drills down to an understanding of music as profound as Barnes; its shapes and effects, its power and its impotence, remain vague and disputable. This is perhaps on purpose – “How could I commit myself to something so powerless?” asks one character [pp. 300-1] – but it gives the novel’s central conflicts a weightless feel. The trio’s love of Western music feels loaded, too – we are invited to sympathise with these characters because they think like us, the Western readers of this Canadian novel. That, too, feels like a shortcut next to the Russianess of Barnes’s Shostakovich. “Could music record a time that otherwise left no trace?” we are asked rhetorically at one point [p. 196]; probably not this music, no. No one ever seems to connect with it beyond what it is meant to signify.

That said, in some ways the novel’s music is only another iteration of its presiding theme – time and our efforts to recover that which is past. The novel begins with ten-year-old Marie, the daughter of Kai, when she and her widowed mother are joined in Vancouver by Ai-Ming, a young woman fleeing mainland China after playing a role in (of course) the Tiananmen Square protests. Ai-Ming inspires Marie to reconnect with a Chinese past that until then had represented only her lost father; together they explore the ‘Book of Records’, a set of documents compiled by the extended family of Sparrow and Zhuli, which tells the story of how these individuals made their way through China’s turbulent twentieth century. Ai-Ming eventually leaves for the USA, assuming amnesty will come there before Canada, but she leaves behind Marie’s rekindled – and unquenchable – thirst to understand the full picture at which Book of Records can only hint.

In English, consciousness and unconsciousness are part of a vertical plane, so that we wake up and we fall asleep and we sink into a coma. Chinese uses the horizontal line, so that to wake is to cross a border towards consciousness and to faint is to go back. Meanwhile, time itself is vertical so that last year is the year above and next year is the year below. […] This means that future generations are not the generations ahead but the ones behind. [pp. 198-9]

The novel is at its best when it seeks to represent Chinese writing and thinking in this way (in the text, this passage is broken up with various characters and ideograms). It’s why its representation of music is so disappointing, and also why the reader is left wanting more, not, despite the book’s girth, less, of this other culture. Marie’s quest for understanding feels incomplete because it is so often in this way a trip only into time, rather than into other heads. This despite the proliferating detail, the endless addition of characters and incidents, which seek to demonstrate that “the past […] was never dead but only reverberated” [p. 14]. Indeed, complexity is the novel’s primary project – it pitches polyphony against the brute insistence of Maoist orthodoxy (“I know that the Party is right […] but even the simplest truths don’t seem like truths at all” [p. 248]) – but I couldn’t escape the sense that a lot happened without very much being translated.

This generic quality explains the novel’s more general “samey-ness”, too. It is beautifully written, and often  philosophically sophisticated, dismissing by example Kai’s fatalistic adoption of the idea of a “zero point […] on which all others are dependent, to which they are all related, and by which they are all determined” [p. 297]. But it also resembles all those other family sagas set over decades: those The Glass Rooms or The Memory of Loves, those The Lowlands or The Garden of Evening (er) Mistses which do much the same thing in much the same way. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a masterfully controlled novel and I am being unfair to it; but, for me at least, it added up to less than the sum of its multiple moving parts.

“Community-cum-Lepar Colony”: Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout”

If I started my review of His Bloody Project with an interview about Eileen, let me try to catch up with myself. Here’s an interview with Paul Beatty, author of The Sellout:

“I’m trying to think of a book – but almost anything will do, really – think of whatever’s number fifteen on the best-seller list now, written by a white writer. It has nothing to do with blackness or Asianness or Latinoness, or whatever. I think that’s as much a comment on race as anything else, whether the writer realises it or not. And the problem is we don’t think of it like that. We just think they’re writing about the common experience, we think it’s just the way the world is.”

In the last scene of The Sellout, a novel about race in America, an African-American stand-up comedian, in a work which has already called out almost all African-American stand-up comedians as unfunny and unoriginal,  confronts a white couple in his audience: “Do I look like I’m fucking joking with you? This shit ain’t for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!” [p. 287]  The narrator, an African-American who has spent most of the novel holding slaves and re-segregating his community, wonders what “our” thing really is. In Beatty’s vision, it is occluding by talking about race elliptically.

“Is integration, forced or otherwise, social entropy or social order?” asks the narrator earlier in the book. “No one’s ever defined the concept” [p. 168]. The Sellout is a novel which seeks to enact race relations in America absurdly, in an attempt to really talk about it. In that same Paris Review interview, Beatty questions the labelling of his latest novel as a satire, and the focus on its comedy, and wonders if this isn’t a way to avoid looking closely at what the novel is saying. I think that’s right: there are many good jokes in this novel, many aimed squarely at the traditional spokespeople of African-Americans (a well-meaning academic invents an alternative office package called EmpowerPoint, rewrites F Scott Fitzgerald as The Great Blacksby); there are even more memorable comic episodes, most notably the one with which the novel opens, as the narrator gets high on the floor of the Supreme Court; but The Sellout isn’t a comic satire because it is too expansive for that. Better to call it an absurdist parable, a version of our own world pushed to the Nth degree in an attempt to foreground concerns at which we usually prefer not to look directly.

What The Sellout suggests is that we are all fretting about race without thinking about race. Like the best-selling white writer encoding his whiteness as the norm, or the black stand-up comedian defining his community against that same set of assumptions, our gaze bends around race’s gravity. We don’t look at it square-on. We do so in some cases out of the best of intentions, out of a desire to reach the post-racial uplands promised to us by an Obama presidency; but in doing so we gloss over too much. The humour, the sheer rate of comic incident in this novel, proceeds out of Beatty – and his narrator – refusing respect to the shibboleths which have been built along these careful demarcations in our willingness to understand. “I’m no Panglossian American,” the narrator insists early on. “And when I did what I did, I wasn’t thinking about inalienable rights, the proud history of our people. I did what worked, and since when did a little slavery and segregation ever hurt anybody, and if so, so fucking be it” [p. 23].

Beatty is not, of course, advocating the return of slavery. But his narrator, whom he cannily only ever names “Me” (“a not-so proud descendent of the Kentucky Mees” [p. 21]), rather is – and he does so because he starts to attend to the actual problems on the ground. “Growing up” under the tutelage of his social studies professor father, “I used to think all of black America’s problems could be solved if only we had a motto” [p. 10]; but when Hominy, an erstwhile child actor who in the 1940s played racist, slapstick bit-parts in the Our Gang series, begs, desperate and depressed as their once-proud neighbourhood of Dickens is literally wiped off the map, to be Me’s slave, his reasoning is brutish: “right now, massa, you ain’t seeing the plantation for the niggers” [p. 80].

Now, look. I’m not only white, but a white male; I’m not only that but English, and writing this in one of the capitals of the transatlantic slave trade, Liverpool. Get the fuck out – this is our thing. The Sellout doesn’t want my sage nods, aims its fire necessarily and importantly as much outwards as inwards. “White people, the type who never used to have anything to say to black people except ‘We have no vacancies,’ ‘You missed a spot,’ and ‘Rebound the basketball,’ finally have something to say to us … on hot 104-degree San Fernando Valley days, when we’re carrying groceries to their cars or stuffing their mailboxes with bills, they turn and say, ‘Too many Mexicans'” [p. 153]. I’ve been in the room when white Americans have suggested Obama shouldn’t get the Latino vote because he might not be “their” friend (since a black president can’t be expected to rule for the common good like a white one); the clear-eyed conversation about race may not be best started by pasty folks like me.

But Beatty sees the task as a shared one. In a memorable episode, Me recalls a childhood trip to Mississippi, occassioned when he insisted to his father that racism was over. Driving immediately to the Deep South, Me’s father insists his son eyeball and wolf-whistle a white woman on a semi-rural Main Street – and pay the consequences. The apparent crackers simply continue their conversation about one of their number’s bisexuality, and Me’s father disappears in the car with their chosen target, who it turns out quite likes black men; the problem is not so much race as assumptions about it. The Sellout is a relatively optimistic book – but it’s hopeful side demands a lot of its readers: their careful attention.

The novel’s voice, Beatty’s prose style, embodies those demands. It is full-throated and insistent, and its consistency is no doubt a large part of why the novel has been shortlisted for the Booker in the first place: it has the completeness of His Bloody Project, the follow-through of Eileen, and a totality and depth of purpose that both lack. This pungency is central to the effect of the novel, to the feeling it gives of being slapped around – which is so crucial to its goal of waking us up:

Washington D.C., with its wide streets, confounding roundabouts, marble statues, Doric columns, and domes, is supposed to feel like Ancient Rome (that is, if the streets of Ancient Rome were lined with homeless black people, bomb-sniffing dogs, tour buses, and cherry blossoms). Yesterday afternoon, like some sandal-shod Ethiop from the sticks of the darkest of the Los Angeles jungles, I ventured from the hotel and joined the hajj of blue-Jeanette yokels that paraded slowly and patriotically past the empire’s historic landmarks. [p. 4]

This is dense stuff, and yet also demotic: The Sellout is not one of those literary novels which conspires to confound; it wants to be understood whilst casting our perceptions afresh. That said, Beatty does have his less sure-footed moments: “kind kindhearted plantation owners,” an insistence that shouting “Here comes Frederick Douglass … Run for your lives” sends Hominy fleeing for the hills, or ropey syntax such as “Billy said, after swallowing a mouthful of a peanut butter – and judging from what appeared to be bug legs on his tongue – and flies sandwich” [p. 186]. Sometimes The Sellout feels not entirely in control of itself, as if it is straining to contain everything Beatty tries to squeeze into it (and, more or less, he tries to squeeze in everything – a “presidential” gorilla named Baraka, a rueful recreation of Compton, a wistful romance). This might be an unfair criticism; but it’s true.

It’s a also true that the novel sometimes goes out of its way to outrage, and in so doing doesn’t feel so different to the sort of Chris Rock routine it pretends to despise. At one point, George W Bush is described as “the first coon president” [p. 240]; at another Hominy is whipped by a glamorous dominatrix wearing only a Union kepi. Beatty might want to claim more for his novel than mere satirical bite, but in these moments he appears to be aiming for little else.  “What does that mean, I’m offended?” Me demands. “It’s not even an emotion” [p. 130]. It may not be, but it is a response – and a valid one. Beatty understands its potential, but perhaps not always the limits of its elasticity.

All that said, The Sellout is one of the most complete American novels I’ve read since the financial crash, which itself heralded Obama’s period in office – and this means it is also so far the best novel on this year’s Booker shortlist. It is timely but also perennial, of high style but also unafraid of low comedy. If it occasionally reaches too far, that is only because it is deservedly confident of its grasp.

“If The Well Is Poisoned”: Graeme Macrae Burnet’s “His Bloody Project”

His Bloody ProjectIn response to my review of Eileen, I was directed on Twitter to an interview with Ottessa Moshfegh in the Guardian. In it, she offered her thoughts on the interaction between crime fiction and her latest novel: “most people who pick up a book labelled ‘thriller’ or ‘mystery’ may not be expecting to confront troubling ideas about women in society.” This has raised eyebrows from a genre that has in truth done rather a lot of work in this regard: isn’t it remarkable that a literary author is rewarded with a place on the Booker shortlist for appropriating not just a generic mode, but the very work it has done in the areas that the self-same author chooses to disparage?

Well, perhaps Graeme Macrae Burnet can help. His Bloody Project has won its place on the shortlist whilst also being actually marketed as a crime novel. That is, this is no literary jeu d’esprit, no smash n’ grab raid on a genre from which it would prefer to maintain a snooty distance. It is a gritty, often graphic novel set in 1869, and the triple murder which is its focus takes place in the small hamlet of Culduie in the Highlands. From the novel’s first page, we are under no doubt of the perpetrator: Roderick Macrae, a seventeen-year-old crofter’s son, makes no bones of his culpability. The novel, however, very much does.

His Bloody Project is, if you like, a whydunnit, a crime novel which locates its mystery not in the mechanics of a murder but its metaphysics – it is obsessed with morality and mores, with the reasons that Roderick Macrae becomes a murderer, rather than with how he endeavours to get away with it. In other words, “what is at issue are not the facts of the case, but the contents of the perpetrator’s mind” [p. 250]. But take a look at the page number in those brackets: this is a 280-page novel which opens with the contention that “the evidence of his deeds does not speak of a sound mind” [p. 9], and so near its close is still circling the same subject is a curious beast.

The novel comprises several sections, made up of fictional documents the author pretends to have discovered in the archives. The longest of these is the testament of Macrae himself, supposedly composed at his advocate’s urging in the dank of an Inverness cell. This is easily the best part of the novel – it captures wonderfully the voice of a young man both keenly intelligent and horribly naive, with impressive powers of comprehension but little self-awareness. It also introduces the reader in mulchy detail to a crofting community, presenting not just the feudalism which powers it but the mindsets which prolong it. When Roderick’s father finally breaks under the ceaseless harassment of Culduie’s constable, Lachlan Broad, and complains to the laird’s administrator, he is given a lecture on the way of the world:

You are labouring under a misapprehension, Mr Macrae. […] If you do not take the crops from your neighbour’s land, it is not because a regulation forbids it. You do not steal his crops, because it would be wrong to do so. The reason you may not “see” the regulations is because there are no regulations, at least not in the way you seem to think. You might as well ask to see the air we breathe. Of course, there are regulations, but you cannot see them. The regulations exist because we all accept that they exist and without them there would be anarchy. It is for the village constable to interpret these regulations and to enforce them at his discretion. [p. 102]

That our modern state, and the Glasgow that exists in the world of the novel as an unimaginably distant separate planet of opportunity and luxury, are instead governed by written laws and codes ultimately makes very little difference in the course of the novel, and it’s here that its circularity finds its intended profundity. “We have heard, as we should, a great deal of discussion of the motives for these wicked crimes,” summarises a judge at the close of the novel, “but having been pronounced guilty, these motives are of no consequence” [p. 274].   In other words, once we agree that a thing is the case, all detail – any further demand for corroboration – is extraneous.

His Bloody Project thus bombards us with detail. In doing so, however, it abandons confidence in itself. In the section which purports to be Macrae’s testimony, it is quite possible to read all the devilish details between the lines: the young man’s dangerous mix of precociousness and innocence, the disconnect between his understandings and the world of the doctors and lawyers he encounters at the prison; those events in the village which conspire to create the circumstances for the triple murder he commits but which remain more or less invisible to him. Despite this skilful writing, the rest of the novel – and ultimately its bulk – is made up of witness statements rather too cute in their disagreements (“John Macrae is among the most devoted to scripture in his parish,” insists the village minister on page ten, and immediately on page eleven the schoolmaster insists he was “a reticent and slow-witted individual”); of a fictional work by a historical criminologist (“was it happenstance that put a croman in your hand?” [p. 171]); and, most difficult of all, of a recreation of the trial supposedly drawn from newspaper reports and court records (“The Clerk of the Court then read the indictment” and so on [p. 191]). These sections make explicit all the subtlety of Macrae’s testimony, but adds very little – indeed, rather detracts – from the plaintive mood of the novel, the cleverness of its characterisation and even the authenticity of its mise en scene.

Ultimately, in adding all this extra material, Burnet inevitably comes to focus on process as much as personality – and in so doing renders his novel a little less exciting than it might otherwise have been. It’s unreliable narrator recedes, hemmed in as by the walls of his cell by the paper combats that surround him. Perhaps that’s the point; but, just as Eileen felt less unusual that it believed itself to be, so His Bloody Project comes to read rather more like all those otheir ambiguous courtroom dramas you’ve read or watched.  At one point, Roderick listens to his advocate speak at length about the case, and concludes that “in his mania to employ his great cleverness he quite disregarded the most obvious fact” [p. 85]. Like Sinclair, Burnet had the kernel of a compelling narrative; and like Macrae’s advocate, it could be argued he over-embellished it.

That said, His Bloody Project remains a memorable, and pungent, read: its commitment in particular to the Highlands setting, and the opportunities this affords to make some interesting arguments about class and justice, give it a currency quite beyond its structural hiccups. “Why do such [bad] things happen?” one character asks of Roderick long before he becomes a murderer. “I hesitated for a moment,” he remembers, “and then said, ‘I would say that they happen for no reason'” [pp. 87-8]. He’s wrong, though not for the reasons he or we might first think; and the novel shows us – as well as sometimes less effectively telling us – why.

“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.

“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.