“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.

“Perfectly Without Meaning”: Joshua Ferris’s “To Rise Again At A Decent Hour”

To-Rise-again-at-a-Decent-HourIn the comments of his perspicacious review of Howard Jacobson’s J, Adam Roberts quoth:

The ‘J-under-erasure’ is quite a powerful little rebus. But it’s also a little too slippery. I’ve seen people flinch when I describe my wife as ‘a Jew’, in a way that doesn’t happen when I describe her as ‘Jewish’ (what’s that Jonathan Miler joke? ‘I’m not a Jew; I’m Jewish. Not the whole hog’). It’s not exactly ‘the n-word’, but there is a valence to ‘the j-word’ that makes it tricky for use in polite society. Jacobson is saying: that’s an index of disgust rather than sensitivity — or he’s saying what the sensitivity is sensitive to is revulsion. I wonder about that.

I have thoughts on this whole discussion after listening to Jacobson extemporise about the novel in the flesh yesterday at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. In particular, he expressed a kind of relief that the moderator, David Baddiel, launched straight into the Jewish question: this has not, apparently, been the frame Jacobson has been using to discuss the novel elsewhere (for example, see his conversation with Stephen Smith on Newsnight). Baddiel rightly pointed out that in a real way this brings into the criticism of the novel its central conceit of denial and absence. The novel is about Jews – why the squeamishness?

This isn’t a review of J, however. It’s a review of Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour:

“A Jew is sitting at a bar when a Jew-hater and a Jew-lover walk in,” he said at last. “They have a seat on either side of the Jew. The Jew-hater tells the Jew that he’s been arguing with the philo-Semite about which of the two of them the Jew prefers. The Jew-hater believes the Jew prefers him over the philo-Semite. The philo-Semite can’t believe that. How can the Jew prefer somebody who hates the Jews with a murderous passion over somebody who throws his arms open for every Jew he meets? ‘So what do you say,’ says the Jew-hater. ‘Can you settle this for us?’ And the Jew turns to the philo-Semite, jerks his thumb back at the Jew-hater, and says, ‘I prefer him. At least I know he’s telling the truth.'” [pg. 69]

The teller of that parable is Uncle Stu, a relative of Connie Plotz, the woman with whom Ferris’s protagonist, Paul O’Rourke, has fallen in love. Paul, a self-involved, under-fulfilled misogynist (“to be cunt gripped is to believe that I have found everything heretofore lacking in my life” [pg. 50]), has pored over the Talmud and developed a taste for kosher meat. He wants to become a Jew, to be a Jew, he even agonises over whether to use the word Jew. There is something false about this passion, of course. As he later realises, “I never really saw any of the Plotzes as people. I only ever really saw them as a family of Jews.” [pg. 150]

If this suggests an old-fashioned linear novel in which the main character Learns Something About Himself, you’d be right. If the thematic repetition between this novel and also suggests either a carefully curated shortlist or a narrowness of vision, we might lean one way or the other on the basis of Ferris’s book, which begins with O’Rourke thinking “golf could be everything” [pg. 5] and ends with him living in a kibbutz helping children. Despite Ferris’s reputation as an irreverent comic novelist, there is something earnest about this book which, curiously, makes it feel more straight-lacedly serious than a dystopian novel about a post-Holocaust Britain. There are lots of lovely moments in the book, for example in sections that deal better with the digital than most contemporary fiction, or which capture the modern workplace in the spot-on fashion for which Ferris first became famous; but all these individual elements do not really build beyond a flip picaresque into something coherent or cohesive.

Why? Paul O’Rourke is a dentist on Park Avenue in New York City, and his life is more or less empty. He chases women, not entirely successfully, and takes up a dizzying array of hobbies which he very quickly drops again. The only thing about which he is truly passionate, except for the Red Sox whose games he rather obsessively records on VHS and watches whilst eating the same meal of chicken and rice, is his work. Tellingly, he describes dentistry as the process of fighting decay: “A dentists is only half the doctor he claims to be. That he’s also half mortician is the secret he keeps to himself.” [pg. 4]  O’Rourke, then, is constantly patching up – painting over – death, for which he has no answer or understanding.

Into this environment intrudes a digital stalker. A website for O’Rourke’s practice appears without his knowledge, then a Facebook page and then a Twitter account. All of these begin to broadcast gnomic shibboleths which have the air of scripture, but which do not appear to be sourced from any known holy book. Finally, O’Rourke begins to receive emails, to which he begins to reply in a demand for explanation: “You’re the full measure of a man,” the elusive correspondent writes, “thoroughly contemporary, at odds with the American dream of upward mobility and its empty material success, and in search of real meaning for you life.” [p. 143]   One is meant, I think, to doubt much of this assessment, but meaning nevertheless sits rather awkwardly at the centre of Ferris’s novel.

After all, the meaning O’Rourke ultimately finds is fictive. The emails and tweets and Facebook statuses, it turns out, are designed to lead O’Rourke to the Ulms, long-thought-lost descendents of the Amalekites (“the ancient enemy of the Jews,” says Uncle Stu, “an eternally irreconcilable enemy”) to whose number O’Rourke purportedly belongs. The Ulms are, of course, fictional – and yet they lead Paul away from all the many meanings in the novel which do exist, all the very real issues upon which Ferris touches, towards a curious accommodation with the occult. In the LRB, Thomas Jones has written grumpily about this: “I’d like to be able to say that all this is a sly commentary on the invisibility of the Palestinian experience in mainstream American culture, but I suspect that it’s merely a symptom of it. The Palestinians get three passing mentions in the novel. […] The Bedouin – a real-life oppressed minority – are silent, shadowy, remote, picturesque; a blank screen for O’Rourke to project his psychodrama onto; far less real to him, and to Ferris’s novel, than the fantasy Ulms.”

This is a real problem. Even in a novel as supplely written at Ferris’s, it’s hard for the narrative to dodge and weave enough to get away from the ways in which it squarely avoids the very questions it sets out to ask. “Aren’t you capable of finding anything beautiful in the world?” O’Rourke asks his redoubtable hygienist, and one of the convoluted and mutually-misunderstanding conversations which have presumably led in large part to this novel’s reputation for being funny ensues; but what is the book’s own answer to its protagonist’s query? From the reclusive millionaire and fellow Ulm whom Paul falls in with – with satirical shades of Ayn Rand – to the wily old bookseller who finds the Ulmish scriptures – a bit of Michael Chabon – everything about this novel (as well as being unremittingly male in perspective) leads Paul and the reader further down a rabbit hole with no apparent escape on the other side. Is this the point? Maybe. Is it satisfying? No.

Ultimately, the book offers a limp escape hatch: “It is about people, not God.” [pg. 300]  This, too, is a phrase placed in the mouth – that site of much of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour‘s action – of Uncle Stu, and yet the gravity of the novel, its momentum, is always amongst the Ulms. This is not a novel without praise – the New York Times loved it, and in a wilfully impish piece in the Guardian today Robert McCrum says it should, but won’t, win the Booker. It feels to me, however, under-baked: perhaps that’s why even it’s much-lauded jokes fell flat for me, because a belly-laugh begins in the build-up. This is a smoothly written, but bumpily-executed, book, less wise than wise-cracking. It baffles me that this, rather than Siri Hustvedt’s expansive and eloquent The Blazing World, was chosen as one of US fiction’s first representatives on a Man Booker shortlist.

“The Strange, Terrible Neverendingness of Human Beings”: Richard Flanagan’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”

IMG_0166.JPGYou probably do not know as much as you think you do about the Burmese railway. I refer, of course, to the ‘Line’, that insane undertaking of the Japanese army and its POWs during the Second World War, in which 100,000 people died whilst laboriously laying train track intended to connect occupied Thailand with Burma, where supplies were required and would otherwise need to be transported by sea. You probably do not know as much about this as you think you do.

Not only was the bridge over the River Kwai not in fact over the River Kwai; not only did Alec Guinness’s final collapse in the film of that name do little justice to the true conditions of the railway; the men who built that run of track are, of course, in a real way inaccessible to us. Our imaginations of the war, and of the Line, are coloured by ideas of heroism and of villainy, of the futility of conflict or the valour of survival. These are all prisms, and they break the light in artificial ways.

“It was as if,” we read very early in Richard Flanagan’s novel of the Line, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, “life could be shown but never explained, and words – all the words that did not say things directly – were for him the most truthful.” [pg. 11] The ‘him’ is the young Dorrigo Evans, a man who grows up in small-town Tasmania, eventually enlists and is captured by the Japanese, and ultimately returns to Australia as a hero for the way he leads a troop of POWs (bar a few notable, haunting exceptions) to survival. He is something of a poet – his favourite verse is Tennyson’s, in particular that paen to unfulfillable yearning, Ulysses – and his love of words leads him ceaselessly to look for meaning under the symbols of the everyday. As this passage hints, throughout his life he never entirely succeeds.

This despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that many see in him their meaning: before the war, the love of his life (and the wife of his uncle), perhaps, or after it the string of mistresses he keeps when the marriage he falls into proves loveless; but also the soldiers of the Line who know him as ‘Big Guy’, or the adoring public who make him a hero. These meanings, too, are shown to be insufficient. Dorrigo, however, “did not believe in virtue. Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause.” [pg. 53]

Flanagan is very good, in fact, on the ambivalence of the veteran. “Many years later he found it hard to admit that during the war, though a POW for three and a half years, he had in some fundamental way been free.” [pg. 337] Evans, like his fellow survivors, does not remember the Line unfondly: “Jimmy Bigelow,” for example, “felt himself all appearance with nothing inside” [pg. 33]; ultimately, Evans’s troop are not just survivors of the Line, but of life, “of grim, pinched decades who have been left with this irreducible minimum: a belief in each other” [pg. 204]. Evans himself drags his feet at the end of the war, staying in service as long as he can without becomoing a professional soldier; whilst abroad he can imagine the woman to whom he rashly proposed as an impossible symbol of home; once he returns there, she is simply a person he doesn’t know or even like so very much. War is hell. War is not.

Flanagan conveys all this in a beautifully constructed manner: the novel’s three strands, a pre-war section, the events of the Line (which do not begin until around a quarter of the way in), and the post-war life of a frustrated medic and war hero, slip and weave around each other, never confusing but often demanding: the reader must pay attention, and as the novel goes on must also move further and further beyond Dorrigo’s perspective, which dominates early on. In particular, Flanagan attempts to encompass the Japanese perspective in the book’s final third, investigating their own post-war revisionisms and ambivalences (“Tomokawa had always irritated Nakamura with his narrowness and obsequiousness, but he now saw his old corporal in an entirely different light” [pg. 379]). There are some astonishingly powerful sequences – the scene in which Evans attempts to amputate a man for the second time as gangrene sets in is visceral and unsparing, whilst a later moment in which he and his post-war family are caught in a bush fire is one of the most tense pieces of writing I’ve experienced in a long while. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is in the main an extremely well-constructed, and well-expressed, novel.

To be sure, the structure sometimes feels off – that late-stage sympathy for the Japanese in particular feels tacked-on, but there are also occasional over-reliances on particular formulations (for instance, Flanagan has a fondness for describing anuses as “turkheads of filthy rope” [pg. 218 et al]). The choice to conjure Evans’s troop both as individuals and as an indistinguishable collective can sometimes veer into caricature, and sometimes into confusion. It is hard to criticise a highly ambitious novel for not always quite living up to its own laudably high bar, but carp I must.

But must the Booker judges? My feeling is that this is the sort of novel that they may well like: it features a tortured (male) protagonist (“The more people I am with, Dorrigo thought, the more alone I feel” [pg. 110]); it is very lyrically written, and yet does not shy away from violent realism; and it is a worthy historical novel, unusually but politely structured. There is cross-cultural empathy, but also unapologetic representations of dehumanising clash and unavoidable enmity (“Nakamura no longer seemed to Dorrigo Evans the strange but human officer he had played cards with the night before […] but the terrifying force that takes hold of individuals, groups, nations and bens and warps them against their natures” [pg. 293]). This is a complex, careful and yet vivid novel.

Do I love it? I’m not sure I do. Am I meant to? Perhaps not – it is a sign of the ambition of this admirable work that it holds us, as Dorrigo might, at arm’s length, even as it spares us few grisly details. It is a novel of, about and with ambivalence; little wonder I feel it, too, as a reader. But will the judges? This one’s a dark horse.

“Empathy Is Also A Natural Human Behaviour”: Karen Joy Fowler’s “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves”

wearellcompletelyI read Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves a few weeks before it was longlisted for this Booker Prize; I confess I didn’t think it had much chance of being shortlisted, and said as much to the nice man behind the desk at my local Waterstones who told me he’d drawn the book in the work sweepstake; and yet there it is, shortlisted. Perhaps as a function of my generally underwhelmed feeling about the book, I didn’t review it at the time. But I did make a note in my reading diary and here, gasp, it is:

An odd novel: it has an effectively turned central twist, and a compelling series of secondary reveals, and yet is never quite as dramatic or as gripping as its structure might wish itself to be. Perhaps this is because the narrative feels over-determined, a fictionalised account of real experiments which can’t quite escape the dragging weight of the points it strives to make with more clarity than the original investigations themselves. Perhaps appropriately in this context, all of the characters behave like rats in a cage – but that doesn’t help the vitality of the narrative, either. Effective, but never quite evocative.

Let me try to unpack that. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is the story of Rosemary and the family in which she grows up, in particular her two siblings, sister Fern and brother Lowell. It is about the way in which the children relate to their parents, a distant father and a besotted mother, who in turn seem to have a difficult relationship themselves. Much of this is communicated via Rosemary’s acute powers of observation – inherited, perhaps, from her scientist father, who conducts work in behavioural science from his tenured position at the local university. Much of these observations are filtered through a flashback, Rosemary rather clumsily reconstructing her life following a series of episodes at her own college which lead her to re-examine several childhood traumas.

This process of unravelling gives the novel its bite, its turn: at first it’s rather unclear what’s eating at Rosemary, although it’s obvious that something is rotten. Not a little of this uncertainty comes from the narrator’s own ambivalence: “I honestly don’t know anymore if I really remember it or only remember how to tell it,” she muses, and this characteristic of hers hangs over her story [p. 48]. Each player has their own perspective, their own version of the truth. This is a novel about experiments and experimenters, about how we perceive and observe; it is about confirmation bias. This is an interesting twist on what is now the reliably unreliable literary narrator, but the motif of the experiment becomes more than just a structural gambit. It becomes a stylistic strait-jacket.

There is, perhaps, a kink amongst this year’s Booker judges for the twist, so for the third time allow me to ruin your fun for you: Rosemary’s sister, Fern, is a chimpanzee, an asset of the university laboratory that her father brings home in order to see how raising a chimp as a suburban human child may or may not affect the animal and its adopted siblings. This is not so very far-fetched – in the interpretative apparatus plonked at the end of the novel, Fowler makes much of Project Nim, for example – but in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves the experiment, necessarily and forgivably for fiction, takes on a metaphoric weight. Rosemary’s sister does develop a sort of language, a kind of human understanding; but at the same time she becomes aggressive and violent, and though Rosemary blames herself for the attack on her which leads to Fern’s return to the research lab, I’m not sure the novel does much to convince us that it wasn’t the only – if not the right – thing to be done.

Nevertheless, this return to the lab forms the broiling centre of the psychodramas which power the novel: at college, Rosemary falls in with the curiously ape-like energy of a fellow student, and winds up in hot water as a result; her brother, who has long since lost touch with the family, is eventually revealed to be a wanted man, an Animal Liberation Front militant; and, of course, her mother’s relationship with her father – and the entire family’s relationships with each other – are forever bent out of shape by the simple act of bestowing a revocable humanity upon an animal. “Fern was gone,” sighs Rosemary. “Her disappearance represented many things – confusions, insecurities, betrayals, a Gordian knot of interpersonal complications.” [pg. 111]

You’ll note the oddly cool summation of familial bonds that the phrase “interpersonal complications” conjures. Again, I’d argue, the experiment motif troubles a novel that wants also to be a keenly-felt family saga. I am, however, not entirely in the majority on this topic of the novel’s coldness. Here’s the doughty Ian Mond: “it’s that sort of book, one that triggers profound, slightly frightening emotions, the sort that are never easy to confront.  Complicated and conflicted but so beautifully written, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a novel that might be difficult to review but is well worth reading.” Mond thinks this novel should win the Booker Prize; he was deeply affected by the novel, and found it not at all lacking in emotion. On one level, I admit, I’m with him. Here’s what happens when Rosemary’s brother, Lowell, gains access to the lab where Fern is being held:

She was in a cage with four large adults. I don’t think I’d ever realized how different one chimp looks from another. Her hair was redder than most, and her ears were set higher, more like teddy bear ears. […] I was walking across the basement towards the cages and she hadn’t even turned in my direction when I saw her go rigid. […] I ran toward her and when I got close enough she reached through, grabbed my arm, and pulled me so hard she slammed me into the bars. […] By now, she’d gotten the other chimps pretty worked up. Another one, a big male and fully erect, came and tried to make my hand from her, but she wouldn’t let go. So he grabbed my other arm, and then they were both pulling on me, and between them they bounced me repeatedly against the bars. […] The big chimp came crashing from behind and Fern couldn’t defend herself and hold on to me at the same time. So she didn’t defend herself. He opened these long, bloody wounds on her back with his feet.” [pp. 206-8]

This whole passage is truly horrible to read. First, we see Fern’s distinctness, her simultaneous chimpanzeeness and her individuality, that spark which, attuned to her as Lowell is, he can see and which, once seen, makes it impossible to refer to her as ‘just a chimp’. But then, too, of course, there is the “something inside Fern I didn’t know” which Rosemary calls “secrets and not the good kind” [pg. 270] – her indisputable animal quality, that which does separate her from Lowell. And then, obviously, there is the horror of the cage: the impossibility of escape, the close quarters that warp behaviour, the submissiveness. Just as Fowler has a way throughout with the one-liner – “Parents are too innocent for the Boschian landscapes of middle school” [pg. 120] – so, too, in bursts like this does she reveal a powerful capacity to make the reader feel.

But, I think, Ian also in his review glances at the novel’s macro-level problem: that the characters don’t quite act as they might. He spends much of his reading furious at Rosemary’s parents for not considering the consequences of bringing Fern into their home; only late in the novel does her mother say they had considered a chimp for many years, being cautious about making the final decision, until Fern arrived, “so little and so alone in the world”, and they had to help. That’s fine, and it certainly adds some much-needed weight to the parents’ story; but that the novel treats all its reveals,a ll its episodes, in this way – as datapoints that the investigation of reading the novel must reveal and rearrange – is one reason that, for me, all of its actors felt – ho, ho – like rats in a cage. That’s thematically appropriate, of course, but it didn’t help me feel.

That’s a shame, because the novel’s central conflict is between solipsism on the one hand – “that you can only be certain of your own status as a conscious being” [pg. 133] – and empathy on the other – “we constantly infer someone else’s intentions, thoughts, knowledge, lack of knowledge, doubts, desires, beliefs, guesses, promises, preferences, purposes, and many, many more things in order to behave as social creatures in the world” [pg. 187]. The middle way between these two poles, perhaps, is sympathy – accepting that Fern is different, but also respecting what separates one from the other. Fern is damaged by the attempt to make her a human (“Growing up with us fucked with her sexually, though,” says Lowell; “she’s not interested” [pg. 215]); Lowell might preach, but Fowler doesn’t. In that refusal to give up the parents’ psychology until the last, however, the novel’s governing motif routinely keeps us always at one remove from the action, denying not just empathy but even that more distanced sympathy. We observe, but we only understand at the junctures and in the ways which the novel – its experiment – allows.

In one sense, then, I’m saying that We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a completely imagined, and faithfully executed, book; it is consistent and clever, intelligent and incisive. I am also saying, however, that it is perhaps a little too much so, that it seems, to this reader at least, to lack life. I would recommend you read it; I would not vote for it to win the Prize – but perhaps, if there are more Ian Monds than Dan Hartlands on that judging panel, my local Waterstones bookseller may yet prevail.

“I Am A Different Person”: Ali Smith’s “How To Be Both”

Smith-How to be bothjpg“Which way around is the Ali Smith you got?” I was asked on Twitter when I announced my purchase of How To Be Both (I do this a lot: look out in the near future for tweets heralding my acquisition of a bunch of bananas, a new key fob, and a small pony). There are few writers working in literary fiction today more clearly associated with the kind of amicable experimentalism that occasions questions of this sort than Ali Smith. In her latest novel’s case, its two parts are interchangeable, and editions have been printed with one or the other coming first; how the reader experiences the novel, then, will depend – if they are ignorant of the choice or willing to get into the spirit of things – on chance. There is, in a more literal fashion than the usual, more than one way to read this novel.

How you respond to this sort of structural playfulness depends very much upon your characteristics as a reader. That response is further complicated in Smith’s case by her showily undemonstrative prose: even when, as in The Accidental, her text is in fact oblique and fragmented, Smith works hard to make it appear unthreatening. There is none of the obvious prosodic wanderings of a Will Self or a Nicola Barker; Smith’s interest is in structure rather than style. One function of style, however, is the way in which it cues the reader to expect difficulty. In Smith, the reader is very often sucker-punched. The Accidental begins as a fairly straightforward bourgeois-in-peril novel, but, almost imperceptibly, the off-key notes begin to proliferate into structural atonality, the novel’s various voices collapsing into each other.

It’s hard not to forgive those readers and reviewers who bounce off Smith, then. Reader, I have been one.What’s interesting about How To Be Both, though, is that in one of its two printed configurations it puts its more classically ‘difficult’ part first, reversing the trick of The Accidental. My own copy, however, features not the time-slipping Renaissance painter known as Francesco del Cossa, but a twenty-first-century teenager named Georgia – or, as she prefers, George. George’s voice is contemporary and conversational, and despite her grammatical pedantry – “You won’t say that when you see them shooting so beautiful over your head,” George’s mother admonishes her daughter’s cynicism about meteors, receiving only the reply, “Fully” [pg. 16] – she is engaging and rather charming company.

George is also, however, in mourning. Her mother, despite being a primary presence in the narrative, is already dead as George’s section opens, and much of her story is essentially about coming to terms with this absence. George has a gift for storytelling, and to this end she comes to doodle elaborate marginalia around the facts of her mother’s foreshortened life. An economist, George’s mother was also a guerilla digital artist, creating and distributing subversive political cartoons across the internet. In this way, George comes to be convinced that her mother was under surveillance by the British state, and that her death was probably something other than the random act of pointless and impersonal cruelty it appears on the surface to be.

“People like things not to be too meaningful,” George harrumphs early on [pg. 5], and she almost aggressively eschews this easy satisfaction. George’s therapist, despite an incredulity about the spy theory, tells George that “we live in a time and a culture where mystery tends to mean something more answerable” [pg. 72], and How To Be Both emerges as a sort of antidote to that reductive turn. When George and her mother visit Italy to view the latter’s favourite artwork, a frieze by del Cossa, George is struck by how “everything is in layers. Things happen right at the front of the pictures and at the same time they continue happening, both separately and connectedly, behind that, and again behind that, like you can see, in perspective, for miles.” [pg. 53]

This form of seeing – of watching, perhaps – is at the core of the novel. George’s mother has a theory that technology has put people in the Western world at one remove from themselves, and there is a sense in Smith’s structural play that she thinks the novel, too, has become too mired in capturing a character – and, in so doing, inevitably flattening what in reality would be a contradictory, fragmented self. Her straightforward prose is the surface, and the unusual shapes beneath it deliberately catch us out, asking the reader to question their assumptions. When George’s mother begins a sort-of-affair with an artist she meets, the artist, too, emerges as an uncertain character: like George’s mother, she has a hinterland, a well of experience and insight that seems in some way out of reach. George, of course, assumes the artist is a spy; her mother simply likes the way she makes her feel. “The being watched,” she semi-explains. “It makes life very, well I don’t know. Pert.” [pg. 123]

How the observer understands the observed – and how the subject, if at all, affects the object – is the novel’s main question. (The novel’s two parts each begin with a glyph: a CCTV camera and two eyes sprouting from a shared stem.) When George sits in a museum looking at a painting by del Cossa, she is in turn being looked at by the ghost of the painter: “the best thing about a turned back,” it says a few paragraphs into its own half of the novel, “is the face you can’t see stays a secret” [pg. 191]. Del Cossa assumes that George is a boy – there are no signifiers of gender about her that the painter can recognise – and this impression is confirmed by the way George reacts, in the museum, to the approach of the woman she knows was once her mother’s lover. “Boy in love?” the ghost ponders. “The old stories never change.” [pg. 223]  They do, of course: if nothing else, we learn in contradiction to the interpretation plaque in the museum, del Cossa was in life a woman, breasts bound and sex life secret, encouraged by her widowed father to act the male in order to make the most of her talent for paint.

In so doing, del Cossa learns how to render “things far away and close [so they] could be held together, in the same picture” [pg. 219]; this, of course, is also Ali Smith’s project, demonstrating in her novel that everything is connected, but never simply. The power of properly capturing every aspect of a person or an object is most clearly seen in the sketches del Cossa makes of the prostitutes a friend insists she visit: they have such subtlety, and capture the women so fully, that the brothel’s Madam begins to experience trouble. “They look at your pictures,” she tells del Cossa. “They get airs and graces. They come to my rooms and they ask me for more of a cut. Or they look at your pictures. They get all prowessy. They decide to choose a different life. And all the ones who’ve gone have left through the front door, unprecedented in this house which has never seen girls go by anything but the back.” [pg. 275]  Later, del Cossa will paint the Graces with the features and fashionable hair-dos of these women.

Or will ‘he’? There is a very real possibility held out by the text that the del Cossa we meet in either the first or second part of ‘our’ novel is a construct that features in the school homework of George, whom we meet in the first or second part of ‘our’ novel. George is interested in the absence of female painters during the Renaissance and, conveniently, her mother’s favourite artist turns out to be one; the painter also loses her mother at a young age, and the schoolgirl watches pornography in order to give witness to the degradations imposed upon sex workers; most pertinently given Smith’s careful prose, del Cossa’s catchphrase is the distinctly twenty-first-century formulation ‘just saying’, and shortens ‘because to ’cause’ as a matter of habit. This secret – this mystery – is left unresolved, as is the identity of the artist-lover. “Cause nobody’s the slightest idea who we are, or who we were, not even we ourselves,” remarks del Cossa, encapsulating the understanding which powers Smith’s Cubist kind of novel.

“I’m so, so sick of what stories are meant to mean,” George sighs to her therapist towards the end of her narrative [pg. 179]. How To Be Both, titled as it is appropriately, does not distil itself down to an essence, refuses to solve or summarise its characters. It isn’t perfect: del Cossa’s voice feels a bit less rounded than George’s, and some of the stuff about the digital aspects of modern life are dicey (there’s a lot of malarkey with del Cossa calling iPads “votive tablets”); but these are tiny quibbles in a novel which delivers on quite intricate levels. It might be Smith’s best book, and it will be hard to beat for the Booker, because it makes a powerful argument both for what a novel should be and how it can be that: “it’s a picture, which means the flowers can’t die.” [pg. 347]