Things Are Going To Get Better: Chasing Mod’s Tail

mod_bookIn an interview I did about a year ago on Severn FM, I talked a bit about Steve Marriott and the Small Faces. In the context of a discussion about my musical influences, this might have seemed strange: given the unapologetic Americana bent my songs tend to exhibit, the blue-eyed soul of those cheeky cockney Mods doesn’t seem quite to fit. But the Small Faces wrote and played songs that channeled the best of the American soul and jazz which first inspired the Mod movement whilst refracting it fairly radically through an English sensibility. If I don’t always achieve quite the same trick, it’s not because I not-so-secretly want to be a Texan, but because I don’t have the facility Richard Weight describes in my Christmas book this year, Mod: A very British Style:

A childlike awe is visible in the facial expressions of the Small Faces when they met Diana Ross and the Supremes on the set of Read, Steady, Go, the TV show on which soul stars from across the Atlantic regularly performed. [… But] Steve Marriot […] insisted that the Small Faces were not just mimicking their black American heroes: “Everyone’s got soul, but as far as Negro soul singing goes only they can do it. But white artists can interpret coloured soul into their own. You don’t have to be born on the wrong side of the tracks. [pp. 82-3]

Marriot’s clumsy language is indicative of the ‘race music’ tourism of which some Mods were guilty, and which eventually curdled into the shape of the Skins. But Weight sets out to show how his ‘big three Mod bands’ – in this version of Mod history, the Small Faces, The Kinks and The Who – as well as other artists of the time, principal amongst them of course The Beatles, weaved music hall and other English accents into the American sounds with which they first fell into love.

Not least because of its inclusion of the Beatles and music hall in a discussion of Mod, Weight’s book is not without its critics. (Amongst Mods as amongst so many other cliques and cults, no single summative statement is ever without its critics; there will always be a self-appointed Face willing to question its purity.) Most excoriating of all has been Paul Hooper-Keeley‘s response:

Any book that has the final phrase, “We’re all modernists now”, is always going to be a broad brush generalisation of misinformation, quotes taken out of context, and another outsiders [sic] version of the truth to be taken with a large pinch of salt – and this latest book on our scene is no exception. Quite what the fascination is for non-Mods to spout on about our scene when they are neither part of it, nor even fully understand it, is beyond me.

What, then, should I make (other than my perennial status as a third-class ticket), of the fact that Weight’s book spoke rather clearly to my own experience of Mod – and suggested surprising ways in which an affiliation no longer particularly conscious still influences not just how I dress, but also how I think? You might turn to a more considered, and conciliatory, response to the book from within the Mod fraternity, such as Mark Raison’s:

The first thing to say is Mod: A Very British Style is not directly about the Mod Scene, so the events, bands, people, politics and intricacies of what could be called the core Mod Scene are of little interest here and largely ignored. What Weight’s book is, is an exploration into how the original Mod movement drew their influences from American, European and Afro-American styles in music, art, fashion, architecture and design and how those strands have been absorbed into the British mainstream. It examines attitudes towards class, consumerism, race, sexuality and countless other topics. It is a story of how a cult became a culture.

This is just right, I think. As Ian Penman wrote in the one of the most thoughtful – although not always, for instance in its erroneous supposition that A Very British Style fails to mention the Situationists, the closest – readings of the book, Weight spends little thought or time on the early, critical phase of Mod, in the bifurcated jazz clubs of Trad-vs-Mod Soho. Not a history of the movement per se, then, A Very British Style is more properly a social history of youth culture which takes as its founding premise the idea that Mod has been the most visible and enduring influence on the way in which young British people, and particularly young working-class British people, have attempted to express and shape a distinctive identity within a broader culture that either forcefully or quietly denies them agency or advancement. This makes it not a book to be consulted before a trip to a Brighton boutique in order to understand the optimum length and point of a shirt’s collar; but it makes it something rather more interesting. A Very British Style may be a little rushed and even – gasp, fellow Mods! – a little populist; but it’s also about the subculture’s radical social, rather than sartorial, aspects. To illustrate this point (and it is true of his book that it turns to this device rather too readily), Weight quotes someone else:

By the early 1960s the Mods had evolved into a kind of living parody of the expectations and aspirations of post-war British life. Finding jobs in shops and offices, they adopted a mode of dress that satisfied the white-collar requirements to ‘make a good impression’ with a vehemence that turned the markers of class identity upside down. Away from the workplace they cultivated a demeanour as preoccupied and self-important as a City financier. […] The special privilege of parody is that it allows its authors to participate in the very set of conventions they mean to debunk or transcend. [Jonathan Gould, Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America, pp. 130-5]

As an ignorant sixteen year-old A-Level student from a council house my parents had purchased on the strength of a brewery worker’s salary, I was initially interested in Mods because I liked paisley and Ocean Colour Scene. But I think there was also precisely something about the sharper-than-thou, ambiguously gendered, fierce pride of Mods which attracted me to, and then provided the tools to access, a means of being both socially fluid, doubly contrary, and true to my roots. Mods refused to accept that drinking espresso, reading literature or wearing tailored clothing were somehow the preserve of the middle class (the Skins missed this point when rejecting their forebears as class traitors during the 1970s). Their enthusiasm for the stuff of modernity was also not a capitulation to blind consumerism – the exercise of taste and discernment, that famous Mod attention to detail, was in fact a rejection of the indiscriminate materialism for which we all now seem so trained.

Weight spends some time on how the gatekeepers of Mod asked rather more of women than of men. This irony isn’t lost on his central thesis that Mod was a way of working class kids beating at their own assumed game the slumming hippie scions of doctors and lawyers, in order merely to have the chance of a toehold in the world of tomorrow (or, indeed, just of Roman Holiday). This aspirational vision of theirs was self-confessedly over-optimistically envisaged – but it was also often contradicted by their own practice. There is in this scepticism, of course, a further factor in the hostility of contemporary Mods to Weight’s book: it is both critical and revisionist. Mods of the 1970-80s revival were, for Weight, reactionary nostalgics; Britpop’s rejuvenation of Mod failed to have the international impact of the 1960s version; yet iterations of Modernism more alien to Adam of London‘s particular vision of its style – Glam Rock, for instance, or 90s dance culture – managed, in Weight’s ecumenical and sometimes willfully broad-church definition of Modernism (Tinie Tempah is a Mod?), to be progressive and impactful in the way the culture originally intended.

For all the dangers of generalisation and faulty logic this approach involves, it gives fellow travelers like me a frisson of freedom: in the same way that my membership of the Labour Party is a passive one, any full allegiance to the Modernist club founders on my knee-jerk distrust of gangs (Weight attributes this characteristic to the earliest Mods, too); but, by loosening Modernism just a little from the constraints of sta-prests and penny loafers, Weight gives it room to breathe in contemporary life (not least, he argues, in the market halls of IKEA stores). Look at it in this light, and away from the book’s slightly dubious citations, index and illustrations, and Mod still seems not just useful but maybe even vital – and certainly, surprisingly, still keeping the faith in the back of at least this particular ersatz cowboy’s subconscious.

As I said last year to the gentleman that is Alex Huskisson, whose Mystery Train show is now at Stroud FM and to which you should listen regularly: what would Steve Marriott do?

“A Journey Longer Than It Looks”: Zadie Smith’s “NW”

NW

Every now and then, a poorer book will bring into focus rather vague thoughts about a better one. Philip Hensher’s King of the Badgers is by no means a failure as a novel: its seaside setting in the fictional town of Hanmouth is simultaneously remote enough and contemporary enough to afford Hensher all the traditional pleasures of the English novel, such as class, sex, snobbery and sarcasm. On the other hand, it describes rather than exhibits the qualities of 21st-century England, and in this it is the ugly duckling to Zadie Smith’s intimidating swan, NW.

Hensher’s reader winds up a tad queasy that the abduction and sexual abuse of a young girl becomes one of the least developed of his many state-of-the-nation subplots. In Smith’s new novel, on the other hand, the shanking of a main character comes across simultaneously as a crescendo and an audacious, unheralded pulling of the rug. In Hensher, an over-powering emphasis on surveillance ironises the fact that all the CCTV and Neighbourhood Watching cannot pierce the darkest heart in Hanmouth; in NW, there is little clumsy pretence that a single narrative can be applied to human experience – and yet deeper truths than talking points from the Indie on Sunday make themselves known. It’s not that Hensher cannot write, but that Smith has written the novel of her career.

This is not necessarily because Smith has structured NW more ambitiously and more diversely than her other novels, although she has; it’s not that, in her revival of modernism, she does more than ventriloquise or satirise, as Will Self did in his oddly more noted novel of 2012, Umbrella; it’s not even that NW is a slimmer, snarlier beast than her previous, sometimes soft-middled, efforts. What raises NW so high is the utterly convincing way it inhabits the contemporary idiom. Here, for instance, is a monologue from Michel, the French Nigerian husband of Leah, a point of view character in the novel’s first, most high modernist, of four sections:

– which I’ve always believed. Look: you know what is the true difference between these people and me? They don’t want to move forward, they don’t want to have nothing better than this. But I’m always moving forward, always thinking of the next thing. People back home, they don’t get me at all. I’m too advanced for them. So when they try to contact me, I don’t let this – I don’t let drama in my life like that. No way! I’ve worked too hard. I love you too much, this life. You are what you do. This is how it is. I’m always thinking: is this me? What I’m doing? Is this really me? [pg. 25]

There is such life and vibrancy in Smith’s prose that it can at times be hard to keep up. Her novel sings with the jostling vitality of its two-mile stretch of London, to which Leah, a second-generation Irish immigrant, “is as faithful in her allegiance […] as other people are to their families, or their countries” [pg. 5]. When she and Michel visit her childhood friend, Natalie, Leah reflects that everything in this successful barrister’s home “is full and meaningful” [pg. 57], but here her prejudices show: in NW, everything is full and meaningful, to the extent that anything is. Indeed, in the novel’s third and largest part, Natalie becomes the viewpoint character, and in 184 numbered passages reveals herself to feel more keenly than anyone in the novel the hollowness of contemporary life.

At some point we became aware of being ‘modern’, of changing fast. Of coming after just now. John Donne was also a modern and surely saw change, but we feel we are more modern and that the change is faster. Even the immutable is faster. Even blossom. While buying a samosa in the filthy shop inside Chancery Lane Station (one remnant of her upbringing was a willingness to buy food from anyone, anywhere) Natalie Blake once again checked the listings. By this point she was checking them two or three times a day, though still as a voyeur, without making a concrete contribution. [pg. 225]

The listings Natalie checks as she reflects on the impossibly fleeting substance of modern experience are those of a site linking swingers with other like-minded sex-seekers. As one might expect, to fill the void at the heart of her gentrified life (Natalie’s name was once Keisha, but as she rose through the social ranks she changed more than mere appellation), she soon ceases to be a mere voyeur. If anything, this is the weakest element of Smith’s book – Natalie’s crisis feels deliberate and authorly unlike anything else in NW – and Natalie comes to function as a figure in a story. Like Hensher’s own structural sleight of hand, however, this has a point: “all Natalie’s storytelling,” we are told, had as its aim “making the future safe” [pg. 213]; that is, Natalie is beginning to tell stories about herself in order to see a way through a multiplicity of contradictory selves – “Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag.” [pg. 245] – to a future which might, improbably, make sense.

Early in their courtship, Natalie’s husband – and now the father of her child – takes Natalie to “Marylebone. London doesn’t begin and end on the Kilburn High Road.” [pg. 192]  She asks to be taken back, but he insists on staying, arguing that it is at times good to be uncertain. What he forces her to do, however, is adopt uncertainty as a way of life – and this seems to be the fate of anyone with the temerity to leave behind the constricting shapes and patterns of their inheritance. In the novel’s most entertaining, and perhaps most successful, part, Smith follows Felix, a no-longer-quite-young man embedded in the Kilburn of Leah and Natalie’s youth, but who through his current and previous work has connections with many well outside it. In one of the novel’s best scenes, his aristocratic sometime squeeze and erstwhile addict wails, “I’ve got more balls than are dreamt of in your philosophy. I was engaged at nineteen, I was engaged at twenty-three, I could be mouldering in some Hampshire pile at this very moment, covering and re-covering sofas with some baron in perfect sexless harmony. That’s what my people do […] but you can count me the fuck out!” [pg. 141]  Instead, she lives a centreless, rootless existence in a bedsit slowly peeling off its own walls.

Outside of his context, Felix is routinely misinterpreted by others – “People thought he was on the verge of hitting someone when he was only nervous, or slightly annoyed” [pg. 130] – and the difficulty of truly knowing the other (to which we are all nevertheless encouraged to be attracted) is endemic in NW. Natalie, for example, “could not believe that she – Natalie – could ever be spoken about in the way she – Natalie – spoke about others” [pg. 201]; Leah, meanwhile, now “sees ten-year-olds and cannot believe they have inside them what she had inside her at the same age” [pg. 40]. Not only is the other unknowable – it will always let us down, be somehow less vivid to us than ourselves. All this rather mocks Michel’s constant focus on moving forward, instead positing that what we desire – that what we can accrue as we leave behind our pasts and communities in search of the elusive extra that is our right – will never be enough. “Desire is never final,” we read almost at the novel’s start, “desire is imprecise and impractical” [pg. 36].  By this rubric, the nostalgia for NW is the desire for lost desires.

“It must be comforting being able to divide the world in two like that,” sneers Natalie’s husband when Leah tries to oppose her poor to his rich [pg. 53]. But NW also shows us that, though each of us is a little like Natalie, divided and unrepresentative, we are also forever saddled with the traces of where we came from: whatever nonsense the aristocrat in her bedsit spouts, “her accent worked a spell” [pg. 125]; whatever education the barrister from the estates can gain, upon seeing her cousin on Harlesden High Street she will always experience “the same feelings of insecurity and inadequacy Tonya had compelled in her when they were children” [pg. 213]. Smith excels at sketching social change – “the Nigerians wily, owning those things in Kilburn that once were Irish” [pg. 15] – and yet simultaneously she shows the strength of the past’s vengeful pull, on Londoners and on London. It’s a dizzying balancing act, and it is all achieved through gloriously demotic language.

On the other hand, a reader of this review might spot the absence of a plot summary – Smith offers no real unifying narrative. The same reader might wonder where the fourth of the novel’s sections might feature in this review – and the answer is that the curiously enervated epilogue seems to end a muscular novel on a whimper. And, finally, it might be asked to what end Smith makes all this noise, whether, if unlike Hensher she avoids the grand gesture, there are any modest words of wisdom spared for her bruised characters. There are these, spoken by Natalie to Leah about an acquaintance of theirs, a small-time hoodlum who never made it out: “People like Bogle – they didn’t want it enough. I’m sorry if you find that answer ugly, Lee, but it’s the truth. This is one of the things you learn in a courtroom: people generally get what they deserve.” [pg. 293]  We must allow for Natalie’s unforgiving, solipsistic character; but in the absence of a countervailing voice this is a drearily deterministic note on which to end so vital a novel.

NW is not, then, a work without fault. On the other hand, Smith is nothing but honest with her readers. When they crack the spine on this quite dazzlingly realised, serious, contemporary, and innovative novel, they will read on the thirteenth page Leah’s reflection on story: “the grandeur of experience threatens to flatten into the conventional, into anecdote. Nothing survives its telling.” NW is audacious indeed.

 

“It’s Progress That’s The Real Delusion”: Will Self’s “Umbrella”

In an interview with the Edinburgh Festivals published last year, Will Self huffed and puffed: “I hate umbrellas. I’m just the right height to get poked in the eye. I’ve never had an umbrella. Hate them.” It’s impossible not to remember this line, perhaps muttered off the cuff to an ill-prepared journo during an artificial recreation of Self’s famed tramps through the capital (or, dear reader, perhaps not), when reading his new book. In part, this is because it is entitled Umbrella. On the other hand, it’s because Umbrella is a novel that likes to poke the reader in the eye.

Ostensibly the story of Audrey Death, a twenty-something suffragette who at the dawn of the First World War goes to work in a munitions factory whilst her two brothers – the earthy science fiction-reading Stanley, sent to the trenches, and Albert, the eidetic civil servant managing the war from home – undergo two wildly different fates, Umbrella in fact takes place over three time periods: 1917, 1971 (when Audrey is Sacksishly awoken by Self’s recurring psychiatrist, Zack Busner, from an encephalitic sleep, having “borne the brunt of every successive wave of psychiatric opinion” [pg. 120]), and 2010, with Busner looking back on Audrey and the twentieth century with confusion and trepidation. In book blurb, interview and essay alike, Self has helpfully glossed this novel of Death’s century (geddit?) as taking up “the challenge of Modernism”, and the novel is indeed told in the kind of chapterless, paragraphless, tractionless mode invented by James Joyce.

Now, look: if I am not quite of the Dale Peck school of thought on the matter of Ulysses (“it all went wrong with Joyce”), I am certainly not convinced that modernism is the best means of representing consciousness – and certainly sceptical that it is the only way of unravelling “new and unsettling truths about our world”. We have, pace the Booker shortlist’s omission of Nicola Barker’s The Yips, moved on. All of this may mean I am not the ideal reader to assess the success of such a project, but Self is himself no Luddite, and so it is difficult not on one level to understand Umbrella as a kind of joke played on the literati, and upon the reader: “it was always, he thought, the fucking Irish”, Stan muses ruefully [pg. 150].  On the other hand, Joyce is not the only Modernist (even if Umbrella occasionally reads as if he is), and in particular the radical humanity of Woolf still has something to teach the modern novel. Self’s horror at the mechanised anonymity of the 20th century (“how can anything be beautiful or noble or romantic when it’s [all] the same?” [pg. 50] despairs Audrey, later reflecting that “impersonal tenderness and scientific concern” are “how she imagines the future for womankind [pg. 107]) is a potent encomium for the thwarted human spirit:

This, Zack had thought, is the whole of the twentieth century thus far: a white sheet thrown over our heady hopes, our disturbed dreams, our fleshly desires – with no sense of smell we touch only plush skin, rub it in, gargle the mucal ice cream deep in our throats, but without pleasure … This is our crisis of fixed regard: the zeppelin crashes to the cold earth again and again, a cathedral of rumpled buttresses, flaming arches, burning beams. [pg. 321]

But, but, but. The zeppelin, that canvas stretched over arching struts, is the umbrella (that nasty bit of extraneous technology) writ large, and Self has teased that his novel, too, shares this construction: beams of narrative proceeding, spoke-like, out of a central event; but a zeppelin also, of course, resembles the umbrella not at all – and Self’s novel, not coincidentally, reads for the most part as entirely without structure. Take the italics in that paragraph above: Jon Day has made a decent stab in the LRB at divining their purpose, suggesting they represent the characters’ consciousness breaking through the more general narrative voice; but in truth, whether snippets of song lyrics or great spurtings of over-written insistence (all that mucal ice cream), they come almost at random, adding little except texture to the page. There are awful lapses in this book’s prose – “the sun was out, still puissant enough to raise will-o’-the-wisps from the flowery meadows they clopped beside” [pg. 151], and “the caged bird fluttercheeps” [pg. 65] – which simply are not mitigated by a design only hinted at.

Perhaps this is deliberate. At Balham station, Stanley observes a fellow soldier: “Willis is snoring fitfully – he is an engine with no traction on the present, no means of drawing it into the future” [pg. 153]. This mechanical paralysis (evoked, in this interpretation of the novel-as-trick, by the pastiche idiom) is a recurring theme: in her encephalitic sleep, and like all her other fellow patients mistakenly locked away in an insane asylum, Audrey obsessively repeats a motion bewildering to her doctors but clear to the reader as the movements she learned by rote in the munitions factory; “repetitive actions sustained equally repetitive reveries,” we are told [pg. 164], and Umbrella‘s conception of modernity essentially comes to be one of obsessive compulsiveness, endlessly repeating the same mechanical rhythms without significant progress or change (again we come to doubt if Self really believes all this guff about reviving high modernism). Inspired by pulp SF, Stanley promises Audrey that “in twenty years’ time everyone will be an aeronaunt, Colonel Cody will perfect his war kite and there’ll be gazzetted aeroplane connectin’ all the cities of the Empire” [pg. 62] – in fact, of course, we are still waiting for our future. For Self, our fates are more properly set by our past (“a time bomb was primed in the future and planted in the past” [pg. 14]), and by our eternal present  (“Each era … new and old blended … the utterly familiar paintjob slapped on” [pg. 242]).

Self’s justification for this vision, and thus for his Joycean expression of it, however, is slim – in 1918, we glimpse “an advertisement for Germolene so large its letters loop across the end wall of an entire four-storey block” [pg. 59], and in 2010 we experience the realisation that “the post-encephalitics’ akinesia and festination had been the stop/start, the on/off, the 0/1, of a two-step with technology” [pg. 395]. Of course, Self’s novel – full of mid-sentence shifts in time (“he awakens to find himself an old man” [pg. 29]) and orthographic accents to make Thomas Hardy blush (“Or-dree, Or-dree, Ordee’s mammy gorrersel knocked up by a navvy!” [pg. 25]) – has a defense against this scepticism: it accuses the reader of Not Getting It. “Mind, Busner suspects, cannot possibly assimilate all this confusion – repels it in fact.” [pg. 376]   This from a novel so comfortable with cliché – “y’know Corporal,” opines a soldier at the front to Stanley, “that Frenchie and me, we were regulars, we’d seen war but it was war with hard blows and straight dealings – now we both knew, as we looked upon that curtain of fire, that everything had changed” [pg. 227] – that it just comes out and admits it: “simply because they were truisms, it didn’t mean they weren’t … true.” [pg. 396]   Sam Leith, a usually wise counsel, is intimidated enough to argue that Umbrella exhibits “an ambition of technique that I haven’t seen in him before”, but Self is surely just pulling our chain.

Which is fine, so far as it goes: Umbrella is in large part a satire, particularly of psychiatry and psychiatrists, which, like literature itself, offer such insufficient explanations for our modern condition (the post-modern here being banished). “They are possessed, he thinks,” we read of Busner’s diagnosis of the encephalitics, “by ancient subpersonalities, the neural building-blocks of the psyche” [pg. 13]; but this sort of erstaz, textbook Freudianism, “employing vocabulary purged of any upsetting words” [pg. 5], is insufficient to its task. (When Audrey awakes, she is left repeatedly to switch the lights on and off, squawking, “It’s magic! […] I do honestly believe it to be magic!” Busner sees this as a success. [pg. 300]) In short, banality may be part of Self’s project. But the novel lapses too regularly. Is the slickness of “Albert picks up the tankard from the table where he’d placed it among a slew of his tools: metal rulers, propelling pencils, slide rules, dividers … Audrey thinks: She hasn’t got the measure of him” [pg. 353] really, truly an evocation of modernism? Isn’t the jolly wit of “he wheezes wordy notes – he has swallowed the consumptive’s harmonium” [pg. 65] more Johnson than Joyce? And isn’t the following simply fluff, frankly unable to add meaning or metre to what is a staid old evocation of the English class system?

As it is, while Albert’s coat may be comme il faut for the Second Division – well cut by a tailor in Swallow Street – the cuffs of his trousers are a long way off on the rug, and fraying, something probably seen plainly enough by the grandees who peer down from the library walls with soon-to-be-cashiered eyes. The grandees lean on marmoreal pillars, ignoring open tomes and laughing their Harrovian laughs, A-ho-ho! A-ho-ho! at the upstart. [pg 111]

Really, this is too much: it’s the sort of pseudishness that might attract a Booker panel looking to burnish its high literary credentials, but it is also a great upwelling of verbiage designed to disguise – or, if Self is playing an elaborate joke on us, draw attention to – thin material. In his essay on modernism for the Guardian, Self has derided the contemporary novel, suggesting it is “as fusty as Victorian drawing rooms cluttered with over-stuffed furniture, and glass domes beneath which once-fluttering thoughts had been imprisoned”. He might be right; but retreating into a century-old mode of writing and pretending that style alone can enliven the same old content – the War, the mechanical, class and gender – is no solution, either. If Umbrella is a joke – on the reader, on the literati, on the novel – it is an unfunny and bathetic one; if it is meant as a serious repositioning of literature, it is misconceived. Self was probably right to avoid umbrellas.

“I’m Sure He’s A Master of His Craft”: Post-postmodernism in “The Art of Fielding”

In a recent simultaneously entertaining and eccentric essay in the London Review of Books, Colm Tóibín wrote about the strange and strained relationship between Flann O’Brien and James Joyce. The younger author, whose debut novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, has always been compared to the work of the great man of Irish letters, seemed torturously to distance himself from Joyce even as their literary projects were so clearly entwined. Tóibín characterises the pair as the Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker of Irish modernism: sharing the same tradition, and even the same concerns, but one in the service of a new, uniting dawn and the other simply striving for freedom.

At Swim-Two-Birds can be read as an assault on Joyce’s ambitions, an attempt by a talented young writer to destroy Joyce’s synthesising process, to dismantle the great controlling ambition and mapped-out plenitude of Ulysses. The aim of Joyce’s book was not to destroy the novel but to re-create it and make it larger, more inclusive, more faithful to life and life’s complexities. The aim of At Swim-Two-Birds was to lose control, to take the pieces and refuse to reconcile them, to insist that it was too late for such trickery. O’Brien refused to believe that the writer re-creates the world, but instead he set out to show that the world re-creates the writer, and that both the writer and the world are, or might be, a set of illusions, highly implausible, not even worth mistrusting, and that all we have fully to mistrust are pages and the words on them.

This is in microcosm the journey of the novel from modern to postmodern, of course – from DH Lawrence to Julian Barnes. For writers with literary ambition, the novel has become less a form than a playground. For some time, a novelist aiming to be taken seriously has needed to allow for a healthy dose of the metafictional in their work: the legacy of Joyce et al has been to endorse the approach of writers such as O’Brien. Modernism simply opened the gates for more of the fragmentation so vividly, and terrifyingly, conjured in The Waste Land.

Curiously, however, a significant strand of North American letters has taken a different turn. That faithfulness to life for which Joyce strived has been re-embraced by writers of this stripe, but the means of achieving it remains a matter of debate. For instance, the literary magazine n+1, whilst being broadly complimentary about critical theory and those writers, such as Don DeLillo, who write realism in an attenuated manner informed by postmodernism, has also been eager to move on to the next place: “Theory is dead,” its editors wrote in 2005, “and long live theory. The designated mourners have tenure, anyway, so they’ll be around a bit. As for the rest of us, an opening has emerged, in the novel and in intellect. What to do with it?” The much-awaited debut novel from Chad Harbach, one of that organ’s founding editors, appears to offer a surprisingly conservative answer.

The story of a college baseball team, The Art of Fielding fuses those two great American staples, the campus and the sports novel, and does so in a plot-focused, character-driven fashion. Harbach cycles through the points of view of four protagonists, describing the soapy adventures of Henry Skrimshander, the young shortstop ace who is about to break the baseball record for matches without an error; Mike Schwartz, the charismatic team captain who lacks any transcendent talent of his own; Guert Affenlight, the President of the Midwest liberal arts college in which the action is set; and his wayward daughter, Pella, who is rather predictably fought over by the other three. The story proceeds in much the intelligently life-affirming way you might expect, albeit with a quite masterly control of suspense and tension: The Art of Fielding wants desperately to be read, and it knows how to gets its way.

This isn’t really new – as far back as the late 1980s, Tom Wolfe was exhorting a return to relevance and realism in his essay ‘Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast‘, advocating something called ‘the new social novel’. Likewise, David Foster Wallace was sceptical of postmodernism, seeing it as a literary outgrowth of that bastardising villain, television. Most recently, for all the playfulness of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, that book, too, reads in large part like Harbach’s: the only difference is that when, in The Art of Fielding, iPads and cell phones make an appearance, they jar the reader rather than jolt the plot; Westish College does not feel like the sort of place which has access to the 21st century. In a recent piece at the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum argued that most television has still to deal with Facebook; on the evidence of Harbach, the same is true of most novels.

What is different about the recent flush of realism, of which The Art of Fielding is only the most recent and prominent example, is the bullishness of it all. Though he tries to hide theme as best he can, Harbach’s is an argument for the modest novel, the unpretentious novelist. “Everyone’s problems were silly in the long run,” Pella reflects at one point, “silly when compared with global warming, despeciation, some birdborne or waterborne disease that was lying in wait to flatten us all, silly when compared to the brute fact of death, but Henry’s problem was just plain silly.” [pg. 248] Furthermore, her father realises: “In the end, in search of useful wisdom, you could only come back to the most hackneyed concepts, like kindness, forebearance, infinite patience.” [pg. 432]

Every one of Harbach’s characters has a youthful success they now cannot escape: Affenlight wrote an era-defining book, Schwartz has lifted Westish to unparalleled heights of sporting success, but can’t get into legal school. So, too, the novel: how to return, cutting through the accumulated academic thicket of the last 70-odd years of baroque accretion, to the accessible brilliance of the form’s 19th century forefathers, such as Westish’s own ersatz mascot, Herman Melville? Harbach makes a good fist of it, despite the suggestion in his phrase “hackneyed concepts” that such an achievement would be redundant. Partly he does so by refuting the fiction that people act as they do in novels, animated by theory and abstraction: “Humans are ridiculous creatures,” thinks Pella during a shift at her job in the college’s kitchens, “or maybe it’s just me: a purportedly intelligent person, purportedly aware of the ways in which women and wage labourers have been oppressed for millennia – and I get choked up because somebody tells me I’m good at washing dishes.” [pg. 264] Likewise, Pella lectures Mike on his strained relationship with his protege, Henry:

“What you two need is couples counselin. Classic codependency. The neuroses and secret wishes of one partner manifesting themselves in the symptoms of the oth – ”

“Oh, shut up.” [pg. 241]

It’s impossible not to compare all this to The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides’s recent novel, which resolutely refuted the wheeling invention of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex in favour of the story of three college kids (two guys and, er, the girl they fight over), and their books. Eugenides cheats a little – he sets his story in the 1980s, when the email and SMS that don’t quite fit in Harbach’s world weren’t around to contend with – but it sets out similarly to craft a new cultural space beyond the postmodern. Early on, Eugenides’s own heroine is in a student cafe looking at posters for gigs and art projects: “all the clamorous Xeroxes whose subtext conveyed the message that the wholesome, patriotic values of her parents’ generation were now on the ash heap of history, replaced by a nihilistic, post-punk sensibility that Madeleine herself didn’t understand but was perfectly happy to scandalize her parents by pretending that she did.” [pg. 8] Madeleine even goes so far during her college years as to attend a seminar on critical theory taught by a character Eugenides decides not to understand but mercilessly lampoon: “Semiotics was the form Zipperstein’s midlife crisis had taken. Becoming a semiotician allowed Zipperstein to wear a leather jacket, to fly off to Douglas Sirk retrospectives in Vancouver, and to get all the sexy waifs in his classes.” [pg. 48]

The Marriage Plot asks itself, therefore, a similar question to the one with which The Art of Fielding concerns itself: in Eugenides’s particular case, he wonders how a form so reliant on sexual relations and marriage can refigure itself for the 21st century. Perhaps not coincidentally, it features a character modeled, consciously or otherwise, on Foster Wallace himself, and if its focus on the marriage plot is rather narrower than Harbach’s far broader conception of the novel (which he also simultaneously treats far more gently and supplely), the presence of the fiercely logical Leonard Bankhead, all headbands and manic depression, and his mystic rival, Mitchell Gramaticus, allows Eugenides to expand his enquiry beyond literature and into religion and philosophy: “Everyone he knew was convinced that religion was a sham and God a fiction,” muses Grammaticus. “But his friends’ replacements for religion didn’t look too impressive.” [pg. 96]

The absence of an alternative doesn’t make what you’ve got any better, though. Where can all this New Sincerity ultimately take us? Madeleine finds herself counselled that the secret of marriage is forebearance: “You have to forget about it,” her mother advises on the subject of the marital infraction. “Forget about it and go on.” [pg. 368]  Leonard’s approach is to behave like a diploid yeast cell in an insufficiently nutritious environment: become a haploid again, “because, in a crisis, it’s easier to survive as a single cell.” [pg. 382]  No balance is achieved. Eugenides – unlike Harbach, who strains towards the happy, resolved ending denied the novel by postmodernism – is, then, happier leaving questions asked rather than answered, but I’ve grown to distrust novels of this sort – posing a problem is, after all, too easy. Likewise, The Marriage Plot tries to introduce homosexuality to complicate the novel, both particularly and generally speaking, but it does so rather furtively and without much direction; the love Affenlight develops for a man – the first such experience he has had – is, on the other hand, a key plot point in The Art of Fielding, and feels (those dread words, alas) organic and authentic.

Indeed, those adjectives describe Harbach’s novel better than most. If this makes it sound like a fine old wooden chair, that would be to underestimate its cleverness. In a field recently joined by English novelists – John Lanchester’s recently published Capital, or Amanda Craig’s Hearts and Minds, are both being spoken of as neo-Dickensian masterpieces – The Art of Fielding reads like the most nimble of literary artifacts, an absorbing, addictive read which is also a considered thesis. There’s something that troubles me about its success, though. At one point in The Marriage Plot, Madeleine meets an old friend at a party. “I can’t believe you’re married,” she exclaims. “That’s so retrograde!” [pg. 377]  It’s hard not to wonder in this way whether looping backwards towards Jane Austen really is the only way to move the conversation forward from Joyce and O’Connor’s bantering brogues, particularly when the women get less good parts than they did in 1815. Harbach may need to throw a curveball next time, if he is to retain his streak.

Tom McCarthy’s “C”

Promisingly enough for its chances, C begins in the manner of that Booker of all the Bookers, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: a child shares the moment of its birth with something other, more ephemeral. For Saleem Sinai, his fate is forever to be entwined with India’s; for McCarthy’s Serge Carrefax, on the other hand (and the clue is in the name), it is wireless communication – radio – which makes its mark on him from his earliest moments. The novel begins in 1898, when Marconi is first experimenting with transmitting sound through the ether, and it ends in 1922, the year the BBC was founded. In these 24 years our modern – our modernist – world is beaten and battered into shape. Serge is born with a cowl, signifying good luck; the reader doubts the omen.

McCarthy’s new novel – shortlisted for the Booker just weeks after its publication – is replete with such literary references, as Mr Self has noted over at the Asylum. In this and many other ways, C reads like any other piece of literary fiction, all allusion and elision – I know that this is how at least one reader I respect experienced the earlier pages of the novel. But at the same time C is playing with our expectations with an almost malicious intent: all these references really don’t build into anything greater, they rarely signify a grander meaning; they’re just encoded into the text, often for the simple joy of discovery.

‘Code’ is one of the many words for which ‘C’ may be taken to stand. Serge’s father, Simeon, runs a school for deaf children (his own wife is deaf), and he also experiments, like Marconi, with radio and sound. For him, communication – another key c-word – must be about clarity and openness, or else it is for nothing. But his friend Widsun, who works for Britain’s putative intelligence services, has a countervailing view, and one which comes to be dominant in the world at large: that communication is and always has been carried out in a series of codes, that language itself – of course! – is a series of sounds and nuances with which we imbue meaning, unintelligible beyond its initiates. The great proliferation of spy networks which infect the Europe of the period, darkening and fuzzing the continent like the gauze Serge develops over his vision (and which is ultimately cured by coitus, another form of congress prominent in the novel), are the means used by nation states to break through these constant cross-currents of meaning. They fail, of course – thus the Great War.

Serge is just the right age to be called up, and he joins the Flying Corps as an observer. Note the passivity of that role: Carrefax is not a pilot, but one of life’s voyeurs, a coy examiner at one remove from his subject. C confounds our expectations of the novel not just by obscuring its theme or ultimate meaning, but by denying us a sense of forward momentum, of developing plot or character. Serge passes through the tumultuous events of his life, barely registering their occurrence; as a point-of-view character he is everything one might be taught to avoid on a creative writing course. Unemotive and unempathetic, he experiences the war as an energising, rather than enervating, moment; his post-war self sees in shell shock not a response to the horrors of war but an outward sign of a much deeper malaise.

If C is about anything it is, in the manner of the modernists to whom McCarthy has claimed to be paying homage, about this dislocation. The explosion of communication, of information, which is occassioned by the technological breakthroughs of Serge’s lifetime result not in the more peaceful, more understanding, world for which Simeon might have hoped; rather, the novel ends in Egypt, with archaeologists scrabbling around in the unknowable past of pharohs and Copts, as the world competes and collapses around them. Serge retreats into increasingly passionless sex and ever multiplying amounts of cocaine; consolation, nevertheless, is scarce. In this sense, C is science fictional – it is about the process and consequences of discovery, and several of its characters – not least Serge’s sister, Sophie, whose unexplained suicide casts a shadow across the whole novel – are intensely engaged in ‘doing’ science, an activity which in turn makes Serge’s broken world tick.

What makes C tick, however, is much less easily identified. Indeed, it actively rebuffs any readerly attempt to decide either way. A plot summary or character study does not do this novel justice, since it is more properly one constructed from a series of repeating figures, like Morse code stuttering through static. Some of McCarthy’s motifs – tourists arguing in an Austro-Hungarian spa town as prefigurement of war – are bathetic; others – Serge and Sophie’s insect-dreams, repeated scenes of theatrical farce – are more multivalent and thus pregnant. But, in the way that Serge finds beauty in the white noise between frequencies, so C discourages us to separate signal from noise. Better, as Jenny Turner in the LRB, to explore the images we, not the didactic author of a progessivist novel, perceive in the flux between the two.

Whether all this is precisely experimental I’m less sure, but it is certainly fiercely orthogonal to, and dismissive of, the mainstream literary novel it slyly mimics. McCarthy deliberately confuses and confounds; he demands an awful lot of his readers, and at times rewards them too reluctantly – there’s no way around the fact that without impetus some of this novel’s pages grow tedious. Yet beneath this still – almost dead – surface, C is bursting with ideas. Almost every moment on every page is connected in some way with another. One is sure that somewhere McCarthy has a hideous spider’s web of a diagram, so whole and considered is this novel’s vision – as you read it, you are aware that it has a life beyond any initial reading. (This may ultimately pay it dividends, since the members of the Booker jury will have read it at least three times by October 12th.) It is also at times a very funny book – Tomcat, in a great review, has said that “C’s sense of humour is the dark love-child of propriety and perversion”; it is also, of course, terrifically serious and very, very clever. It is not always captivating in style or subject matter, and in making everything a code or a cipher, in elevating the cryptology above the solution, it might risk hollowness; but few novels take such risks with quite so much confidence and conviction. Remarkable.