Monday, 15 December 2014

Best of 2014

Here are some of the books I read this year, presented in rough chronological order, that I have felt were particularly good. Where I have written about them here or elsewhere at greater length I have included links. I suggest that instead of doing whatever you planned on doing in the next two months or so, you just read all of them.

Poor Economics - Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo

Economics is a subject that people don't really understand, but, because of its proximity to political issues of all kinds, feel the need to hold opinions about. Writing about economics, be it for newspapers, journals or books, is often dogmatic, ideological and ill-informed; it is also so often big picture. Banerjee and Duflo take a different approach: from the ideological starting point of 'we want alleviate poverty', they attend to the details and the evidence, run randomised controlled trials for different policies, and explain why the very poorest make decisions that seem to those of us lucky enough to have money so irrational. Poor Economics is a great introduction to a number of economic ideas for a general reader, but, more importantly, it encourages a kind of empathy that is so often lacking in political and politicised discourse, by emphasising the differences circumstance can have on decision making. It is easy to think that we are rich because we are wise, and that, were we made poor, we would be able to act to become rich again; perhaps we should give more thanks that we were not born poor.


Free Culture - Lawrence Lessig

Lessig's book on the system of intellectual property is about a decade old now, and he has subsequently turned his attention to electoral reform. But his points about intellectual property laws remain pertinent and unaddressed. Lessig does not argue for piracy or the abolition of intellectual property, but for flexibility within the law to benefit the population at large. What value, he asks, is there to protecting the intellectual property of creators who care so little about their work that it is being lost? He writes about films: many early films are now being lost because they remain in copyright, but are too unprofitable for commercial entities or rights holders to maintain them, so the film is slowly decaying. He writes, too, about how Hollywood, now the strongest voice for the protection of intellectual property, originally fled to California to avoid intellectual property claims that were harming its profitability. It is valuable to be reminded of intellectual property's history, if only to remember that intellectual property is not an inalienable natural right, and that society can decide the balance between rewarding creators and offering work to society at large. (Download it legally for free here.)

Glow - Ned Beauman

I have been a keen follower of Ned Beauman for a couple of years now, and, in truth, Glow does not reach the heights of his previous novel, The Teleportation Accident; but then, few things do. Glow continues to showcase Beauman's felicity with language and imagery, and his ability to defamiliarise the world not with fantasy, but with the innate weirdness of reality. Glow is mostly set in south London, and I have thought of it every time I have gone there, and that has made long night time cycles down unfamiliar roads a little less bleak and a little more charming.

The Savage Detectives - Roberto Bolaño

The characters in The Savage Detectives are mostly poets and writers who don't do much writing, don't publish, and aren't successful. They spend their time running around Mexico City, drinking and smoking, begging espresso from waitresses in bars, sleeping with each other just to have somewhere to spend the night, trying to be in love with the world or with literature or with their bodies or with each other. They are glamorous failures, and the novel has made me think seriously about what I consider success to be. I wish I were less bourgeois, and more able to acknowledge a life lived savagely as successful; perhaps I will be able to if I move to Mexico and become a poet.

Command and Control - Eric Schlosser

Schlosser's book is a history of the safety of nuclear weapons, both their technical aspects - how do you stop them from blowing up when you drop them, etc.? - and the bureaucracies in place to control them - how do you stop someone stealing a bomb, how do you ensure that in wartime you can still give orders? It is terrifying. Neither technical nor bureaucratic systems were at all effective, and Schlosser argues that it is a small miracle there wasn't a large scale nuclear accident. The USSR installed a new radar system and it was set off, warning of an imminent attack. The officials did not react; the system had mistaken the sun rising over Norway for a fleet of US nuclear missiles. A US bomber crashed into a cliff in Greenland, its bomb didn't detonate, but did spread fissile material over a glacier; the heat of the impact melted the ice, before the cold froze it again. US troops from a nearby base had to go out, in the blackness of the Arctic winter, in extreme cold, to chip away contaminated ice from the glacier and carry it back to base, where it was flown to Nevada and buried underground.

My Struggle Volume 3: Boyhood Island - Karl Ove Knausgaard

When I first read Knausgaard I didn't understand why he had been praised so widely for being hypnotic. When I read the third volume, which is mostly about Knausgaard's childhood, I got it. Knausgaard's style, which is loose and open and attentive and consciously anti-aesthetic, and sort of flat, lacking demarcations of worth or irony, is perfectly suited to writing from the perspective of a child. He inhabits his childhood self utterly, and treats minor incidents with the emotional awe they received at the time. The result is a kind of powerful presentness, a feeling of being in the moment, not playing between a remembered past moment and a future adult self. This does weird things with time, that dilates and flows and jumps and skips much like in Richard Linklater's film Boyhood, and the passage from child to adolescent takes you by surprise.

10:04 - Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner is interested in time too, in the opposite way to Knausgaard: in how time can be a palimpsest, how moments layer on top of one another, on how they can gain and lose significances. 10:04, like My Struggle, is something of a pseudo-autobiography, a novel written from life, but keenly aware of the fabrications and in authenticities involved in such an endeavour. The main character in 10:04, Ben, has more similarities with the author than is worth listing, but is not the author. The effect again is one of layering, of identities and histories as well as of moments. Selfhood is someone amongst the layers, but the self is probably a story that we tell ourselves, and like all stories all the best bits are lies.

Bad Pharma - Ben Goldacre

In Bad Pharma Ben Goldacre offers an extended and detailed analysis of the ways in which the structure of healthcare, which includes the media, academia, journals, doctors and the pharmaceutical industry, creates perverse incentives for actors to do things that go against the provision of fair, high quality information to inform decisions about prescriptions and treatments. These perverse incentives are sometimes fairly benign, like there being more desire to publish positive than negative results, and sometimes corrupt, like the regulatory capture of the regulators of the pharmaceutical industry. Goldacre is optimistic about the potential for more data, and more public and professional attention, to identify and resolve these problems; his book and its relentless fairness and meticulous compilation of evidence, is an effective demonstration of the virtues of such an approach. I hope he is right.

Indigo - Clemens J. Setz

Setz is an Austrian writer and Indigo is the first thing he has written that has been translated into English. Having read it I am now anxiously awaiting the rest; I am considering learning German to translate him myself. His writing is strange and lucid and commits fully to its belief in the events it describes. It also has a deconstructive impulse: Indigo is a Montageroman, an assemblage of scraps and documents rather than a flowing narrative, and a vehicle for doubt in authority and interpretation. It is a novel about a medical condition whose sufferers are known as Indigo children. It is not clear whether the condition actual exists in the novel's world, but that scarcely matters. Setz writes with beauty about things that are very close to how things are in reality (whatever that is), but sort of different, just different enough that you notice. He is hard to describe. Go and read him now.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Why 'The Goldfinch' Makes No Sense

Donna Tartt's watch (image via Lacza).

There has been, in some circles, much debate over the literary and artistic worth of The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt's most recent novel, an international bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner. The argument can be briefly caricatured as something like populists vs snobs: those who admire the novel's abundance of plot, its nods to 'high' culture, and its imitation of a Victorian three-decker against those who condemn its uncontrolled prose, its clanking narrative machinery, and its general aura of childishness

I, unfortunately, am firmly on the side of the snobs. The Goldfinch is terrible. Better explanations than I can give have been made, so I will offer a single example of what I consider to be Tartt's inattention to detail. This inattention concerns something I consider to be fairly important: the novel's timeline (compare, for example, Vladimir Nabokov's unpicking of the dual timelines of Anna Karenina).

This article is going to reveal quite a lot of the plot, if you care about that sort of thing. The plot goes something like this: 

  1. A scene where 27 year old Theo reflects on a crime he has recently committed, then commits to telling his story, and looks 14 years into the past... 
  2. ...where 13 year old Theo is involved in a bombing at an art museum that initiates all of his adventures. 
  3. Theo, after living with the Barbour family in New York from roughly March, when the bombing happens, until the end of term, is reunited with his absent father, and moves to Las Vegas. 
  4. After bumming around for the summer, Theo attends school in Las Vegas for two years. He is now 15. 
  5. Theo's daddy dies. Not wanting to enter social services in Vegas, he attempts to return to New York. There is a scene where he tries to board a greyhound bus. He is told that he has to be 15 to travel alone. Theo is relieved that he is just 15. 
  6. Theo arrives in New York and begins to live with a friend, Hobie, who is some old guy. He spends some time recovering from the shock of his father's death, and then begins studying for early college entrance. As far as I can tell – and this is the weakest point of my reconstruction – this section is only a matter of months long. 
  7. The narrative jumps forward 8 years. Theo is now 26. A whole bunch of stuff has happened, most interestingly that 3 years have gone missing. By my calculations, Theo should be 23 – the 8 year jump only makes sense if the previous section is 3 years long. The narrative includes a description of Theo's college days following his successful early entry (and early entry itself only makes sense if Theo is not yet 18 – otherwise it would just be entry). So where did the years go? 

The pedantic reader encounters further problems when she tries to date the story. My initial assumption was that the narrative of 27 year old Theo was intended to be set at the same time as the book's publication, roughly 2013. This places the start of 13 year old Theo's narration 14 years before in 1999, which makes sense given that the bombing seems to occur in a pre-9/11 new York, and there is a later reference to the subsequent tightening of, of all things, the punishments for art theft as a result of 9/11. So the bombing seems likely to have happened around '99 or 2000.

There are references that confound this, however, most prominent in my mind an early passage where Theo describes his life pre-bombing: him and Tom Ford break into holiday homes in the Hamptons to steal Xboxes. The first Xbox was released in November 2001, so this would date the bombing sometime after 2001, most likely the summer of 2002 (after all, who winters in the Hamptons?). Another reference sticks out, the weirdest in the novel: Theo and Boris, his Las Vegas friend, are reunited as adults in the narratorial present. They hear and get nostalgic over the song 'Comfy in Nautica' by Panda Bear, from his 2007 album Person Pitch, although the song was released as a double A-side single (with 'I'm Not') in September 2005. Presuming that Theo and Boris, despite their limited internet access (Theo repeatedly complains that the only laptop in the house is kept in Xandra's locked room), and the fact that they spend all their time in the suburban hinterland of Las Vegas sniffing glue, and never mention any particular interest in music of any kind, let alone in relatively obscure indie music, discovered 'Comfy in Nautica' very early, in 2005, we can construct a plausible timeline for the novel's events: 

  1. The bombing happens around 2003. 
  2. Theo moves to Vegas in the summer of this year, and leaves towards the end of 2005, just in time to catch Panda Bear's debut. 
  3. '8 years later' would then be 2013, which seems reasonable. 

But, again, we have 3 missing years! Arguably, of course, the novel's narrative present could be set in the near future – something like 2016. But why? There is no indication of this, no exploitation of a near future setting, not even any telling or joky references (compare, for example, the near-future chapters of David Mitchell's recent The Bone Clocks). Indeed, there's very little indication in the novel that the characters live in the 21st century at all. Occasionally they use the internet or their smartphones, but mostly they repair furniture and snort coke. There's a passage, near the end, when Theo is sitting in an Amsterdam hotel room worrying about a murder he has recently committed, and trying ineffectively to read Dutch-language newspapers to find out how much attention the murder has received. Theo struggles with the Dutch – so why doesn't he use his iPhone (mentioned repeatedly) or a computer in the hotel (acknowledged when it is needed to make an application for a temporary passport) to either get help with translation (OK, Google translate isn't perfect, but it's better than nothing) or to try to find some sources in English? Worse, Theo makes a whole big deal of sneaking around trying to find Dutch-language newspapers so he can try to read them in the first place – why doesn't he find the articles on the internet? Plausibly, he could be concerned about online surveillance, or that his internet history could be used as evidence against him, although neither of these concerns is voiced. Or, equally plausibly, Theo could just be an idiot. 

These are the kind of inconsistencies in the fabric of Tartt's fictional world that niggle away throughout the book, and are ultimately a big part of why I couldn't enjoy it. I don't think that Tartt has either deliberately set her book in the future or deliberately broken the novel's timeline – although it would all be so much simpler if she had just not insisted that Theo was 26 going on 27 in the '8 years had passed' section! The most obvious explanation is that Tartt wasn't particularly concerned with keeping track of her timeline, or, perhaps more acutely, that she wasn't particularly concerned with making the incidental cultural references she throws away throughout the novel consistent with the internal timeline of her fiction. It seems far more likely that Xboxes and Panda Bear are anachronisms, weird sections of the future cast into the past, than that they are meant to effectively date the narrative. But, I mean, come on Donna! There's not really a good excuse for this kind of laziness, for the lack of control that is demonstrated in so many of the novel's scenes, in so much of its construction. This is a book that's been hailed as a masterpiece, that the author worked on for 11 years, a novel that is praised and inattentive. Us snobs would hope that a masterpiece would treat itself with a little more respect.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Review: The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

© / Timothy Kennett
I fell in love over the summer with the Chilean national team, just like I did four years ago. They played at the World Cup again, and they were again beautiful and aggressive and thwarted. As in 2010, circumstance conspired to keep them down. Four years ago they drew Brazil and Spain, who won the tournament; this year they drew Spain and Brazil again and also the Netherlands, who finished third. Chile play an exciting style inculcated by the Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa (nicknamed 'El Loco') in 2007 which features an almost-suicidal high press, quick passing combinations, verticality, verve and lots of running around. The players play for the team, run for the team, die on the pitch for the team, replacing the solipsistic genius much of South American soccer craves with socialist utopianism. Since Bielsa, these have been Chile's principles, its identity, and they stick to them, even when a more pragmatic, more conservative approach might be more successful. They stick with their principles, and they fail, gloriously, with a hint of fate's cruelty. This year when they played Brazil they hit the post in the last minute of extra time and hit the post again with the last penalty kick and were out.

Roberto Bolaño was Chilean, sort of. He was one of those people who defies national definition. He was born in Chile and moved to Mexico and then back to Chile and was then exiled when Pinochet came to power, returned to Mexico, possibly via El Salvador, and then moved around Europe before ending up in Spain. His biography reads like the plot summary to a Spanish-language Kerouac imitator.

Bolaño died in 2003, so he never got to witness the Bielsista revolution. I'm not sure whether he liked soccer. Maybe he saw it as some gross thuggish distraction. (Austrian anti-semite Heimito Künst seems to like it the most: “I drew a dwarf with an enormous penis […] Then I got tired […] I got into bed and started to think. I thought about the underground factories where the Jews built their atomic bombs. I thought about a soccer match. I thought about a mountain.”) Maybe he thought it was boring. Maybe he would have supported Mexico, or Spain. As a Trotskyite, he may well have approved of revolutions, and of Bielsa's left wing tendencies (Bielsa once refused to shake the hand of Chile's right wing president Sebastian Pinera). He might have looked at this Chile team and seen something of himself.

The Savage Detectives was published in 1998, won (according to the blurb of my copy) the Herralde Prize and the Rómulo Gallegos Prize (wow) and did much to establish Bolaño's reputation as a writer who is worth reading, overwhelming his previous reputation as an itinerant heroin addict. The novel reminds me, of all things, of Max Brooks's World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, mostly because the narrative is a series of purported transcripts of interviews, but also because a lot of the characters are sort of like zombies. It's mostly about self-proclaimed poets who found their own poetry movement and talk about it a lot while they drift around drinking and fucking and thieving, crashing on friend's floors and going on vague pilgrimages to Tel-Aviv, trying to fall in love (“You can woo a girl with a poem, but you can't hold on to her with a poem. Not even with a poetry movement.”), but mostly being in love with themselves.

Just as it is common for dance music to be about how great dancing is and hip-hop to be about how great at rapping the rapper is, literature can often be about how romantic and exciting literature is, as if people need convincing that stories are still good. The Savage Detectives is very much concerned with glamourising literary pursuits; this is perhaps the whole point of the existences of Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, the poets whose meandering lives are followed at a distance through the many stories that make up the novel. The two are somewhat like prophets and cult leaders and travelling bards, and somewhat more like the title character of Inside Llewyn Davis. They stay for the night and make a show of buying you beer and then wander off in search of a semi-mythical Mexican forbearer just after you've fallen in love with one of them. It is important to note that everyone seems to be in love with either Lima or Belano. It is more important to note that neither poet ever demonstrates their poetic ability on the page. The reader has no idea whether they are good poets, or productive poets, or poets in the sense that five year olds who write poems to their parents for Father's Day at school are poets. Whatever poetry they have exists in their undying faith that telling people how literary they are is glamorous, and in their own glamorised, confused lives. They are poets whose poetry is performance art, and whose whole lives are performances, and whose performances are recorded in stories in a novel.

The multiplicity of stories is also significant. Lima and Belano are the novel's central characters, but they are denied a voice. Their lives become fragments, and, in the process, become mythic. The reader is reminded more of the joy of storytelling than of anything else, as stories of bohemianism and crime and love and despair and hitchhiking and grape picking and fishing and crying bustle together. The novel's structure allows us to keep our distance from Lima and Belano, and therefore allows us to finish the novel without hating them and their pretensions. Most of the pair's mythos and glamour comes from them not being around: when they aren't around, they could be doing anything. When they are around, they're mostly lying in a sleeping bag reading Ezra Pound for 48 hours straight.

Belano and Lima have a glamour that threatens to dissolve. When they are in motion, propulsive and moving away, you can believe them to be the beginning of Latin American literature's rebirth. This is the case, Bolaño suggests, with all glamour and with all the dreams of youth. “Have you seen Easy Rider? That's right, the movie with Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson. That was basically what we were like back then. But especially Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, before they left for Europe. Like Dennis Hopper and his doppelgänger: two dark figures, moving fast and full of energy.” Everything is glamorous in the movies, even failure, and Lima and Belano live as if constantly on screen. As a linear narrative, this tendency towards glamour would be unbearably something: too smug, or too naïve, or too obvious, or too self-obsessed. As a labyrinth of stories and voices in which the poets are only occasionally glimpsed disappearing around a corner, the poetry of their lives can exist, as precariously as anything exists in a labyrinth.

There is a moment where one of the stories of Belano and Lima's escapades is repeated: “I told the whole story again, from beginning to end, to the manifest boredom of Álamo and Labarca [who had already heard it] and the sincere interest of the inspector. When I was done he said ah, the lives you writers lead.” This is the effective of the labyrinth – disorientation. If we saw the story repeated again and again, we too would be bored. But to see stories refract and explode and ramble and accrete and do all the other things Bolaño lets them do across the novel is to be perpetually in the position of the inspector, perpetually impressed. To have perpetually the youthful eyes of the 17 year old poet who narrates the novel's first and last sections. To stay young and idealistic even as Belano and Lima age and fade. To continue to believe in love and poetry even after both seem long ago to have died.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Eleanor Catton and a Path for the Novel

The Luminaries: good. (via

I was lucky enough to be supervised by one of the judges of last year's Man Booker Prize. When I found out, I joked, 'I hope you're not going to award it to Hilary Mantel again.' This joke was not met with much amusement, which, while bad for my personal and professional relationship with the judge, did seem to bode well: finally we would have a prize winner that wasn't boring. So, when Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries won, I was dismayed. Historical fiction, with all its ersatz details and descriptions of fabrics, is becoming increasingly turgid. Nonetheless, I read The Luminaries in October, and read it again in April, and am thoroughly convinced not just that it avoids being ersatz and turgid but that it's actually exciting and beautiful and offers a new path for the novel.

My case is one of genre and of aesthetics which is intimately related to the category of the historic novel and its various failings. It starts with my twin love of Dickens and of Pynchon, of their shared bulk and depth and heft, their shared interest in connectivity – and with my conviction that there is a greater similarity between the Victorian and the postmodern than is often acknowledged. For a number of decades there seems to have been debate in some literary circles which can be characterised as: what do we do after Thomas Pynchon, and Paul Auster, and Don DeLillo? David Foster Wallace writes about this in the early 1990s (in 'E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction', first published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993), arguing that the American postmodernist novel of cleverness has exhausted itself and that its own compulsive self-ironisation is futile in the face of television's more effective, more popular, more totalising ironies. Wallace argues for a new bravery, in the form of postmodernists being sincere. Unfortunately for all the other aspiring sincere postmodernists, Wallace himself did this so imposingly well in Infinite Jest following his lead doesn't really seem like an option.

Zadie Smith, herself a Wallace devotee, takes up the argument in 'Two Paths for the Novel' (first published in the New York Review of Books and collected in Changing My Mind, 2009). Her early novels were, of course, savaged by critics like James Wood for their 'hysterical realism' and for being too obviously in imitation of Wallace and Pynchon. She is concerned that a 'breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked'; she wonders about authenticity. She contrasts the lyrical realism of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland with the poststructuralist formalism of Tom McCarthy's Remainder. She argues that at the crossroads of these two modes 'we find extra-ordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov'. But with its focus on the lyrical realist path, the publishing world has rarely been less interested in the path of the experimentalists – and, by implication, rarely less able to finding the extraordinary writers who transcend the whole structure of roads.

My hope is that the historical novel might offer some compromise development in the attempt to create a new literature for our new century. Historical fiction by its nature avoids the problems of authenticity, or addresses them head on, by having no claim to being real. It is all dressing up and imagining: no one modern writer gains any privileged access to Tudor life. And it is by its nature ironised, its stories read in light of modern knowledge, its characters' attitudes and beliefs deliberately limited in their perceptions of the vast historical events that lurk just out of view. And yet the dominant mode is lyrical realism, and the dominant treatment of this irony is to ignore it, and the dominant response is to pamper and preen and praise author's research accuracy and fall in love with the movie with Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson in elaborate bodices.

With this context in mind, The Luminaries is revelatory. At first it seems to be another attempt at writing a Victorian novel today, the difficulties be damned. The first section, the longest, is dense and absorbent, full of the abundance of characters and plots that you might find in Wilkie Collins. But occasionally there are moments where – like in Borges's 'Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote' – the narrator s peaks with that omniscient tone Victorian narrators so often use, interrupting in a way that lacks self-consciousness. This is Catton effectively mimicking James, or Eliot, or Dickens – but it is also a moment of incredible irony. As Borges points out, the context of the language or the form is not neutral, and to write what seems a perfect Victorian novel 150 years later is in this way to write a highly postmodern novel – a postmodern lyrical realism.

There are further disjuncts, notably in Catton's treatment of gender and race, which receive the kind of subtlety that can occur in a Victorian novel only when a twenty-first century author writes one. And so the first six or eight hundred pages of the novel go, the characters revolving, the lyricism singing, the historical in its place at last.

And then you come to the end, where the chapters start to diminish at an alarming rate, and most of the characters fall away, and only the luminaries remain, dazzling you with their love, and you are overwhelmed despite your cynicism at the shameless emotion of it all. To write a novel in celebration of love, and to create this elaborate structure for it, and this elaborate historical façade, only to drop it all away and to leave you to confront this one golden emotion, the light of which you see retrospectively illuminating all the plots of the novel, all the connections, all the sensation and genre play – this is what Catton aimed at.

I saw her speak in March in Oxford. She made a point of emphasising a number of the novel's structural elements: that its characters are based on the zodiac, and their movements forcibly determined by archaic starmaps for mid-nineteenth century New Zealand; that each chapter is half as short as the preceding one. She spoke about them not as if these were ingenious conceits on her part, but as limitation, deliberately self-imposed, seemingly for the play of it. She spoke of how the plot was emergent from these structures, of how she has the lucky ability to just sort of write and let the plot come naturally. She spoke in the face of the sorts of strange or banal or ignorant questions audiences have the space to ask at literary festivals: how do you write, do you research, 'my son got this for me for my birthday and I didn't understand any of those zodiac things you just talked about but I did sort of like it'. I took her foregrounding of the novel's semi-arbitrary structures as an assertion of artistic postmodernism, or something of the kind. An assertion that she was a conscious artist, and that the novel was a self-conscious artistic product, and that it was interested in exposing its own structure to the world because its skeleton is gilded and perfect and its flesh is subject to all of flesh's usual flaws.

My understanding is supported by Catton's first novel, The Rehearsal (2009), which is far more obviously a postmodernist work, about the intersection of life and art and the confusing overlaps of the two – the kind of novel where half the characters are acting most of the time and are prone to long theatrical monologues about playing roles and authenticity and fictiveness. It features a lot of drama teachers who advise their students that they cannot play roles, they must be roles. And so the book itself takes on roles and flits between naturalistic conversation and stage speak and perspectives like the frantic cross-cutting in the action scene at the start of Quantum of Solace in imitation of the Bourne movies.

The Rehearsal is a good book, enjoyable and wise and full of moments where Catton manages to adequately capture the whole experience of adolescence in a few sentences.[1] But it is improved on by The Luminaries in almost every way. The latter novel adds so much subtlety and poise and balance, and poaches the best traits of lyrical realism – accessibility, world creation, the creation of a literary artefact in which the reader can get happily lost – and roasts them over the camp fire in herbs until they are cooked to perfection. Cooked, but dead. Catton's two novels share a theme that I think is intractably opposed to how lyrical realism can function: that other people are unknowable. Both novels are revolve around a relationship (student and teacher, prospector and whore) that is never fully realised on the page, is always refracted through the impressions and confusions of others. As Catton herself said in Oxford, you can never hope to know how other people are with each other, at a distance. Their relationships are swathed in privacy that even the global media with all their zoom lenses and phone hackers can't effectively invade. They have a delicacy that remains inviolable. This seems important to remember in an age where relationships appear to be fully public of the examination of others, categorised on Facebook or commented on in newspapers.[2]

Catton might be at the crossroads with Kafka and Nabokov and the rest – and certainly she has created a work of fiction that credibly combines elements of realism and lyricism and historicism with the awarenesses and the metafictive play of postmodernism – but this alone is not enough. The case for her offering a new path for the novel (or rather paving an already extant path so others, less intrepid, can follow more easily) is that her book found itself in the right context to actually exert itself. She won that fabulous prize, and got placed at the front of bookshops' windows everywhere, and found her way onto the reading lists of people who no interest in any of the things I've just described. She may just have smuggled in a popular solution to the problem of the novel's next direction.

[1] “Stanley was disappointed with his life so far.[...] Stanley had expected to be savage and dissenting and righteous as a teenager – he had yearned for it, even – and grew more and more dissatisfied as his high-school years passed politely by. He had expected to drink whisky from a paper-bagged bottle by the river, and slip his cold hands up a girl's skirt in the patch of scrub beyond the tennis courts, and take shots at passing cars with a potato-gun from a neighbour's garage roof. He had expected to drink himself blind and vandalise bush shelters in the suburbs, to drive without a licence, to retreat from his family, to turn sour, and to frighten his mother, maybe, by refusing to eat or leave his room. This was his entitlement, his rightful lot, and instead he had spent his high-school years playing gentlemanly sport and watching family television, admiring form a distance the boys brave enough to fight each other, and longing for every girl he passed to lift her head and look him in the eye.”

[2] Catton has a beautiful line on this. I have a less beautiful article.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Review: The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

South Downs, South England, snow; some sheep. (via

Robert Facfarlane doesn't live in the same world as the rest of us. His world is better, probably. He's the kind of guy whose life consists of looking out the window after a few hours of writing, noticing that it's just snowed, and pulling on his boots to walk across the crisp virgin whiteness  with a dram of whiskey and a few owls for company. This isn't me being poetic; this is the first chapter of the book. Last time it snowed I checked the bus schedule to see whether I would be late. The people he meets are all folklorists or poets as well as fishermen or sailors or farmers or just walkers. The people I meet mostly work 9-5 and don't like it very much. The places he goes are imbued with mystery and magic and soul; the places I go are now mostly dingy backroads near Kings Cross.

The delight of The Old Ways is that Macfarlane shares this world view with you, for a few hours at least. He is primarily a walker, of course, and not all of us have a lot of time for walks in the country or holidays with our academic friends in Gaza or our mountaineering friends in Tibet or our fisherman friends in Orkney. But we can enjoy them vicariously. Macfarlane, in places, writes a weird sort of travel writing.

Unlike most travel writers, however, Macfarlane is not really interested in describing locations or places per se. He is far more interested in analysing the journey itself, in the effect of a new place on the mind, in the palimpsests of history that leave their vague tracks across the land. This is travel writing located somewhere between love poetry and academia, closer to Nabokov's 'travel writing' of America in Lolita than Bill Bryson (disclaimer: I have never read a single word by Bill Bryson). In Macfarlane's eyes, the world is permanent but also weirdly inconstant. The walker has access to a whole range of levels of experience at once: aesthetic bliss in nature, the crunch of fresh snow beneath boots; the simple pleasures of greasy campstove bacon after a thirty mile day, a night spent with ghosts in a neolithic barrow; the slight resistance of the rudder as you learn how to steer a boat, tacking across the wind; company, the fact that hiking is about the only place where strangers acknowledge one another's presence rather than icily gliding past one another, eyes fixed ahead, like icebergs or ex-lovers; connection with the past, connection with a friend; profound alienation; and, perhaps most of all, the easy rhythm of an experienced walker's paces, free, unencumbered, tramp tramp tramp towards the horizon.

The amazing thing is that a Cambridge academic can write a non-polemic book about walking and folklore and Romantic poets and that it can be so rhetorically effective and convincing. Macfarlane gives the world a little bit of a glimmer, even as you tire of his almost precious interests and pursuit of obscure, long dead poets. There are other ghosts for us to follow.

As I sit here writing this, I am in the back of my parents' car, on the M4, just west of Swindon. Arguably the least romantic or exciting place in the world. But, post Macfarlane, or, with Macfarlane, I am starting to see a little bit of joy. It's a dark, cold November night, one of the first frosts of the winter, and we pass men in high-vis jackets spreading grit, slightly illuminated by our headlights, and pass into a world where vague fog gives a dreamy quality to the pricks of light that pass us by, and to the red dots than hang a half mile in front of us, leading the way, and to the cat's eyes that mark the road and keep us from going astray.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Review: Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

The X-Files believed in the truth. (source:

Paranoia is a trendy mental state. Paranoid delusions have been recorded throughout history, but the form that they take is a remarkable mirror to contemporaneous society. Feelings of persecution and conspiracy were, in the sixteenth century, likely to be blamed on demonic possession or witchcraft; in the twenty-first, they are more likely to be seen as some kind of government conspiracy, or to feature plot-lines lifted from The Truman Show or The Matrix. Reality dissolves into a complex, almost convincing facsimile; unending webs of clues offer continual and provocative hints that something is awry.

If the forms of paranoid delusions are based on the cultural tropes surrounding the sufferer, then it logically follows that by examining the delusions one could seek to understand the larger culture. Such a process has, for much of his career, been the goal of Thomas Pynchon. His works tend to follow confused, isolated figures who traverse landscapes fecund with hyper-signifying clues; often the realities of his worlds will fragment, for a moment – glitches in the Matrix, pauses where things don't quite make sense. Shadowy enemies pursue manic protagonists, maybe. The uncertain ontological state of Pynchon's world – is it reality or simulation, everyday 1999 or computer generated prison? - infects the fiction itself on a sort of meta level. We never know if the conspiracies actually exist; we never know if Pynchon's stories contain a shred of realism. “For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy of America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle unto some paranoia.” This is the situation for Oedipa Maas, the hero of The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), and, in Pynchon's eyes, it may well be the situation of the average American too.

Pynchon views American culture as fundamentally paranoid. This dates back to the hard-line Calvinism of the first Pilgrims (conspiracies have deep roots). Puritan theology views the world as another revelation, a coded message from God to man. Observation of natural phenomena can therefore offer access to deeper truths. The poet Edward Taylor, for example, observes a spider:

                                 Hell's Spider gets
                                 His intrails Spun to whip Cords thus
                                 And wove to nets
                                 and sets.
                                 To tangle Adams race
                                 In's stratagems
                                 To their destructions ('Upon a Spider Catching a Fly', 1680-2)

Or, more briefly: a spider catching a fly is like Satan tempting humanity into sin. Or, briefer still: the world is out to get you. Puritanism's fairly harsh stance on predetermination – that everyone, pretty much, will be damned, and even if you're not, you can't know it – and the doctrine of Original Sin – everyone carries the burden of an earlier fall from God's grace – foster a fairly negative attitude. Everything in the world is a symbol of man's fall and imminent damnation.

To gloss quickly over three-hundred or so years of history, not much has changed. National traumas (JFK's assassination, Pearl Harbour) spawn fairly mainstream conspiracy theories; there are theories about a bunch of really innocuous seeming stuff like the Federal Reserve and water fluoridation. Conspiracy theories have even gained mainstream political recognition: see the embarrassing débâcle about Barack Obama's birth certificate. The '90s saw the enormous popularity of The X-Files, a show where basically every known conspiracy was realised on screen, and where UFO-loving crackpot Agent Fox Mulder is proved correct at every turn, in small towns like yours all across America. Death in the woods? 'It's probably aliens,' speculates Mulder, and it is. Death in an office building? 'It's probably a rogue Central Operating System,' guesses Mulder, and he's right again. The show, however, is careful to prevent Mulder from ever finding the definitive proof he needs to go public. Instead, it 'proves' it to the viewer, by showing on-screen the paranormal elements, and then having hazy pseudo-bureaucrats cover it up. The genius of the show was in weaving the variably-crazy paranormal/UFO/evil computer/ghost/monster delusions into the larger tapestry of governmental conspiracy. After all, the idea that your own government might be against you is surely scarier and more plausible than the fear of rogue Neanderthals.

This is what life was like in the '90s: carefree fun, not even worrying about all the calories in those 'shakes. (source:

It is against this backdrop that Bleeding Edge, Pynchon's most recent novel, opens. Maxine Tornow, mother-of-two and fraud investigator, beings to poke around some dodgy start ups in New York. The year is 2001; the first dotcom bubble has just burst, and hasn't yet reinflated. Mark Zuckerburg is just about to start at Harvard, and will later go on to inspire a movie staring Jesse Eisenberg. Seinfeld has been off the air for three years, although Friends is still going strong. Predictably – inevitably, fatedly – Maxine starts to uncover hints of a large scale X-Files-style governmental conspiracy. There are dodgy payments and time-travelling assassins, glimpses of the full vast bureaucracy of the military-industrial complex in full swing. The whole thing is enjoyable, Pynchonian, fairly light-hearted, swathed in '90s nostalgia and exquisite references (name me one other major work of literature that features jokes about Pokémon).

And then, about two-thirds of the way through the novel, on the 9th of September 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 and American Airlines Flight 175 are hijacked and flown into the World Trade Centre. Bleeding Edge is so grounded in 2001, and 9/11 so seared onto our collective memory, that there's no way you don't see it coming. And yet, you never expect 9/11 to happen during the novel's narrative. Like the conspiracies of V. or The Crying of Lot 49 or Gravity's Rainbow, you didn't expect payoff, just paranoia.

This is the genius of Pynchon's new book then: that the paranoia finally gets made real. The shocking thing is that no one really expects it to happen; part of being paranoid, after all, relies on the conspiracy remaining shadowy, hidden, obscure. The moment Pynchon stages in Bleeding Edge feels like a recapitulation of classic Puritan lapsarian theology, made relevant for the computer age. Before 9/11 – before 'The Fall' – the novel is vibrant and exuberant, the conspiracies threatening, sure, but more interesting and quirky than terrifying. The internet is an anarchic playground, the tech sector filled with ideologues and hackers, open-sourcers who promote knowledge and experimentation. New York is still a city: Giuliani hasn't yet managed to gentrify and yuppify and sanitise the whole of Manhattan.

But all of these innocences are being eroded. Urban gentrification, the corporatisation and monetisation of the internet, the establishment of cyber-spying and intelligence gathering: all act to attack the Edenic idyll of 'Silicon Alley' – or, more broadly, of the '90s culture where The X-Files existed, where conspiracies were about alien cover ups and monsters who ate livers. The erosion had already started, but 9/11 is the singularity that marks the transition, the gunshot the marks the death-knell of an already terminal patient.

Soon after the attack, paranoia starts up again. There are whisperings about Jewish involvement, pan-Islamic involvement, military involvement. There are inconclusive evidences that the government staged, or knew about, or something, the attacks. Pynchon doesn't side with the 9/11 conspiracists, and refuses to validate any of the various theories in the novel. In a sense, 9/11 is, for New York, beyond conspiracy; the comfort provided intellectually or emotionally by the coherent, certain knowledge of the conspiracy world view is scant comfort if your home is under attack.

But in a more figurative sense, paranoia is the right response to the post-9/11 world. There is an episode of The Simpsons, also from the late '90s, where Bart is proscribed a drug called Focusyn. A side effect of this drug is that Bart becomes increasingly paranoid, and eventually convinced that he is being spied on by Major League Baseball. Obvious he seems crazy; when he steals a tank, he seems crazier. Then Bart shoots down the actually MLB spying satellite, and it turns out his paranoia was true. In 1999, the concept is pretty funny, and faintly absurd. In 2013, the idea of being spied on to this degree by corporations is commonplace; furthermore, the government are doing it too. It's the path from this absurd late '90s paranoia to its actualisation ten years later that Pynchon follows in Bleeding Edge; he tells a Fall narrative where humanity falls not because it gains more knowledge, but because it becomes more ignorant, more in the dark.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Some Thoughts on Zadie Smith

I've been reading quite a lot of Zadie Smith recently. I read her latest novel, NW. I read some short fiction that appeared in the New Yorker: one some kind of techno-dystopia, that, to be honest, was pretty bad; the other about an illegal immigrant in North London that was ok but not great. I read an interview she did with London's Evening Standard where she came across really well and it turned out she likes Game of Thrones. I read some of her essays and journalism: an interview with Jay Z (note: his name is now unhyphenated) and an essay on joy, both of which were excellent. I'm still not convinced that, as a fiction writer, she's one of the greats, although she definitely has a lot of talent. But there is something about her and her writing that I find very compelling, and I've been trying to assess what exactly it is.

1) She writes about Britain. I feel small and parochial saying this, but I think that, for me, her writing about stuff in Britain is actually appealing. There's a pleasurable squirm of recognition and familiarity from scenes set in places you know, or places that are really like places you know (just like I felt watching the London bits of Fast and Furious 6). There's an ease of access, culturally, a sensitivity to class and race barriers that I'm already pretty familiar with. So there's that. Also, I find it refreshing to be reading novelists who aren't writing brazenly and blandly about America. Don't get me wrong, I love America, I'm possibly the most Americaphilic person I know who isn't actually American. But a stream of modern (hyper-)realist novels about America can get tedious. It isn't the geography, it's the genre. They want to be the next Great American Novel, and, I think that genre's pretty desiccated nowadays like Owens Lake, sucked dry from years over overuse. (A brief aside on Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, that I'm currently nearing the end of a struggle through: this is a book so tediously in this Great American Novel tradition that, despite being only ten years old, it feels like it's seventy, to the point where all the references to contemporary technologies like cell phones or laptops or the internet feel weirdly anachronistic. It's a bit like my dad telling me that he owned a smart phone in the '70s. I wouldn't believe him, and I still wouldn't trust him to use it properly.) There's something fresh about Smith's attempts to produce modern, British novels.

A picture of the Great American Novel.

2) Zadie Smith is genuinely beautiful. As far as I can tell, never having met her. Again, I feel pretty bad saying this, because it seems like a fairly sexist remark, and potentially not something that I'd say about a male author, or should want to say about an author of any sex. But writers tend to be so relentless depressing looking, saggy and unfashionable and bespectacled, or nerdy and neurotic, or pasty from years of library-light. Her beauty gives Smith an edge; it makes her seem glamorous and cool in a way very few authors actually can. And it lets her do it effortlessly, without having to try hard to shock or brag like a failed punk band. Her coolness is important, because it elevates her cultural status beyond that of a literary author. ‘My sister tells me I’m in the Evening Standard every other week. My fame seems not to require my presence,’ she said to the Standard. It's sad that we live in a society where being beautiful makes you seem cooler, especially because, in so many other ways, Zadie Smith seems to be quite cool anyway. But it is an advantage she has that propels her out of the narrow literary-fiction niche into a more culturally relevant area, that she perhaps shares more with artists like Vampire Weekend or Kanye West (although, Smith is nowhere near Kanye West, who may be the best current pop-cultural expression of consumer capitalism both within his songs and sort of mimetically in his public life) rather than ugly old Will Self or similar.

Oh, Kanye, you devil. (From

3) Zadie Smith is cool. I know this is essentially the previous point, but it should be stressed that Zadie Smith seems actually cool. By which I mean, beyond the fact that she's likeable seeming and beautiful, that she is aware of current pop culture in a way that few other authors seem to be. She likes hip-hop and Game of Thrones; she references Friends and The Wire (in NW) in a been-there sort of a way. She's aware of the need to be pop-culturally sensitive, rather than literarily exclusive (I know this isn't a very fair binary, but, whatever). She says of Game of Thrones: 'Literary novelists would do well to learn to plot from these people.’ And she's totally right. If only more writers could plot. (Although, also, Game of Thrones, and George R.R. Martin in particular, could learn a lot from literary novelists, especially with regards to economy and actually finishing stories rather than rambling aimlessly for thousands of pages in a constant peripatetic digression that will only end with the death of the author and the disappointment of the fans. But this is a rant for another article.) Even more astute than this awareness is her awareness that she is, in fact, a little bit out of touch. That she is one generation behind of today's young people stuff. She writes 'Meanwhile, back in the rank and file, you still hear the old cry go up: Hip-hop is dead! Which really means that our version of it (the one we knew in our youth) has passed. But nothing could be duller than a ’90s hip-hop bore.' I think that middle sentence, that parenthesis, contains so much wisdom.

How Game of Thrones became zeitgeisty, I will never know.
Just to be clear, Joffrey is my favourite character. (from

4) Zadie Smith writes about women. As I was reading NW, my mum remarked to me 'I'm surprised you're reading that Zadie Smith.' 'Why?' I asked. 'Isn't she one of those women's writers?' In a way (not the one my mum intended), she was right. Smith does write about women, far better than most people I have read. But she isn't a 'women's writer' in the way my mum used the phrase, a soppy Mills & Boonish romance-spewer. Nor is she a women's writer in that her novelistic purpose seems to be exclusively to rectify patriarchal literature's lack of women, lack of address of women's issues, and mannish dominance. She's just a novelist who writes about women as part of what she writes about, because, obviously, women form a large and fascinating part of the social world about which people write. As soon as you start thinking about it, it's remarkable how many otherwise great authors fail at this simple hurdle.

Here's a picture of Zadie Smith I found on someone's Flickr (from:

5) Zadie Smith is a post-David Foster Wallace author without all that Harold-Bloomian anxiety-of-influence bullshit. By which I mean that she has read DFW and liked it and internalised it (all my editions of DFW have a great quote from her on the front: 'A visionary, a craftsman, a comedian...He's so modern he's in a different time-space continuum from the rest of us. Goddamn him.') but isn't in his thrall. To again compare her favourably to Jonathan Franzen (poor guy), she manages not to crib a bunch of Wallace's preferred poetics (especially medical, psychological, pharmaceutical jargon) or regurgitate his subjects. It's clear that she has other masters (most obviously E.M. Forster). She also seems, interestingly, to have avoided Wallace's PR problems. Indeed, this whole piece is essentially about how, in stark contrast to DFW, she seems really likeable and comfortably part of the world, rather than existing best as a series of spectacular verbal constructions. (Here are a bunch of videos featuring Smith and Wallace [and Franzen!] speaking together at some event. I like the one where Wallace talks about watching the 2006 World Cup.) Which I guess is sort of why she's sort of compelling to me.

Wallace, Franzen, Smith, others hanging out in Italy. (from