The Fishermen – Chigozie Obioma

the fishermenWe were fishermen:

My brothers and I became fishermen in January of 1996 after our father moved out of Akure, a town in the west of Nigeria, where we had lived together all our lives.

A complex interplay of dream, myth, language, and family delivered in a lyrical voice of great assurance, full of significations which sweep back and forth though the novel: this marks Chigozie Obioma’s powerful debut The Fishermen as a tragedy in a classical yet distinctively Nigerian mould. Left with their mother when their father moves across Nigeria for work, four brothers—Ikenna, Boja, Obembe, and Ben—find something to occupy themselves in the absence of paternal discipline. They discover the forbidden pleasure of fishing in Akure’s polluted and forsaken river: “a source of dark rumours” once revered as a god, but seen after the colonial advent of Christianity as “an evil place. A cradle besmeared.”

After one such trip to the river, the madman Abulu prophesies the death of Ikenna. “He said, Ikenna, you shall die by the hands of a fisherman.” Who are the fishermen but his brothers? “He saw a vision that one of you will kill me,” Ikenna says. Ikenna’s ensuing paranoia and decline signal the breakdown of the fraternal relationship. One aspect of tragedy is the question of whether the protagonist’s attempts to elude their fate ultimately guarantee it. Narrated many years after the events it depicts, Ben’s story of his brothers has about it the inevitability of prophecy fulfilled, the symmetry of a moral tale, and the depth of myth.

“You compare everything to animals, Ben,” Ikenna said, shaking his head as if the comparison had annoyed him. “He is not like anything, you hear? He is just a madman—a madman.”

Ikenna was a python:

A wild snake that became a monstrous serpent living on trees, on plains above other snakes.

Obioma’s imagery is rooted in the animism which has been largely—but not entirely—supplanted by Christianity in the south and Islam in the north of Nigeria. Thus “Father was an eagle: The mighty bird that planted his nest high above the rest of his peers, hovering and watching over his young eagles, the way a king guards his throne.” Locusts are forerunners of nourishing yet catastrophic rains. “Spiders were beasts of grief.” And, in a manner which recalls Bede’s bird momentarily safe from winter storms, “Ikenna was a sparrow: A thing with wings, able to fly out of sight in the blink of an eye”. This serves to connect the trajectory of each character to a rich symbolic framework and the metamorphoses of myth. It also connects the world of the 90s—of coups, riots, elections, and the Olympics—with Nigeria’s powerful pre-Christian spiritual residue. In this way Obioma’s writing serves as an intermediary between the two worlds in a way which mirrors Abulu the madman’s visions and songs.

Mother was a falconer:

The one who stood on the hills and watched, trying to stave off whatever ill she perceived was coming to her. She owned copies of our minds in the pockets of her own mind and so could easily sniff troubles early in their forming, the same way sailors discern the forming foetus of a coming storm.

Early allusions to and later appearances of Things Fall Apart should come as no surprise in The Fishermen, a novel the central characters of which are Igbo and who share the “great man” syndrome of Nigeria’s post-colonial history. The story of a family as a microcosm of the nation is nothing new, but Obioma’s study of disunity, paranoia, and violence emerges from and reflects the violence and instability of recent Nigerian history effectively, whilst refusing the fatalism that an otherwise tragic story might inspire. Despite everything, Ben’s tale is elegiac and full of love.

“Yes, Daddy,” I replied, clearing my throat, and began praying in English, the only language in which I knew how to pray.

Language is vital in The Fishermen. Nigeria’s wealth of languages and polyglot population mean that the contours of thought, speech, and society can be mapped by the linguistic choices of each individual. Accordingly, Ben is scrupulous in recording the language in which the central exchanges of the novel are conducted. Parents speak in Igbo—the language of the family’s ethnic group—the children in the local language of Akure, Yoruba. English is reserved for moments of crisis and religion. Thus the different capacities and mental propensities of each language—its rhythms and emphases—change the dynamic of each exchange and signal its nature and emotional tenor, serving to enrich and empower the meaning behind the utterance.

English, although the official language of Nigeria, was a formal language with which strangers and non-relatives addressed you. It had the potency of digging craters between you and your friends or relatives if one of you switched to using it. So, our parents hardly spoke English, except in moments likes this, when the words were intended to pull the ground from beneath our feet.

Consequently, Obioma pays a great deal of attention to the way characters speak: to sound as well as meaning. In his anger at their fishing, the boys’ father shouts “Fish-a-men!” Differences and difficulties in pronunciation mark the boundaries between Yoruba and Igbo, serving to highlight the family’s distinctiveness even as their unity dissolves. Having established the significance of language, Obioma is able to use it to demonstrate the power of grief and depression. The significance of silence in so capacious a linguistic community is profound. As is the power of such a rich language to overwhelm.

Mother’s space in the room of existence gradually shrank as days passed. She became encircled by ordinary words, common tropes, familiar songs, all of which transformed into fiends whose sole purpose was the obliteration of her being.

Indeed, it is the power of Abulu’s utterance—something which stands between the family’s Christianity and the native religions of Nigeria—which powers the ramifying imperatives of the central tragedy and its consequences. The tangled lines of the fishermen bind the brothers together as their fate impends. Obioma’s careful voice delivers powerful lyric moments, probing violence and grief and sadness. The Fishermen is an impressive debut novel which balances great immediacy with myth and tragedy. In its assurance and care it delivers a rich and compelling tale.

I used to wish that I was a fish, and that all my brothers were fish too. And that all we did, all day, every day, was swim forever and ever and ever.

The Fishermen is published by the One imprint of Pushkin Press.

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The Last Pilot – Benjamin Johncock

Last Pilot

The blanched beans steamed thin trails that coiled up from a pan in the sink. She watched them twist slowly, the desert flat and wild and wide out from the window behind. For a moment, the steam seemed to rise up from the sagebrush itself; a column of smoke. She looked down at the floor, and gripped the edge of the sink.

Shit, she said. Shit shit shit.

The romance of an endeavour tends to belie its bite. The attrition of test flight and the Red sky at night paranoia of the US space programme in the mid-Twentieth Century are often forgotten in the ecstatic vision of the hanging blue marble and Earthrise. More recently, Commander Chris Hadfield’s dispatches from the International Space Station, apps which alert users to upcoming ISS flyovers, comet landings, and the Pluto flyby have all had us looking up and out again.

Yet these forms of engagement are often aesthetic or, perhaps, sublime: beautiful images from impossible distances; shadowed craters and dunes we feel we should never have seen. Blueprints and technical details don’t make headlines, except in a haze of sublime complexity. And we don’t visit the moon any more.

This is not an airplane, Pancho said, least nothing a pudknocker like you’d understand one to be. It’s a goddamn rocket with a tail; an orange bullet with razor wings and a needle-nose. They call it the X-1. And it’s got one purpose: fly faster than sound.

Benjamin Johncock’s debut novel The Last Pilot begins in 1947; a time when we did not regularly break the sound barrier, when we didn’t know what would happen if we did. Would g-forces become infinite? There was only one way to find out. In the Mojave Desert men climbed into experimental machines and tried to find their limits. X-planes killed pilots, week after week. What kept men alive were skill, decisiveness, and locked down emotions. And luck.

There are no mistakes, Harrison said, just bad pilots.

Test pilot Jim Harrison lives in a hard world of small margins on the edge of a desert. Friends and colleagues regularly “auger in”—crash fatally—and his wife, Grace, needs two black dresses because she can’t get one cleaned before the next funeral. None of the wives know if their husband is next. (“Never know how many places to set for supper, she said.”) Life and talk becomes hard, concentrated. A couple of words here, a few there.

Jim always says there’s no point trying to punch out of a rocket plane; it’s like committing suicide to keep yourself from getting killed.

Johncock has the Carveresque ability to pack feeling into and between and beneath a few words of dialogue; and the Salterish knack of constructing the tightest of sentences: “The sun lulled brittlebrush to early flower, full corollas turning the desert floor yellow.” (This despite the fact that Johncock told a recent event I attended that he hasn’t read Carver or Richard Yates.) There are moments of desert heat which recall Cormac McCarthy; dust bowl fences and silence Steinbeck. (Although that might just be the appearance of alfalfa.)

How does one end up writing like Carver, Salter, and Yates without reading them? Johncock’s language reflects the precision, the machined desperation of the X programme and the Space Race. His sentences are taut, quivering units, vibrant under pressure like engine casing or the desert heat shimmer. This serves not only to express the necessarily locked down emotional life of Harrison and the other test pilots, but also the hard, functional delineation of a moment which expands to fill consciousness.

A real astronaut, my goodness!

As the Space Race heats up and the launch of Sputnik inspires American terror, talk turns to capturing “the high ground of space”. Is sitting on top of a rocket a job for pilots? The age of manned orbits dawns and new dangers appear. The Harrisons have the child they thought they couldn’t conceive. Family complicates Jim’s emotional life, his anxieties. Pilots are in control. Parents so often aren’t. Johncock writes family life very well; capturing the bantering exchanges between parent and toddler with painful precision: the repetition, the excitement, the little manipulations and suggestions involved in getting a child to do anything. (Or stop.) He also captures the pain.

She hated the world for what it had done. The earth, the soil under her feet, everything. It could all go to hell. She couldn’t escape it. It was everywhere. She was part of it. It was her.

By the Sixties Harrison is one of the “New Nine”, the second intake of astronauts, and his marriage is suffering. The timetable imposed by Kennedy’s ambition to reach the moon by the end of the decade has Jim and the other astronauts—Armstrong, Lovell, Shepherd—working ever harder, neglecting their wives ever more. Johncock’s seamless insertion of Harrison into this world is a feat in itself: I resisted finding out whether Harrison actually existed until after I had finished. I would have believed it. His membership of that elite group of pilots and astronauts is entirely compelling. So is his anxiety.

Harrison didn’t say anything. He began to feel not good. He’d stopped using stupid techniques a while ago. He’d realized that he was a test pilot and, if he treated every instance as a test pilot in a tight spot, he could easily maneuver out of trouble. He didn’t realize that this was simply another technique.

So locked down a person as Harrison struggles in the face of tragedy and breakdown. Johncock’s understanding of anxiety informs powerful passages of The Last Pilot. All the while his hard, functional writing exhibits the control established earlier: sentences lengthening and shortening as the mental state of the subject fluctuates; as thoughts pile in and deepen panic. “Don’t fuck up.” Pilots should be in control.

Despite this, there is a great sense of optimism, of determination, in The Last Pilot. It is a claustrophobic optimism, despite the space, the sense of expansion that hovers behind the prose. Progress comes at a cost. Pilots and astronauts accept that; their families have to, if they can. The great weight of detail and responsibility forms and invites a certain kind of person, beneath whose shell a well of feeling must reside in order for their work to continue. Johncock’s sentences evoke this feeling whilst containing it. The tumultuous history of the Space Race is quite a thing to marshal. Johncock’s novel of marriage and family and endeavour is a truly impressive achievement. Indeed, The Last Pilot is one of the best debuts I’ve read in a long time. Sentence by sentence, it’s one of my favourite books of the last few years.

The Last Pilot is out now from Myriad Editions.

My thanks to Myriad Editions for this review copy.

The Ecliptic – Benjamin Wood

The Ecliptic

I think a man spends his whole lifetime painting one picture or working on one piece of sculpture. The question of stopping is really a decision of moral considerations. To what extent are you intoxicated by the actual act, so that you are beguiled by it? To what extent are you charmed by its inner life? And to what extend do you then really approach the intention or desire that is really outside it? The decision is always made when the piece has something in it that you wanted.

–Barnett Newman

Benjamin Wood’s second novel The Ecliptic has at its heart three forms of instability: that of creation, that of criticism, and the artist subject to both. There is a fourth instability underlying these three: the novel itself, which creates a space of uncertainty and an analogue of creativity itself. The cipher for this instability is the ecliptic itself.

The ecliptic, put simply, is the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun. But since we all live here on earth, we observe the sun to be moving along this plane instead. Why? Because what would be the point of looking at things from the perspective of the sun? That’s no use to anyone.

This is the explanation given to the painter Elspeth Conroy, a rising star of the male-dominated artworld of 1960s London, who is thrown into creative disarray as she tries to understand how to represent the ecliptic in a mural commissioned for an observatory. “How could I represent things that were themselves just representations of other people’s representations?” The ecliptic does not exist: it is a useful falsehood, a way of seeing. Conroy’s search is for the right medium to represent the collective delusion of the ecliptic.

This useful, truthful falsehood touches on the nature of art itself. To paint the ecliptic is to wrestle with a challenge which drills down to the very core of picture-making: what is it to depict or represent? What is it to represent on the canvas something with so strange a nature as the illusive line of the sun’s orbit around the earth?

In portraiture this problem does not arise, nor in landscape, because there is a presumption of realism in the physicality of their subjects; and even if the subject is fictional, its representation can stand on its own two naturalistic feet. But the ecliptic is something else, apparent but insubstantial, unreal yet functional. How does Conroy place that on the canvas?

In this way Wood sets up a dialogue between realism and abstraction. The apparent duality of the ecliptic pulls Conroy toward both, but there is a suspicion of ‘abstraction for abstraction’s sake’ throughout the novel, representative as it is of a certain mid-twentieth century male machismo. You have to earn abstraction.

This problem and Conroy’s subsequent breakdown lead her to the hidden Turkish island retreat of Portmantle and her experiments with a unique pigment which might solve the challenge of representing the ecliptic.

It was not known how long Portmantle had existed, but we understood that many others had sought refuge there before we ever claimed it: to rescue the depleted minds of artists like us was the reason it was founded. In the seclusion of the grounds artists could work outside the straitjacket of the world and its pressures. We could tune out those voices that nagged and pecked, forget the doubts that stifled us, dispense with all the mundane tasks, distractions, and responsibilities, detach from the infernal noises of industry…

Overseen by the austere presence of the provost Portmantle provides an escape from reputation: everyone receives a new name from the provost, Conroy’s is “Knell”; an escape from clocks, time, and “the straitjacket of the world”. Knell and her friends, a famous novelist, a celebrated playwright, and a frustrated architect are “long-termers” at Portmantle when they are enlisted to aid the troubled teenager “Fullerton” in making the transition to life at the refuge. Fullerton’s origins lie at the heart of The Ecliptic. In many ways the opening section during which he arrives feels like an extended prologue, before the second section takes us back to Conroy’s early life and career and the circumstances in which Portmantle becomes a necessity.

The tension between art and life recurs throughout The Ecliptic. Removed from life whilst attempting question and represent it: That tension in the artist’s life is laid bare at Portmantle where the rules which ensure seclusion are meant to secure creative freedom. Yet, there’s no escaping the world: not in art, not in anything; and yet that is precisely what the space of creativity, what Portmantle seems to do. This tension underpins the novel, but it is a tension which reflects the tightness in the chest of creation. That anxious dialogue between art and life is one of the most successful elements of The Ecliptic.

“Once your best story’s told, it can’t be told again. It makes you, then it ruins you.”

Art and life. The dangers of intentional criticism—that is, looking to the intentions and, more broadly, the life of an artist in order to interpret their work—are well attested but seductive. A second novel which follows a much-lauded debut and which contains plenty of anxiety about the ability to produce new work, to repeat the trick, and how to handle success, rather invites an intentional angle.

I had become accustomed to this sort of discussion—the type in which I sat as an observer, hearing my own work being spoken about without being invited to contribute an opinion. I was passed around between people like the head on a coin, regarded only when questions needed a quick answer or small points required clarification.

The Ecliptic is in some ways inimical to criticism or review by virtue of the ironic slant it forces on the reviewer. As Julian Barnes puts it in Keeping an Eye Open, Georges Braque “thought the ideal state would be reached when we said nothing at all in front of a painting.” It is hard not to read something similar into the chasm between creation and reception in The Ecliptic. Time and again the experience of the artist in creating their work and their judgement of its value by critics, galleries, and buyers creates an instability in the idea of artistic value itself. It is as if the experience and language of the two groups are completely distinct. Only other artists recognise the works Conroy considers her best.

It is not straightforwardly that no standard for artistic judgement exists in the novel, but that the perspectives of the artist and the critic are so divorced as to bewilder Conroy when she hears her reviews.

Clearly, Muirhead had failed to notice the sheer apathy that underpinned the paintings, how poorly I had gone about the task of executing them, how knowingly I had let them be carried from my studio, one after the next, like meat leaving an abattoir.

Nor is this a kind of critical relativism: there is a difference between not knowing the value of a work—perhaps our being in no position to know—and its value being relative. Wood’s version of this recalls and reverses the chasm in perspective between the artist Frenhofer, on the one hand, and Porbus and Poussin, on the other, in Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece.

The third instability I mentioned at the beginning of this review was that of the artist. It is not uncommon to pathologise the anxieties of the creative process. Indeed, it is something of a psychological industry, exemplified by the work of Kay Redfield Jamison. To link creativity and mental illness is seductive for some because it is one way of making sense of a mysterious process so often inimical to the mental health of the artist. Obsession can be pathologised, frenzied creation can be pathologised, barren periods become depression. It is, in general, unhelpful. Creativity requires a kind of instability, but it need not be mental. That this kind of instability plays a role in The Ecliptic has left me ambivalent. It will be up to each reader to decide whether it is convincing.

It is a painter’s job to give shape to things unseeable, to convey emotion in the accumulation of gestures, the instinctive, the considered, the unplanned. There is both randomness and predestination to the act of painting, a measurement and a chaos…

In novels about art it is often the art which is missing. That is not the case here. The description of detail and aesthetic effect—the language of gesture, composition, and perception—is a challenge Wood overcomes. Likewise, Wood’s phrasing and, yes, painterly description of Conroy’s environment. The “steel-blue water roiled quietly and a clutch of white sloops lilted on their moorings”; “Dust clotted the daylight. Fingerprints deadened the balustrade”; Handwriting in “an upright style that never broke the borders of the rulings, whose letters crouched like tall birds herded into crates.”

The end of The Ecliptic will undoubtedly bother some. Any given reader will have to decide whether the questions Wood raises about realism and representation are best served by the ending he chooses. I think he strikes an uneasy balance between the novel’s concerns with instability and the mysterious space of creativity; but my concerns about the pathologisation of the artist remain; and, whilst the structure of the novel serves Wood’s aims, it may sag a little in the central sections. There are passages where Wood is perhaps too careful, opting for careful enumeration over the telling detail.

Nonetheless, The Ecliptic is an intricate, ambitious, and compelling novel of creativity, ambiguity, instability, and the nature of representation. The fictional truth of the ecliptic and Wood’s handling of the dialogue between art, life, and the artworld is superbly realised, with resonances building throughout the novel. Moreover, the characterisation of Elspeth Conroy is, for the most part, spot-on: her anxieties, false-starts, resistance to the commercial, her youthfulness, and response to success all ring true and underpin the abstract concerns of the novel. All in all, The Ecliptic is a very good novel and comes highly recommended.

The thrill of painting turns so quickly to bewilderment if you let it, and nobody can help you to regain your bearings afterwards. Talent sinks into the lightless depths like so much rope unless you keep firm hold on it, but squeeze too tight and it will just as surely drag you under.

The Ecliptic is published by Scribner and is out now.

My thanks to Scribner for this review copy.