Best of 2012: My These Little Words Guest Post

Copious notes

These Little Words has posted my selection of a few of my favourite books of 2012. I’ve enjoyed an awful lot of books this year, so this list is by no means exhaustive.

And Other Stories Short Story Competition

Publisher And Other Stories (Reviews: Swimming Home, Lightning Rods) ran a 500-word short story competition with the theme of ‘walking’ last month inspired by their release Zbinden’s Progress. I’m lucky to have been selected as one of two runners-up. The winner was Rishi Dastidar and my fellow runner-up was Nikesh Shukla. And Other Stories will post all three stories on their blog this week. I’m looking forward to reading the others. My story was the first thing I’ve written in a long time that wasn’t either philosophy or a review of some sort. I’m rather pleased.

‘Speaking as a businessman’ Lightning Rods – Helen DeWitt

‘It’s not for me to make moral judgements. I’m a businessman. I deal with people as they are, not as they ought to be.’

When I explained the plot of Lightning Rods to my wife she was horrified. That was my aim and my dear wife’s mortification amply demonstrates how remarkable it is that Helen DeWitt has managed to write such a stunning satirical novel about one man’s fantasy-derived solution to the sexual harassment problems of big business in America. With the relentless warped logic of the failed vacuum-cleaner salesman Joe manages to place lightning rod ‘facilities’ for the release of tension. They amount to an anonymous naked woman (the lighting rod) poking her rear-end through a hole in the wall of the disabled toilet in order for the results-orientated male to release (earth) their tension and get back to generating business for the company. DeWitt captures perfectly the tone and logic of sales and the boardroom; a tone Joe has mastered.

 “Speaking as a businessman,” he went on, “I know that it is often the most valuable individuals in a company who present the greatest vulnerability to sexual harassment related issues. We know that a high level of testosterone is inseparable from the drive that produces results. Speaking of people as they are rather than as they should be I know that a high-testosterone-level individual has a high likelihood of being sexually aggressive; if the individual is working twenty-hour days as a drive results-orientated individual often does, that sexual aggression will find an outlet in the office.”

Anyone familiar with business-speak (or 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy) will recognise the tendency of businesspeople to evade the language of moral responsibility in favour of realpolitik goal-orientated nonsense which begins with an apparent truism, but ends who knows where.  Joe’s catchphrase – which soon catches on – is ‘At the end of the day, we got to be realistic. We’ve got to deal with people the way they are, not the way we might like them to be.’ Joe’s apparent realism contrasts nicely with the fantasy which underpins his invention.

Whilst remaining very funny indeed the novel demonstrates the extent to which those at a disadvantage will rationalise actions they would never normally consider to get through college, provide for a family, or just survive, and the way people can approach almost anything if it will allow them to get ahead in an unsympathetic corporate landscape. Lucille and Renée, who are as driven as any of the men they cater to, take on their role and make it work for them. The easy desire to reproach that point of view is undermined by the success lightning rods go on to achieve.

‘Besides, the thing to remember is there are two ways of looking at things you don’t like that life throws at you. One way is to emphasize the negative and just fall apart because every little thing isn’t exactly the way you like it. The other way is to look at it as an opportunity to practice dealing with things you don’t like. It’s a chance to practice not letting things get to you.’

However, as David Flusfeer points out in his introduction, Lightning Rods is far more than a satire on commercial institutions and sexual mores. DeWitt’s language is irrepressible, full of energy and control, as she takes Joe’s idea and pushes it forward on his terms, and with his faults, through one challenge after another. Flusfeder writes that ‘despite its ostensible subject matter it is set in a world utterly without sin. Everything originates from Joe’s world view, with its vocabulary and metaphors derived from self-help manuals and management guidebooks, its salesman tone of convivial yearning, where people are always on first name terms, even when they’re talking to themselves…’

This prelapsarian tone is undermined by Dewitt’s use of it and allows her to present office developments resulting from facility-use as near exotic: ‘Something that had looked completely uncomplicated, a purely physical convenience, turned out to have far-reaching psycho-social repercussions.’ Joe’s grasp of psychology extends as far as his fantasies take him, which is why he must reconcile each development with his own libido, but that does not hold him back. Especially once the more enterprising lightning rods start to take advantage of him, selling their expertise dear and improving their experience with constant suggestions. It is an odd sort of empowerment, but it is empowerment nonetheless.

Be in no doubt that this is a very strange novel indeed. It’s also brilliant. Subscription publisher And Other Stories is having a very good year indeed, what with Swimming Home shortlisted for the Booker Prize and novels of the quality of Lightning Rods on their list. There has already been talk of Lightning Rods featuring somewhere in next year’s Booker Prize. It might be a bit early for such things, but I would not be at all surprised. DeWitt’s writing never falters in its tightly controlled exploration of one man’s idea to make the world a better place. All that and a dig at the FBI as well.

 Lightning Rods is published today (1st October 2012) by And Other Stories.

My thanks to And Other Stories for this review copy.

Man Booker Longlist: Swimming Home – Deborah Levy

Part of the Man Booker Prize 2012 Longlist Series.

On the surface the Booker longlisted Swimming Home is another study of middle-class woes set in a really rather nice Provencal villa in the hills above Nice in 1994. Two couples, African ‘emporium’ owners Laura and Mitchell – awkwardly tall and overweight, respectively – and the famous poet Joe Jacobs and his war correspondent wife Isabel with their daughter, Nina, lounge around the swimming pool.  Their thinly veiled dislike for one another is destabilised by the arrival of the young self-proclaimed botanist Kitty Finch, first glimpsed beneath the pool’s surface, her body warped by the water, naked and painfully thin. All this is observed from a neighbouring balcony by Dr Madeleine Sheridan who knows rather more about the history of Kitty’s mental health than is immediately apparent.

Standing next to Kitty Finch was like being near a cork that had just popped out of a bottle. The first pop when gases seem to escape and everything is sprinkled for one second with something intoxicating.

She is allowed to stay in the spare room by Isabel for reasons that are not at all clear. Like so much else, we cannot be sure if Isabel’s motivation is as opaque to her as it is the reader. As the book progresses it become clear that Levy is doing something far more interesting than the normal literary investigation of summer implosion in a pretty setting. Small misunderstandings paralyse because they momentarily undermine convention and thus disorientate. Yet Kitty’s frequent nakedness is so gross a breach that it goes almost unmentioned. Kitty strips people both literally and figuratively and thus precipitates a crisis. The couples’ unconscious and intuitive dissembling is derailed by a character ill enough to be both open to everything and willing to highlight anything. There is, however, some connection, some deep understanding, between Kitty and Joe, rooted in his writing, with which she is so obsessed, and a shared mental anguish, bound up with the poet’s confused Mittel-European heritage.

How could she tell her that she and Joe were transmitting messages to each other when she didn’t understand it herself?

Levy has cited John Cheever’s story The Swimmer as a strong influence on Swimming Home, and the correspondences abound once one is aware of the relationship. Cheever’s muscular prose is echoed in Levy’s lean translucent sentences which are anything but lucid. In her lambent style Levy alludes to so much, but renders so much mysterious. She emphasises the manner in which the desire for simplicity is its own negation, because that desire leads to repression, to communication without any substance but misunderstanding and anger and pain. Mitchell and Laura  are far less carefree than they seem, Joe and Isabel so detached from one another, each, in their own way, slipping into depression. Perhaps the most interesting relationship is between Joe and Nina, who becomes central as the novel progresses.

They never talked about his own childhood or his girlfriends. This was not so much an unspoken secret pact between them, more like having a tiny splinter of glass in the sole of her foot, always there, slightly painful, but she could live with it.

This needling discomfort is mirrored in the reader. Throughout the book flashes of sincerity melt in the heat of the Summer and in the sheer danger of expression. Levy doesn’t allow a smooth transition between the internal and external for either her characters or the reader. This is part of what makes Swimming Home so unsettling. As with Neddy in The Swimmer, whose initial choice to swim the county seems to lack any clear rationale, so Levy clouds motivations and relationships as the theoretically transparent pool water becomes cloudy through mismanagement and inattention. With a Cubist fondness for allusion, her faceted prose creates a fluid space of shifting desires and dreams. That uncertainty is constantly brought to a head by Kitty, whose unpredictability disorientates everyone.

 No one felt able to intervene because they did not fully know what it was they were seeing. It reminded Nina of the day she watched an eclipse through a hole in coloured paper, careful not to be blinded by the sun.

The violence lying behind, the seething plasma of desire, tamed by repression and the everyday: that is Levy’s concern; and behind that, death. Tom McCarthy flings Freudian terms about with abandon in the introduction, and he is right to highlight the shadow of death and neurosis beneath Levy’s writing. That darkness runs through Swimming Home, but it does not suffocate, even if it unnerves.  It is the sheer lack of control that strikes one so forcefully. This can be seen in Levy’s physical concerns. Our bodies outrun us in both youth and old age. As Nina becomes increasingly aware of her body and its effect on others, so Madeleine becomes aware of her aches and pains and her increasing invisibility. The romantic intentions of the local café waiter Claude, so enamoured of Nina, stand in stark opposition to the disinterest of the waiters in Nice to Madeleine’s desperate and over-primped entreaties.

Madeleine’s determination to strip away the layers of others’ deceit is as destructive and ill-willed as her aging. There are no simple answers to the problems in Swimming Home. Psychoanalysis hovers in the background, but does little good. So often to analyse is to obfuscate and destroy. That probably goes for reviews as well. And in that spirit I have to admit to certain, very limited, reservations about the ending or epilogue, where the surrealist family dreams of the epigraph return. It feels tacked on, as is the risk with epilogues, and lacks the weight of the rest of the book. Had the book ended in 1994 there would have been a symmetry to what is an intensely graceful work. But this is a small reservation.

Swimming Home deserves its place on the Man Booker longlist. It provides few answers, but does so with such economical prose and circling, gestured characterisation, falling towards a deep sadness. As only the third novel released by the small subscription-based publisher And Other Stories it is a real triumph (and beautifully produced). Definitely recommended.