‘manipulate the pieces’ The Machine – James Smythe

the machinepic

‘They said, We can take a person and make them whole again.’

Perhaps the hardest idea to accept is that love can betray itself by its own depth of feeling. If love is given the means to try to recapture what it has lost it will most likely take the opportunity. After all, ‘Nobody dreams of a vacant shell for a husband.’ Therein lies the heart of The Machine. There are memories we don’t want anymore, memories we never wanted, memories which have changed us and not for the better. In a flat in an estate on the Isle of White in a warmed and partially flooded Britain Beth takes delivery of ‘the Machine’ and plans to reclaim the husband she lost, first to post-traumatic stress disorder, and then to the Machine itself which was supposed to bring him back by deleting the memories which had so changed him. Vic is not just comatose or suffering from dementia. He is gone. Only a body remains. In a grotesque inversion of therapy Vic spoke his life into the Machine and it removed every memory that might connect to his time as a soldier, from childhood to injury in Iran to mood swings and violence. Only this talking cure doesn’t resolve it purges. Beth’s great hope is that it can also ‘REPLENISH’, that it can put back what it took out.

Nobody knows why the brain doesn’t work like it should after the Machine’s had its way with it. This would be much easier for all involved if it was just a wipe. One doctor who worked on the project wondered if the brain hadn’t had its ability to record memories wiped. As in, it had forgotten how to remember.

From the moment the Machine’s ‘pitch-black casing’ enters Beth’s spare bedroom its power deforms its surroundings: ‘the room is suddenly darker,’ and once assembled ‘it’s like a solid lump of black metal from the front, no seams, like something carved from the world itself. It looks, she thinks, almost natural. Like rock.’ Fans whirr, vibrations fill the flat and enter Beth’s dreams along with the headaches that start soon after the Machine is delivered. The extent to which this Machine can be trusted to return Vic to Beth is a key question. Its double-nature threats Beth’s atonement. ‘She thinks about it in her flat, like some growth. Mould. Cancer. Waiting in the room, and somehow alluring, persuasive, even.’ The only certainties are the seemingly scorched and permanent bruises the ‘Crown’, a headpiece, makes on the head of its subjects. There is violence in the very process.

The Machine is occupied by three key themes: the promise, the treachery, and the inescapability of memory. Memory promises to tell us who we are, who we care about, where we have come from; and yet memories can be false, fleeting, reconstructed in hindsight, painful, and destructive; whilst, of course, being inescapable. The Machine promises and threatens: it promises to remove that memory which causes so much pain, to return you to yourself; and yet that memory is who you are, and so to remove it and the structures of which it is part is to undermine the self one sets out to save. Underlying all of this is the inescapability of memory. All experience relies on memory, be it short-term working memory – why did I come in here? What information am I manipulating in this particular task?  – or longer term encoding: speech, movement, life events, those we love. Hence Ulysses’ strange formulation ‘I am a part of all that I have met’. This line is testament not only to Ulysses’ effect on the places and people he has met, but, crucially, also to the fact that his memories, his experiences of those places are themselves filtered. Self and memory are indistinguishable. At one point Smythe quotes Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude ‘Memory is the space in which a thing happens for the second time.’ Elsewhere in the same work Auster echoes Tennyson’s thought, ‘Memory as a room, as a body, as a skull, as a skull that encloses the room in which a body sits.’

Thus the lack of speech marks in The Machine – noted by some on Twitter with immediate if transitory alarm – makes perfect sense in the context of a novel about the loss of memory. Memory differentiates one moment from the next and allows us to create and recreate our personal narratives. The lack of formal differentiation between voices is one aspect of the loss of the structure that memory provides. Furthermore, whilst being careful not to say too much, this lack of formal differentiation between each voice is thrown into sharp relief by The Machine’s ending.  Auster again, ‘It is also true that memory sometimes comes to him as a voice that speaks inside him, and it is not necessarily his own.’

Beneath its concern with memory The Machine is fundamentally a novel about trust: trust in one’s own intentions, in one’s memories, in one’s present experience, in those around us, in technology, in society, in the climate itself. Erosion both geological and psychological looms large. Smythe’s Britain is a fearful one. The population cannot trust the sea not to rise up and sweep them all away as it has in the novel’s recent past. Beth is afraid of those on her estate, especially the groups of youths – and one boy in particular – who shout and scream abuse on the streets and beaches of the island. The potential for tragedy is clear. It’s grim, violent, and full of tension. A world in which the government felt the need to make diazepam (Valium) available over the counter.

There’s something wrong with me, to have done what I have done.

In style The Machine is much closer to Smythe’s most recent novel The Explorer than to his second, The Testimony. There are noticeable continuities of theme and phrasing. He certainly isn’t becoming any more cheerful. The prose is direct and unadorned, relentless and personal, especially in the passages where Beth has to take care of Vic’s soiled and uncooperative body or where abuse and intimidation surround her. In my review of The Explorer I wrote that

what I like most about Smythe’s writing is its intimacy and deceptive ease. Complex narrative and emotional ideas are conveyed in a manner apparently free of all artifice as layers of repression are peeled back. This is harder than it looks. Smythe achieves a seemingly unmediated flow of thought and sensation as tender and raw as anything I have read this year. Neither diffident nor ostentatious, the writing is controlled to within an inch of its life…

This is all still the case, but I think that Smythe’s writing in The Machine is more controlled, refusing to rush through the heat, the pain of Vic’s treatments, Beth’s gradually dissolving life, the violence, fear, and the seemingly inevitable and very moving conclusion. This world is in many ways more plausible than the ship-bound space of The Explorer and yet the island setting restricts the characters and the reader in a recognisable way. (See Christopher Priest’s recent review for some thoughts about plausibility in The Explorer). Beth’s trips to London feel similar to Cormac’s space walks: an escape into vastness from which she has to return. If The Testimony explored human responses and interactions by placing a large number of characters in a disorientating and uncanny situation, Smythe’s later novels explore the human in a more concentrated way by restricting their characters either physically (in a spaceship) or psychologically: Beth’s love for her husband, her desperation for him to return, and her belief that this is possible.

The oppressive tropical heat creates a pressure-cooker atmosphere which immediately evokes the kind of sweaty tension of David Vann, Graham Greene, and Cormac McCarthy; not to mention the coldly uncomfortable writing of the young Ian McEwan, with a nod toward Ballard’s The Drowned World in both subject matter and psychology. Smythe has not reached those heights yet, but that is the direction in which his voice is heading. The heat also has the effect of simultaneously evoking both a hazy past and a threatened future, hot oppressive summers and a warmed dystopia. The collapse of that simple timeline parallels and intensifies the collapse of identity that the Machine’s manipulations can cause. As the fans whirr in the background, this heat also suggests an overclocked world, a world which has been made to do and be too much. A world in which coldness means death.

That’s what happens. That flash-rush of coldness envelops.

Smythe is improving with each book he writes, the voice becoming simultaneously more distilled and yet more complex. His preoccupation with time and memory and the interest in relationships that continue after loss continues. The weight of his prose is increasing. I felt The Machine had depths that were missing from The Explorer, more psychological plausibility throughout; because the subject of this novel is not the Machine. It is Beth and the way in which her love for her husband betrays them both, but not irredeemably. Not quite.

I love you, she hears him say, but then it’s gone, swallowed by the noise of the Machine and the noise of his thrashing as a new session is firmly underway, and she doesn’t know if that was the voice of him now, or from the recordings made long ago when she destroyed him.

The Machine is published today (11th April 2013) by Blue Door.

My thanks to Blue Door for this review copy.



The Crane Wife – Patrick Ness

crane wife

What actually woke him was the unearthly sound itself – a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to earth to pierce his heart and lodge there forever, never to move, never to melt – but he, being who he was, assumed it was his bladder.

This is an opening sentence of which I am most fond. It moves from a shifting poetic register that invokes the infinite to the comic, bodily, and human. If I were to produce a one sentence review of The Crane Wife then this would probably do the job. That I’m going to say a bit more means either that I am being rather self-indulgent or that one sentence rarely does justice to the shifting thing that is a novel. Possibly, a bit of both.

Lives are assemblages of crude elements which signify beyond their constituents; as are stories and just about anything else which matters. In Patrick Ness’ new novel the cripplingly kind George – the subject of the above quotation – rescues an injured crane in the dead cold of a winter night (after having answered the call of his bladder, of course). The next day he meets the mysterious and calming Kumiko when she enters his printing shop. Together they produce art that dazzles: George’s crude cutouts from second-hand books and Kumiko’s remarkable compositions of feathers. They shouldn’t work, but they do. You can probably see where this is heading. You are probably both right and wrong.

A misanthropic, misunderstood, miserable daughter with a Gallic ex-husband and a son she adores; her unpleasant friends, one of whom ends every sentence with that damned upward inflection I recognise from every second undergraduate I meet; and a supporting cast of George’s ex-wife, her new husband, a Turkish shop assistant, and several art dealers: all contrive to mix together anger and loneliness and a simultaneous love and despair for George’s kindness. Each is sketched convincingly – for the most part – without pretension or artifice. Ness has the knack of making one care about his characters by making them very recognisably human, each sharing a fault we suspect ourselves of possessing. (Except maybe the kindness – I really don’t think I’m guilty of that one).

 She is born a breath of cloud

The novel is interspersed with a legend Kumiko tells in 32 tiles of feather and paper. I really liked this legend, told in a more mythic register. A story of passion, destruction, hatred, love, forgiveness, the creation and destruction of the world. It invades dreams, it punctures the novel and resists reduction. Implicit in The Crane Wife is an insistence that differences are constructive and stories polysemous. Ness’ stories exist simultaneously vibrating slightly alongside one another, not jostling for position so much as offering as many meanings as one can handle, and steadfastly refusing to be reduced to any one narrative or signification. At each moment of life a different story might be the one we need, as long as the others are not rejected outright.

It is quite possible that the relentless good-heartedness of The Crane Wife might be wearing to some. When each character has their epiphany, they are really rather similar. Beneath it all they might actually be good people after all. The sentiment is hard to question, but I should have liked some more difference with which to construct my reading of the novel. Although there is a rather enjoyable Twitter joke at one point, so, much like last week’s Dr Who, I can’t complain too much.

Did it matter? George thought perhaps it did, and not in terms of finding the truth or of any hope of discovering what really happened at any given moment. There were as many truths – overlapping, stewed together – as there were tellers. The truth mattered less than the story’s life. A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew.

 The Crane Wife is published  on 4th April 2013 by Canongate.

My thanks to Canongate for this review copy.

Iain Banks & BanksRead


I am officially very poorly.

Following the very sad news of Iain’s cancer (you can read the full statement hereI thought it would be a nice idea to get together to read and discuss the many novels and stories he has produced. As it turns out Annabel Gaskell already had her own Banks Fest planned and so we decided to merge the two. Annabel plans to read, review, and discusswasp factory Iain’s mainstream work on her blog and I’m aiming to move between the both the more literary and science fiction streams: Iain and Iain. M. I’ll be starting with The Wasp Factory, Iain’s first novel and for many still his best.

I’ll set up a permanent page here and think Annabel will be doing the same, but we also have a BanksRead discussion forum where you can discuss any and all aspects of Iain Banks’ work, be it his influence on your reading and writing, your favourite novels, how the two streams of his work relate.

Please try and share the forum as widely as possible. The more people who get involved the better it will be.

BanksRead Discussion Forum

‘suspended dust’ Plainsong – Kent Haruf


Plainsong—the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian Church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air

Kent Haruf’s simple and unadorned epigraph announces the kind of book that one is about to read. Plainsong – vocal music that expresses and explores desolation, joy, creation, and death as a form of celebration, memorial, and call to prayer and contemplation. It is no accident this novel is a song that points to both the internal and the external, to the immediate and the transcendent, in the manner of the Colorado plains stretching into the distance.

Here was this man Tom Guthrie in Holt standing at the back window in the kitchen of his house smoking cigarettes and looking out over the back lot where the sun was coming up.

Haruf’s apparently simple set of interlocking stories of the residents of Holt, Colorado set up resonances and symmetries that manage to comprehend the whole of life. Harmonies creep in whilst Haruf maintains the same prose voice. Two young brothers, Ike and Bobby Guthrie, lose a mother to depression and marital breakdown; two old farmers Harold and Raymond McPheron gain a daughter of sorts; young and pregnant, Victoria Roubideaux loses a mother but gains something else. Birth and death – human and animal – echo another across the pages. Life continues. There are few fireworks. Haruf’s writing is so restrained and so precise in its characterisation of the town and the plains that they become luminous.

Outside the house the wind came up suddenly out of  the west and the tail vane turned with it and the blades of the windmill whir, then the wind died down and the blades slowed and stopped.

Haruf’s transparent prose manages to remain completely immediate. It approaches a kind of inverted sublime in the sense of space he achieves in so domestic a story. Haruf eschews commas and the decorative wherever possible. Nor are there any speech marks. The effect is to remove a filter of subjectivity, to reduce the mind-dependence of his narration to a minimum such that the characters, their thoughts, and environment provide the framework and substance of the novel. When the prose does become more exuberant that tone is an implicit or explicit aspect of the character’s experience rather than the narrator’s.

 They stood in the corral and looked past the cattle and examined the sky.

I reckon it’s decided to hold off, Raymond said. It don’t appear like it wants to snow anymore.

It’s too cold to snow, Harold said. To dry, too.

It might snow tonight, Raymond said. I’ve seen it happen.

It’s not going to snow, Harold said. Look at the sky over there.

That’s what I’m looking at, Raymond said.

The McPherons are a heart-warming creation: irascible, inseparable, isolated, and farm-hardened; yet honest, kind, and unsophisticated in their good intentions. Harold and Raymond are both roughly experienced and yet innocent. They require initiation into certain mysteries and ways of being even as old men. Likewise, Ike and Bobby Guthrie are thrown into the harshness and injustice of life as they encounter sex, death, and persecution between paper-rounds.

                 I guess he’s going to die, Bobby said.

Who is?

Your horse. I guess he’s going to die today.

No he isn’t. Eat your breakfast.

I already ate my breakfast.

Well eat some more.

As I read Plainsong I was occasionally reminded of the unflinching realism of Evan Connell’s Mrs Bridge which is in many ways a very different novel. However, whilst Connell’s writing is intentionally claustrophobic and anguished, Haruf’s realism is capacious, generous, and tender. It is hard not to be reminded of Hemingway, Steinbeck, and, more recently, Kitamura. However, like Connell, their compression is shot through with unease and sweat whereas Haruf’s speaks more to the sentiment expressed in Robert Walser’s A Little Ramble: ‘We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.’

Whilst never romantic, there are nonetheless times when the subject matter of Plainsong avoids the sentimental by a mere whisker, but it is the tone of the writing which consistently resists a lapse into the saccharine, and thus becomes all the more true for its simple and honest depiction. The effect is hypnotic and beautiful and deceptively simple: this is a carefully balanced and crystalline novel, its symmetries and spaces apparently effortless. Plainsong was followed by Eventide which follows the same characters. I will read that this week. Haruf’s latest novel Benediction returns to Holt and will be published in the UK by Picador on 11th April.

This ain’t going to be no goddamn Sunday school picnic.

No, it ain’t, Raymond said. But I don’t recall you ever attending Sunday school either.

My thanks to Picador for this review copy.

‘There is always a story’ The Book of My Lives­ – Aleksandar Hemon


The Book of My Lives­ – Aleksandar Hemon

Aleksandar Hemon in conversation with William Fiennes at the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts.

When Aleksandar Hemon took up an offer to spend a few months as a Writer-In-Residence at the United Nations Headquarters in New York it is unlikely that he expected one of his lasting memories would be the smallness of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s feet; and yet it is entirely characteristic of the man that he should take such a detail and spin it out into a reflection on the supremely important but infinitely frustrating search for a common language and framework for thinking about the world that goes on at the United Nations. It is one of those places where no matter how small each country gets its chance to speak about the world, even if some voices echo more than others.

It is fitting that Hemon should find his way to the UN. He grew up in Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia, now Bosnia-Herzegovina, drinking, smoking, writing, broadcasting on student radio, and, on one notable and vilified occasion, attending a Nazi-themed cocktail party. Hemon wrote and read, walking the streets and ‘Fancying myself a street-savvy columnist’. When war broke out in 1992 the 27-year old Hemon was visiting Chicago under the auspices of the American Cultural Institute. He sought asylum in the city and his family and dog escaped to Canada the following year. In the first piece of The Book of My Lives Hemon writes that ‘Immigration is an ontological crisis because you are forced to negotiate the conditions of your selfhood under perpetually changing existential circumstances.’ One of Hemon’s concerns both in print and in person is the essentially relational nature of identity and selfhood. At the heart of the NCLA discussion was Hemon’s developing awareness of the network of lives he had failed to fully appreciate in Sarajevo, but without which he felt completely adrift in Chicago. This is clear in the book: ‘In Sarajevo, you possessed a personal infrastructure: your kafana, your barber, your butcher,; the streets where people recognised you, the space that identified you; the landmarks of your life…’ Stripped of his kafana, one of the vital tasks of building a new life in the city was finding a network of lives and spaces in which to position himself: ‘I wanted from Chicago what I’d got from Sarajevo: a geography of the soul.’ Finding a group with which to play football became a key concern.

Often, when I got too excited and demanded, shall we say, that other players stay in their position and play for the team, someone would tell me, Relax, it’s just exercise…, whereupon I’d suggest that if they couldn’t play the way the game’s supposed to be played, they should fuck themselves and go and run on a fucking treadmill.

One of those Hemon plays with is Lido, a 75-year old Florentine art restorer who still believes himself to be in peak physical condition. ‘Even the slowest ball was capable of outrunning him, so when the teams were picked he was never counted as a player—we just tolerated his being on the pitch, safe in the assumption that he would have little impact.’ Lido tells a furious story of the failed restoration of the Sistine Chapel and the disastrous removal of its patina. ‘What they didn’t understand, Lido said, was that the patina is the essential part of the fresco, that the world the Almighty created on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was incomplete until the mortar fully absorbed the paint, until the inchoate universe turned a little darker. It wasn’t a sunny day when God created the world, Lido thundered; devoid of the patina it was all worth shit.’

Hemon has spoken of his dislike for the ‘memoir-craze’; of confession and atonement in the public gaze. Memoir, he argues, should be a matter of bearing witness to others: the ‘I’ should be a method of moving outward into the world and the lives of others. Writing occupies this strange position of reciprocity between the internal and external: ‘Writing was another way to organize my interiority so that I could retreat into it and populate it with words.’ Telling stories of oneself and of others and refusing to admit of any distinguishing principle beyond the place of one’s birth is one way of resisting the hateful and hate-filled ethnic cleansers of the former Yugoslavia. Hence the importance of the search for a common language at the UN, despite its crushing slowness; and hence the young Hemon’s reaction against the hermetic literature of Serbian nationalism. Hemon is quick to acknowledge that one can’t truly know another – any more, perhaps, than one can know oneself – but one can and should imaginatively occupy other people, because that is how, in fiction or otherwise, a common network is created.

Whoever created Lido ought to be satisfied: Lido was one of those rare humans who achieved completion. The rest of us had no choice but to roll in the dirt, get weather-beaten, and accumulate a patina, hoping to earn our right to simply, unconditionally be. And when I passed the ball to Lido that day—fully aware that it was going to be miskicked and wasted—I had the pleasant, tingling sensation of being connected with something bigger and better than me, a sensation wholly inaccessible to those who think soccer is about exercise and relaxation.

And like that Hemon grasps the fragments of a life, pulls them together, and, with a twist, makes a connection with a broader humanity. That he has done so in a language he didn’t really speak until he was 27 makes the achievement all the more remarkable and frequently elicits comparisons with Nabokov and Conrad. It is this ability to move toward an epiphanic moment, to observe and capture the stories of those he meets, grew up with, brought into the world, that marks Hemon out as truly remarkable. Lido died, Hemon told us at the NCLA, in Mexico in circumstances which have never quite been explained, after having followed his latest youthful bride to her small hometown. Hemon’s piece stands as a memorial to a remarkable man, capturing his essence in a few quick brushstrokes.

The Book of My Lives is a largely a collection of revised pieces published in The New Yorker, Granta, The Guardian, and Playboy amongst others. Its constitution from such pieces is wholly appropriate, for this collection of glimpses of and reflections on the meaning of family, emigration, integration, conflict, and the two cities he has called home, is the production of a man understanding people and places through the composition of each piece, through story. A straightforward narrative memoir would not do justice to the fragmented nest of lives Hemon has lived and been essentially connected to. Indeed, it probably wouldn’t do justice to any of us.

 On July 15, 2010, my wife, Teri, and I took our younger daughter, Isabel, for her regular medical checkup. She was nine months old and appeared to be in perfect health.

As William Fiennes pointed out in his discussion with Hemon, The Book of My Lives begins with the birth of a daughter and sister, and ends with the death of a daughter and sister. Of the devastating  final essay ‘The Aquarium’, first published in The New Yorker in 2011, little can be said but that, having read it before, I was dreading returning to it. The parents I know found it near impossible to read. Hemon’s honesty and power in expressing the worst nightmare of any parent is extraordinary both in itself and in the capacity he finds to transform this piece of writing into a reflection on his elder daughter Ella’s acquisition of language and the concomitant expansion of her narrative horizon. Ella uses language in order to understand, she uses characters to process emotions and ideas that demand expression. Hemon does the same – he’s just been at it longer. In doing so he is as insightful, lyrical, philosophical, funny, and angry as anyone I have read. The Book of My Lives is simply remarkable. You absolutely have to read it. In the meantime, I’ll make start on his fiction.

 …when asked “What are you?” I am often tempted to answer proudly: “I’m a writer.” Yet I seldom do, because it is not only pretentiously silly but also inaccurate—I feel I am a writer only at the time of writing. So I say I am complicated. I’d also like to add that I am nothing if not an entanglement of unanswerable questions, a cluster of others.

I’d like to say it might be too early to tell.

  The Book of My Lives is published by Picador on 14th March.

 My thanks to Picador for this review copy.

Something Like Happy – John Burnside

burnsideMy review of John Burnside’s second collection of short stories Something Like Happy
has been posted on Review 31. This was my first Burnside despite having meant to read both his fiction and poetry for ages. After reading this collection I really want to get hold of his novels and collections.

B.S. Johnson at 80


© The B. S. Johnson Society

This behaving as though an audience were watching has become a part of me, is my character, is me

(Albert Angelo)

It is perhaps fitting in some vague and nameless way that I should finally have read B.S. Johnson (1933-1973) in what would have been his 80th year.  Like so many authors Johnson has been hovering in the periphery of my awareness as ‘A Writer I Ought To Read’. Fortunately for me Picador have reissued four novels and a selection of Johnson’s prose and drama to mark the counterfactual octogenarian’s anniversary. It has been something of a revelation.

  • Albert Angelo (1964)
  • Trawl (1966)
  • House Mother Normal (1971)
  • Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973)
  • Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B.S. Johnson Edited by Jonathan Coe, Philip Tew, and Julia Jordan.


To which…I want to reply: There is no experiment without uncertainty. (Toby Litt, in his excellent Introduction to Albert Angelo)

In a world where aspiring writers are still warned against ‘author intrusion’ B.S. Johnson comes as something of a shock. I have read Albert Angelo and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry so far – the beginning and the end, if you will. (Although the former was preceded by one novel Travelling People suppressed by Johnson and the latter followed by the posthumous publication of See the Old Lady Decently). What follow are thus my early thoughts on each novel. Both involve Johnson’s voice in a striking way. The vaunted page 163 of Albert Angelo is remarkable if not entirely unexpected if one read Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry first as I did, and so has some idea of where Johnson was heading.

But I really discovered what I should be doing with Alberto Angelo (1964) where I broke through the English disease of the objective correlative to speak truth directly if solipsistically in the novel form, and hear my own small voice. (Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?)

Is Albert Angelo a supply-teacher or an architect? He struggles between the two, refusing to commit to teaching, trying to work on plans of buildings that will never be constructed. Throughout – well, nearly throughout – Johnson plays the architectural relationship between façade and fabric off that of appearance and character in those Albert meets: ‘There is an art which can tell something of the mind’s construction in the face.’ Albert wants to believe this, for ‘form should be honestly expressed’ he thinks during one of the passages where Johnson seeks to represent both the outward appearance of a lesson as well as the teacher’s mental state by having two columns running alongside one another on the page. Johnson uses several different typographical and formal devices to explore the representation of thought, conversation, and narrative – none of which are easy to reproduce here. At one point square holes are cut through the pages to bring a later event into an odd dialogue with the pages into which it intrudes.


Johnson’s passion and anger generates a restless, searching, comic, chaotic, and angry novel: Albert Angelo doesn’t know what it should be. That ‘should’ is a problem. Where does it come from, this ‘should’? A ‘should’ and its associated certainty require an ‘is’; but, Johnson insists, we do not even know what the novel is, what it is for, what it ought to do. The novel and fiction are different, he insists. Truth and honesty are aimed for, even if the novel cannot do them justice. Thus, for all its typographic, formal, and prose variety – or perhaps because of it – Albert Angelo feels like the ragged beginning of something; or perhaps the insistence that something else – the ante-Joycean novel – should have ended long before.

Life does not tell stories. Life is chaotic, fluid, random; it leaves myriads of ends untied, untidily. Writers extract a story from life only by strict, close selection, and this means falsification. Telling stories is really telling lines. (Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?)

(This reminds me of one of my favourite novels of last year: Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child, in which narrative and emotional resolution are fiercely resisted to great effect).

If Johnson began something with Alberto Angelo in 1964, then Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry was a major development. It is as passionate and tormented as ever, but Johnson had reached a level of control which makes for a novel whose discontinuous and challenging nature is somehow more cohesive. Christie Malry feels hard done by; he feels that his account with society, with Them is in Credit. He thus creates his own accounting system: Moral Double-Entry, wherein he seeks to balance perceived Aggravation with Recompense in several Reckonings which appear in the novel as tables. The increasing distance between Christie’s assessment of his aggravations and their recompense leads to an absurd escalation of his Debiting activity.

Headlam paused to provide a paragraph break for resting the reader’s eye in what might otherwise have been a daunting mass of type.

One of the striking elements of the novel is the careful way in which Johnson makes it clear how much greater is the knowledge of the author than his characters. This gentle destabilisation is at its clearest when a character uses a term so incongruous as to jolt the reader. In doing so, Johnson emphasises the artifice of the novel. Elsewhere his intervention is far more pronounced. For example, after Christie is stopped by a policeman with potentially awkward questions, Johnson remarks: ‘I am told one has to put incidents like that in; for the suspense, you know.’ His characters seem to know they are in a novel, his mother dying when she perceives her narrative function to be at an end, several others suggest their function is to provide some much-needed comic relief.

Aspects of both novels are undoubtedly somewhat dated, especially the social commentary; but that is often the case and is mitigated here by the urgency of the conscience behind it, as well as by the enduring concern for the relationship between authority and the individual. Both novels retain their urgency when the narrative conventions and concerns which Johnson so resisted are still widespread. One doesn’t have to agree with him to see the importance of his insistence of contingency and the tendency to disorder. Neither novel ends with anything like a traditional resolution; such an ending would have defeated Johnson’s aims.

‘In any case,’ he said, almost to himself, not looking at me, ‘you shouldn’t be bloody writing novels about it, you should be out there bloody doing something about it.’

So, I’ve seen where Johnson started and where he (almost) ended up. Now I need to see how he got from one to the other. I’m going to read Trawl and House Mother Normal whilst dipping in and out of the Selected Prose and Drama, before moving on to Jonathan Coe’s biography Like a Fiery Elephant, which has been strongly recommended to me by a few people. And speaking of recommendations, the novelist and critic Lee Rourke and Ian Curtin have both recommended that I follow Johnson with Anna Kavan and Ann Quin. Lee advised me to start with Berg by Quin and Ice or Mercury for Kavan. I’m looking forward to both.

My thanks to Picador for these review copies.

‘Take me north’ Orkney – Amy Sackville


 She was my most gifted student, and now she is my wife.

‘Take me north’, she says, to Orkney and the sea. The sixty-year old academic and his elfin twenty-something wife, the professor and his student, travelling to the hyperborean, timeless archipelago: ‘Where the waves rush in iron-grey and unforgiving, like the cavalry of old wars.’  Once on their island they occupy a cottage above the beach, from which she can emerge each day to contemplate the sea, before her dreams are filled with grasping waves and drowning. The Professor watches her from a window, framed against sea, beach, and sky:  ‘Just as she is – luminous, obscure. There she stands.’ He is writing ‘a book of enchantment’, of strange, terrible, otherworldly, doomed women; of myth and poetry, of dreaming and folk-tales; of Keats, Tennyson, and Coleridge, Lamia, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, The Lady of Shalott, Vivien, Melusine, Undine, and the folk of the ocean. Sackville has written her own rich and rhythmic book of enchantment, a book possessed and of possession, sharing themes with A.S. Byatt, although stylistically the novelists are worlds apart.

I met a lady in the meads,

Full beautiful—a faery’s child,

Her hair was long, her foot was light,

And her eyes were wild.

(La Belle Dame Sans Merci)

This silver-haired, wild-eyed girl is running from the ‘unhaunted place’ of her childhood to an island freighted with myth, to the island of her father, a mysterious presence throughout, about whom the Professor can learn little other than that he left when she was very young, claimed, perhaps by the sea. Throughout this sea is clasping, grasping, sucking, in her dreams and when she finally enters the water, having conquered her fear in a macabre fashion. Those poems of enchantment, disappearance, a prefigured and figurative death, threaten dissolution in the hungry sea. Permeating the consciousness of Sackville’s characters is the Nineteenth Century femme fatale inherited from the Greeks and transformed by the tales of Selkie and Finmen, emerging from the cold sea to seduce and to claim their children, webbed toes and all.

‘O did you never lie upon the shore,

And watch the curl’d white of the coming wave

Glass’d in the slippery sand before it breaks?’

(Merlin, ‘Vivien’, Idylls of the King)

Sackville’s writing approaches prose-poetry as her sentences flow on through semi-colons, commas, and dashes: receding and returning, becoming stormy, languid, open and claustrophobic as the mood shifts with the sea, with a young woman’s yearning, and her husband’s imagination, incomprehension, impatience, and jealousy.

And then all at once, a crack appeared in the cloud, a sun at one corner of it like a god’s eye, casting a piercing lancet against the sky; and then one after another, rods of silver broke through to announce his presence. Like some awful ruthless salvation, the sun burned the edge of the cloud-bank magnesium white, and shone brilliant on the still-tended, cleansed world; the rock pools transformed into blinding mirrors and the sea, so lately needled to fury, was lulled and banded with whispering silver as it approached the shore, and there was the terrible argent fire of the cloud’s lining after the storm; and ‘Let’s go out!’ she said. ‘In the sunshine…’ As if extinction had not threatened only an hour before.

The language is that of the Professor, immersed in poetry, in the near-heraldic and mythic tone of Keats, perhaps more Tennyson: the argent and the lancet. It is this immersion in poetry and stories which he fears drew his wife to him: ‘Would you love me at all if it weren’t for poetry, for stories? Do you take it so lightly to be my wife?’ he thinks. The suspension of time in those myths matches the hyperborean setting of their honeymoon. Their disparate ages mean their time together is intensified by its necessary brevity: a fact the Professor considers constantly, is threatened by. He becomes jealous of the years he will miss. Yet as the poetry is stripped away, the tone becomes harsher, laden with a less Arcadian fear.

Behind Orkney lies the luminous poetry of the Orcadian George Mackay Brown, whose retirement age love for the young Kenna Crawford presages the Professor’s.  One of Sackville’s two epigraphs is a passage from a poem for Kenna, ‘Gossip in Hamnavoe: About a Girl’,

‘O, she’ll be back. That dear one

Is gold of our corn,

She’s Orkney rain and spindrift…’

Apart from the clear allusion to the island father, perhaps Sackville is suggesting that the relationship she explores in Orkney should have remained like that of Brown and Crawford: close, deep, a meeting rather than the ‘marriage of minds’ upon which the Professor insists at every false paternal turn.

‘Now she has found a way

From Edinburgh, back to the hills and seas

Of her people, and discovered

Seals on the shore, waiting …’

                (Kenna’s Return to Orkney)

The culminating passage also features a passage of Brown writing about Crawford: they hover ghost-like behind Sackville’s writing, emerging every now and again, as the doomed lovers and otherworldly women of the Professor’s work intrude upon his thought and conversation with his wife. Brown’s love of Kenna generated poetry, the Professors immersion appropriates it. That contrast suggests the final sadness may be the departure of poetry after eleven days in Orkney.

Sackville’s other epigraph is a quotation from Hélène Cixous: ‘…the portrait of a story attacked from all sides, that attacks itself and in the end gets away.’ As the island is battered by storm Orkney is subjected to attacks from myth, dream, poetry, memory, and desire, and ultimately dissolves into the breaking wave of the Professor’s fears. The loss of a mediating language and the death of his ‘undergraduate ardor’ leave the Professor speechless and ‘palely loitering’.

We have been telling each other the tale of our great romance, as I suppose all newlyweds do; refining the details, spinning it out, combing and weaving the threads of it.

The novelist and psychologist Charles Fernyhough has written of the working out of joint memories in relationships; how we author a shared narrative, part of the foundation and fabric of a marriage; and one of the first things to unravel when a relationship begins to falter, to hit the rocks. Their stories do not knit, the Professor impatient with ‘her nonsense about not wearing purple’ and who really kissed who first. ‘Real are the dreams of Gods, and smoothly pass/Their pleasures in a long immortal dream.’ (Lamia) The Professor is no god. Perhaps, it was never real – his voice quavers, quivers through the pages.  A lowering threat hovers behind every word and every wave. Brown knew this. Our Professor knew, but hoped.

Amy Sackville has written a rich and remarkable book, whose language and structure mirror the minds and surroundings of her central characters. It is a book about the enchantment of romance, the rhythms of marriage, and the tissues of language behind which lies either the substance of a shared life, or an empty space failed by Romance.

To have carved on the days of our vanity

A sun

A ship

A star

A cornstalk

Also a few marks

From an ancient forgotten time

A child may read

That not far from the stone

A well

Might open for wayfarers

Here is a work for poets –

Carve the runes

Then be content with silence.

(A Work For Poets – George Mackay Brown)

Orkney is out today (7/2/13) from Granta.

My thanks to Granta for this review copy.

‘I miss so many people’ The Starboard Sea – Amber Dermont


You never sail with one wind. Always with three. The true, the created, and the apparent wind; the father, son, and Holy Ghost. The true wind is the one that can’t be trusted. The true wind comes in strong from one direction, but then the boat cuts through the air and creates her own headwind in turn. The apparent wind is the sum of these two forces. A combination of natural gusts and the forward movement of the boat. The sails create their own airflow, constantly forcing the skipper to reevaluate the angle of travel. Handling the apparent wind requires finesse.

There are novels one feels are resoundingly of this world and there are those which strike one as inhabiting some fallen Arcadia. I imagine it is that tone alongside its setting in a late 80’s New England populated by troubled young moneyed characters that causes The Starboard Sea to be compared to The Secret History. Whereas in Tartt’s novel one feels transported into the world of myth and the Greek language, in Dermont’s our induction is into the world and language of sailing: of knots, winds, rigs, skippers, and crew. Both novels also contain terrible acts, grief, private sadness.

Chester picked up two coiled ends of rope and practiced the bowline knot I’d shown him. He tightened the knot and placed his hand inside the small loop. ‘So binding something together doesn’t make it any stronger.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘Not in the long run.’

In the wake of the suicide of his best friend and crew mate Cal, Jason Prosper arrives at Bellingham Academy, a renowned school for the hopeless offspring of America’s rich. After a sailing accident he decides to abandon allegiances and aim for anonymity: ‘I was through playing.’ Throughout sailing and the sea are ciphers for intense encounters, great joy, and utter desolation. The hurricane at the centre of the novel symbolises those terrible forces and heralds a darker and fallen world in which those one thought friends can do terrible things. Emphasising the connection with the sea, Jason shares a name with the leader of the Argonauts. More significantly, Prosper is but a letter’s breadth from the ruler of a recalcitrant storm-ringed island. Likewise, Cal recalls Caliban: both creatures of the sea. Aidan, the girl Jason comes to love tells him her name means ‘fire’: an element. In The Tempest Ariel is an elemental commanded by Prospero, and Aidan is indeed otherworldly in many respects.

One should not, however, overplay any straightforward parallel between The Starboard Sea and The Tempest. Dermont’s novel amounts in some ways to an inversion rather than a retelling. Jason singularly fails to manipulate those around him and is in thrall to his guilt over Cal’s death, whose name proves to be bitterly ironic. It is Aidan who begins to free him from that guilt, rather than Prospero liberating Ariel. However, as The Tempest is in part a story of the abandonment of magic and the reconciliation of a divided nature, so The Starboard Sea traces Jason’s loss of innocence and the hesitant healing of his tripartite soul: Jason, Cal, Aidan.

What made me like her? Her pain. Her mystery. I was drawn to her because she reminded me of Cal. I was drawn to her because she reminded me of myself. I couldn’t tell you what she saw in me. She certainly didn’t expect that I would add to her hurt. She could not have known the harm I’d bring.

As she explores the tortured sexuality, secrecy, and competition of her teenage characters, Dermont’s prose is gentle, freshwater flowing into a saltwater ocean, navigating the sands, avoiding cliché and inadvisable extended metaphors. To overextend that image, The Starboard Sea is a saltwater estuary: a delicate, perfectly judged sense of detail and quiet humour mingles with a sharper, colder current into which it must ultimately dissolve. It’s beautifully written if not particularly innovative; its depiction of honesty, pain, and betrayal sufficient motivation for thinking The Starboard Sea emerges from the bubble of its privileged characters to say something significant about grief and the nature of responsibility.

The storm had warmed the Atlantic, agitating a bloom of plankton. The entire bay lit up with phosphorescence, the water glowing from within, a blazing grand ballroom. With every lapping wave the light pulsed turquoise, then emerald. I loved this trick. Wanted to swim in the phosphorescence, even though I knew this particular type of plankton was toxic. By day the shore would be covered in a poisonous red tide. For the moment, though, it was as if the ocean had swallowed a swarm of fireflies. I felt Aidan’s kiss on my mouth.

The Starboard Sea is out now from Corsair.

My thanks to Corsair for this review copy.

‘I am sitting, alone’ First Novel: A Mystery – Nicholas Royle

first novel

The person who denies himself and sacrifices himself for duty gives up the finite for the infinite; he is secure enough. The tragic hero gives up what is certain for what is still more certain, and the eye of the beholder rests confidently upon him.

                Søren Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling

Nicholas Royle’s First Novel somehow contrives to be a thriller, a tragedy, a study of voyeurism, writing, grief, the loss of agency and the question of suicide, all whilst being something we still tend to call ‘literary’. I imagine that many reviews have included something like the following irresistible point: this is manifestly not a first novel. The other term I can’t imagine having been neglected by the thoughtful reviewer is ‘meta’. I will say right away that I think this is a great, strange, sad, joy of a book. First Novel is indeed centrally concerned with the business of writing and its relation to life. One bleeds into the other and each diminishes for Royle’s protagonist. Paul Kinder is an author and creative writing tutor with a fetish for sex in cars beneath the flight paths of passenger jets. In car parks he tries to escape the existential enervation with which he is struck. The creative writing course is central to novel and the work of two of his students, Helen and Grace, makes its way into the novel.  Grace’s writing becomes increasingly significant as it develops, another voice with its own agenda communicated via her novel, almost pushing Paul’s voice to the side at times.

 ‘It’s no fun when you’re tossing and turning and a great big bloody jumbo jet goes over,’ she says, her hands planted assertively on her hips.

‘Well, I beg to differ,’ I say, just about able to remember Susan Ashton. Her Gold GTI. Hatton Cross Tube station car park.

Paul searches through The Guardian’s ‘Writers’ Rooms’ series for a glimpse of his novel, picking up along the way the accoutrements of a successful writer, or so he thinks. ‘The way things look is important’, he says. The deceptiveness of appearances is ultimately a key aspect of First Novel. ‘A Mystery’ runs the subtitle, and there are several running through the novel. Paul seems to wish to appear to be a writer as much, if not more so, as he wants to be one. Why is he so fascinated by first novels that he teaches an entire course on them? How did his wife and children die? Why does his acquaintance Lewis wish to manipulate his interests? The unravelling of these mysteries is masterfully handled so as to disorientate the reader. Paul’s voice reflects the careful cataloguing of books he is so fond of. He is also strikingly future-averse, almost always speaking in the present or of the past.  This is seemingly related to his inability to handle binaries, choices, as the following (edited) quotation shows.

 That evening, I am returning from Tesco with a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk, thinking about the student who came to see me after Helen. His name is either Lawrence Duncan or Duncan Lawrence. Either or. I can never remember which…

…it is not forgetfulness that is to blame. It is rather that I know both variations are possible and so I find it impossible to distinguish between them. Like hot and cold. Sometimes I will look at the taps on a washbasin, even ones affixed with a blue or red spot, and I don’t know which one to turn.

…Life and death is another. There are numerous well-known public figures who could be alive or may be dead.

…It’s not that I think there is little difference between being alive and dead. It is that I cannot distinguish between the two. Almost as if I cannot choose.

Royle’s use of the either-or formula amounts to an appropriation of the title of Kierkegaard’s first work, a satire on Hegelian synthesis. (Kierkegaard is quoted at the beginning of several of the novel’s sections). Kierkegaard’s central concern was the manner in which the apparent opposition of the voyeuristic, nihilistic, manipulative aesthetic and the social, dutiful ethical could in fact be held together dialectically, annulled, and synthesised in a higher unity – the religious. Perhaps that is another part of the multifaceted ‘mystery’ of the title. There are intimations of the religious throughout First Novel, but Royle doesn’t allow that synthesis and transcendence. Paul belongs to this world: Royle quotes Borges at one point ‘things happen only in the present’. Recall Paul’s present-tense narration: his transcendent is the future. But the future is somehow blocked. Why should such a man be interested in taxidermy, seeking to transcend death, refusing its end? It is because, for Paul, there is no transcendence that the either-or becomes a dissolution, a loss of self and agency: he cannot choose. Until he does. Which is the great sadness of First Novel.

It was either going to be all right or it wasn’t. In fact, no, it wasn’t. It was never going to be all right.

It wasn’t all right.

One of the questions at the heart of First Novel is the tragedy and tension of observation and its supply of material for literary production. It’s not simply that Paul is the aesthete of Either/Or – that he performs and watches performances by others – he is also a manifestation of the ethical, the objective, for that experience is putatively the foundation of his work: work which becomes objective because a novel amounts to a statement about the world. ‘I suppose I think first novels are important because it’s the first thing the author says about the world.’ This is why Paul’s pseudonymous authorship of his first novel becomes significant. It amounts to a measure of his inauthenticity. Writing is an act. Either-or won’t cut it.

Though, arguably, most of that is subtext.

First Novel is far more compelling than any paraphrase of its concerns could be. I have neglected to mention a central aspect of the book and will continue to do so: there is no way I am spoiling that. It knocked me sideways in the best possible way. Rest assured that Royle refuses easy resolutions and wrong-foots the reader repeatedly. The handling of the last third of the novel is simply superb as it races towards its conclusion without ever feeling anything but controlled. The ‘mystery’ of the title is, in many ways, the novel itself: both how it manages to be so good, and what on Earth it all means. What I can say for sure is that this is a progressive, intensely contemporary, brilliant work which challenges the easy certainties of the traditional novel. It should win prizes. Read it.

First Novel is out now from Jonathan Cape.

My thanks to Jonathan Cape for this review copy.