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

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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.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013

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And thus was the Women’s Prize for Fiction pleased to announce its 2013 Longlist. The full list of twenty is below and in time-honoured fashion I have added links to the two I have reviewed and emboldened (I know, but wouldn’t it be great?) those I have waiting patiently around the house. Apparently there has been some discussion as to whether or not the Sheila Heti How Should a Person Be? qualifies due to its liberal use of real conversations and events; but I know a few people who loved it, and this wouldn’t be the first time a writer had used such material and called their work a novel. I’m glad that Smith’s NW has made the list even though it is not without its flaws. My wife stole my proof of Lamb and is very pleased that it’s on the Longlist, so I’m pretty sure that I will be giving that a go soon. The only other book that really jumps out at me is The Innocents by Francesca Segal, which I’ve wanted to read since I first heard about it. As for the rest, I haven’t a clue which I might want to read, so I shall have to do some more research.

  • Kitty Aldridge – A Trick I Learned From Dead Men (Jonathan Cape)
  • Kate Atkinson – Life After Life (Doubleday)
  • Ros Barber – The Marlow Papers (Sceptre)
  • Shani Boianjiu – The People of Forever are Not Afraid (Hogarth)
  • Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
  • Sheila Heti – How Should a Person Be? (Harvill Secker)
  • A M Homes – May We Be Forgiven (Granta)
  • Barbara Kingsolver – Flight Behaviour (Faber & Faber)
  • Deborah Copaken Kogen – The Red Book (Virago)
  • Hilary Mantel – Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate)
  • Bonnie Nadzam – Lamb (Hutchinson)
  • Emily Perkins – The Forrests (Bloomsbury Circus)
  • Michèle Roberts – Ignorance (Bloomsbury)
  • Francesca Segal – The Innocents (Chatto & Windus)
  • Maria Semple – Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
  • Elif Shafak – Honour (Viking)
  • Zadie Smith – NW (Hamish Hamilton)
  • M L Stedman – The Light Between Oceans (Doubleday)
  • Carrie Tiffany – Mateship with Birds (Picador)
  • G Willow Wilson – Alif the Unseen (Corvus Books)

The Shortlist will be announced on 16th April and the winner on 5th June.

The excellent Savidge Reads has also blogged about the longlist.

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

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© 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.

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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.

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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

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 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

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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

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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.

‘It takes sacrifice’ WOOL – Hugh Howey

Wool‘Expressing any desire to leave. Yes. The great offense. Don’t you see why? Why is that so forbidden? Because all the uprisings started with that desire, that’s why.’

WOOL began its life as a self-published short-story of about sixty pages. It has grown into a five-part novel and a potential film. It’s easy to see why: a community stranded in an apparently unique silo buried beneath the dead earth, taught from birth never to question their position on pain of being ‘sent to cleaning’: the ultimate sanction, ejection from the silo in a suit that will disintegrate in the toxic air, but allow just enough time to clean the lenses which give the silo its limited view of their immediate environment. Why does everyone so condemned perform this final duty? From a slow start in Parts One and Two the series builds to become very compelling indeed in its creation of a world of hope, despair, and simmering discontent. That slow start is entirely understandable given that they are very much short stories rather than the opening chapters of a pre-planned novel.

The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do. While they thundered about frantically above, Holston took his time, each step methodical and ponderous, as he wound his way around and around the spiral staircase, old boots ringing out on metal treads.

The original story ‘Holston’ is nicely self-contained, if occasionally clunky, and builds to surprising conclusion. It examines the grief of Sheriff Holston, whose wife apparently lost her reason and demanded to go outside. Her body lies in a gully visible from the camera. In other words, a solid short story. It is, however, clearly ripe for development, and one can understand the clamour for a follow-up, which came in the form of Part Two ‘Proper Gauge’ which adds many more layers to Howey’s creation. In search of a sheriff to replace Holston, Mayor Jahns travels the great stairwell at the centre of the silo, passing through hydroponics, IT, Supply, living quarters, recycling plants, before reaching the Mechanical section of the ‘down deep’ where Juliette, her preferred but controversial candidate works. By structuring this story around the descent and ascent and a burgeoning romance with her friend Deputy Marnes. Howey great develops the world of the Silo and, crucially, its inter-departmental and individual tensions. The IT department and its head begin to emerge as powerful forces with a shadowy agenda. The story ends in tragedy and one senses that this is where Howey really began to envisage the greater arc of the final five-part work. The threat of disintegration looms ever larger as his plot becomes more involved and begins to pull the reader along.

 Don’t let it unravel, not just yet.

From Part Three ‘Casting Off’ onwards the book begins to feel far more like a novel than a collection of linked stories. Indeed, one feels Howey’s expressive ambition grow: ‘And he only distantly felt, but for a tremble of time, the end of him that came next.’ Juliette emerges as the central figure as the silo becomes an ever more dangerous and rotten environment shot through with the awfulness of hope. In some ways WOOL resembles the television miniseries of recent time: developing slowly as detail builds and the premise begins to arrest the audience, with cliff-hangers at the end of each episode. As a novel it wouldn’t quite work, but as a series of stories developing the reader’s commitment as Howey begins to flex his muscles it is effective. Part Four ‘The Unravelling’ and Part Five ‘The Stranded’ become more ambitious and in some respects conventional as more of the world in which the Silo sits is revealed. Yet the core story is as compelling as ever, well-paced, and always very readable.

What God would make so much rock below and air above and just a measly silo between?

 

WOOL is is out today (17/1/13) from Century

My thanks to Century for this review copy.

New Directions – 2013

Copious notesThis was meant to be a New Year post but book reviews, essay marking, and PhD work pushed it back. Which is rather the point. Just as I feel the blog is really getting going and my plans for the range of books I read and review develop I find that this is the year I should be – need to be – writing up my thesis. What with teaching and researching the time I have to write the kind of review I find the most rewarding – about 1,000 words – of a standard I’m comfortable with – someone might not think I’m an idiot – is simply unavailable. Unavailable, that is, if this thesis is ever going to be written. I’d also quite like to write some short stories this year. My grand total of 500 words last year hasn’t really satisfied that particular urge.

‘What does this all mean?’ I hear you cry. Well, never fear, I know many of you would feel utterly bereft were this small blog to disappear. My conscience would never allow such a disturbance in so many lives. I have a heart. Not incidentally, I also rather enjoy this reviewing business. I will keep reading and reviewing, I’m just going to be very strict with a 500/600 word limit and the amount of time give each one. I have been known to spend days on a single review; although that hasn’t happened recently, because I haven’t had time. Which brings us back to the beginning.

So, what are my aims for this year? Well, I’m going to be reading more translated literature (from the likes of Pushkin Press, Peirene, And Other Stories, NYRB Classics), American fiction, and older works like Henry James, Graham Greene, and so on. I absolutely  intend to keep reading new fiction as well; so I hope people are still willing to send it to me despite the new format. I have quite a few exciting books waiting on my shelf and my new regime should let me read and talk about them without derailing the PhD. These include, but are definitely not limited to:

WOOL – Hugh Howey (Century) Currently reading.

The Starboard Sea – Amber Dermont (Corsair) Read and awaiting review.

The Forbidden Kingdom – Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (Pushkin Press) Read and awaiting review.

First Novel – Nicholas Royle (Jonathan Cape) Read and awaiting review.

Clay – Melissa Harrison (Bloomsbury)

Five Star Billionaire – Tash Aw (4th Estate)

The Taste of Ashes – Marci Shore (William Heinemann)

Idiopathy – Sam Byers (4th Estate)

The Crane Wife – Patrick Ness (Canongate)

All That Is – James Salter (Picador)

The Book of My Lives – Aleksandar Hemon (Picador)

Journey By Moonlight – Antal Szerb (Pushkin Press.)

In Search of Venice – Box set from Pushkin Press.

Amity & Sorrow – Peggy Riley (Tinder Press)

The First Book of Calamity Leek – Paula Lichtarowicz (Hutchinson)

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie – Ayana Mathis (Hutchinson)

The Children’s Hospital – Chris Adrian (Granta)

Traveller of the Century – Andrés Neuman (Pushkin Press)

Quite a lot of the Penguin English Library.

And so on…

My Elvis Blackout – Simon Crump

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Anyway, so I twisted Chris’s weedy arm up behind his back and marched him round the side of the trailer. I jammed the muzzle of my .38 in his much and blammo! that little fucker wouldn’t be dancing with the lady in Red any more.

The problem that My Elvis Blackout causes the aspiring book reviewer is that it tends to render one entirely speechless. It is for neither the squeamish nor the unadventurous. In the first two pages Elvis kills Barbara Cartland and commits suicide. Quite. These stories were originally released in 2000 and have been reissued by Galley Beggar Press with an introduction by Jon McGregor in which he analyses them as a kind of luxuriation in the absurd development of the Elvis Presley cult of personality. I think that this is about right; and the sheer delirium that powers one on through each story is remarkable. I read it in one sitting.

“Keep your fucking canoe,” said Elvis, “I want to eat men.”

My Elvis Blackout is funny, macabre, funny and macabre. How profound it is I’m not sure. There is a certain extension of the representation of thought and behaviour beyond which profundity becomes difficult to attain. Of course, that may be a failure on my part to move beyond the extreme violence; and my complete lack of interest in Elvis probably doesn’t help. The writing is punchy, the stories are inventive, Chris De Burgh is shot in the head. If it sounds like your sort of thing, you should give it a go. It’s one of those books you have to experience for yourself; I can only wave my hands oddly in its general direction. At the very least, it’s an experience you will probably remember. (For an excellent and much fuller review, read John Self’s post at Asylum).

‘When he was a foetus, Elvis used to wait till his Mom was asleep, carefully remove his umbilical cord, sneak out of her insides and head off into town. He usually wore the little tartan coat which Alfredo, their disgusting toy poodle, wore for his walks with Momsy on cold winter mornings. Elvis looked a complete tosser in this outfit, what with the blood and the dog hairs, but what the fuck did he care? He was the unborn King of Rock’n’Roll and if he wanted to go out naked except for a ridiculous coat, he bastard well would.’

My Elvis Blackout is available as an ebook here.

My thanks to Galley Beggar Press for this review copy.