My 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.
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.
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.
One of the first things I did when I realized that I was never going to make it home – when I was the only crewmember left, all the others stuffed into their sleeping chambers like rigid, vacuum-packed action figures – was to write up a list of everybody I would never see again…
What is it to explore with no hope of remembrance? How does one understand oneself when stripped of the gaze of others? James Smythe’s third novel The Explorer is a compelling, claustrophobic, and raw examination of exploration, grief, time, and identity. The crew of the Ishiguro die one by one – ‘falling off like there was a checklist’ – on a supposedly triumphant mission to travel further than any human has gone before. The only remaining crewman is the journalist Cormac Easton. He immediately and selfishly mythologises his situation as one of endurance in the trial of solitude. He wonders how those on Earth will understand the events on the Ishiguro, about the film they must surely make of the mission, and, eventually, whether anyone will ever know their fate at all. Cormac is an outsider, an observer whose sole task is to record the momentous journey: ‘My crew: I was never really a part of them, even after all the training, because they knew more than me, technical things.’ And yet, as becomes clear, he is an observer who saw almost nothing, who was wrapped up in the glamour of space travel and the rhetoric of exploration, and thus saw little beyond that list of names.
we send probes and cameras…but we never send out eyes; this way, we’ll be looking back at ourselves from further away than anybody has had the chance to before, and we’ll – hopefully – be able to understand ourselves a bit better because of it.
This idea of looking back as the key to understanding foreshadows the bizarre reflexivity Cormac will achieve in The Explorer, the basis of which I’m not going to reveal. Which makes this difficult. The process of travelling away from the earth is one of abstraction: from the world, from its mores, all the better to gain some kind of perspective. The further the crew travel, the more important their journey becomes, because humanity gains a greater, a more objective, understanding of itself. Or so Cormac and (some) others initially believe. Yet Cormac is also the observer of the crew, as they are of him and of each other. Their gaze, their understanding, cannot be so abstracted, trapped as they are in close quarters; and death is not conducive to reflection. This partiality of single points of view is a theme The Explorer shares with Smythe’s second novel The Testimony. Unlike that novel, we hear only Cormac’s voice as he is slowly isolated, slowly abstracted, from the gaze of others, until all he has left are those romantic notions of film scripts, memorials, the glamour of exploration and the mawkish reports he writes for those he left behind.
I couldn’t stand to relive this trip through my own eyes, I don’t think.
What if one were able turn one’s gaze back on oneself? That is a duality of abstraction and intimacy difficult to conceive. That would be the kind of exploration few of us would relish; and yet it would be bolder than the physical exploration of a spaceship powering into the void. But would the overcoming of partiality that a singular gaze entails really be better than Cormac’s starting point? Meaning, for Cormac, is imparted by representation and, more than that, by purpose memorialised, by others, by Earth, by history; at least, until events gather him up and force him to take up a new and anguished perspective. At that point, we begin to realise just how partial was his understanding of those around him, of events, and of himself. As Cormac begins to see beyond the list of names and the nature of their representation – both in his and their own minds – he must decide what to do with that knowledge even as he threatens to disintegrate.
An ending is a completion: it’s a satisfaction all in itself.
An ending is a consummation. Part of Cormac’s struggle is to understand how his experience has to end. Only thus will the meaning of his ordeal become clear. To that extent The Explorer’sstructure is teleological: it is by reference to the end that the whole is to be understood. That would be a simple act of abstraction: to step back and understand the whole. But it is not quite so simple, as the temporal structure of The Explorer undermines the linearity implicit in the teleological conception of meaning, even as its three sections hold the narrative together and break Cormac apart in the darkness of space.
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
Eliot looms large in The Explorer. In fact, read Four Quartets as a companion piece if you possibly can. I could quote it all day. Time and memory and image play off one another in complex patterns to send echoes back and forth in poem and novel. Yet, 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 and Cormac’s voice, which begins as a journalist’s selfish mythologisation of endurance, becomes as tender as a bruise as its pretention is stripped away by shock after psychological shock. As in The Testimony I found Smythe’s writing to have a rare power to move. The Explorer is a profound and deeply impressive novel which I urge you to read. I haven’t told you the half of it.
just me and the metal and the stars
The Explorer is out from Harper Voyager in ebook 20/12/12 and in hardback 17/01/13.
My thanks to HarperVoyager for this review copy.
On the surface Emma Chapman’s debut novel is a cool, controlled, and compact account of the apparent psychosis of Marta Bjornstad in a nameless Scandinavian town as her husband and son look on in increasing despair. Yet beneath this is a deeply intelligent consideration of the destabilising effects on identity and the experience of time caused by the absence of a framework of memory. Marta’s narration relates a scraped out experience related by Chapman’s chillingly direct and economical language which always points beyond itself and the starved atmosphere of her character’s mind. An unstocked mind in which things reverberate: sounds, images, memories, desires. These oscillations colour everything. Shapes rise and fall in the wan twilight of a Scandinavian Autumn, the rays of the Sun playing on the surface and, although attenuated, penetrating the depths. From those depths rise visions or memories of a blonde girl in dirty pyjamas, a forgotten grace of movement, a prison. Each one confuses or casts doubt on the life Marta has led, cleaning, cooking, and caring for her husband Hector and son Kylan. The accepted narrative of their meeting and marriage is that Hector saved Marta from drowning and nursed her back to health after her parents died. And yet, as she once again stops taking her medication, the sunlit uplands of an apparently blissful marriage begin to fracture.
Now it’s as if I can see shadows for the first time.
Marta’s experience of time is episodic because she lacks the kind of structure required to secure its continuity. Hence, her narration and experience is insistently present tense, which is why knowing the time is so important to her: it’s the only structure she has. The only structure, that is, apart from the book given to her on her wedding day by Hector’s overbearing mother – How to be a Good Wife – which contains such commands as ‘Never hurry or nag him along. His time is precious, and must be treated as such’; ‘Always wait for him before you begin eating: he should always come first’; and ‘Never question his authority, for he always does what is best for the family, and has your interests at heart.’ This guide and framework simultaneously secures Marta in a stale home and erodes any sense of agency and selfhood she might have possessed or developed. The question the reader must ask is whether it is in reaction to this diminished selfhood that Marta’s developing assertiveness arises.
The passivity of Marta’s narration is broken by insistent voices which, whether excerpts from a domestic guidebook, fragments of memory, unattributed threats and entreaties, or external attempts to constrain through dismissal and psychiatric diagnosis, serve to reinforce and then undermine her fragile structure as the of tone each develops throughout the novel. ‘If you do what I say, there’s no reason for anyone to get hurt.’
And there it is again, that strange echoing fear, slipping through the cracks that have formed in the memory. It’s easy to look at a photograph, and to tell yourself things happened in a certain way, that you were happy. Easy to talk about until it seems that it really happened that way. But as I looked out through that gauzy veil, the petals of my bouquet quivering in my hands, as I made those steps towards Hector standing at the altar without my father’s arm to support me, I remember being frightened, not excited.
This passage might stand for the whole novel in apparent simplicity and uneasy allusion: that gauzy veil a symbol of Marta’s desaturated experience, a filter on her perception, her understanding and memory. Her marriage has framed and constrained her entire being, completely externalising her identity such that it is dangerously dependent on feminine roles: wife, mother, housekeeper, cook. Are her insidious doubts a reaction to this constrained and hollow existence? Marta tries to lift her veil, which immediately speaks to Shelley’s sonnet and to the collapsing marriage of Maugham’s novel.
Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colours idly spread,—behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
Their shadows, o’er the chasm, sightless and drear.
What lurks behind the veil, the story of her marriage, and that phantom girl, whose image seems to efface Marta’s each time she washes or gazes into the mirror? Reflecting surfaces herald the loss of one self and the glimpsing of another. Mirrors lack depth and yet mimic it. Waters can be deep and yet hide their extent. Marta’s certainties drain away with the bath water. Where is her father? Why was she so afraid on her wedding day? Perhaps most compelling: Is this veil her medication, forced upon her by Hector? Or is she actually ill? Or both? Of course, that very suspicion of Hector’s story should alert the reader to doubt Marta’s voice as keenly as she does her husband’s. Fear and hope begin to bleed into one another as her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.
What if I wasn’t myself before?
Chapman probes how we treat individuals diagnosed with mental illness. There is an implicit challenge here to the view that a mental disorder should entail a corrosive departure from oneself; a challenge to the narrative of unreliability and the distrust of memories of potentially significant trauma. In many ways I prefer this book to Sebastian Faulk’s Engleby which shifts the ground very sharply beneath the reader’s feet toward the end. In its apparent simplicity How to be a Good Wife contains multitudes. It is not devastating and its development was far from a surprise, but I don’t think that is the point of this book at all. Chapman has done something far more interesting than just write a competent thriller: the landscape of the novel and Marta’s mind is submerged, but an emergence from those depths, an ascent to the mountain peaks that shelter the fjord, is not straightforwardly liberating, as the ambiguous relationship with water throughout attests. Her compact and allusive resistance to reduction and the complex archaeology of memory and despair make Emma Chapman’s debut novel very impressive indeed.
For some time, I have watched a magpie, working at the frozen earth.
How to be a Good Wife is out from Picador in January 2013.
My thanks to Picador for this review copy.
How Denis Johnson does what he does is beyond me. Train Dreams is a 116 page long masterpiece of remarkable richness that documents the harsh and tragic life of Robert Grainier amidst the disorientating transformation of the American West he helped tame as a bridge builder and logger for the railways. As is so often the way with Johnson, the weight behind each sentence is remarkable, even as each line appears innocuous; and this brooding power underlines the most human of experiences whilst allowing the passages where the visionary breaks through to take one’s breath away: the final passage is simply stunning and echoes back through the pages.
In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt of the life of a Chinese laborer caught or anyway accused of, stealing from the stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.
Train Dreams opens with a founding event, the attempted murder of an immigrant worker by a gang of bridge workers, Grainier amongst them, their chosen method being to fling the man from the top of a half-constructed span. The curse Grainier believes the Chinese labourer to have put on him hangs above his head for the rest of the book, as his wife and young child are killed in a voracious wildfire, and he sets out to reconstruct his life in a lonely cabin.
In the dark he felt his daughter’s eyes turned on him like a cornered brute’s. It was only his thoughts tricking him, but it poured something cold down his spine. He shuddered and pulled the quilt up to his neck.
What I found most striking was the manner in which the apparently human – the rational, organised, powerful – was laid over the wild, the animal, and the deadly, rather than supplanting it. Few characters die naturally in Train Dreams and Grainier’s life spans that moment when the West still resisted the progress of a humanity Johnson questions: for it’s not only the landscape which is only apparently humanised through the arrival of the railways, but humans themselves. The interpenetration of the domestic and the wild, and the caprice of the apparently domesticated, is symbolised by the small red dog Grainier shares his cabin with, and who frequently disappears to run with the wolves.
This contrast between the rational and the animal which together make up the human and the world we attempt to separate ourselves from is underlined by Johnson’s measured prose. Prose with the power to suddenly break out into a fleet-footed wildness which lurks beneath every sentence. Train Dreams is as much about the loss of that moment as it is its analysis. The railroad frames Grainier’s life and enters his dreams, inflecting their childhood recollections, but something clings on beneath them.
Claire Vaye Watkins’ collection Battleborn also investigates the myth of the American West in its own way and shares the alternating tenderness and harshness of landscape and the kind of person one has to be to survive in it. Neither book allows the romantic to creep in, but that is not, of course, the same thing as excluding sentiment, of which there is plenty in both. Where Johnson excels in is the seemingly effortless and astonishingly compressed richness of this short novel.To be honest, I don’t know what else to say about Train Dreams other than that you should read it.
Train Dreams is released on 6th September by Granta.
My thanks to Granta for providing this review copy.
Part of the Man Booker Prize 2012 Longlist Series.
In The Lighthouse Alison Moore has created an unsettling, seemingly becalmed but oddly sensual, and entirely excellent novel. The middle-aged and recently separated Futh is going on a walking-tour in Germany to clear his head before returning to a single life in a flat full of boxes his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Angela, had to pack for this stunningly ineffectual man. Futh’s very name is an awkward monosyllabic cotton-woollish and wholly unmemorable sound. He is constantly outrun and unbalanced by the actions of other people: the aggressive cuckolded hotel-manager, whose wife desires his mother’s silver lighthouse perfume case, his father’s women, and his bored wife who echoes the mother who left him as a child. Time and again Futh ends up in the middle of others’ problems but is too inept to realise it and suffers as a consequence.
His heart feels like the raw meat it is. It feels like something peeled and bleeding. It feels the way it felt when his mother left.
Futh is lost in the present, at home only vaguely in the past. Indeed, it is as if his development was arrested the moment his mother left, and everything else is seen through the lens of that departure, that void. His childishness is remarkable: in one episode Futh, fully-grown physically at least, is smacked by his father for speaking out of turn. He has so little idea of how to conduct himself that his behaviour renders him frankly creepy. At one point he approaches a woman reading an English book and tells her she smells like his wife. Matters are only made worse when she sees his hand thrust deep into his pocket as he talks: he’s clutching his lighthouse, which takes on a rather phallic dimension in Moore’s writing at this point. When he first arrives at his German hotel he encounters Ester, the chronically unfaithful wife of the manager, who sleeps with passing men in the guest rooms.
He stands in front of her, and she regards him, this man with gravy on his chin and on his shirt and even on the crotch of his trousers. ‘I’m Futh,’ he says again in English. ‘Someone’s expecting me.’
And yet no one is really expecting him. Futh is, at almost every point, superfluous.
A strange symmetry runs throughout the novel. Symmetries of smell and memory, of stains and disinfectant, and of the sense of lives cut adrift and slowly driven onto the rocks at the very moment they thought themselves safe. At the centre is the lighthouse, the object with which Futh orientates himself to the world. It becomes fairly clear that he has chosen the wrong reference point. Futh’s silver lighthouse belonged to his mother who liberally applied its expensive scent of violets and he repeatedly returns to the moment atop a cliff where he first recognised the fractures in his parents’ marriage.
Futh, up on the cliffs in Cornwall with the silver lighthouse in one hand and the stoppered glass vial in the other, wandered back to his parents. His mother was still lying with her eyes closed, her face turned to the sun. His father was looking out to sea and then Futh heard him say, ‘The foghorn blasts every thirty seconds.’
’Do you know,’ said his mother, ‘how much you bore me?’
The vial shatters in Futh’s small fist, scarring his hand and rendering the silver lighthouse hollow as his mother leaves him. Ester also has a lighthouse but hers is a cheaper wooden version: a symbol of her dissatisfaction, her infidelity a symbol of her dissipation. Their coming together does not bode well for Futh and Moore handles the denouement (for once a fitting term) very well indeed.
Moore builds a picture of a deflated and damaged man with whom it can be very difficult to feel any sympathy. Throughout particular smells attract Futh: violets, orange peel, apples, cigarette smoke warm cotton. All of them signal the memory of his mother and motivate his search for substitutes which seems to sully every relationship. Time and again his wife tells him ‘I’m not your mother’ in the face of some request. The artificial evocation of his mother through scent signals Futh’s sheltering within the false, with the safe. His professional life was bound up with producing artificial smells – the now outmoded scratch’n’sniff cards. Their dependability after twenty years is what matters most to him: these tiny bottles of scent don’t leave him. His essential childishness and need for support sabotages every endeavour. He can’t even manage a regular meal or avoid sunburn and blisters whilst on holiday. At times, his obsession with the past takes on more disturbing sexual dimensions, a result of his father’s dalliances in shared hotel rooms.
It is interesting to compare The Lighthouse to another Booker longlisted indie novel Swimming Home by Deborah Levy. Both create an uncomfortable atmosphere of unhappiness and loss, both hark back in some sense to parents and childhood and dependence, and yet they are so different in tone and structure that reading both as part of the Booker longlist is a complementary, if not altogether cheering, experience. Levy’s prose creates a fluid space of uncertain dimensions within a crystalline, faceted structure, which is resistant to interpretation beyond a certain point. Moore, however, sustains an understated but utterly compelling drive, which unflinchingly documents the failings of her protagonist, piling each unexceptional moment on the next, to create a discomforting and moving portrait of intense loss.
I’m pretty busy at the moment, but I wanted to post a quick review of the excellent Battleborn which came out this week in the UK.
Claire Vaye Watkins is one of those writers whose own history threatens to overshadow their writing: which would be a shame, because her short story collection is marvellous. Her father was intimately involved with Charles Manson’s ‘family’ before aiding the prosecution in Manson’s trial for murder; and her mother was a depressed alcoholic who died of an overdose in 2007 two months before Watkins graduated from college. Against the background of such a family history, it is unsurprising that Watkins has produced a collection of stories so concerned with relationships, their tensions and failures, mostly set against the hard landscape of her home state of Nevada whose nickname is ‘Battle Born’ because it achieved statehood during the Civil War. That birth in a time of violence and fear underpins the whole collection, whose hot and scouring prose reveals an unexpected softness and tempered resilience in the struggling occupants of each story.
‘The day my mom checked out, Razor Blade Baby moved in. At the end, I can’t stop thinking about beginnings.’
This first line of the first story Ghosts, Cowboys announces the haunting of many characters in Battleborn. This story interrogates Watkins’ own history, her own attempts to understand the context of her birth, and where one should even begin looking: the birth of the state, the occupation of a plot of land, or the arrival of a group of young people at the ranch in 1968. How much we can gain from this probing of the past is questioned by Watkins,
‘Everything I can say about what it means to lose, what it means to do without, the inadequate weight of the past, you already know.’
Intertwined with the personal is the West, the landscape shot through with veins of silver and death and memory. In Man-O-War a lonely old man finds a pregnant girl out in the fierce heat of the desert and comes to believe she could be a substitute for the wife who left him and the child they never had. The ease with which tenderness gives way to violence in the face of the frustrations of impersonal landscape runs throughout Battleborn. This is brought home strikingly in the excellent The Diggings which subjects two Forty-Niners to the heartless and grinding reality of the gold rush and the ‘lump fever’ which overtakes the narrator’s brother. (If nothing else, introducing me to the word ‘ripsniptiousness’ would be a virtue of this story.) He might be speaking for the whole collection when says,
‘Because though I was afraid and angry and lonesome much of the time, I was also closer to my own raw heart there in the territory than I have even been since.’
At no point does Watkins give her characters any quarter. There are no fairytale endings for the Italian boy who stumbles into a brothel and instantly destabilises its structure in The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past; nor do the memories of the degrading trip to Las Vegas the female character forced her vulnerable friend into ease with time in Rondine al Nido. Dysfunctional relationships, missing or effectively absent parents, and the challenges of parenthood stand starkly against the heat and memory of the landscape. You can’t dissemble in the desert, it doesn’t allow it; and nor does Watkins, whose voice emerges powerfully from these stories, as does the fierce character of Nevada. The strengths and failings of a rugged individualism are subjected to the cutting edge of an uncompromising style. It’s a very good collection and I’ll be keen to see what comes next: whether Watkins will further dissect her home state and their shared history, or chooses to move outward. Either possibility promises much.
The subject of Babatunde’s dark, humorous, and cutting story is ‘Colour Sergeant Bombay, the veteran who went off with the recruitment officers to Hitler’s War as a man and came back as a spotted leopard.’ We follow him through the manipulative recruitment of the colonial administration, his training, and service in Burma, before he returns to establish his republic in a hilltop jailhouse.
The order and certainty of the colonial racial straitjacket is all Bombay knows, ‘But the war came and the bombs started falling, shattering things out of their imprisonment in boxes and jumbling them without logic into a protean mishmash. Without warning, everything became possible.’ On active service Bombay experiences the prejudice and suspicion Africans are subject to and which is exploited in Imperial propaganda . A Lieutenant tells him ‘The stories that preceded you to this war said that the Africans are coming and that they eat people. We fuelled these rumours by dropping leaflets on the enemy, warning them that you will not only kill them but you also will happily cook them for supper.’
Yet Bombay also realises that the white man is vulnerable and unstable in a way Colonial government is designed to deny. He likes this possibility very much.
The refrain of expanded possibilities follows ‘That people would imagine he was a cannibal was something he had not thought possible.’
I felt the writing echoed Marquez and Rushdie in its colonial subject matter as well as its realism; their magic being replaced by horror in the unflinching description of fear, death, and mutilation in the Burmese jungle.
‘He was dead but there was no sign that he had been shot. His body had been severally pierced. The spectacle of his entrails spilling out of his excavated stomach and drooling down to his toes could not have been ghastlier.’
The Republic of the story’s title is founded shortly after Bombay returns from the war. Inspired by the vulnerability of his colonial overlords on the battlefield he declares his old jailhouse to be independent and raises a flag. In his republic of one Bombay descends into absurd pomp and circumstance, unsurprisingly winning every Presidential election. I particularly liked the titles Bombay awards himself, especially ‘Lord of All Flora and Fauna’, ‘Sole Discoverer of the Grand Unified Theorem’, and ‘Father of the Internet’. Babatunde uses this to reflect on the corruption independence can bring in its wake, made the more absurd by its focus in a single individual. Bombay rewrites the constitution, recognises any government in power, and demands gifts on his many ‘state visits’. In the end, Bombay takes on the megalomania that was the mark of Empire and which mars the so-called republics of certain African states.