Elly McDonald

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Review: Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah (2013) translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (2020)

I knew nothing about this novel when I opened the first page and for much of the following 152 pages I still felt I knew almost nothing.

Yet when I finished page 152 I was in love with this text. I kept reading and re-reading the final pages. I didn’t want it to end.

I read Untold Night and Day in 50 page chunks (yes, I’m obsessed with the numbers). To me it reads like a prose poem, so 50 pages was as much as I could take in at a time.

After the first 50 pages, I read Deborah Smith’s Translator’s Notes, at the end, which I found helpful:

Bae’s oppositions are emphatically not binaries. Her books are filled with repetition, mirroring, echoing, overlapping […] Simultaneously is another thread-word studding the text.

Many years ago, when I was a poet, an editor described my poems as “games of rhythm and repetition”, which was apt. I came to enjoy the circularity of Bae’s world in Untold Night and Day, and the chunks of repetition.

The quotes on the book jacket are similarly apt:

“As cryptic and compelling as a fever dream […] a vivid and disorientating exploration of identity, artifice and compulsion” – Sharlene Tao

“I loved its uncanny beauty, its startling occurrences. As it unravels you feel […] yourself unravelling too” – Daisy Johnson

“Haunting and poetic […] holds the reader in a suspended state, allowing us to explore the tension of the threshold” – Chloe Aridjis

Untold Night and Day is filled with oppressive heat and damp, small concrete rooms, dank alleys, circling traffic, recurrences, identity switches, blocks to communication, temporal distortions…

Very early on, I recognised the figure of a girl in a coarse white hanbok (traditional dress), wearing woven hemp sandals, with her hair tied back in a low pony-tail, as a figure from the Korean spirit world: the young girl ghost, or supernatural entity.

The main female character is called Ayami (and sometimes other names). Bae has explained that “According to Siberian shamanism [the forebear of Korean shamanism], ayami is the name for the spirit that enters the shaman’s body and communicates matters of the other world to them.”

But Deborah Smith rightly points out that Untold Night and Day does not proclaim or labor its “Koreanness”. She quotes the self-mocking Korean joke rejecting Other-ing: “Oh, let me go put on some hanbok.

So it’s contemporary experimental literary writing, rather than a hanbok tale.

What strikes me, reading during COVID-19 uncertainty and a wave of job losses and business failures, is that the narrative commences with two central characters being made redundant.

Ayami could be a spirit guide escorting a man to another world. Or they could both be casualties, on a more mundane level:

“Ayami [comforted him] for a long time, as though the repetitive gesture might conjure a shamanic power – the only way of keeping together, in the same place and time, two human beings in the process of disintegrating.”

Untold_Night_and_Day_Bae_Suah


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Re-blogs: Convenience Store Woman (2016) by Sayaka Murata (trans Ginny Tabley Takemori 2018) – Literally Literary blog by Xi Chen; The Nakano Thrift Shop (2017) by Hiromi Kawakami trans Allison Markin Powell – LA Review of Books review by M W Larson

Convenience_Store_Woman_Sayaka_Murata

This is not the cover art of the edition I read #1: the edition I read had quotes from reviewers suggesting Convenience Store Woman is “irresistibly quirky”, “hilarious”, “intoxicating”, “exhilarating… funny”.
I loved it, but I found it dark and disquieting.

I hadn’t been reading for a while and felt the need to ease my way back in via very short novels.  These two – Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, and The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami – are both written in simple, deadpan styles that make for fast reads, the Murata novel in a somewhat mechanical tone suited to its themes, the Kawakami novel delicate, sometimes verging on twee. They’re linked thematically, both being told in the first person by young women narrators who work in retail, and both addressing sexual behaviours, relationship options, relationship to employments.

Both present contemporary young Japanese people shying away from sexual relations and intimacy, instead seeking identity in service transactions, workplace routines, and (at least in Kawakami) objects imbued with emotional significance.

Although I have visited Japan, and although I have a decades-long interest in East Asian arts and cultures, I am very far from being equipped to report meaningfully on these narratives. Instead, after organising my own thoughts I sought out reviews that opened up the narratives for me.

There is nothing I can write that could better present these two texts than the two reviews linked here. I thank both Xi Chen and MW Larson.

What I will say: Reading Convenience Store Woman, I occasionally laughed wryly, with some discomfort; reading The Nakano Thrift Shop, I quite often laughed out loud, screenshotting pages to text to my sister. Ultimately, The Nakano Thrift Shop was a feel-good light read. I couldn’t say that of Convenience Store Woman, but it spoke to me more strongly.

Convenience Store Woman as read by Xi Chen: https://medium.com/literally-literary/sayaka-muratas-parable-of-alienation-25a188337adb

The Nakano Thrift Shop as read by MW Larson: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-anxiety-of-intimacy-in-hiromi-kawakamis-the-nakano-thrift-shop/

The_Nakano_Thrift_Shop_Hiromi_Kawakami

This is not the cover art of the edition I read #2: the edition I read had an image of a hip bright young thing leaping onto a commuter train.
I loved the narrator, but she struck me as much more introvert than that image.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Reviews: The Vegetarian by Han Kang (2007, trans Deborah Smith); I am Ji-young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo (2016, trans Jamie Chang) – translated from Korean

The_Vegetarian_Han_Kang

I had formed the impression from publicity I’d seen that The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, was a novel about patriarchy pushing back when one woman attempts to make a relatively mild assertion of will: woman goes vegetarian, male state goes mad.

I suppose the first section, at least, of this book, can be read that way. Woman does indeed go vegetarian. Male relatives do indeed get mad.

But there are other things going on here. British novelist Ian McEwan sums it up well, describing The Vegetarian as “a novel of sexuality and madness”. Mostly madness, for me.

The narrative unfolds through three sections, from three perspectives: Yeong-hye’s husband; her brother-in-law; and her sister. I found the final section, the sister’s perspective, most compelling.

In keeping with a feminist reading, neither of the two men have any interest in Yeong-hye’s personhood. She’s an object, for both. The book’s opening line is “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” The husband (“Mr Cheong”) goes on to innumerate the many ways Yeong-hye seemed to him entirely ordinary, and why this very ordinariness qualified her to be his wife. (In short: inadequate man seeks woman he can disregard.) He only ever refers to her as “my wife”.

Her brother-in-law, in contrast, sees Yeong-hye as distinct, even unique, and exotic.  For him, she embodies sexuality. Vitality.

Both men are projecting like crazy. (“Crazy” being a technical term.)

In her marriage, Yeong-hye goes mad. Pointedly, her husband reports this in terms of her ceasing to dedicate her being to his service. He has no feelings of concern or compassion. Instead he feels revulsion.

Witnessing Yeong-hye’s madness, her brother-in-law goes mad. He conflates his madness with “art”. He feels he’s come alive. The comedown is – how shall I say? – deflating.

In the final section, Yeong-hye is certifiably mad and confined to a secure psychiatric ward. Her sister is the only family remaining by her side, figuratively and in fact. Her sister meditates on the nature of madness, its origins, and concludes that only a fine string ties us to sanity. Any one of us could untie that string and be ”absorbed” by our dark dreams.

When Yeong-hye is asked why she rejects meat, she can only say, in a perverse of echo of Martin Luther King, “I had a dream”. As someone who watches Korean TV drama, I recognise this notion of “What is your dream?” as a catechism of aspiration. What do you want for your life? What is your ambition?

What Yeong-hye had (and has) is not a dream but a night terror. Her only apparent desire is to disappear into a forest, to join the plant world. This is her survival strategy, even if it kills her.

Yeong-hye’s older sister recognises she too pursued a survival strategy. In her case, she adopted the persona of the sane one, the capable, conscientious older sister. She had cosmetic surgery (double eyelids), promoted a pleasing demeanour, and built a business selling cosmetics. None of that ensures her psychic survival.

The most troubling character, for me, is the older sister’s young son. With the adults gone mad, he is abandoned. Who will protect his survival?

I_Am_Kim_JiYoung_Born_1982

The Vegetarian begs comparison with Cho Nam-joo’s controversial 2016 Korean novel, I am Kim Ji-young, Born 1982. Cho Nam-joo is a former TV scriptwriter who took a career break after having a child. She wrote her book fast, apparently in just two weeks, using elements of her own experiences. Footnote sociological research citations firmly anchor anecdote and individual composite in statistics and legislation.

The novel is presented as a case study – a psychiatric case study, as we come to realise. Stylistically it’s a very straightforward, not to say clinical, read. By stepping us through Kim Ji-young’s life history, Cho shows the ways a female in Korea is disadvantaged from birth relative to her male peers.

Inevitably, the book prompted a backlash of ‘Whataboutism’, intergenerational beefs and male resentments, as did the film adaptation.

I lent the novel to my mother, born 1934, knowing some of Kim Ji-young’s workplace experiences mirrored hers. My mother read it, handed it back, commented wryly, “All women, all over the world.”

Like Yeong-hye, Kim Ji-young (a common name, a kind of Jane Doe) goes mad. As at the novel’s conclusion, her prognosis does not look good. The male psychiatrist who is purportedly writing her case study reflects privately on how her story relates to his own experience. He, like Ji-young’s husband, is a caring and intelligent man. He believes his desire to help is sincere.

The sting in the tail? Even recognising the structural and systemic inequities that resulted in his patient’s breakdown, as his attention moves elsewhere, the male authority figure disregards what he might have learned. Instead of being a change agent, he perpetuates the way things are.


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Review: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (1994 trans 2020) – translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

The_Memory_Police_Yoko_Ogawa

The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa, was published in Japanese in 1994, then in 2019 in an English translation by Stephen Snyder (nominated for the International Booker 2020).

It’s a bleak, Kafkaesque piece of speculative fiction, or allegory, or dark folk tale.

A novelist, writing in the first person, recounts how on the island where she lives, over a period of 15+ years, there has been a series of “disappearances”: the population wakes up some days with a shared sense of loss, that something from their familiar lives has ceased to exist, has been erased.

The objects of these disappearances don’t physically cease to be manifest, or become physically invisible. Instead, they remain as tangible presences, at least initially, but they cease to have meaning – their associations, their functions, are lost to recall, and eventually the very concept of those objects ceases to exist for most people, except in occasional flashes of semi-recollection.

To aid in this process, to make this process efficient, a fascist squad called the Memory Police ensures people dispose of the tangible physical remains of these objects promptly. Retaining relics of disappeared objects is forbidden, policed by house to house searches. Individuals who retain memories, who are not subject to the collective amnesia and do not collude in erasure, are frogmarched away by the Memory Police and themselves “disappeared”. As are those who attempt to hide those who remember.

At first, the objects the novelist notes as having disappeared are objects of joy: ribbons, perfume, gemstones, millinery, roses, music boxes, boiled sweets, fruit. So at first I was thinking this might be an allegory about loss of pleasure, of anhedonia (loss of joy). I was thinking in terms of depression, especially as the novelist telling the story appears to be suffering from imminent writer’s block: her novel in progress starts out as a tale of a typist who loses her voice but is still able to communicate with her lover (her typing instructor) via typewriter, until her typewriter breaks down.

The narrator-novelist within The Memory Police has a close professional relationship with her long-time editor, who has nursed her previous three novels through to publication. She learns her editor is one of the few who retains memory of the disappeared objects, and her immediate thought is that she must hide him to protect him, and also to protect her writing project.

Typewriters themselves are however obviously a “disappeared” artefact in our contemporary world, so the novel seems to be asking us to consider what, in our lifetimes, has “disappeared” and been erased. In the way that the category “hats”, and therefore the concept “millinery”, has been disappeared within The Memory Police, whole categories of consumer goods and therefore work skills and workplaces have become redundant in real life, often all but forgotten.

Some reviewers have broadened that thought to consider how elements of our natural environments are disappearing: animals, plants whole eco-chains.

Other reviewers home in on cultural erasure: cultures where language and traditional practices are banned, forcibly suppressed, resulting in actual absolute or incremental erasure of cultural identity.

There is also a layer of gender-based allegory. The narrator within The Memory Police feels her way through her narratives through her fingers, through typing, and sometimes her stories takes unforeseen turns. Her work-in-progress switches from being a gentle love story, with a supportive lover, to a Bluebeard-like contemporary horror story of captivity, domination, perversion and erasure of a woman’s will, faculties and ultimately existence.

The perverted parallelism of the novel-within-the-novel vis-à-vis the narrative that is The Memory Police is troubling. In the novel-within-the-novel the captive is the female first-person narrator, the malevolent entity is her male lover/abuser. In the actual novel, the person imprisoned is the writer’s male editor, and his story is told from the female narrator-novelist’s perspective. Is her version, in which she is his ‘savior’, self-serving? We have no direct access to how he really feels about being removed from his wife and his newborn, never-seen son. The editor has been persuaded by his novelist that it is in his best interests to abandon his wife and newborn and instead focus solely on assisting her stalled manuscript through to completion. He is always represented as grateful and acquiescent – but he’s dependent on his novelist for food and sanctuary. How do we, as readers, feel about the writer and her editor as lovers, given the typing teacher enacts the role ‘lover’ towards his typist captive?

The captive in the novel-within-the-novel is imprisoned in a turret (like Rapunzel). The captive in the main narrative is imprisoned in a too-small cavity between house storeys (‘stories’), beneath a trapdoor. Is this gendered symbolism: the woman imprisoned in a tower by a man; the man imprisoned in a dark enclosed space by a woman?

The ‘love’ story elements were, to me, disturbing. (I kept thinking of John Fowles’ novel, The Collector.)

The novelist-narrator has, on the face of it, a less disquieting relationship with a surrogate father, an older man who assists (aids and abets) her. He doesn’t have a name, and nor does the editor: they are “the old man” and “R” respectively. But then, the narrator has no name, either.

There are layers. Ultimately, I read The Memory Police as an allegory about mortality, ageing, and death – at its most blunt, as an allegory of dementia.

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

Life on the island diminishes through a series of small losses, loss of small joys; the loss of staples (food types, loss of appetite, as the remaining foods are increasingly unappealing); the loss of time and seasons, when “calendars” disappear, resulting in endless snow, snow that buries all it covers; loss of story-telling, of narratives, when “novels” disappear; then increasingly intimate losses. How does one adapt to the felt-loss of body parts – of a left leg, a right arm?

Once loss has progressed that far, how is it policed? If people retain the awareness of what was a left leg, but have no recall of its function, have lost any sense of relatedness, instead recognising the “disappeared” limb at best as a “tumour”, how is that policed? Can left legs be physically disposed of, the way rose petals can be? Can left legs be set free, as caged birds can be?

What will be the ultimate loss? What, at the last, will be left, will disappear?

I referred to “perverted parallelism” but in fact the relationship between the novel-within-the-novel and the main narrative is a chiasmus (if I remember Lit 101 Poetry correctly). It’s not parallel lines, it’s a ‘X’ cross-shape.

The first thing lost by the typist-victim in the novel-within-the-novel is her voice. More accurately, her voice is taken from her, as happens in totalitarian states and patriarchies, and as happens with writer’s block. But in the main narrative, the last element of the narrator’s being to be erased is voice. As her voice ends, so does the text.

As her voice evaporates, her editor climbs out of the cavity between floorboards.

He emerges to a ruined world, but he does not look back.

The_Memory_Police_by_Yoko_Ogawa


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Review: Then It Fell Apart (2019), by Moby

At end May, in reaction to controversy, Electronica DJ and author Moby cancelled all remaining dates of his book promotion tour and announced he was “going to go away for a while”.

There’s so much in Then It Fell Apart that is interesting and well written that it’s sad to dismiss the whole book due to its failings.

It does have manifest failings. I’ll outline them, but again, it feels sad to write off the whole project, and sad to lash an author who makes so naked his frailties.

In the Preface, Moby writes that after finishing his first memoir, Porcelain, “rather than go back to therapy, I kept writing”. That’s where the problems start. Much of Then It Fell Apart reads like therapeutic writing, best discussed between client and therapist, or as a starting point for meaningful private conversation between Moby and significant individuals in his life.

I don’t think Moby was well served by editors or publishers with this book. He’s keen to set out the full extent of his drug-fuelled behaviours and emotional issues. He recognises his desperate drive for validation, for affirmation. As readers, we did not need to know everything he chose to tell. Editors were needed to set boundaries. Publishers needed to put in place fact checks.

The most obvious area is how he writes about women. The controversy that resulted in Moby retreating arose from how he wrote about film actress Natalie Portman, introduced on p.30.

He wobbles on the tightrope for a few paragraphs before things fall apart.

‘She smiled again and looked straight into my eyes. “I’ll be in New York too. Can we meet up?” ‘

Moby remembers Natalie as “flirting”. Subsequently he remembers them as “dating”, albeit briefly. He writes sentences that can be read ambiguously, that read as disingenuous:

‘[…] he stared at me blankly and asked, “Are you with Natalie Portman”

“I guess so,” I said.’

‘I’d had an amazing night with Natalie in Cambridge […]’

‘At midnight she brought me to her dorm room and we lay down next to each other on her small bed. After she fell asleep I carefully extracted myself from her arms and took a taxi back to my hotel.’

He remembers himself as 33 and Natalie Portman as 20.

Natalie remembers things differently.

For starters, she’s clear she had just turned 18. She told Harpers Bazaar UK

“I was surprised to hear that he characterized the very short time that I knew him as dating because my recollection is a much older man being creepy with me when I just had graduated high school”.

Fact checks conducted by the Washington Post confirm that across the few weeks Moby refers to, Moby was touring in support of his hit album Play and Portman was making a film. The two met up in New York a few weeks after the initial backstage meeting, not a few days. They both attended the MTV Video Music Awards.

As Portman recalls, it was not her suggestion that they “meet up”:

“I was a fan and went to one of his shows when I had just graduated. When we met after the show, he said, ‘let’s be friends’. He was on tour and I was working, shooting a film, so we only hung out a handful of times before I realised that this was an older man who was interested in me in a way that felt inappropriate.”

You only have to see the photo Moby posted in rebuttal, showing the two of them backstage, him with his shirt off, her with a small, uncomfortable smile, to know the truth of this. It’s a fan pic: Moby, with his jaw-wide, rectangular grin, is the fan; Portman, so young, is the star.

I recognise these photos. I have several where I look just like Moby does here: an ecstasy of adulation; an instinctive professional pose in response.

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This is part of the sadness of this book. Moby is a fan to the core, and some of the best chapters in Then It Fell Apart are accounts of growing up into fandom. The chapters that tell of teenage trips to New York nightclubs, the teen teaching himself DJ skills, even the chapters about his early exposures to music and the genesis of his record collection – all are wonderful.

As are accounts of having dinner with David Bowie and Iman, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, and singing on-stage with New Order, channelling Ian Curtis.

Moby as fan is endearing. Moby as creepy older guy is not.

But he keeps doing it. He keeps introducing us to beautiful young girls, some famous (Christina Ricci, Lana Del Rey), some not, salivating on paper as he writes of their exquisiteness, implying he slept with them.

Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. But he didn’t inform any of them a book was coming out with his version of whatever happened between them, or that his version implied sexual relations. His publisher didn’t inform them. Apparently no one had the opportunity to veto or correct.

In his Preface, Moby writes “I’ve changed some names and details out of respect for other people, but all the stories in this book actually happened.”

Memory doesn’t work like that. All recollections are reconstructions. Reconstructions are coloured by fantasies, desires, fears. Reconstructions are configurations of neural pathways. The neural pathways of a man who by his own account consumed massive quantities of alcohol and drugs on a daily basis for decades are shredded.

As for respect… is it respectful to recount an anecdote from a specific UK tour, where individuals can be identified, about a threesome on a tour bus with two female record company staff? Just how many female record company staff accompanied his entourage on that tour bus?

‘I looked down at my naked body. There was shit on my legs and on my stomach. Either I had engaged in messy anal sex that I didn’t remember, or somebody – possibly me, possibly one of the women – had shat on the couch we’d had sex on. It smelled like an open sewer, and I had to fight the urge to vomit.’

That anecdote goes on. And on. Did we need to read it?

Or

‘She looked at the sheets. “Oh, sometimes when I have sex I get these burst cysts in my vagina. Or I got my period,” she said with disconcerting calm.

There was more blood than I’d ever seen in one place. It looked like a cow had just given birth. There was blood on the sheets. On Pam. On me.’

 

There are other tales of menstrual mess on couches, on sheets, of explosive diarrhoea, of the aptly-named Andy Dick, a comedian, attempting to shit on Moby’s birthday cake, pissing into Moby’s champagne.

There’s a tale of “knob-swiping”, a game whereby a man is dared to wipe his naked dick against another person in public, without that person’s awareness. Moby knob-swipes Donald Trump. First time I’ve been on The Donald’s side. More particularly, Moby writes with courteous restraint of Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who is kind to him, then launches into telling about dick-wiping her dad. I bet Ivanka does not feel respected.

There are so many tales of hookers, strippers, desperate housewives, mobsters, molls… Did we need quite so many tales?

We get it. Moby was unable to sustain any kind of couple relationship with any woman. He panicked. He could only have promiscuous sex, sex with strangers, sex with what he calls “degenerates”, occasional sex (or implied sex) with women he idealises, sex that goes nowhere … except for that ex-girlfriend, the on-off girlfriend who lasted several years, who he calls Kellie. Kellie must hate this book.

My editing solution:

Condense the narrative about the boy growing up to two chapters: early childhood; then high school years and the brief attempt at college.

Condense the account of stardom and self-destruction. Keep the star-as-fan accounts of his brushes with fame, appropriately framed (fact-checked). Keep representative accounts of self-destructive behaviours and alienation.

The Lana Del Rey (Lizzy Grant) episode is good. If Lana/Lizzy is good with it.

Keep the context of Moby’s lifelong extreme anxiety disorder. Don’t over-egg it. Don’t let it turn into self-excuses.

I would much rather have read less about the hell of being an addict celebrity and had Then It Fell Apart be a three-strand volume: the childhood; the story of a crash; then the story of how Moby constructed an equilibrium, even if precarious.

I don’t need a happy ending. But I need more balance. As a reader, I know there is more to this story, because I made it to the final page. I imagine it was Moby’s intent to write a third volume, the volume of his recovery.

After the controversy prompted by how he wrote about Portman, and after his pledge to “go away for a while”, that book might never be written, or, if written, might never be published. Which is truly sad.

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As a reader, I’m left with the overwhelming impression of unmanaged anxiety, a man self-medicating with toxic substances, self-loathing, an eating disorder mentality (I don’t doubt Moby is sincere in his veganism on principle, but it does seem to me he’s a case-book male eating disorder), revulsion at bodily functions, and madonna/whore flip-flopping between idealisation of women and fury at women – ironic, given the feud that resulted when Moby accused rapper Eminem of misogynistic lyrics.

But then, he does say he had thought he and Eminem had much at core in common:

“Apart from misogyny and homophobia, I felt a strange kinship with Eminem. We’d both grown up in grinding suburban poverty. We both had complicated single moms. We’d both found refuge in music […] All along I’d assumed Eminem hadn’t really been that upset with me and that someday we’d meet up and have a friendly conversation […] We’d talk about growing up poor and scared, and maybe even become friends”.

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While I don’t doubt at all that Moby grew up scared and poor, especially in the very early years, neglected in a chaotic environment, acutely feeling the disparity between his circumstances and the prevailing norms in the prosperous Connecticut county that was home, he never discusses the elephant in the room: his mother lived in Connecticut because that’s where she grew up, and her affluent parents were just up the road in their 10-bedroom mansion, where she and Moby apparently lived for long stretches.

Moby writes of his grandfather with respect and love, writes less of his grandmother – but what was the deal? Why was the child experiencing grinding poverty while living under his grandparents’ roof and later, in a modest house purchased for his mother and him by his grandmother, with his mother earning as a secretary?

When he writes of their temporary relocation to a somewhat less prosperous Connecticut county, he makes the point that he moved from an all-WASP school to a school community that was 90% Black and Hispanic. But then he goes and adds that none of his Black and Hispanic classmates were as poor as he was. Which is just embarrassing. It pushes the self-pity meter way, way up. Words like “entitlement” spring to mind…

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So was Moby the little white prince, displaced? Is his rage and his desperate, driving need for validation a consequence of “I *should* have been pampered in the castle!”?

He does write at length about his envy of the billionaire set, despite seeing clearly at close quarters how wretched the billionaires are. And he writes of purchasing a castle, the top five floors of an iconic Gilded Era New York building with views all across Manhattan and the Hudson, and of how living in the castle failed to salvage his soul.

If we take the end page at face value, what salvaged his soul, finally, was AA.


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Review: The Lost Ten (2019) by Harry Sidebottom

Harry_Sidebottom_The_Lost_TenHarry Sidebottom is an academic specializing in the 3rd Century Roman Empire who has written two popular novel series: the best-selling Warrior of Rome series (seven novels centered on a Germano-Roman general named Ballista), and the Throne of the Caesars series (three novels charting the tumultuous times between Alexander Severus and the Gordian emperors).

This year, a stand-alone novel was published (through Zaffre / Allen & Unwin), loosely connected to the Ballista tales, and titled The Lost Ten.

The cover blurb for The Lost Ten reads: ‘A crack squad. An impenetrable fortress. A desperate mission’.

Inevitably, this blurb conjures up sword’n’sandals Guns of Navarone or Andy McNab ripping yarn, which is probably how this title was pitched. In much the way his previous novel, The Last Hour, can be dismissed as Jack Reacher in Rome.

But I like Harry Sidebottom as a writer, and I like the way he evokes his ancient Rome, and I think it a mistake to dismiss these books.

Sidebottom writes in a fine tradition of historical fiction descending from Alexandre Dumas and Sir Walter Scott, through Robert Louis Stevenson to Patrick O’Brian and Bernard Cornwell.

At his best, in the Ballista novels, Sidebottom’s work is characterized by a keen eye and sense of humour, teamed with research-based authenticity, a confident, lucid writing style, rollicking plots, a moral awareness, a degree of sensitivity, and a grounding in the genres of contemporary popular culture, notably the Western.

The Ballista novels seem to hold a special place in the hearts of Sidebottom fans. With The Throne of the Caesars trilogy, he explored a weightier, more ponderous format, and my guess is it bit him in the butt commercially.

There was a change in publisher. The first two novels with the new publisher, Zaffre, are a bid to reassert the thriller creds of the Sidebottom brand. They seem to me directed to a target audience that is mostly (but not wholly) male, whose reading is perhaps (but not always) confined to military adventure novels and graphic novels, and really wants a fast page-turner.

Both The Lost Ten and The Last Hour deliver to that demographic.

For me, I think it would be a shame to consign the Sidebottom output solely to that demographic, however. In my humble opinion, there are rewards to reading Sidebottom novels that extend well beyond.

I look forward to whatever Sidebottom writes next, and to rejoining Ballista’s continued adventures.


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Untitled (2018)

I nursed my father in my arms as he died
spewing black blood.
Do you think any residue between me and you
means anything
alongside that?

I do a lot of death.
The ones who grow old
The people who don’t
Those who barely made it past the cradle.
I wait in the market in Damascus and
no one is unexpected.

I stand on a bridge and
sooner or later they all pass by.
I extend my hand and
welcome them.

Hello, I say.
I have a room prepared.


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Review: The Silence of the Girls (2018) by Pat Barker – “I heard him before I saw him”

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“You know how European literature begins?” he’d ask, after having taken the roll at the first class meeting. “With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight.” And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad and read to the class the opening lines. “ ‘Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles… Beginning where they first quarreled, Agamemnon the King of men, and great Achilles.’ And what are they quarreling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war.”

The Human Stain, Philip Roth – as quoted in the frontpiece of The Silence of The Girls

Why did Pat Barker not title her intelligent, engaging and troubling novel The Silence of the Women? Because she tells a tale of girls, mostly, young girls taken as war trophies and held in sexual servitude by the killers of their families.

I’d heard [the enemy commanders’] plans for Troy […]. Every man and boy killed […] pregnant women to be speared in the belly on the off chance their child would be a boy, and for the other women, gang rape, beatings, mutilation, slavery. A few women – or rather a very few girls, mainly royal or of aristocratic birth – would be shared out among the kings […] I might easily end up living the life of the common women, dodging blows by day and sleeping under the huts at night […]

Briseis

Pat Barker, Man Booker-winning author of the Regeneration Trilogy, which tells of the human damage wrought by WW1, is not the first author to retell Homer’s Iliad in the imagined voice of Briseis, the young girl at the centre of the rift between Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the Achaeans (Bronze Age Greeks) and the armies’ most feared warrior, Achilles. Daughter of Troy, by Sarah B Franklin, precedes The Silence of The Girls, but I haven’t been able to find information about that book.

Other authors have deployed Briseis as a character in their fictions: Christa Wolf, in her novel Kassandra; Judith Starkston, in Hand of Fire (2014); Madeline Miller, in The Song of Achilles (2011).

The Song of Achilles – which missed the mark for me so completely I couldn’t read far enough in to meet Briseis – represents Briseis as being in love with Achilles’ loved companion, Patroclus. Best-selling author Marion Bradley Zimmer had a stab at Achilles’ story in Fire Brand (1987), where she presents Briseis as in love with Achilles.

Possibly the most widely recognized representation of Briseis in contemporary English-speaking culture is actress Rose Byrne’s film portrayal of the character in the Brad Pitt vehicle Troy (2004), where, again, Briseis is shown as being in love with Brad-Achilles. The 2018 BBC TV series Troy: Fall of a City features a Rose Byrne look-alike playing Briseis (I don’t who Briseis loves in this one).

In The Silence of The Girls, Pat Barker’s Briseis wonders “What will they make of us, those people of [the far future]? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys; the enslavement of women and girls; they won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps?”

Pat Barker tells the story of living in a rape camp.

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I’m impressed by this novel on multiple levels, although it took a while to grab me. The language is plain. So much literary writing at present is ambitious in its use of language and form, but Barker, speaking as Briseis, keeps it straight. Sometimes that can read flat. It also serves to make the occasional excursions into the supernatural – the appearance of gods, the workings of gods – startling, at first seeming incongruous. But Homer’s language is stark, and incursions by the gods are a fact of life in The Iliad, so: so be it.

I’ll say only that I’m unused to magical realism where the realism so lacks in magic and the magic is so matter of fact.

Another thing that startles is Barker’s occasional references to northern European physical attributes: Achilles’ silver hair, his cousin Ajax’s blondness, a doctor’s green eyes, a king’s grey eyes. Ethnicity in the ancient world is a contested area, but the Achaeans as described by Homer are not the dark-eyed, olive-skinned peoples of the later Mediterranean worlds. That said, it’s curious Barker chooses to introduce this element, particularly since the language her characters use is neither archaic nor contemporary but instead, faintly anachronistic, as if the writer is still immersed in the world of the Great War 1914-18 and British Imperialism, or perhaps is suggesting analogies.

Barker doesn’t describe Briseis’s appearance directly. From the comments of others, its plain she’s very beautiful: elegant but with (sorry) huge knockers. Her breasts announce her. (Really. It’s in the text.)

Homeric legend is more explicit: Homer’s Briseis is lauded for her golden hair, blue eyes and fair skin.

I found, when I did some research after reading, that the name “Briseis” simply means “daughter of Brisis”, just as the name of Agamemnon’s girl, Chryseis, means “daughter of Chrysis”. To borrow from Margaret Atwood, and The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s like calling a character “Offred” (‘Of Fred’), except with reference to the father as patriarch rather than the sexual master. Briseis could equally be “Ofachilles”, Chryseis “Ofagamemnon”.

Briseis’s actual given name, according to legend, was Hippodameia. My Greek is rudimentary, but I believe that might translate as “Horsegoddess”, which casts a wholly different light on Briseis’s symbolic role in The Iliad. (I see, too, that the Trojan hero Hector’s wife Andromache might translate as “man killer”, which likewise positions her differently, as a kind of Amazon – the Amazons came to Troy’s aid as allies. It could also translate as “manly fighting spirit”. After Achilles killed her husband, and her infant son was flung from the walls of Troy, Andromache was given as a sex slave to Achilles’s adolescent son.)

This is such an interesting book, and I do not want any comment of mine to denigrate it, but I think what I took away that troubled me most is this:

Briseis is attempting to author her own story. She is represented as telling the tale of her captivity many years later, having turned her back on the sand dunes of the Greek camp as a 19 year old, boarded a ship to a new life, and made that a full and fascinating life (by her own account): “Once, not so long ago, I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story – and failed. Now, my own story can begin.”

Good for her.

My problem is this.

Pat Barker tells most of The Silence of The Girls in Briseis’s voice. But there are things Briseis cannot know and cannot tell. So in the second half of the book, there are sequences told in the third person from the point of view of Achilles. These sequences are for me the most compelling and effective parts of the novel. These sequences – not least the visit by King Priam of Troy to Achilles to ransom his son Hector’s body – have an emotional charge that leaves much of Briseis’s narrative pallid by comparison. (Briseis’s voice does share the telling the Priam episode. But it’s Achilles’ perspectives that carry the charge.)

Is it the age old problem that the Devil has all the best tunes? That sociopaths are more compelling than victims? That the sins and sufferings of violent men are stories we are acculturated to attend to, that we can’t look away from violent men, though we turn away, time and again, from beaten women?

After an entire novel that purports to be a platform for Briseis to speak for herself, and her sisters, is this, in the end, what’s meant by The Silence of The Girls?

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Last word:

My favourite paragraphs from The Silence of The Girls:

There’s a story he once chased the god Apollo all over the plains of Troy. Cornered at last, Apollo is supposed to have said: “You can’t kill me, I’m immortal.” “Ah, yes,” Achilles replied. “But we both know if you weren’t immortal, you’d be dead.”

Nobody was ever allowed the last word; not even a god.


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All The Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr – how I learned to stop worrying and love the War (Doctor Strangelove moves in mysterious ways)

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This is not the review I prepared to write when I sat down a short while ago.

I have a friend, a novelist, who is skeptical about Reader Response theory: a literary criticism theory that focuses on how readers’ individual life experiences and beliefs shape their understandings of a text, as opposed to literary criticism that focuses on the author’s intentions, or the formal qualities of a text – crudely summarized, every novel a Rorschach Test, capable of being read in multiple ways.

My novelist friend is clear his intentions are paramount. His novels mean what he means them to mean. If readers take from them understandings that he did not intend, it’s a misreading.

I tend to differ. (Perhaps that’s obvious – I blog my individualistic responses. I gravitate to themes and issues that reflect my own concerns.)

I believe we will read the same book differently at age 60 than we did at age 16, or 30. We will read books differently depending on our emotional environment at the time of reading – what we’re dealing outside the covers of the book. Mostly I think of this in terms of life stages, but today I had an acute lesson in how what we take from a book can depend even on what’s happening within a given 48 hour period.

Lots of people deeply love All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. It won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was a National Book Award in the author’s native United States, a New York Times #1 bestseller (as the cover proudly proclaims).

I liked this novel. I liked it quite a lot. Some aspects of it I liked very much indeed. But as the final 50 pages counted down, I grew less and less enamoured. By the time I closed its cover, I was nonplussed. That night, cynical. This morning, irritated.

There was no question All The Light We Cannot See is beautifully written. For me, it was just that bit too beautiful, that bit too soulful, too sensitive. It made me long for a punk or grunge riposte.

Here’s my draft review, written at that time:

There are two types of novel, it seems, at present. In one type, the author is a ruthless god, killing characters who logic dictates must die, or killing just because s/he can. The other type is humanist, somewhat sentimental; hopeful refractions of humankind. This type tends to be American.

All The Light We Cannot See is a novel about WW2 written by an author from Idaho. It is indeed “Sublime” (The Times) and “Magnificent” (The Guardian). Oprah magazine likes it too. At this point, 100 pages from the end, its dual narratives are both peaking, its dual protagonists both in extreme peril.

I am confident the author plans to rescue them, or at least let their deaths have meaning.

[If you detect snark, you’d be right. I was saying the narrative line struck me as predictable – and implausible. I was suggesting there is a cosy fairy-tale at the heart of the handkerchief wrenching.]

I wish writers in this genre [the humanistic war epic] knew when to STOP, or when to strip it back: there were important points Doerr wanted to make in those last 53 pages [the post-War ‘Whatever happened to…” section], but for me they were 52 pages too many. [Man-Booker 2014 winner] The Narrow Road to the Deep North [by Australian author Richard Flanagan] had similar problems, in a somewhat similar project [in Flanagan’s case, addressing POW experiences in Changi and on the Burma Death Railway, then continuing to examine at great length what happened to his fictional characters afterwards]. To me it reads self-indulgent.

[This is a hard call. I’m certain both Doerr and Flanagan would say that the sections of their novels that deal with how their characters’ lives unfolded in the decades after the War is where it lives. They intend to examine the lasting impacts of war. In Doerr’s case, especially, his whole point is what lives on.

Me, I frankly wish the characters were left at a point of unpredictability. I wish we were left not knowing, required to use our imaginations to fill in the future – left, like the characters, displaced, facing an uncertain world. The ‘arguments against’ of course include the educative function of novels of this type (later generations don’t necessarily have the knowledge to imaginatively inhabit those spaces); the authors’ own preferences, their planned projects; and the outrage most readers would feel if these characters were sent out adrift – the t’s uncrossed, the i’s not dotted.]

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I see in American writing a tendency to look back to WW2 as “the last heroic age”. There’s a valid desire to ensure what happened is remembered, and to cast the events as fables, as warnings. A book like All The Light You Cannot See is actually extremely effective in presenting aspects of wartime human experience and historic episodes, obscure [in the Doerr book, the Allied assault on St-Malo in France, and the Schulpforta Hitler Youth schools in the Reich] and better known (The Narrow Road to the Deep North).

The turn-off for me is the tone: all that effortful profundity; the wise, sorrowful voice, the self-conscious delicacy. Yes, it’s elegant, but IMO it’s overworked and kind of smug, the literary equivalent of an “Oscar bait” movie, a Manchester By The Sea. As if we read it or watch it to remind ourselves of how sensitive we are that we are so moved by the tragedies of others.

Also, embedded in the noble soulful remembrance of times past stuff there’s a wartime romp involving a sinister German sergeant-major and a cursed diamond, and frankly I came to be more involved in that narrative than in the cosmic significance.

[That’s not entirely true. I enjoyed The Adventure of the Cursed Diamond, as I enjoy a Tin-Tin comic, or a Madeline adventure – the Ludwig Bemelmans children’s classics, not Proust – and I was amused. But the sequences in the book I found most affecting were those that traced the life of the young German, Werner Pfennig.]

The author IMO over-egged the “What you could have been!” waste of human potential till the novel came to read, for me, like a shaggy dog tale culminating in a one-liner: all that lost humanity transposed into a metaphor about radio and cyberspace communications – we/they as infinite ghosts in the ether. Violins played.

Indeed.

That was my draft review. What changed?

Here I was being a Grinch. The background was the lingering death of my sister and her husband’s nephew, who 48 hours ago was about to be taken off life support .

I did not believe in fairies. I did not believe in Doerr’s elfin blind heroine, Marie-Laure. I did not believe in her loving papa, her endearing (and miraculously healed!) great-uncle, her Mary Poppins housekeeper, her gently jovial mentor, her Man In The Iron Mask mysterious Resistance friend. I absolutely did not believe in her miniature intricately crafted plywood model of a town of 865 mostly medieval buildings (I could not for the life of me figure out scale). Not even as Magical Realism, I did not believe.

Then today, one hour ago, my sister texted. Wills is to be removed from his ventilator today, but not to die. He’s to be removed because now, it seems he will live.

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I don’t know if there’s an author who planned to rescue Will (refer above). I do know that for his family and carers, Will’s death would have had meanings; as does his life.


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Review: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (2018) by Andrew Miller

English-hussar_Elly_McDonald-WriterOn March 16 1968 Lieutenant William Calley ordered the men of 1st Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry of the 23rd Infantry Division of the United States Army to kill every person in the Viet Cong village My Lai.

At his court martial nearly three years later he claimed he acted on orders from his superior officer, Captain Ernest Medina.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is set in 1809 and centres on a massacre in the Spanish village Los Morales by British troops retreating from Napoleon’s forces. One key character is called Corporal Calley. Another is named Ernesto Medina.

The My Lai massacre trial caused a sensation in the United States, with some senior military personnel vehemently condemning Calley and Medina as rogue elements bringing the U.S. Army into disrepute; others, including conservative politicians, insisting Calley and his unit were justified in their actions; and yet others arguing Calley was symptomatic of American policy and was scapegoated as an individual.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is a meditation on the morality of war, the circumstances in which such a massacre might happen, who might perpetrate war crimes, and who should be held accountable.

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It is also a poetic and mystical travelogue. The Hebrides, the islands off western Scotland, were in ancient times reputed to be a place of sorcery and magics; a tradition presenting the islands and the Highlands, the Gaelic realms, as supernatural lives on in popular culture from Brigadoon to Local Hero to the contemporary hit TV series Outlander. The Scottish west coast is a portal, the Hebrides another world, its islands akin to the island in The Tempest, where strange music is heard: this is the dreamworld of Now We Shall Be Entirely Free.

In this novel, the British cavalry officer who is held responsible for the Los Morales massacre is Captain John Lacroix. John Lacroix barely survives the retreat and evacuation to England. He suffers what we’d now call PTSD. Long before he has any inkling retribution is pursuing him (“I am the War”, says Corporal Calley), Lacroix flees further, to Scotland, to the islands. In the islands, he encounters forms of healing magic: music, friendship, love.

Can John Lacroix be redeemed? Does he deserve to be? Did he deserve to be condemned? Is justice, what’s ‘deserved’, even relevant? Is fate random? Or supernaturally determined?

This is a tale where I genuinely could not predict the ending. I don’t normally spend a lot of energy predicting how narratives will resolve, but with this novel, I fretted. And I got it wrong.

“[H]e saw things etched on the sea. A woman in a white dress, turning like a star”, a woman who is a seer, a prophetess, a blindfolded goddess of judgement, who “dreamed her bed was on the sea and that she had looked back at the island and seen the house”.

I was taken by the leitmotifs the author embraces. The sound of the sea. The sound of singing. The constant references to singing, to the sea, to music, to language as song. Lacroix reflects that all Gaelic is one long conversation with the sea. He reflects that “these people, the Gaels, were a curious mix, rooted and practical, but living easily among dreams and stories and superstition, one ear always pressed against the night-world, or whatever it was, the correct name for that part of life people were forgetting how to address.”

The spiritual, the fantastical, death. The new gods – technologies, surgery, populism, the cults that spring up as conventional religion fails – and the old gods, the gods who ride sea cows, walk across waters, speak through waves and await in currents.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free looks towards the modern, but does not forget the old forms of address.

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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (2018) – moral decisions

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A murder will occur tonight in a crumbling stately heap named Blackheath, at 11pm. You know who the victim is.* Your mission – and you have no choice but to accept – is to identify the killer. You have eight days to do this: the same day will repeat, Groundhog Day-like, eight times; each day you will inhabit the body (and assimilate some mental traits) of a different witness. Make good use of each window to investigate.

Each day you will co-exist alongside – interact with – your other iterations. You may discover who they are as the days repeat. You may offer to collaborate. They may – or may not – do so.

You are in competition with two other souls tasked with the same mission. The first correct answer wins. The winner will be returned to his/her initial identity, have his/her memory restored, and will be permitted to leave this place. The two laggards will not.

Oh. Watch out for the sociopathic sadist footman. Footman, as in attendant on a hunting shoot. Btw: almost every guest invited to Blackheath’s masque ball and hunt has brought a footman. Which is the one?

And who is Anna?

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This is the premise for The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which its author describes as a “time-travel, body-hopping murder-mystery novel”. The cover blurbs refer to it as “unique” and “original”, as if this territory isn’t worked repeatedly by David Mitchell (The Body Clocks, Slade House), and as if the plot construction doesn’t owe a debt to games design. But I’ll grant it’s “darkly comic, mind-blowingly twisty”, “energising and clever”, and given his vision of grafting time travel, body-hopping onto an Agatha Christie-style English Country House Weekend murder mystery, I’ll grant Stuart Turton the title “the Mad Hatter of crime”.

Turton himself refers to the genesis of his novel as “Lynchian”, referring to filmmaker David Lynch.

Allowing the narrator’s consciousness to live in the present tense through the vehicles of eight other individuals permits multiple perspectives on solving the murder. The narrator, who we learn has voluntarily submitted himself to this bizarre “puzzle box house”, Blackheath, is, we are given to understand, one Aiden Bishop.

Bishop is a moral character, a character who believes in justice and subscribes to judgement. His musings invite the reader to engage in multiple moral perspectives. Which loyalties carry most weight? Is redemption possible? Can an evil person work good? Can seemingly inevitable futures be averted?

A masked man in a black-feathered coat, known as the Plague Doctor, tells him

“Nothing that’s happening here is inevitable, much as it may appear otherwise. Events keep happening the same way day after day, because your fellow guests keep making the same decisions day after day. […] They cannot see another way, so they never change. You are different, Mr Bishop. […] You make different decisions, and yet repeat the same mistakes at crucial junctures. It’s as if some part of you is perpetually pulled towards the pit.”

The Plague Doctor speculates this is Bishop’s nature. To break out of Blackheath, Bishop will need to change his decisions so markedly that he has in effect changed his nature – become a different man.

“[E]very man is in a cage of his own making,” proclaims the Plague Doctor.

This is a version of Hell.

The very name “Blackheath” summons a kind of hell: Blackheath south of the Thames in London, where thousands of plague dead lie buried (and where Blackheath Village is now a genteel suburb peopled by the kinds of upper-middleclass folk who enjoy Agatha Christie and will read this novel. I lived there myself for eight years). A “plague doctor” was a person who in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries attended to plague victims, wearing “a beak-like mask which was filled with aromatic items. The masks were designed to protect them from putrid air, which (according to the miasmatic theory of disease) was seen as the cause of infection. […] These doctors rarely cured their patients; rather, they served to record a count of the number of people contaminated for demographic purposes.” [Wiki]

 

 

Blackheath has resonances of Limbo, from the Latin ‘Limbus’, meaning “edge’ or “boundary”, referring to the “edge” of Hell (ref Wiki). But the Roman Catholic religious concept ‘Limbo’ condemns those consigned there to eternity. Blackheath is more like a Purgatory, from which those destined to be saved will eventually be delivered.

More closely, Blackheath draws on the Hindu concept Samskara:

Sanskara (IASTsaṃskāra, sometimes spelled samskara)

In the context of karma theory, Sanskara are dispositions, character or behavioral traits, that exist as default from birth or prepared and perfected by a person over one’s lifetime, that exist as imprints on the subconscious according to various schools of Hindu philosophy such as the Yoga school.[3][5] These perfected or default imprints of karma within a person, influences that person’s nature, response and states of mind. – Wikipedia

Samskara is the repetition of behaviours that results in deeply entrenched behavioural patterns, in ruts, that effectively constrain our choices, determine our actions, and hence our outcomes: our karma.

To break Samskara, a concerted moral effort, an effort of courage, is required, and consistency.

The hell that is Blackheath is the hell of the addict, and more than one of Bishop’s host entities are addicted to drugs, alcohol, food, criminal, immoral or self-defeating behaviours.

The other guests at the masque ball at Blackheath are a Hieronymus Bosch representation of Hell, an evil cornucopia of vice. They are trapped in Samskara, doomed to repeat the same vile behaviours ad infinitum.

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Yet the Plague Doctor tells Bishop he is different, “Each time you fail, we strip your memories and start the loop again, but you always find a way to hold onto something important, a clue if you will.”

The nature of the clue he wakes up to each new loop determines the tone, the nature, of that loop.

This loop, Bishop’s clue is “Anna”.

Bishop finds that with each successive host entity, the residual memories and traits of each host grow stronger. He first wakes as a man who is a blank slate, a man who can recall only the name “Anna”, and a vague sense that who he is, is a coward. His earliest hosts’ vices merely niggle at Bishop; his later hosts’ vices threaten to overwhelm him.

Each of Bishop’s hosts has different strengths and weaknesses, and he’s challenged to learn how to best use each one’s strengths, and best manage each one’s weaknesses.

He learns that masks, and being in different guises, only serve to reveal underlying character. Embodied in different entities, oftentimes he is only recognised by allies and prospective allies as Bishop because his behaviour contrasts with the way his host would have behaved.

At one point he tells a man with a differing philosophy, “We’re never more ourselves than when we think people aren’t watching, don’t you realise that?”

The other man argues back that Blackheath is a “puzzle, with disposable pieces”.

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He argues that “Avoiding unpleasant acts doesn’t make a man good.”

The person killed today will reappear in endless tomorrows, to be killed again. Are they “never anything more than a trick of the light […]. Shadows cast on a wall”?

Are the characters that people Blackheath anything other than two-dimensional? Are they imbued with any real humanity? If not, does their fate matter? What is actually at stake?

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The recurring time-loop that is the prison Blackheath is clearly a moral project, but what is its purpose?

The Plague Doctor provides a clue: “Do you know how you can tell if a monster’s fit to walk the earth again, Mr Bishop? […] You give them a day without consequences, and you watch what they do with it.”

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[MAJOR SPOILERS FROM HERE ON]

As well as being a moralist, Aiden Bishop is a romantic.

When the Blackheath puzzle ends, he believes in a future he must know is impossible:

“It seems like a dream, too much to hope for […]. The luxury of waking up in the same bed two days in a row, or being able to reach the next village should I choose. The luxury of sunshine. The luxury of honesty. The luxury of living a life without a murder at the end of it.”

This, despite the Plague Doctor warning him, “Once you’re released, start running and don’t stop. That’s your only chance.”

Despite that he has no knowledge of the life he’ll be returned to – to what point in Bishop’s timeline, into what practical reality. What paperwork do citizens require? How is ID established? Will irises be read, faces mapped, fingerprints scanned? How is food and shelter obtained? Income acquired? Transport accessed?

Don’t get out of the carriage.

Seems to me there is death at the end of this road. In effect, the footman still awaits.

Aiden Bishop, who was finally able to combine the multiple perspectives and talents of eight different hosts to make sense of what happened in Blackheath, appears, in his haste to shed everything he learned at Blackheath, to have fallen once again into the pit dug by the dominant trait of his nature: that is, the rut of his obstinate tunnel vision.

Whatever happens next is karma.

Yet Bishop is a delirious optimist:

“Tomorrow can be whatever I want it to be […]. Instead of being something to fear, it can be a promise I make myself. A chance to be braver or kinder, to make what was wrong right. To be better than I am today.”

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*Or maybe you only think you know.


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Review: Stone Mattress (2014) – nine tales by Margaret Atwood

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Growing old is a sorcery, a transformation.

It’s liminal: the gateway to other worlds, other mysteries.

To grow old is to learn what Merlin knew, what Prospero discovered.

There are powers that come with age: powers of far-seeing; powers to forgive, powers to avenge; powers of release, powers to persist.

Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress (2014), a collection of nine tales, builds on Hag-Seed (2007), her re-working of Shakespeare’s tale The Tempest, to explore aging through the tropes of fantasy, myth and folklore.

She’s particularly concerned with sexual karma (aging people reconnecting with past lovers); entrapment; with how we ‘write’ our personal mythologies; with how the act of writing exerts its magic, its power; and with contemporary ‘folklore’ – genre writing in popular culture, whether fantasy, horror, or crime.

The last tale, ‘Torching the Dusties’, is to my mind the crowning glory: who are “the aged,” in contemporary culture? What do they represent, for us? What do they embody?

The weakest tale, on the face of it, is ‘Lusus Naturae’ (Latin for “freak of nature”), which at first seems rote – I wrote a similar tale myself, aged 22. But this is a collection, where each tale is a facet of every other, casting light and shadow, and with its Frankenstein references, fire-fuelled mob rampages, ‘Torching the Dusties’ is the obvious counterpoint to ‘Lusus Naturae’:

“When demons are required someone will always be found to supply the part, and whether you step forward or are pushed is all the same in the end”.

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These tales are so rich in mythic reference a tale by tale deconstruction would overflow a mere blog’s confines. But, as befits a collection titled Stone Mattress, the most obvious references are to Sleeping Beauty and its kin: the lover preserved, or preserved in fantasy; the lover’s kiss; the awakening. Atwood introduces ambiguities. The murderess who needs her “beauty sleep”. Who are the innocents, who the monsters? Who casts the spell, and when are spells benign?

Related, the trope of imprisonment: the lover spellbound, or cursed – the lover contained. A “stone mattress”, after all, is a stromatolite:

The word comes from the Greek stroma, a mattress, coupled with the root word for stone. Stone mattress: a fossilized cushion, formed by layer upon layer of blue-green algae building up into a mound or dome. It was the very same blue-algae that created the oxygen they are now breathing. Isn’t that astonishing?

A stromatolite, a stone mattress, is analogous to the archetypal experiences men and women have enjoyed and endured since the dawn of time. It is the very air we breathe. It is our hearts, pumping, hardening. In the tale ‘Stone Mattress,’ the old folks on a cruise ship dance to Hearts of Stone.

Stromatolite

The first three tales – ‘Alphinland’, ‘Revenant’, ‘Dark Lady’ – are a trilogy, concerning what at first presents as a dyad (Constance and Ewan) but transforms into the archetypal triangle (Constance/Gavin/Jorrie). Constance, who as “C.W. Starr” is the author of a massively successfully decades-long fantasy series set in her imagined world, Alphinland, is now a widow but was once the muse and lover of the poet Gavin, the Gawain of her youth.

Gavin has aged into a vain and cantankerous mediocrity, but Constance’s myth of Gavin lives on in Alphinland, asleep, a Sleeping Beauty, in a hidden cask – much as her husband Ewan lives on in a chest in her attic, embodied by his old clothes. (By the way – Gavin is contained within a wine cask, evoking the Duke of Clarence’s death as depicted in Shakespeare’s Richard III – drowned in a vat of Malmsey sweet wine. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to suggest a Shakespeare reference here, given Atwood referred to Shakespeare’s Richard III in Hag-Seed, and given Hag-Seed explored containment, fantasy and the deep sleeps of enchantment in its retelling of The Tempest.)

Constance conjures a number of devices for metaphorical imprisonment: in her mind are filing cabinets; her mind is a memory palace.

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Jorrie is the Dark Lady who came between Constance and Gavin, transformed in Alphinland into the Scarlet Sorceress of Ruptous (rupture, rapturous), “walled up in a stone beehive”, where “every day at twelve noon sharp, [she] is stung by a hundred emerald and indigo bees. Their stings are like white-hot needles combined with red-hot chili sauce, and the pain is beyond excruciating” – ‘Alphinland’.

Another standout is the title tale, ‘Stone Mattress’: an enchantress enacts a primordial (literally, primal) revenge on the male mortal who wronged her.

Redeemed_Sorceress

I’m a long time, life-long, aficionado of the fantasy genre. As I keep bleating, my attempted MA thesis was on Transformation and Shapeshifting in Early Medieval Literature. I’m also a carer for an octogenarian mother, a daughter who held her father across his last hours through till his death. For me, a big part of the pleasure in reading Stone Mattress is how Atwood shifts her representation of various characters between their archetypes, their counterparts in myth – Nimue, Vivian, Bluebeard, Jessica Rabbit – and their actuality; between their spirit, as undying archetypes, and their material reality, as bodies experiencing decay.

A raven flies, overhead. Can it tell? Is it waiting? She looks down through its eyes, sees an old woman – because, face it, she is an old woman now – on the verge of murdering an even older man because of an anger already fading into the distance of used-up time. It’s paltry. It’s vicious. It’s normal. It’s what happens in life.

– ‘Stone Mattress’

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Andrew Lloyd-Greensmith, The Inner Stillness of Eileen Kramer (2017)

Sometimes the trajectory is from youth straight to decay, as in the tale within the tale in ‘The Dead Hand Loves You’ (where a female Sleeping Beauty is wakened by a monster), and ‘The Freeze-Dried Groom’ (another Sleeping Beauty – but who is the beauty, who the witch or monster?). Other times it ‘magically’ reverses: in ‘Torching the Dusties,’ a slightly ridiculous older man turns into a dignified, honorable Sir Lancelot; a cynical male pulp fiction writer is awakened by the touch of his princess (‘The Dead Hand Loves You’).

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In the tale ‘Stone Mattress’, a ‘prince’ is ‘awakened’ in the rudest terms by a girl he turned into a monster, and a male Sleeping Beauty awakened by a touch fails to recognize the princess, or even the girl, seeing only the monster:

They say dead people can’t see their own reflections, and it was true; I could not see myself. I saw something, but that was not myself: it looked nothing like the kind and pretty girl I knew myself to be, at heart.

– ‘Lusus Naturae’

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Underlying Stone Mattress is the problem of recognition: seeing through the spells, the glamours, recognizing people for who, for what, they are.

In ‘Revenant’ (which means, ‘The Dreamer’)

[…] Maria’s just a nice, ordinary high school girl making a few bucks, dime a dozen, nothing special. Hardly a nymphet, hardly the beckoning sapsucker from “Death In Venice.” […] Still, he likes the idea of Maria as the Angel of Death. He’s about due for one of those. He’d rather see an angel in his dying moment than nothing at all.

In ‘Stone Mattress’

Verna’s heart is beating more rapidly. If he recognizes me spontaneously, I won’t kill him, she thinks. If I tell him who I am and he recognizes me and then apologizes, I still won’t kill him. That’s two more escape chances than he gave her.

In ‘Dark Lady’

“She doesn’t recognize me!” Jorrie whispers. […] Who would recognize you, thinks Tin, with that layer of stucco and dragon scales on your face? […]

She [Constance] knows exactly who Jorrie is: despite the gold flakes and the bronze powder, she must have known from the first minute.

Gold_dragon_witch

When Constance recognizes the truth of Jorrie, the two sorceresses experience a shared moment of truth. They have the opportunity to release each other.

“We live in two places,” says Constance. “There isn’t any past in Alphinland. There isn’t any time. But there’s time here, where we are now. We still have a little time left.”

There always was “an alternate vision stashed in Constance’s inner filing cabinet, in which Constance and [Jorrie] recognized each other […] with cries of delight, and went for a coffee, and had a big bray over Gavin and his poems and his yen for blow jobs. But that never happened. ” – ‘Alphinland’.

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Even as Constance and Jorrie in ‘Dark Lady’ work through their karma, the spells that have bound them, a younger writer watches, recognizing this as her moment of power:

She’s embedding us in amber, thinks Tin. Like ancient insects. Preserving us forever. In amber beads, in amber words. Right before our eyes.

Because that’s what happens to old people. They either turn to dust, or they turn into myth.

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Margaret Atwood as Prospero


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Reviews: Gillespie and I (2011) and Sugar Money (2018) by Jane Harris

Jane Harris is a British author and screenwriter who is the same age as I am and if I were the envious kind I suppose I should hate her. Her writing is brilliant.

Her first novel, The Observations (2006) was a finalist in Britain’s Orange Prize for Fiction 2007. Her second novel, Gillespie and I (2011), is similarly set in Glasgow, where Belfast-born Harris grew up and attended university.

Harris takes obvious delight in setting herself the task of researching a time and place so thoroughly that she feels able to inhabit the first-person voices of people whose fictional lives are, on the face of it, far removed from her own lived experience: a 15 year old ladies’ maid in 1863, a deranged English spinster in 1888 and 1933, a pubescent male black slave on Grenada and Martinique in 1765.

Wait up, you say (or at least, the reviewer in The Guardian says). A pubescent male black slave in 1765? But how can a white female British author presume to take the voice of a black male slave?

We’ll get there.

First, Gillespie and I, a fictional narrative in the form of a memoir: purportedly written by one Harriet Brown, at the age of 80, in 1933, about events that occurred when she was in her 30s – well and truly on the shelf, in the marriage market of her times. Harriet starts out asserting she is writing a biography of the (fictional) Scottish artist Ned Gillespie, but it’s evident almost at once she is writing about herself, in the most self-serving terms.

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I doubt too many are clamoring to protect the authentic voice of privileged middleaged white female spinster stalkers, let alone white female stalkers who deploy the memoir form to write about the victims of their stalking. Those who have read blogs in the ‘Memoir’ category of this blogsite might be aware I am myself a middleaged, verging on elderly, white female spinster with a history as a stalker, who does write memoir pieces claiming relationships with people she has stalked.

Given the parallels between what Harriet Brown is doing and what I’ve done in blogs, Gillespie and I made for uncomfortable reading for me. But it sets out to be uncomfortable – if also, often, hilarious – reading. When I discussed it last night with friends I expressed the sanctimonious opinion it makes all of us – not merely the SWF stalkers – question where in our lives we promote delusional stories about who we are and how others perceive us.

Gillespie and I is long, 501 pages. The first half is relatively restrained and sometimes feels unduly detailed and protracted (which makes sense, once you realise it’s the case for the defence). The first-person narrative voice is highly stylized, alternately prim and vitriolic, and initially I found it off-putting. In the very early stages, only a mischievous sentence in the Preface persuaded me to sign on for the duration:

“I never suspected that we were moving towards such a rapid unraveling, not only of our relationship (what with that silly white slavery business and the trial) but also of his [the artist Gillespie’s] entire fate.”

The unravelling, which commences at the halfway point, is rapid indeed. The second half of the book is faultless, a wild savage scamper to a vicious end.

Harris seeds her text with other teasers to make us persist in the early parts of the tale, and by about page 135 I was hooked by the malevolent humour and originality. And the cleverness. Such a very clever text!

I read a review that described Gillespie and I as a “masterpiece of misdirection”. That phrase prompted me to seek out this title, but I suspect that critic misunderstands the term “misdirection”. It has a legal sense, not pertinent to this novel (although it becomes a courtroom drama); it also has a meaning specific to magic tricks. Misdirection, as neatly summarized on Wiki, is “a form of deception in which the attention of the audience is focused on one thing in order to distract its attention from another” – a technique to facilitate sleight of hand.

Gillespie and I does not do that. What Gillespie and I does is create what I’ll call a double narrative, a shadow narrative that reads counter to the narrator’s intentions. Quickly we recognize that this narrator is not merely unreliable: she is so far divorced from ‘truth’ that she’s lost its address. She is either completely self-serving, without conscience, or she is delusional. She’s attempting to reclaim a narrative she’s long since lost control over: she writes untruths that the truth glares through.

Reading ‘Harriet Brown’ made me seriously consider deleting every memoir blog post I’ve written.

My friends asked whether Gillespie and I has a point, as in a moral. I suppose I could take as its moral something like “Be careful how you speak (or write) about other people; what you say about others speaks more loudly of who you are’. But I don’t believe Jane Harris set out to write a fable. Instead, I read Gillespie and I as a strikingly wicked gothic fairytale about the havoc evil forces can wreak on the unsuspecting. Harriet Brown, with her hooked nose, her tall hats, her garb of grey and purple and black, is a witch, a nightmare witch.

She calls to mind the Scottish bedtime prayer; “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night, good Lord deliver us.”

Sugar_Money_Jane_Harris

Like Gillespie and I, Sugar Money is told by a first person narrator, in an act of ventriloquism requiring huge amounts of research. As with Gillespie and I, the first person voice is highly stylized, in this case employing dialect: Creole phrases and sentences, a mélange of French, English and African linguistic elements.

Again, I found the first person voice initially so offputting I almost gave up. I’m glad I didn’t.

The Guardian’s reviewer disliked this book absolutely: she objected to a white writer speaking as a black slave; she argued the stories of black slavery are not the white writer’s to tell; she believed the use of the classic adventure genre (think Treasure Island) was inappropriate to such a serious subject; she felt the way the tale unfolded was initially way too soft in its depiction of the conditions of slavery, and that by the time Harris laid it out in explicit ugliness it was too little, too late; she proposed that black writers have addressed the issues raised in Sugar Money more powerfully, more authentically, such that the white writer added nothing of value.

Also, specifically, that reviewer felt the romance is “underdone” (is it proper to write about slavery with reference to the romance genre?); and that issues are touched on in mere sentences where Toni Morrison would take pages, whole books.

As a SWF – a SWSF, Single White Spinster Female, a SSWFS (Spinster Single White Female Stalker, no less – I can’t argue with those perspectives. Except I will, to say (1) Jane Harris did not set out to write books already written by Toni Morrison – if she alludes to abuses such as black slave couples being forcibly split up without making it her novel’s central issue, it’s because it is not her novel’s central issue; and (2) there will be those of us who, having read Toni Morrison, and others, still find value in Sugar Money, who will learn much we did not know previously, and are stimulated by the particulars of this time and place – the Caribbean, late C18th – to learn more.

I found Sugar Money affecting and educative. It was also entertaining, though perhaps it is not appropriate for a novel about black slavery to entertain?

I’m out of step with the current orthodoxies here. If a novel is properly researched and sensitively written, I don’t myself have a problem with the author’s demographic or ethnicity. But that’s easy for me to say: I’m speaking from a culturally dominant position.

From that culturally dominant position, my own perspective is: What is the novel, if not the creative exercise of empathy? From that perspective, the questions for me become: did the author succeed in engaging me, entertaining me, moving me, enlightening me, encouraging me to find out more? For me, the answer here is YES.

On the other hand: is the choice to use the first person voice of a fictional character so radically different (in race, gender, historical location) from the author primarily a showy literary move, a bravura performance?

It seems to me to come down to: Is a tale about black slaves in the Caribbean off limits altogether for a white author? If not, can it be told another way, without foregrounding the colonial experience, without making white characters central?

Attempting to write from ‘within’ any historical experience is fraught, even with the most thorough research. Historical subjectivity is immeasurably different from contemporary worldviews.

The cultural appropriation debate will continue. For me, I’m grateful writers with the immense talents of Jane Harris are attempting to re-present historical mores. Even if she is a WF.

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Jane Harris – portrait of the artist as a White Female?


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Reviews: Another American war – Manhattan Beach (2018) by Jennifer Egan, American War (2018) by Omar El Akkad

Two strong novels presenting visions of America at war, at its best and at its worst.

That’s the short summary.

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Manhattan Beach is not an especially long novel, at 433 pages, though the narrative sprawls. It’s set in the early ‘30s, from 1933, and then from about 1942, after U.S. forces entered World War 2. Variously, we see through the eyes of Anna Kerrigan, a splint of steel with a kind of innate, blind mechanical genius; her father, Eddie Kerrigan, a bagman for Irish racketeers on the New York docks; and Dexter Styles, stylish mob boss for the Syndicate.

The characters can be read, allegorically, as embodiments of the traits that made America great: boldness, resilience, resourcefulness, courage, individualism, ambition, idealism, initiative, a certain ruthlessness, ethics that make sense on their own terms but then again – no.

Allegorically, the novel could be read as an ambitious tale of the rise of the American Century, the rise of American world dominance, fuelled by immigrant energy, replete with gangsters and war heroes, chorus girls and dock workers, closet homosexuals, proto-feminists, and systemic racism.

There are nods to other narratives of immigrant reinvention, other relationships between the American Establishment (the world of bankers) and the Mob. In Manhattan Beach, we read counterpoints, echoes, to E L Doctorow’s 1975 bestseller Ragtime, and, more pertinently, to F Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby, and The Last Tycoon, albeit less glamorous.

I envisage Dexter Styles as the young Robert De Niro, playing Monroe Stahr, a character based on movie producer Irving Thalberg, in Elia Kazan’s 1976 film adaptation of The Last Tycoon. Which, incidentally, has what for me might be the most haunting final lines in movies, entirely apposite to Manhattan Beach, from a script by Harold Pinter: the master storyteller, the maestro of reinvention and invention, turning to camera and admitting, “I don’t know what happens next.”

There’s a motif of night skies, dawn skies, silver seas, and moonlight throughout Manhattan Beach, as there was in Kazan’s vision of The Last Tycoon.

That last scene, in The Last Tycoon, with the night sky above a beach, is so entirely apposite to Manhattan Beach I can’t help but wonder if it inspired the novel. But then, I also wonder if Jennifer Egan’s project was to write a response to Trump and his ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan. I wondered as I read whether her plan was to present an optimistic reminder of “the greatest generation” – but the ending is not, in truth, optimistic:

“Look,’ [he] said. “here it comes.”

She was surprised to find him watching the fog. It rolled in fast: a wild volatile silhouette against the phosphorescent sky. It reared up over the land like a tidal wave about to break, or the aftermath of a silent, distant explosion.

Without thinking, she took [his] hand.

“Here it comes,” she said.

Final lines worthy of Harold Pinter.

There’s a character whose verbal quirk calls to mind Samuel Beckett: when he repeats a thing, the repetition negates what he’s saying – “What I want from you […] is that you be your own man. Your own man”, or ‘It’s forgotten. It’s all forgotten’ meaning just the opposite (quote here not exact).

Egan does not generally evoke Beckett, or Pinter, her style being fluid, welcomely readable, astonishingly seductive. Very occasionally, there’s a faint of odour of romantic overripeness, just momentary; and then, at other points, she pokes fun of movie, radio, and popular fiction romance.

When she does write sex, as she does as an extended sequence in Chapter 17, it’s erotically charged and intelligent, and does not neglect context:

And yet there was a problem with the girl in his car – this smart, modern girl with correct values, joined to the war effort, a girl matured by hard times and familial tragedy – and that problem was that all he could think of doing, in a concrete way, was fucking her. The rest – vague notions that she might work for him, that her toughness could be of use, that she was likely a good shot (taut slender arms, visible in the dress she was wearing tonight); confusion about how they had originally met (had someone introduced them?) – flickered at a middle distance, well behind his need to have her. And even as that need made it hard to drive the goddam car, he was also thinking: this was the problem between men and women, what made the professional harmony he envisaged so difficult to achieve. Men ran the world, and they wanted to fuck women. Men said “Girls are weak” when in fact girls made them weak.

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Omar El Akkad’s novel American War is a different proposition: a terrifying, raw novel that imagines a future while simultaneously confronting us with the contemporary politics of displacement, radicalization, terrorism, torture, treason, the fall and rise of empires.

It’s a disturbing read that humanizes (though not necessarily forgives) the players.

American War follows the trajectory of Sarat, an American girl from Louisiana’s south in a United States geographically altered by the encroachment of the seas, due to climate change, and altered politically by the Second American Civil War, 2074-2095, with a breakaway “Free Southern State” (FSS), led by the MAG (Mississippi/Alabama/Georgia, South Carolina having been knocked out by biological weapons), proclaimed after disputes about fossil fuels, acts of terrorism, and political assassinations.

The author was born in Egypt, raised in Qatar, moved to Canada, and now lives in Oregon. As a journalist he’s won a National Newspaper Award for Investigative Reporting in Canada for his coverage of a 2006 terror plot. He’s also reported on the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, the military trials at Guantanamo Bay, Egypt’s Arab Spring, and Black Lives Matter.

It seems obvious – to me, at least – that El Akked’s project with American War is to describe the paths to radicalization, the making of a terrorist (of terrorists). Western readers won’t read a novel about children growing up in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan or Kenya; so El Akkad has written about Gaza, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan in the guise of speculative fiction set in America. I was disconcerted, on scanning some online reviews, to see that some American readers failed to recognize that intention, and instead expected a World War Z-style overview of a dystopian social collapse. Reviewers didn’t understand why the author’s focus increasingly narrowed in on Sarat, a character it’s hard – and gets harder – to empathise with. Katniss Everdeen, she is not.

(I was also nonplussed by the person who complained that all the main characters, except Sarat, who is explicitly black, are, according to him, white, with, apparently, “No Hispanics or Blacks”. It seems to me quite evident that just about all the characters are racial blends, with varying degrees of Black, Hispanic and other racial traits, not to mention the Arab and North African characters from the fictional rising power, the Bouazizi Empire. I can only assume the readers who failed to recognize the multiracial nature of this future are the same readers who were shocked, on seeing the first Hunger Games movie, to realize that Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins intended the character Rue, along with most of the inhabitants of District 11, to be black.)

By following Sarat, El Akkat takes us on a dark journey through displacement, to a displaced persons’ camp (clearly, to my mind, analogous to displaced persons’ camps and refugee camps in the Middle East), through the politics of radical splinter groups, to radical activism, to an interrogation camp (clearly, to my mind, analogous to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib) called Sugarloaf Detention Facility, on an island reminiscent of Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was held) but which happens to be the residue of what once was Florida.

The spectral raising of Nelson Mandela seems, to me, intentional. El Akkat intends to explain radicalization and terrorism, not condone it. In how he writes what happens after Sarat emerges from detention at Sugarloaf, he intends to make clear that Sarat still has choices: she could use her horrific experiences for the good, as Nelson Mandela did, or by creating a healing, peaceful life in seclusion for herself and those close to her – she is, remarkably, offered that option, due to unique circumstances her family is blessed by. But Sarat chooses a different course of action.

We are told 11 million people die in the Second American Civil War. Another 110 million die in its aftermath, after a terrorist turns biological weapon during Reunification Day celebrations. It’s a terrible cost. American War is speculative fiction, but no wonder young American reviewers put down this book, incomplete.

The myth of the “Greatest Generation” is that war brings out the best in a people: the myth directs to 1940s Americans, the British during the Blitz. But, without minimizing the undoubted heroism many Americans (soldiers, merchant navy, civilian war workers) did demonstrate during World War II, and the undoubted heroism many British service personnel and civilians showed from 1939 onwards, it is a lie. War does not bring out the best in people. It brings out the worst.

War brings out the racketeers, the profiteers, the exploiters, the sadists, the sociopaths, the people forced to abandon goodness to the slave-god Survival. War breaks down civil order, breaks down social codes. War has its merits if it takes place offshore, if your side emerge as winners, if you’ve invested in profitable war-related ventures. If it takes place on home soil, if you are directly affected, if you’re injured or displaced or your soul is destroyed – not so okay.

As I said back at the start – just, no.

Somewhere, a fog shaped like a mushroom cloud rolls in.

Here it comes.

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Robert De Niro as Monroe Stahr


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Author’s notes – the Lenny novella (4 May 2018)

[Spoiler alert – discloses ending]

The Lenny novella was written mostly in mid-2012, with one chapter, Death, written late 2013, then the conclusion in early 2018, six years after its inception.

There’s a range of reasons I abandoned it for so long (other than that I was embarrassed by it).

These include concerns about:

  1. The hysterical tone and narrative content.
  2. Cultural appropriation and pastiche.
  3. How to end the narrative.
  4. Plagiarism.

So, some thoughts on those points.

Hysteria

The first 12,000 words were written essentially in one burst, immediately after I was sacked from a temp admin job, where, among other things, I’d failed to prepare coffee and tea for senior staff and clients to the corporate standard.

I was in that temp job after leaving my previous admin job due to injuring my back, an injury that completely incapacitated me for about five weeks and left me unable to move without pain for just over three months. I’d attempted a return to work, but the firm where I worked was unwilling to modify my tasks: three hours every morning continued to be rote mechanical movement with a twist from the waist (don’t ask).

It’s fair to say I felt evil towards the corporate workplace.

It’s fair to say I had a track record as a misfit in conventional workplaces. I despaired of finding employment again. In fact, I haven’t worked fulltime since then.

But Lenny’s hysteria has other origins.

I’d experienced occasional panic attacks over the previous five or so years, and one way back when I was 18 or 19. At that time I worked in the Australian rock music industry, and being backstage was a way of life. On this occasion something had happened earlier in the night that distressed me hugely; when I went to leave, I could not find the exit. I could not see a door, or figure out the direction to get outside. I was standing on a stage with road crew loading up all around me, panicking. I grabbed a friend I trusted – and screamed “Jim! I cannot find my way out!” He looked at me oddly, half turned, pointed, and said “There”.

There was a missing wall with a truck parked halfway through it. There was a roller door fully opened. There was the night sky. Black and stars.

I didn’t identify that as a panic attack as I’d never heard that term. But if someone had used the words “Panic attack” that night, I would have recognised myself immediately.

Lenny is, in effect, one long panic attack. That might make it hard to read. Or unreadable.

Cultural appropriation and pastiche

The Lenny novella is set in a world that shares recognisable elements with ours but is not ours. In among the fantasy elements, I have lifted imagery from many cultures, notably Japan and Silk Road cultures: China, Persia, Moghul India. I have lifted elements from the myths of many cultures. It might be worth mentioning the post-graduate thesis I attempted was on Transformation and Shapeshifting in Early Medieval Celtic Literature.

I didn’t lift images and narrative elements to disrespect these cultures. But I do understand many readers are uncomfortable with privileged white people using the symbologies of other cultures in cavalier ways.

At the time I began Lenny I was frankly unaware of that debate. I chose to create a cultural hybrid fantasy world partly for the beauty of those varied elements and partly to distinguish this world from the reality (realities) we live in. If I thought about it, I thought of it as a postmodern pastiche.

I needed to distinguish Lenny’s world from ours because this is not a factual tale. At the same time, I needed to retain ties to the world as we know it to ensure the themes – genocide, child soldiers, institutional abuse, collaboration and collusion – recognisably relate to this world. I plucked names ad hoc from different languages and cultures, mostly European, to draw attention to parallels between the events in this story and events during the Bosnian War and in World War II.

I pilfered parts of other people’s stories. A big slab of Lenny’s opening address is straight from the experiences of a Bosnian Muslim combat veteran who I met in 2002 when he was a refugee. Thank you, Sakib Mustafic. The woman who steps from a helicopter at the conclusion is an homage to my friends Tara Young, an Australian Iraq War combat veteran, and Dr Barb Wigley, who manages refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa.

The figure of the Investigator is a tribute to my friend Robyn Dixon, a foreign correspondent since 1993.

The dragons come from the west. Not “the West”. There is no political partisanship intended there.

The End

The way I had set up this narrative there is no escape for these children. I grew more and more depressed, realising any device I used to extract them would be wishful thinking. These children were doomed. Then this morning, I was listening to talkback radio, listening to a woman my age (57) say there was no prospect of employment for her after years of disability. A short while back, a very short while back, I would have echoed her belief. But my instinctive response was, “No! I have two jobs – casual jobs, it’s true, but jobs I love, and I love the life those jobs make possible!”

I might be the lucky exception, but luck does exist: exceptions do exist. The unlikely, the providential, can happen.

I thought, if I am an exception, why should I not allow my characters a Deus Ex Machina? A God from above?

So I sent them helicopters. I rescued them.

Also, as Lenny discusses at the end, these are children. What are adults for, if not to protect children? I, as author, can do that. I am the adult here.

So, I let them live.

Lenny says she can’t speak to the rightness or wrongness of those helicopters being there. I can’t either, and I don’t. This tale is not a justification for wars of foreign intervention.

Quite apart from my pique at being sacked as an admin temp, this story was prompted by issues raised by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, the court of last resort for crimes of genocide, and by the Court of Human Rights. It might seem to allude to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Syria, even institutional child sex abuse as in the Roman Catholic Church internationally. It is not “about” any one of those phenomena specifically. It is “about” social prejudice, exclusion, discrimination and persecution as social and political phenomena.

Plagiarism and due credit

As soon as I wrote that ending, I recognised my borrowings from John Wyndham’s classic The Chrysalids. I loved The Chrysalids as a child. Two years back I repurchased a copy, which sits on my bookshelves, unread. I hadn’t realised how much Lenny’s narrative owes to The Chrysalids till today.

Call it postmodern. Call it homage.

All elements of homage are unintended, with love, or intended, with respect.

The Lenny novella (c.26,737 words) – 2012/13/18

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny_lotus

By the way – the photographs in the Lenny novella blog post, almost all, are mine. Other images I’ve lifted can be identified by doing a reverse images search. When I get a moment, I will do a list of credits and update the post.