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Posts from the ‘Review’ Category

When Breath Becomes Air

whenbreathbecomesReading Paul Kalanthi’s book is bittersweet: its author wrote it knowing he would die soon and I read it hoping time would slow down. I forgot that racing awestruck to the end meant racing to a foregone conclusion.

The book is a sort of letter, the sender dead before the words reach us. The first and last words are dedicated ‘to Cady’, Kalanthi’s baby daughter, and to his wife, Lucy. There’s something spooky and poignant about text that reaches us from a person no longer there. Like Albertine’s conciliatory telegram that reaches Marcel after she has died falling off her horse in Remembrance of Things Past, a letter with no extant sender is like being shut in a room where the door has been rubbed out. The instability of ideas we’d like to convey in letters is highlighted by Maggie Nelson in her recent, excellent book The Argonauts where she teases out the bravery of writing letters, we commit them to another person’s safekeeping, as well as the suspicion that the letter writer is really addressing themselves (an angry girlfriend replies to one of Nelson’s love letters the puncturingly simple: ‘Next time, write to me’). So why is Paul Kalanthi’s last letter of interest?

Last year, one of the editors wrote here about Do No Harm, written by the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh. When Breath Becomes Air has much in common with Do No Harm: it’s also written by a neurosurgeon and deals with the crushing responsibility that comes with the job for the few that make it and it’s brilliant (arguably, more so). Marsh and Kalanthi reflect on their careers at different stages, of course: Marsh is towards the end of his; Kalanthi had only just completed his training. The difference in their accounts, however, is also attitudinal. Where Marsh bemoans the growing number of technological surgical interventions eclipsing a surgeon’s job and the impossibility of getting enough practice in the operating theatre as a junior, Kalanthi is passionate and always uncomplaining. Kalanthi castigates himself for mistakes made, most of them inevitable. Sometimes, he fights hard to save a life only for that life to be so limited by brain damage he wonders if saving it is the right way to look at it; decisions deferred not made.

Like Marsh, Kalanthi studied English before turning to medicine, a feat less surprising in America where students are encouraged to specialise later than in the UK, turning to medicine only after a first degree. Kalanthi’s writing shows how much literature meant to him and his style is lauded in the foreword. With infectious enthusiasm he tells us that ‘to burke’ meant “to kill secretly by suffocation or strangulation, or for the purpose of selling the victim’s body for dissection“, fuelled by medical schools’ demand for cadavers in “the bad old days“. We learn the root of the word ‘disaster’ means a star coming apart (the Greek for star is ‘astron’). According to Kalanthi, ‘no image expressed better the look in a patient’s eyes when hearing a neurosurgeon’s diagnosis’. Later, he tells us the word ‘hope’ first appeared in English about a thousand years ago “denoting some combination of confidence and desire“. His evident enjoyment in writing and choosing words deliberately is overdone only once. Expounding on how to communicate the immensity of an unbeatable brain cancer to a patient incrementally, he cautions: the “tureen of tragedy was best slotted by the spoonful“. The structure of the book is interesting: necessarily frustrating us as Kalanthi ran out of time. In the beginning of the book we race along hearing about his training, forgetting that the story is about to turn tragic. “Eat with your left hand. You’ve got to learn to be ambidextrous“, his boss tells him one day passing him at lunch in the canteen during his first year as a surgical intern.

Lessons learnt are hard won. “In the midst of this endless barrage of head injuries, I began to suspect that being so close to the fiery light of such moments only blinded me to their nature, like trying to learn astronomy by staring directly at the sun. I was not yet with patients in their pivotal moments, I was merely at those pivotal moments. I observed a lot of suffering; worse, I became inured to it“. At the end of part one, he’s just got to terms with how to live as a doctor: working 100 hour weeks; living with the responsibility of being a good doctor; working proximate to death and how to meet a patient “in a space where she was a person, instead of a problem to be solved“. Then, feeling he has learnt how to live, he then finds out at the age thirty six that he’s going to die of lung cancer.

“Be vague but accurate.”

Time, how it speeds up over a lifetime and how best to use it, is, is (unsurprisingly) a central concern. Accurate but humane uncertainty is promoted over the false satisfaction of giving a patient an exact amount of time to live (“I came to believe that it is irresponsible to be more precise than you can be accurate“).

Kalanthi returned to work after his tumour shrunk enough to hope more time may be meted out to him. He goes back in order to complete residency, resting between operations and swallowing handfuls of antiemetics and pain medication to get through his first week. Then he sleeps for forty hours straight.

“The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out…you may decide you want to spend your time working as a neurosurgeon, but two months later, you may feel differently. Two months after that, you may want to learn to play the saxophone or devote yourself to the church. Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.” This sense of values shifting would be familiar anyone who has lived close to someone terminally ill. It is well captured here and brought to mind Marion Coutts’s The Iceberg. Kalanthi wanted to spend 20 years working as a surgeon-scientist and 20 writing. In the end, he wrote for one year only and this book is his account of choices made and accepted.
Hannah Joll

Book Club Spy (extended redux): Between the World and Me

Between-the-World-and-MeTa-Nehisi Coates, Between The World and Me

This book has been described as a form of love letter, but it sits in the gut more heavily than one of those halcyon glimpses into someone else’s adoration. There is reverence in Coates’ words, but there is also much controlled, lyrical rage throughout Between The World and Me that fizzes, lingers and grips you. Watching the news and reading about police brutality affecting the black population in America, or being a regular visitor to America will not even vaguely prepare for you this book. An article on tap dance (honestly) in the New Yorker ran through my head while trying to write this (and indeed debating whether I should even try): “This tangle of emotions – who wants to take it on”. Coates would not describe it as a question of desire. Reading his work raises questions of compulsion – or obligation – placed upon you by a writer who has described “the machinery of racism” as “the privilege of being oblivious to questions”.

The novel reads slightly like a padded out essay; unsurprising given that long form journalism is how Coates made his living for years in ‘The Atlantic’, many of his articles are quoted below. The framing device for the book’s structure was his 15-year-old son Samori’s reaction to Michael Brown’s killer being acquitted: “you were young and still believed. You stayed up until 11pm that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying…I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay”. He wants to tell his son that he must find a way “to live within the all of it”, that still no one bears responsibility for the continual degradation of black lives, and that is the reality, despite progress in equal rights. Despite this fatalistic resignation, he repeatedly expresses his desire to “unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape”.

Coates acknowledged this progress in ‘The Atlantic’ in June 2014, in “The case for Reparations”: “The lives of black Americans are better than they were half a century ago. The humiliation of WHITES ONLY signs are gone. Rates of black poverty have decreased. Black teen-pregnancy rates are at record lows – the gap between black and white teen pregnancy rates has shrunk significantly. But such progress rests on a shaky foundation, and fault lines are everywhere”. He goes on to cite the income gap, the disparity in overall household income and higher education disparities between whites and blacks in America today. Between the World and Me is indeed a love letter to his son – this gleams from the pages – but also to education, specifically to reading. Although “Schools did not reveal truths, they concealed them” – Obama has described black shame against educational achievement: “I don’t know who taught them that reading and writing and conjugating your verbs was something white”. Coates’ natural curiosity and encouragement by his family to reject second hand answers gave him the means to escape. He claims not to have been a good student at Howard University (his ‘Mecca’), but read as though he wanted to drink the libraries dry.

Coates distinguishes between race and racism: “we can see the formation of “race” in American law and policy, and also see how formations differ across time and space. So what is “black” in the United States is not “black” in Brazil”. He explores examples of these policies include redlining (“Blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport”), Jim Crow and GI bills. He defines racism as hierarchical “false naming”. The argument itself “is corrupt at its root, and must be confronted there”. Encountering James Baldwin in the Mecca was a Damascene moment for Coates, in “On Being White…and Other Lies”, Baldwin outlines the mistake white people made, in “this debasement and definition of black people, they have debased and defined themselves. And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white. Because they think they are white, they dare not confront the ravage and life of their history”. So, the key is confronting this head on, cutting out the corruption at the root and asking where did this come from.

The term racism being inherently flawed, Coates turns to what can be done: “What is needed is a healing of the American psych and the banishment of white guilt”. He sees white supremacy (a term preferable to racism as it is a super structure rather than a series of personal acts of opinions) as a central organising force in ‘congenitally racist’ American life. He outlined the “progressive approach to policy which directly addressed the effects of white supremacy is simple – talk about class and hope no one notices”. He does not touch on white guilt for long, except to say that “white supremacy is not an invention of white people; white people are an invention of white supremacy”.

He admits in the book to not knowing any white people growing up; everyone in his neighbourhood was afraid: “as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs”. The only incident featuring a white person in the book is one pushing his son in a cinema. He admits to overreacting, partly because a white man springs to the woman’s defence. Did it matter that she was white? Was it more significant that they were in ‘her’ part of town? It seems that her actions towards a child who happened to black were the crux, or it may have been that she was simply rude. In Coates’ definition of the word, she seems to have been Dreaming, and so never had to learn what it is to be afraid.

The concept of what black and white are is in itself much of the problem: “we should not seek a world where the black race and the white race live in harmony, but a world in which the terms black and white have no real political meaning”. Many people who think they are white are not, and the question of what black is is a huge one. Coates wishes to emphasise that those who are mistaken are part of the ‘Dreamers’ – those who do not and will not know the truth of life in America today, and anyone who has bought in the rotten lie is therefore not fully awake and living in the present reality. Coates does not want this Dream projected onto him. Perhaps the most quoted passage of his novel is his pitiless 9/11 passage: “They were not human to me. Black, white or whatever, they were the menaces of nature”. The Dream is innocent, and too much has happened to allow that in Coates’s eyes: he wants the nation to mature and open its eyes (“You must never look away from this”), to acknowledge its collective heritage and to reset the road map in order to truly consider how to live freely.

The nebulous racial lines – if indeed, any can still be drawn – become clearer when it comes to the question of who fears for their personal safety. When it comes to the matter of the black body being hurt, Coates describes the use of his father’s belt used almost prophylactically so that it is he with his hands on his son, rather than a policeman as a matter of course, almost. This is reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and therefore of Medea – albeit at a different point on the scale of violence – where a mother would rather take her children’s lives than allow them to be taken into slavery. It is a way of appropriating that fear, of diverting the cycle of violence (“Either I can beat him, or the police”) rather than breaking it. Racism “as we know it, is basically a product of the slave trade, which is to say the seizure of power”.

Reviewing Between The World And Me in the LRB, Thomas Chatterton Williams asks the question “At what point might an oppressed group contribute – perhaps decisively – to its own plight?” However, Coates does acknowledge that no people have ever liberated themselves through their own efforts. It must be a collective exercise.

What is less clear is what he wants his analysis in this case to achieve – what does he hope for beyond the liberation of his son from fear for his body’s safety? Does he now live in Paris as he believes life as a black American is irredeemable, in his lifetime? He writes that it is because he wants Samori to grow “apart from fear”, though he admits “Home would find us in any language”. On his first trip to Paris, he describes sitting in a public garden for the first time in his life: “I had not even known it to be something I’d want to do”.

Coates has created a song that must be listened to, if only to continue to ask questions. He certainly will.

The Editors

Review of 2015: Part 3

Welcome to the third and final instalment of this year’s ‘Review of the Year’. We owe a huge thanks to all our contributors and readers, without whom the DRTF project would be a lifeless irrelevance; 2015 has been wonderful and we look forward to seeing more of you in 2016.

 

Editor 1

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. This account of a Ted Hughes scholar aided in rearing his sons by a foul-mouthed crow, summoned by their jagged mourning, was simply brilliant. For anyone who admits to not knowing what to say when it comes to an absence, for anyone who has ever loved Ted Hughes, and for everyone who is keen for some lucidity and dark humour.

Mislaid by Nell Zink. This book will make you laugh on public transport, sometimes in a shocked ‘I hope no one is reading over my shoulder’ sort of way. Zink is outrageous, and I cannot compare her lolloping pace and wit to anyone writing today. The collapse of a marriage, unconventional upbringings of the best sort, intellectual snobbery defied and some brilliant defiant female characters I would love to befriend.

Porcelain by Benjamin Read. Read creates graphic novels that could loosely be described as fairy tales, but they owe a lot to H G Wells, steampunk, the gothic tradition and the Art-Deco movement, to name a few influences apparent in his work. This tale of an alchemist creating animated porcelain figures within Dickensian London is beautifully drawn by Christian Wildgoose.

Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari. This book is not beautifully written, but just as with Gomorrah (also reviewed on this site) that does not seem quite as paramount as the treatment of such an enormous global topic as the trade and treatment of illegal drugs and its inevitable consequences. Hari, a journalist, travels to the most affected parts of the world to better understand how addiction can be tackled and the perception of addicts changed for the better.

 

Editor 2

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. This brilliant book is the most clear and concise refutation of twenty-first negativity I have yet encountered. By studying the decline of violence (of all kinds) over the course of human history, Pinker persuasively makes the case that humanity is not in fact doomed to a never-ending recurrence of genocide and destruction, despite what the media may have us believe. Although it was first published back in 2011, I felt this was the perfect antidote to the growing sense of impending disaster that seems to have gripped the world in 2015.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel. As is usually the case with literary trends and me, I arrived several years late at the Hilary Mantel party. I got there eventually, and have since been making up for lost time. In February this year I was even lucky enough to hear Mantel read from the as yet unpublished The Mirror and The Light (see review). For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, Mantel’s ability to make the 16th century seem like it happened a few weeks ago is an absolute delight.  

 

 

Review of 2015: Part 2

The second instalment in our “best books read in 2015” series.

 

Charlotte Joll

The Poet’s Daughters by Katie Waldegrave…aka they fuck you up those famous Dads which might also be an appropriate comment on my second choice: Eleanor Marx by Rachel Holmes though her real (and possibly not unconnected) problem was being a HOPELESS picker of men.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. Best depiction of what it’s like to have dementia – I learnt a lot more reading this than from Atol Gwande’s Being Mortal which I found banal as well as depressing (but perhaps that’s because the issues he deals with are all too familiar to anyone who works in the NHS).

Night Waking by Sarah Moss.  The modern v historical plot line doesn’t entirely work (Possession has spawned a great many imitations) but it’s brilliant on the simultaneous intense pleasure to be experienced from having and holding small children and the soul destroying boredom of being made to look after them when all you want to do is work or sleep.

 

Olivia Amory

The only books I have read this year which were published in 2015 have been the Ferrante novels, which I loved mostly because of the quick movement in the language and realistic portrayal of a female friend, and A Little Life which I feel I enjoyed despite my better nature.

I have also read Far From the Madding Crowd which I thought was wonderful but somehow took me a very long time and got rather confused with the film in my head and a couple of books about old men thinking about their lives (Stoner / Disgrace) which were moving but also remained quite distant from my own emotional life.

H is for Hawk which I thought could have been shorter. The Narrow Road to the Deep North which I have now turned against in my head for some reason but has made me want to read something about Australia. Now I look back it seems rather a depressing year!

But I did read and love both A Month in the Country by J. L Carr and Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.

I think I have become worse at reading books and don’t really like things that I find hard to relate to anymore. I’m reading Bonfire of the Vanities at the moment and everyone in it is so horrible, silly and unimportant that I can’t enjoy it at all. And why should I relation to Carr or Gibbon – I must have a rather warped, twee image of myself.

I think A Month in the Country is my best because it just gives you this very complete image in your mind, which is strictly limited both in terms of time (a month) and place (a church) that make the memory of reading it stay intact in your mind so that can look back on it with more satisfaction than most novels.

 

Anna-Jean Hughes

Co-founder of https://thepigeonhole.com/

Hands down my favourite has been a book of short stories called Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan. Can’t laud it hard enough.

 

Alexander Starritt

http://www.apolitical.co

For me this year it’s been the revelation that is The Adventures of Augie March. I’ve never read a book so slowly in my life, at first because it’s so directionless (like Augie’s adventures), then because each page shows you your own heart with more understanding of it than you could ever hope to muster. One of the few books you would go to your grave more ignorantly for having never read. Plus the sentences are some of the finest and it’s sometimes very funny.

Review of 2015: Part 1

Our approach to reviewing the year, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is to look at what people have read in the last twelve months, as opposed to what was published during that time. So without further ado, here is the best of what our contributors managed to get through over the course of 2015.

 

Candia McWilliam

Young Eliot by Robert Crawford: A poet and scholar, Crawford, thinks himself into the growing mind and childhood  of the poet and scholar T.S Eliot, whom it has been all too easy to think of as one who arrived with assured celerity at some judicious “version” of middle age. A lovely book rich in fully inhabited detail that can only whet the reader’s appetite for the next volume.

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. Surfing – and why surf ?-  put into words that just about convey the pointful pointlessness of sitting inside the little green room at the end of the curl of the wave, and in so doing, of writing, slippery words eluding you as you try to make standing upright among their tides and fathoms seem natural and easy.

The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in our Times by Barbara Taylor. The account by a high achieving intellectual of utter breakdown and its redressing; and of changes in the treatment of such isolating mental pain,  with particularly attentive reference to Friern Barnett Hospital -now made into luxury apartments, while “care” has fallen into “the community “.

Step Aside, Pops! by Kate Beaton teases the culturally smug in elegant graphic form .

A Very Private Celebrity: The Nine Lives of John Freeman by Hugh Purcell.  Ignore the off-putting title. Anything is good that takes you back to Freeman,  who, in addition to being a soldier, a politician, a journalist, an intellectual and a diplomat, made some of the greatest ever telly, with his Face To Face interviews. Pleasingly, these interviews are often wreathed in smoke.

The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie. The great poet of nature and its unharnessability by soppiness has asked of herself that she make a poem a week for a year.  Do read it;  nothing but the matter as it matters.

For pure sensual pleasure at the eye: Silent Beauties. Flower photographs made by the Dutchman Leendert Blok in the 1920s.

Queer Saint: The Cultured Life of Peter Watson . A curiosity and much more. Written by two authors (Adrian Clark and Jeremy Dronfield) which is somehow always a piquant, and inextricable poser for a reader. Watson was very beautiful, very rich, very generous and very intelligent. He was an enigma and exerts a forceful elegance beyond his grave, to which he was sent too soon by a jealous act of murder.

Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes by Richard Davenport-Hines. This book demonstrates its subject’s variform mighty intelligence (his Cambridge Tripos was Classics and Mathematics) and dares approach the emotional make-up and flowering of the great economist. A generous affecting energetic transfusion of a book.

My discoveries, amid the annually increasing re-reading, have been the works of the novelist, costume historian and very sharp opiner, Doris Langley Moore, who so loved Lord Byron that she arranged to marry him although he had been dead for more than a hundred years  .

Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest, a short novel, concrete yet poetic, irreversible, merciless as to the fate of a woman who is understood to have sinned.

The Black Mirror by Raymond Tallis. It is an investigation of the ubiquity of the idea and awareness and sense of death such that it intensifies our relish for, understanding of, and love of being alive and of -what is it? – life itself.

 

Hannah Joll

Howard’s End by E. M Forster. I started the year with this. Sisters, family, personal choices. I loved it and know I will reread later on down the line. The evocation of how it feels to fall in love with a family (the Wilcoxes) is brilliant.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson. This made me want to read more by Robinson. It’s simple and graceful and quite ghostly/haunting for it. Lila the protagonist is a strange, innocent tomcat – an inspiration.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Murakami. ‘In each shave lies a philosophy’, so Murakami, quoting Somerset Maugham, opens a short book I read in one sitting. Murakami presents his choices, unusual as they are (such as running the original marathon to Athens backwards) plainly. There is something meditative about his orderly routines and the rhythm of his runs that suggests he knows his limits and emanates calm because of it.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine. Anger and reflection, restrained and channelled into this prose poem on casual, ubiquitous racism has made this book startling. Rankine describes multiple vignettes: the Tooting riots; the Williams sisters and the introduction of Hawkeye in tennis; her acquaintances’ lazy pronouncements on affirmative action. She does something very clever with narration and changing ‘you’ and ‘I’ to recreate the distance and alienation felt due to repeated racist acts.

Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante. Enough written on these elsewhere but I think that we are lucky to be alive when books such as these are being written: a paean to friendship; a dissection of violence in our characters, many things.

The best poem I’ve read this year by far is Paul Muldoon’s ‘Cuthbert and the Otters’, it punches above ALL the weights: ‘I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead’.

 

Margot Gibbs

@MargotGibbs

Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith: Originally recommended by Imogen Lloyd.  One of my favourite openings to a book ever, “Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says“. Delight in imagination, its silliness, the silliness of thoughts- whilst remaining serious at its heart; no poe-face. Lots of writing that talks about myth making and storytelling within the narrative makes me numb with boredom; this is completely alive. Some of the nicest writing on beauty and sex that I’ve read (on par if not better than Hollinghurst or maybe I just love gay books).

Elizabeth Costello, JM Coetzee: Novel dressed up as philosophical dialogue. A female novelist at the end of her life, interrogating her beliefs and the rationalist and humanist roots of modern thought. Easy to dislike at first for its self-consciousness, but it’s fantastically way too fleshy for that, and the most intellectually exciting book I’ve read for ages. Made me feel like a teenager.

This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs the Climate, Naomi Klein: I didn’t read it for ages because I thought I knew it, but when I read it I was like a new convert. Deeply historical, political and global. Links on well to her earlier work on the WTO and Shock Doctrine. First half arms you with every fact you ever wanted. Second half focuses on the small scale “barricades” being made by resistant communities but avoids sentimentalising. Her positive diagnosis comes naturally from the negative: localised politics are the way to defeat this brand of destructive capitalism.

Book Club Spy: A Little Life

A Little LifeHanya Yanagihara – A Little Life

Harrowing is the word most commonly used in reviews and in conversation where A Little Life is involved. It is a word more commonly associated with a dreadful ordeal than a seven hundred page novel. There is no point shying away from the fact that the book is far too long. However, Hanya Yanagihara is such a pro in the world of books that no one can blame her editor from baulking at the prospect of that particular conversation, especially as the story itself is undoubtedly compelling. The friendship between four university friends as it twists and breaks over several decades living in New York is as gripping as it is complicated.

Except it is not about four ‘little’ lives, because the stage is set for just one. Anyone intrigued by Malcolm’s daddy issues and burgeoning architecture career will be disappointed – he is really just a supplier of divine interiors after page 200. JB is the only one with a sense of silliness, and the release the reader feels from his comical presence is palpable, until the jokes and then his presence also recedes. Willem is the kind heart who seems to be a dim failed actor, until he gets his break, and is the best friend Jude could ever ask for. He is endlessly patient, and somehow avoids being annoying.

Jude is the unwilling star; the bleeding angel, the lawyer, baker, studio assistant, adopted son and abused vessel of what loosely represents the care system in America. Such is his beauty and grace that those who don’t want to paint him want to carve their marks into his (already battered) flesh to appropriate a piece of him for themselves. His story has been compared to a misery memoir, but whilst A Child Called It contains mawkish sentiment, and gestures of hopeful rhetoric, A Little Life has none of the above. The ending is not happy, and the very worst things happen to good people. Yanagihara, when asked about the expanding taint of child abuse in the novel, has explained that it is not that she is especially interested in children or abuse, but in this form of abuse as the ultimate form of abusive power.

Where Yanagihara has the edge over a well written journalistic by-line on an amazingly accomplished and complicated individual is her setting. The former careers from humble box room beginnings and cheap Vietnamese food to slick urban mega flats and haute cuisine. A few people left the narrative here: the endless square footage and minimalist contemporary art provide a bleak contrast to Jude’s scarred wreck of a life. Or perhaps their hearts just creaked with envy at the mental image these palaces summoned, which was too much when the reader has already been put under a certain amount of emotional duress. As covered in our Booker Prize piece, Yanagihara wanted to move away from the typical portrayal of New York’s geography and capture the hunger of the city’s inhabitants. She accomplishes this in every sense of the word – everyone works till they drop, they are always moving into bigger apartments or building new houses, expanding their empires and upgrading. Strangely, when it comes to appetite, despite her descriptions of iced cakes and Thanksgiving meals, I have never felt less hungry while reading about food. The opposite was the case when reading Fleming’s Bond books – never have scrambled eggs sounded so tempting.

Her most enchanting character is a supporting role. Harold the law professor first meets Jude at law school, where he buys Jude some clothes for a job interview. He is gentle, funny, a devoted husband and father and an appalling cook. He adopts Jude, and loves him persistently when Jude – like many victims of abuse – desperately tries to push him away. He gently continues to reappear, and that is his simple and irrefutable way of showing love. Harold is Mr Tom, Gandalf, John Keating and Atticus Finch combined. He represents the most pure manifestation of familial, paternal love in a novel which is interesting in tracing every kind, including the fleeting and the inadequate. Blood ties are replaced by friendships as the important family structure for Yanagihara’s characters, especially for those without children.

So harrowing, yes, too long, certainly. However, A Little Life is a detailed tapestry of style without being overly stylized, honest without being brutal for the sake of impact, and Yanagihara’s characters will floor the reader, often when they least expect it. It is not the image of a broken figure curled up on the floor in the dark that sears, but the gentle insistence that you look the speaker in the eye, figuratively speaking, as they are showing you something new.

The Editors

Jonathan Franzen on Purity

Franzen

An Evening with Jonathan Franzen: Intelligence Squared, 30 September 2015

At the end of last month, Intelligence Squared (the world’s “premier forum for debate and discussion”) hosted an evening of Franzen in discussion with Sarah Churchwell at The Royal Geographical Society for the launch of his latest novel: Purity. Two Americans discussing America in a room of ex-pat Americans. Plus two British people feeling very underdressed and obliged to ask each other questions like “What is Stevia?” [The answer turned out to be a sweetener; we were not missing out].

Once we managed to shoulder past the American academic habit of using longer words than necessary – like supererogatory – and they had each brought up their credentials frequently enough to feel well established, appreciated and legitimate, we were all delighted to get on with it.

Before reading from his latest novel, Purity, Franzen claimed it is a hard book to read from, but rose above this to deliver three entertaining passages in an appropriately wry tone. It was best when he dropped the voices and let his words do the job, as he has created a very entertaining story.

The protagonist Pip and her mother talk on the phone. The latter is a recluse living in the California hills, bleating: “you have no idea how much I envy you your cubicle” as she blenches at the visibility of the human form. Pip wishes to be in the world, but is stuck in a non-job hampered by student loans, and feels she cannot get much further without knowing who her father is. It is the only taboo topic between them, and so they dance around hypochondria and passive aggressive commentary: “No phone call was complete before each had made the other wretched”.

Next, down to Amarillo, Texas, where Leila the investigative journalist looks into a missing nuclear weapon. A listener so sympathetic she receives Christmas Cards from the Unabomber ten years after she wrote a piece on him that he felt painted him in a more favourable light than most. Leila is interviewing a woman about her ex-boyfriend, who showed her a B16 thermonuclear warhead, before asking her to strip and climb on so they could have sex on it. The payoff for this part of the narrative came from her initially playing for time by saying she didn’t want to get radiation poisoning.

Franzen avoided his Denver and Bolivia sections to provide his final reading: a first person narrative in early ‘90s New York. A recently divorced couple fight over the phone until he agrees to cross state lines so they can continue dysfunctionally sleeping with one another. At this point Franzen was at his most engaging, and rapid dialogue is hard to read well aloud.

As we entered the discussion section of the evening, Churchwell opened by saying Purity was a continuation of themes introduced first in The Corrections [published a week before 9/11] and then in Freedom – such as the corporatisation of America. The internet, and associated questions of privacy drive Purity. Not only was it unclear where a question lurked within this statement, but writers (as discussed in a recent piece on the Man Booker) do tend to pursue themes that hound them. This is hardly a revelation. Regardless, Franzen was deft with these questions that were more like earnest statements of intent.

This was not the case in the recent FT interview, where he came across as precious and evasive – almost keen to stoke the concept of him being the second most loathed man in America (Kanye West has top billing). He did not help himself with comments such as:

I am literally, in terms of my income, a 1 per center, yes,”, “I spend my time connected to the poverty that’s fundamental to mankind, because I’m a fiction writer.”, and “I’m a poor person who has money.”

He claims that he tells the truth, and he claims people do not like him as they do not like the truth. Rachel Kushner’s review is a classic example barely even touching on the novel’s content, cosily referring to the author as “Jon” while colouring in Franzen’s snobbery and mean spiritedness.

Returning to the podium, Franzen’s decision to name his protagonist Pip inevitably raised a question regarding his interest in 19th century literature. As we moved from Dickens to Trollope and How We Live Now, questions surrounding writing about the moment as it happens were parried by Franzen requesting who ‘we’ are now, as Dickens was able to have a much clearer idea of who ‘we’ were. This was explored in the last two novels and he struggled with it when writing the third before coming to a different understanding of who ‘we’ are: a community of readers and writers. This seemed to be rather stating the obvious and until he explained that he still aims to write for the imagined audience of 5000 that were present when he crafted The Corrections.

He cited anxiety and all kinds of shame stemming from digital communication as big drivers: he writes about these and “what the world is doing to me”. When asked about shame, he stressed the ironic nature of Purity as a title, and said his duty as a writer as he sees it is to ironize. The novel’s epigraph is Goethe’s Mephistopheles (Franzen called him Mephisto) introducing himself to Faust. Franzen explained: “He’s still a villain and because the universe is so big, some of the bad things cannot help but have good outcomes”. This applies to the internet – good coming out of bad – and specifically the character of Andreas Wolf, an Assange like figure. Assange is referred to several times in the novel in contrast to Wolf. When Churchwell asked: “How much emphasis do you want to put on their differences?” Franzen’s eventual response was “Quite a bit”. Like Assange, Andreas Wolf craves fame, but unlike him does not want to be seen as a hero. He resembles a compulsive lab rat with a like button.

Purity is surprisingly enjoyable to read – perhaps because Franzen’s pained tones do not pervade his narrative in the same way as when he is interviewed. The novel is an amusing sprawl through 80s East Germany, Bolivia and (as ever) a modern America that readers in the UK will never be part of but we somehow find compelling to read all about. There is no doubting his skill as a storyteller, and fortunately there is little risk for most of us in finding ourselves engaged in conversation with him.

The Editors

Man Booker Prize 2015: Readings

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“This group shows what a broad church we are. Long may it remain so. ”

Man Booker Prize Readings, 12th October 2015, Southbank Centre, London

The night before the winner was announced, the six shortlisted Booker Prize nominees met at the Southbank Centre. Mariella Frostrup was presenting, and appeared to have mislaid her notes before mounting the podium, as her summary of Hanya Yagihara’s novel was:four men descending into horror because of one’s childhood secrets”. Anyone who has read A Little Life knows it is all about Jude. More on this from the Book Club Spy next week.

Much more important to focus on the six writers, starting with Marlon James*, who read from A Brief History of Seven Killings, set in 1976 Jamaica with “an ill wind, a malaria”, and “now, something new is blowing”. Bob Marley is playing football with anyone who will play with him, when his toe is skewered by an errant wire hidden inside his boot, his toenail is torn off, he nearly loses it entirely to cancer. Time speeds up rapidly and a litany of injuries whirl together in a global journey that seems full of blood – his boot fills with it every night on stage. Marley is ill, “the mattress has sucked two pounds of water from your skin”. One minute he is running in Central Park, the next his hips lock, then his neck, finally his arms, bringing him crashing to the ground with a dead scream in his throat. The cancer in his foot spreads throughout his body and he is transported around a series of hospitals before dying.

When questioned about his choice of Marley as a subject, it was not his music that clinched it (James is a Pet Shop Boys fan: “For me, reggae is like a family member, it’s great, I love it, but then I just want it to leave”) but his desire to find the 1976 his parents lived through while in Jamaica, the place James was born and where: “For me, a crisis was Starsky or Hutch”. He talked compellingly about his childhood reading of Dickens, who recounted history via marginal characters who, in the process, made history.

Tom McCarthy followed him with a brilliantly delivered reading from Satin Island. His hero is a corporate anthropologist, who writes in numbered paragraphs. McCarthy (who is also a performance artist, the head of an extraordinary group called the International Necronautical Society that seems to promote death) placed entirely perfect stresses upon the phrase “fucking buffering”. He revels in playing with language used by corporate structures and information exchange; seeing the data powering the spinning hourglass on his screen reassures our hero “a grace conferring act of generosity….an inexhaustive torment of giving”. The horror to him is that the spinning circle we are all painfully familiar with isn’t anything but the things itself: “We become buffering and buffering becomes everything”.

McCarthy feels that the digital world is the terra we live on now, citing the opening scene of the Oresteia, where Clytemnestra sees the beacons being lit, bringing news from Troy as proof that the remote transmissions of signs is nothing new. He asked what Hamlet is if not an examination of personal correspondence by the state. He later responded to an audience member asking if one needs to like a central character by crying: “No, look at Hamlet, he’s not even a character.

When probed on his continual treatment of themes such as doubling and transcendence, McCarthy politely answered that one tends to return to old wounds; however a blunter response could arguably be is this not what writers do?

Third came Chigozie Obioma with The Fishermen, reading a passage in which a group of boys, returning from the river with two large tilapia, find a dead man lying under a mango tree next to the Celestial Church. The ugliness of the soles of his feet are commented upon. He is, it turns out, not dead at all, simply mad. He performs a ‘calisthenics display’ covered in rotting mango, while the boys goggle at him in the gloaming, comparing him to a lion or Superman. They then watch him throw a mango twenty miles. From Obioma’s part of West Africa, there is strong belief in everything being pre-ordained, of the power of fate, spells and superstitions. He created his tale of fratricide while he was at college abroad and extremely homesick for…his brothers and sisters.

Next up was Sunjeev Sahota with The Year of the Runaways, which he rather undersold with the description of the novel as “four people together in Sheffield”. He read a scene where one character – “alone in the world and in himself” – leaves a suitcase of clothes at his future wife’s flat. The couple talk of the weather, and there is clearly something staged and/or sinister going on. He shows her clearly falsified photographs of them on holidays they never took, created by his lawyer. His involvement is not entirely fabricated, as he searches for excuses to stay in her company: “he couldn’t remember ever feeling that warm”.

Frostrup asked about his decision to write (as the child of migrants) about migration in light of recent press coverage devoted to the topic. He very gently answered that the question of migration had always been ‘gnawing’ at him – on his frequent trips to India it is an “open conversation” regarding the number of people who want to move to the UK or Canada – and for the 34 years he has been alive the question has been there, so it is not, for him, a topical issue.

The penultimate reading came from Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread. She read the contents of a phone call between an (estranged) brother and sister in Baltimore that was more of a monologue, with the sister using rather clichéd language – dusty motes of sun, doors being flung open and people sitting on stoops – in order to manipulate her brother with shared memories, or simply punish him through boredom. She was more engaging during the Q&A, exclaiming: “I don’t know why we’re all so fascinated by family, but I’m sure I’m not the only one”. Her description of reducing a novel’s plan to one sheet of paper over the course of a month, then knitting it together through an intricate editing process with multiple stages.

Finally, Hanya Yagihara read from A Little Life. The passage focussed on the main character Jude’s process of managing memory by erasing the small and avoiding the big, but the gaps he creates in his memory widen and try to infiltrate his waking life. His techniques (phyically checking locks, and those of the mind where he envisions a white expanse, where he is finally clean) are employed to make himself feel safe. Yagihara described her way of writing the novel as frenzied and exhilarating, though physically and emotionally difficult. Upon being complimented for her competence at writing as a man, she explained she felt that she has always been surrounded by women and thus is more interested in men (though “less as I grow older”). She was wry and polished, quipping that as someone having lived there for twenty years and who works in the literary world, she was tired of people writing about the physical geography of New York. What she is interested in is the shared ambition of those who live there, as everyone is on the run from something. To be continued.

The quote in the title of this review was from Sunjeev Sahota and felt apt: in the course of an hour, six writers gave us a dizzying range of style in every sense of the word, while showing a quiet regard for one another and the canon into which they had all been hurled headlong.

*Marlon James was announced as the winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize on Wednesday 15th

The Editors

Elena Ferrante, or Naples, Part Two

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A panel discussion was held at Lutyens and Rubenstein on the eve of the release of the final novel in Ferrante’s Naples tetralogy. The panel was made up of Cathy Rentzenbrink, Jonathan Gibbs, Susanna Gross and Tessa Hadley – all writers and critics, but more importantly, ardent Ferrante fans. Although none of them were especially keen on speaking in front of an audience, when it comes to this author none of them could bear the alternative prospect of sitting in the audience and watching another panel get it wrong. Such is the fervour for Ferrante.

For those who have not yet been introduced, the books chart the course of a friendship over several decades. The two women – Elena and Lila – are co-dependent rivals and know each other better than anyone. The novels open with Elena writing their story down as Lila has disappeared. Her aim to recapture what may soon be forgotten becomes, we realize, memoir as as an aggressive, defiant act. Elena is punishing Lila by colonizing their story. She seems to own it by providing the only side, however, in telling the full version of events, there are moments when she clearly hands the reader’s sympathy over to Lila by recounting her own actions. There is little objectivity, but at the same time, there is little bias.

In the third novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Greco admits: “I had been conditioned by my education, which has shaped my mind, my voice. To what secret pacts with myself had I consented, just to excel. And now, after the hard work of learning, what I must unlearn. Also, I had been forced by the powerful presence of Lila to imagine myself as I was not. I was added to her, and I felt mutilated as soon as I removed myself. Not an idea, without Lila. Not a thought I trusted, without the support of her thoughts. Not an image. I had to accept myself outside of her. ” Indeed, Lila affects every sentence: “she has managed to insert herself into this extremely long chain of words to modify my text, to purposely supply the missing links to unhook others without letting it show, to say more of me than I want, more than I’m able to say”. Despite becoming a successful author, Elena Greco feels she owes all she has to Lila’s inspiration, to her very existence. Lila (beautiful and wild) overshadows Elena, but the former feels she must live vicariously through the latter because she ducked out of formal education, failed to get out their neighbourhood in Naples, and succumbed to its cycle of savagery.

In the second novel, The Story of A New Name, when Lila realizes on her wedding day just how significant her groom’s shortcomings are, she barely restrains herself: “She used all her strength, and I who knew her thoroughly felt that if she could she would have wrenched [his arm] from his body, crossed the room holding it high above her head, blood dripping in her train, and she would have used it as a club or a donkey’s jawbone to crush Marcello’s face with a solid blow.” Upon realizing she cannot leave the old life, or indeed change it, she retreats into blackness: “I think how much blood there is in a person’s body. If you put too much stuff in things, they break. Or they catch fire and burn. ”

In the final instalment The Lost Child, Ferrante describes Naples as “a city that reveals or underlines that dreams of unhindered progress is utterly pessimistic and unfounded. We are in fact in an age of savagery, unknowing.” The tonal overlap with Saviano is striking when she describes the lack of “decipherable order, only an unruly and controllable crowd on streets…in the place where they threw out beasts and garbage a lot of human blood was shed”. As Saviano alerted the world to the presence of the Camorra at the centre of global crime, Ferrante shows that Naples is a microcosmic world: “The entire planet, she said, is a Fosso Carbonario”.

The complexity of local life in Naples is initially baffling, not least because of the various intertwined family trees by the end of the final book. Every family has a function within the neighbourhood, which Ferrante manages to stretch out over the course of thirty years. This is, perhaps, where people see the soap opera element to her writing. The end of the tetralogy was compared (perhaps sacrilegiously on both sides) to the end of Coronation Street, as the number of characters was gradually reduced until barely eight remain. All minor characters blend together on the second rung – an act of will to draw attention to the central dynamic – burnished by brilliant touches, such as Nella with her “laugh of an ageing virgin” talking about cutting people’s cocks off. She tells Elena that she is “much better” than her friend, who “knows how to wound” but so indeed does Elena, we learn.

Some readers have questioned whether these novels are feminist. In an attempt to answer this question, it has been pointed out that they are both full of rage, and the obligation to conform in rooms of men. One panellist cited the idea of bleeding likeability when the word feminist was mentioned in a recent conference, and that is not dissimilar from how I feel when rage and feminism are so swiftly connected. One thing is for sure: Ferrante’s books are full of blood. For those that still find swearing amusing (guilty) then the level of violence in the dialectic insults thrown around is superb. Ferrante treats language like a set of land mines beneath your feet: the path is difficult until only one way is possible: forward.

Only irony is made difficult as [you would imagine the books would be saturated with it] – especially when it comes to Nino, the love rat. He goes from hero to rotter as the years go past, and if you consider how Alice Munroe would write a love scene with him in it, it would be awash with irony. In this way, the tetralogy does not conform to our understanding of what novels are. There are no nods for the reader to give us a hint as to what to expect – no beams of sunlight shining on a character to let us know all will be well, no black cats as a warning. Her apparent lack of tricks – seeming like a memoir with all the tricks employed in fiction – makes one realize the unspoken conventions writers employ: such as never having two characters called John in the same story, as there so often is in life. The characters feel like flesh and blood acting of their own volition, rather than constructs with strings being pulled by the author.

Lila dissects her own form when she gives an explicit account of her own formlessness, after an earthquake. When she is overwhelmed, unreal things are “plunged into a jumbled, sticky reality”, and solid forms have dissolving boundaries. This underlines the lack of formal, stylized style in these novels. They run on messily – much like life – colliding and repeating in a realistic fashion. There are no good or bad characters; they all devolve or change. Her characters are true in every flaw, and can arouse and disgust us.

Just as outsiders identify themselves with her characters, Ferrante’s decision to remain an outsider through anonymity is the source of much speculation (though the panel felt disloyal discussing this rather than the novels themselves). Unencumbered by identity, Ferrante is as free to live as we are to read.

The Editors

Gomorrah (or Naples, Part One)

GomorraRoberto Saviano’s account of Camorra criminal activity in and around Naples in his book Gomorrah was so unstintingly revealing that he now lives in hiding, avoiding death at the hands of mob boss Guiseppe Setola. He wrote in The Guardian earlier this year that after “eight years under armed guard, threats against my life barely make the news. My name is so often associated with the terms death and murder that they hardly register. After all these years under state protection, I almost feel guilty for still being alive.” These three phrases encapsulate his ponderous prose style, while at the same time telling such an enthralling story that the reader is appreciative of what he has sacrificed his peace of mind for.

He went on in a wounded fashion: “I’m either at the Nobel academy having a debate on freedom of the press, or I’m inside a windowless room at a police barracks. Light and dark. There is no shade, no in-between. Sometimes I look back at the watershed that divides my life before and after Gomorrah…Naples has become off-limits to me, a place I can only visit in my memories.” The idea for this series of posts is to take the stark Naples depicted by those Saviano memories, and contrast it with that of Elena Ferrante’s Naples tetralogy (in Naples, Part Two).

Gomorrah’s opening gambit of corpses spilling from an open shipping container cannot help but grab the reader’s attention, but it is the subsequent image of the crane driver responsible covering his face with his hands and peeping at Saviano through the gaps that takes the fragment from Hammer House of Horror into the human realm. One of the reasons why his tone slips from scholarly to hysterical – aside from the fact that it is a deeply personal account – is perhaps that this story is being told for the first time in this way: not as bedtime stories, whispered rumours of urban myth at ground zero, or academic circles. In making this an accessible product, it was perhaps inevitable that something would be lost in the transition. The surreal is captured, but there shouldn’t be such a note of the inauthentic.

This account is most compelling when Saviano does not heap lists of family names and bodies on the reader, or even worse, try to inject pathos, when nothing further is required. The account is so extraordinary in its own right that he (and his translator) needn’t have bothered. It is the flashes of insight he allows through that seem the most arresting, as they are indisputably his without him messing around with ‘style’: “to get a job mixing cement, all I had to do was let the contractor know where I was from. Campania provided the best builders in all of Italy – the most skilled, the fastest, cheapest, the least pains in the ass.” The equivalent simply does not exist to my knowledge in the United Kingdom: the idea of a man appearing and announcing he is from Ipswich and that being sufficient to land him a construction job is incredible. However, Saviano himself is deliberately a black hole in the narrative, providing very little by way of personal context, when it is these moments that lift the narrative.

He goes on to layer in detail about exhaust fume dust and other waste being hidden within the cement, as everything criminal seems to end up in construction or waste disposal. Anything incriminating is covered in topsoil or a thin layer of cement, only to grin through just when the surface appears to have calmed. The explanation for the book’s title comes with a eulogy to a murdered Priest, Don Peppino, from Saviano’s neighbourhood: “Don’t you see that this is Gomorrah, don’t you see? Remember. When they see that the whole land is brimstone, and salt, and burning, and there will be no sowing, no sprouting, no grass growing”. Saviano tells of bones, chemical waste and even shredded currency forced into the soil, poisoning it beyond repair.

Gomorrah is such a laundry list of death (Naples has one of the highest murder rates in the world) that it is hard to discern why some incidents are singled out in outrage – the death of a female teenager is one of the multiple teen deaths which are often collateral damage. It does not appear to be her gender that made it so upsetting for Saviano, but the poignancy of her friend calling her mobile phone while it is placed on top of the coffin. The only jarring note in a tragic interlude, was the fact that this appeared to affect him the most.

Steeped in horrors as he is, the two most appalling moments Saviano witnessed were a ‘guinea pig’ addict used to test the drugs sold by the clans by being injected in the neck with cocaine, killing him outright, and the HIV-free zones where prostitutes receive medical care in order to ensure the clan do not have to wear condoms when they visit. These, added to the realization of the Camorra’s sheer sprawl, will endure. The shudder of fear generated by the realization that this is no pocket of power in a chokehold, but a network with considerable global reach, drags this story from beneath the bed. There are links with the Russians, of course, a surreal Aberdeen connection, links with China, a presence in Australia, and the clan are influential throughout Europe and Latin America (including the most ruthless of all, the Mexican cartels). Saviano also describes an attempt to organize the Gypsies of southern Spain into a criminal group.

In this way, Gomorrah depicts a huge, constant, and filmic level of threat: “some people went round to the senator’s brother’s trout farm and scattered the fish around, leaving them wiggling on the ground to die slowly” (before adding “suffocating in the air” as though there were many other ways). We learn that the horse’s head is small fry, relatively speaking, when it comes to making a point in Naples. Life also imitates film in the passage where Saviano describes how the female Camorra bosses dress their security detail in yellow tracksuits like Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Saviano himself references his own awareness of Scarface when he walks around the abandoned villa belonging to one of the bosses, helpless with rage and pissing into the bath (before conceding that this was an idiotic thing to do). This concession, together with the anecdote of an economics graduate “brought into the clan to handle the distribution of certain brands of coffee in the area bars” provided a rare note of humour. Such is the importance of coffee distributors in local commerce to the bosses. Less charming is learning that the same graduate tried firing an AK47 after the neighbourhood capo insisted everyone on the payroll had to learn how to shoot. He is ecstatic about having fired something so well designed, and becomes obsessed with meeting Kalashnikov himself. This is all very diverting, until Saviano strays into predictable stereotype when describing Kalashnikov with “the trace of vodka on his breath”.

Gomorrah is almost an unbelievable story, so it is perhaps appropriate that it is written in such an over the top fashion. Saviano is a better investigator than he is a writer; he is nonetheless exceedingly courageous to have written and talked at all, and long may he go on doing so. These tales clearly needed to be told in all of their savagery and breath-taking casualness for any life that attempts to exist alongside and apart from the Camorra themselves. Which is of course where Elena Ferrante comes in.

The Editors