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Posts from the ‘Fiction’ Category

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the RyeThe Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger

“A liar tied up in truth / Enough for a lifeline” – Bonnie Bishop in The English Journal, November 2003

I had always held The Catcher in the Rye in mind as an archetypal coming of age novel which I had never read. It sat, on the bookshelves of my mind amongst Italo Calvino’s “Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them.” The name Holden Caulfield familiar, like an old acquaintance whose face has been forgotten.

Occasionally, I have the the feeling when reading a book for the first time that subconsciously I must have been saving it as a reward for myself. Regardless of the occasion, I look out especially for books with which I can identify. Something in Holden Caulfield’s outlook strikes a chord with me, though his experience of teenage life is far removed from my own.

Caulfield’s aggressive, often shrill, dislike of ‘phonies’ is interspersed with intelligent, charming observations which do not give him up for his naivity: ”The thing is, it’s really hard to be roommates with people if your suitcases are much better than theirs.”

The genius of his character is his ability to extrapolate universals from the very limited and apparently immature perspective of his own experiences. His extrapolations are lampoons to the impulse to generalise – reflecting his naivety yet seemingly drawing out insightful conclusions despite his narrow experience; the privileged son of a wealthy ‘corporation lawyer’ (“boy, do those guys really haul it in”).

His insatiable understanding of the complexity of others, coupled to an inability to concentrate on any topic or person for a protracted period produces these perfect polished lines setting out the many injustices of American society in the 1940s: “I hate it if I’m eating bacon and eggs for breakfast and somebody else is only eating toast and coffee.”

Caulfield’s love of “a swiss cheese sandwich and a malted milk” is also strangely similar to some later iconic American sociopaths (Clarence Worley in True Romance: “I could eat a horse if you slapped enough ketchup on it”) of which he seems to be one. The honesty of Caulfield’s attitudes to food and drink pre-figures Tarantino’s tight characterisation of Worley’s almost psychotic relationship with food and eating (a relationship most explicitly plaid out in one of the most violent scenes of the film in which Worley is out ordering a chicken sandwich while his girlfriend is beaten half to death in their hotel room by a brutish James Gandolfini).

The brevity of the book and the flex and slap of the prose belies the complexity of its writing, the delicate and indelicate leitmotifs (“Old Gatsby. Old Sport. That killed me … I was waiting for old Luce”), the clever patterning, the five years of writing that makes Holden Caulfield one of the best and most brashly defined characters that I can recall reading since I first read Anthony Burgess’, A Clockwork Orange.

And yet, The Catcher in the Rye is really an innocent novel, a coming of age tale about a sixteen year old boy who can’t keep himself in a school for longer than a year. The worst violence of the book is really a drunken Caulfield, clutching his stomach, pretending to have been shot, shouting down the phone to Sally Hayes at two in the morning – the child Holden playing gangsters and the adult Caulfield chasing after women: ”They got me, Rocky’s mob got me. You know that? Sally, you know that?”

But it is not the innocence or naivety of the action in The Catcher in the Rye that is reminiscent of the clearly violent A Clockwork Orange or even of True Romance. It is the cold and violent use of the English language (“that really killed me”) and the lightning strikes of annihilation directed at the other characters in the novel that makes Caulfield’s performance so potent, cynical and entertaining: “She was dating this terrible guy, Al Pike … he was always hanging around the swimming pool. He wore those white Lastex kind of swimming trunks, and he was always going off the high dive. He did the same lousy old half gainer all day long. It was the only dive he could do, but he thought he was very hot stuff. All muscles and no brains.” His rasping assassinations inflected with his childish and incisive observations (“Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell.”) make this one of the most enjoyable books I have read in months, reading each sentence like cutting with a well sharpened knife.

Caulfield seems to roam from one place full of phonies to the next. He is both attracted to the places that they are attracted to and repulsed by their presence in them (“It’s one of those places that are supposed to be sophisticated and all, and the phonies are coming in the window”). Much more, it seems, he is a stranger in the place of his own existence. Someone who is not yet accepted, or who does not yet accept himself – personification of that difficult journey out of adolescence, always approaching adulthood, retreating into childhood. This apparent uncertainty lashes out at the other characters he encounters, blind always to his own issues (“Stop screaming at me please,” she said. Which was crap because I wasn’t even screaming at her.”) he attacks the many flaws of others in place of addressing his own – an intelligent and childish prism through which to view 1940s New York – a delightful one.

The Catcher in the Rye has created a new category of books for my my mental shelving, one which it is leading by a mile: The Books You Have Recently Read And Now You Want Everybody To Read Them.

The Editors

Spoken Word III

Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries interviewed by Robert Macfarlane

RSL, Union Chapel, Thursday 3rd April

The winner of the 2013 Man Booker prize, 27 year old Eleanor Catton from New Zealand, was interviewed by travel writer and academic Robert Macfarlane* earlier this month as part of the RSL event series. The evening kicked off with two men singing various traditional Maori songs, followed inevitably by the Haka. With our focus determinedly set on New Zealand – in case we had been inclined to wander – Macfarlane introduced Catton by describing the night The Luminaries won, with an anecdote highlighting the fact that Ben Okri is clearly great company as well as a good friend of Macfarlane’s, and that Catton was obviously startled to have won. She recalled for the audience that the moment she won, the internet ‘broke’ in New Zealand – her parents had to find out via the radio. 

Catton veered between making statements with a glint of steel – despite the prize, she said “the same task is before me now” – and being charming to the point where it almost beggared belief. Every question he posed was ‘interesting’, everything she wrote was ‘gorgeous’ to Macfarlane.  In their shared love of landscape they were brought together, and when they discussed this it felt like the audience were able to see where the bones of the novel came from. The Luminaries is a thin strip of a novel in that it covers the main street of a pioneering town and the beach, where the rivers meet as they come down from the hills. Catton spoke of this meniscus of land being trapped between the savage sea and impassable peaks. It is a land caught between ‘dangers’ where people refer to drowning as ‘the West Coast disease’.

Even when she has been abroad, Catton has been pulled toward her native land: her grandmother sent her the shipping news from microfiche across the ocean when she was in Iowa. She writes with two family maxims in mind: the idea that effort is individual, and that you cannot buy a view, it must be deserved. In addition, the Cattons maintain that everything looks better in the rain. This will not be news to any resident of the United Kingdom. 

Despite the undeniable importance of the setting in terms of the initial events within the narrative, the action mostly happens inside. Virginia Woolf commented on how hard it is to move characters out of one room and into another. The chances of this happening and of then meeting others are significantly increased by being inside, on the whole. It also helps that the rain is relentless in the novel. 

Without wishing to ruin it for those yet to tackle this huge novel, The Luminaries charts the interwoven fates of several characters within a gold mining town. A local prostitute and infamous opium addict is found badly injured by the side of the road, a shipwreck causes a key crate to go missing, a hermit is found dead and his estate hotly contested. As the town elders vie for prominence and a séance reveals a common desire to be hoodwinked, everyone is of course obsessed with gold. In many ways it is a novel about dividends, and Catton is clever on the subject of relations being bought. She feels love and money are opposite, and that the latter is only ever a transient vehicle for enabling the former in some way. 

Catton planned out the structure of the novel with a piece of software that enables the user to program the night skies. By inputting the longitude and latitude, it shows you the stars in sky above that location, by adding any date it shows you the constellations at that time in order to see the skies revolve as well as the phases of the moon. In the late nineteenth century she found ‘a month without a moon’ between two full moons, and deemed it the sign to start her off. She had already been interested in astrology (to Maori New Zealanders, Orion’s belt is the bottom of a catamaran), but the idea of both fixed and moving parts interested her as well as providing assistance in crafting a plot of that complexity. She took astronomy archetypes and turned them into a novel: Sagittarius – said to represent the collective unconscious – is also the House of Journeys, suitable for a novel where the arrival of the mysterious stranger is key. 

Macfarlane enquired after Catton’s casual use of the word ‘whore’ throughout the narrative; it did not lose its impact for him no matter how many times it cropped up. She agreed the word was a shock, and that she would never normally use it but in this case had no compunction doing so, before pointing out that the words whore, ore, California and Victoria all contain the same sound. Catton sees patterns in apparently randomly distributed data. She is clearly interested in connections, describing them in a neat way.

The evening concluded with a reading by Kerry Fox in darkness so complete that Macfarlane said he felt like he was at a séance himself. He helped Catton towards increasingly voluble responses as the hour progressed and was the ideal choice to interview such a modest writer at the start of her undoubtedly stellar career. I just wish there had been slightly less awareness of this fact throughout the evening. 

*Kathleen Jamie’s 2008 review of Macfarlane’s book The Wild Places is one of the most crushingly funny pieces I have ever encountered. It may not be entirely fair, but with sentences like the below, that ceases to matter quite so much: “ if we do find a Wild Place, we can prance about there knowing that no bears or wolves will appear over the bluff, because we disposed of the top predators centuries ago, and if we do come unstuck there’s a fair chance that, like the man on Ben Nevis, we’ll get a mobile signal, and be rescued.”

The Editors

Spoken Word II

Daunt Books Festival 27/28 March – Part Two

Bright Young Novelists: Adam Foulds, Rebecca Hunt and Evie Wyld interviewed by Edmund Gordon

The second event in the first day of the very first Daunt Books Festival recently featured Edmund Gordon – a critic currently writing a life of Angela Carter – speaking to three young writers based in the UK but keen on far flung settings.

Rebecca Hunt’s Everland plots two Antarctic expeditions 100 years apart, commencing in 1913 with three sailors trying to make their way to the small island of Everland in a dinghy after a storm. She highlights the danger of hope at the poles – in the form of kelp, or a cormorant – as a sign that land is nearby can of course be a mirage or salvation.

Hunt is very good on the practicality of life in this extreme place – of lugging things and people – that Scott and others were irritatingly noble and upbeat about in their diaries. It was drudgery. Also, carrying a dead or ailing body at the Pole is a dead weight that can kill you. It slows you down when there is no such thing as time to spare. She also deftly illustrates fraying tempers as a result of this pressured race, often with language ‘so violent it didn’t have a sound’.

It is also always good to hear about Hunt’s explorers living on pemmican (spiced, preserved seal meat) as a staple of the Polar menu. The last time I encountered this calorific snack was in an almost unbearably perky book provided by my grandmother: Susannah of the Yukon. Susannah is quite the explorer, defying the Mounties to strike her own gold claim aged nine. Her love of the frontier started this whole messy personal obsession with frosty horizons and the ends of the earth.

Evie Wyld then discussed her second novel: All the Birds, Singing (her debut was reviewed on the site here). The protagonist moves to a sheep station after an offer to become a form of maid ‘with advantages’, having been a prostitute in the city. The arrangement, having turned out to be less than advantageous, turns south and our heroine prepares to flee her trap. Amid a general backdrop of acute unease, she tries to plot her captor Otto’s mood every morning by the time he unlocks her door to release her in order to pick the perfect moment to run. The description of her disabling a truck engine on guesswork – throwing washers away frantically to buy herself time – is one of the most tense pieces of writing I have ever encountered.

Her escape is foiled by the dog jumping up and down with rage at the sight of her starting its master’s Ute (a car for those like me who did not know). The woman and dog are bound together; however it is the lady who runs the risk of being tapped on the nose with a rolled up comic for a misdemeanour. Wyld is always great on dog behaviour, describing “not a smell of hello but a smell of what are you up to”. She also delivers painfully sharp flashes of physical interaction: “every time we finish” having sex, Otto acknowledges this by “slapping the meat of his gut”.

At the sheep station, by dawn the air is already thick with flies. Breakfast is chops with eggs. There is a ewe with a black spotted nose. All of these shards of imagery are nearly familiar but ultimately combine to form an undeniable picture of Otherness. Australia is as familiar as a photograph, but blurred and off kilter. In response to a question about writing about far removed places rather than attempting to capture the areas of London that are currently moving fast, Wyld explained that she would rather get lost in her imagination than write about the Peckham she knows and get it ‘wrong’, as she would incur the wrath of the locals directly in the bookshop she runs.

Adam Foulds, having read a section from his most recent novel The Quickening Maze, was asked by an audience member when the best time to have been a writer was. His answer was 1885, due to the sheer number of contemporaries he could have enjoyed – Robert Musil and Thomas Mann in particular – however someone made the valid point that he would have been called in that case. A short pause ensured before he responded with a gentle defence for his choice: “Obviously, it had its risks.”

The process of writing a second novel was more like going back to square one than any of the three authors could have predicted. Each new endeavour is started by saying “This will be the one where I say what I mean”. Which in turn drives the impulse to keep going. Which is good news for the reader.

The Editors

Spoken Word

Daunt Books Festival, 27/28 March 2014

Celebrating Virago Modern Classics: Maggie O’Farrell, Susie Boyt and Deborah Levy, questions by Lennie Goodings

Virago was created as a publisher in 1973 to challenge the notion of ‘great’ women writers. They calmly and effectively appropriated the idea of Penguin Modern Classics for themselves, and O’Farrell, Boyt and Levy opened the inaugural Daunt Books Festival by discussing which Virago novels particularly inspired them. It was a relatively unusual opportunity to hear writers talk about reading without their being obliged to tie in their own work unless they felt like it.

Deborah Levy (Black Vodka and Hot Milk are two of her recent titles) chose Angela Carter and Muriel Spark as her authors. She compared Carter’s ‘long, luscious, feverish and slightly inflamed sentences’, that are all about revealing desire to Spark’s short, spiky sentences about it being concealed.

Spark feathers her books with many beautiful, slightly psychopathic female figures, about whom she is unapologetic. Levy described Spark as a genius at depicting human frailty and human cruelty, which she did not appreciate until years after first reading her. Spark inserts a kind of ‘mild panic’ into her calm sentences, which informed the way Levy wrote Swimming Home, creating a splinter on the surface of the prose. In this way, Levy explained her feeling that “books are laid inside us” until you re-read them and uncover more at a later stage.

Carter was described as altogether more theatrical, with desiring female characters; their bodies no longer buttoned up – in fact, they tend to have the first five undone. Levy cited Baudelaire’s influence on Carter before reading a passage from The Magic Toyshop in closing.

Overall, Levy’s confidence in her choices was partly derived from the fact that neither writer tends to have characters doing things like putting a chicken in the oven. The characters are given minds, enabled to travel on horseback – vulnerable and fragile – but are often ‘travelling across terrain to find something they need’.

Every time Maggie O’Farrell sees a dark green Virago spine in a second-hand bookshop, she buys it on principle. She described being drawn to the aesthetic of it: the portrait on the cover and the whiteness of the pages.

Her first choice was Our Spoons came from Woolworth’s by Barbara Comyn (the ‘daughter of a madwoman and a violent, cruel man’). She asked that you not be put off by the title, having herself been transfixed by Comyn’s unique prose style within five minutes. Quick as a whip, she pre-empted my next thought by acknowledging that the word ‘unique’ is overused, but asserted that Comyn’s narrative voice is unlike any other. Her character will take a newt to a dinner party and let it swim in the water jug, delivered in the same tone as a child dying of scarlet fever. The novel illustrates 1930s Bohemian London pre-Beveridge report, wherein barbed comedy rapidly descends into the destruction of a marriage.

Her next choice was Mollie Keane, ‘a Hibernian Evelyn Waugh’, who wrote about the minute calibrations of class and family in the Anglo-Irish last days of Empire. The novel portrays a family of poverty stricken snobs who value dogs above one another, and who would rather die than eat rabbit mousse, as it is ‘low’ food – having been caught for free rather than bought in a butcher. Their servants – who are starving – are sacked for eating starch in the laundry, and grocers are ‘robbers’ if they have the temerity to actually send a bill. You say nothing when your husband sleeps with servants, or when your son dies. If you are still standing after all of that charm, the language will still hold you fast, as every word Keane uses pulls its weight. She is the master of the disparity between what we feel and what we say: let’s take the dogs for a walk rather than actually talking about it.

Her third and final choice was Rosamond Lehmann’s The Invitation to the Waltz, which captures a seventeen year old girl preparing for a party – and that true insight that the prospect of the night is always better than what actually takes place, the anticipation always being superior to the event. At the party she encounters the master of the house’s son. More on this at a later date (when I have finished the book).

The final speaker Susie Boyt chose Elizabeth Taylor in the hope that one day the film star will be called the “other Elizabeth Taylor”.

Boyt carefully explained that Taylor repeatedly pulls off effects that are very hard to achieve with no effort at all, from simple, perfect sentences (“The chair scraped back and talk broke out”) to expertly set moral thermostats and particularly good group portraits: one scene was cited where a clutch of ladies cook their lunch – lamb chops on a Baby Belling – at the same time as melting wax in a little pan to do their moustaches.

She also described an air of recklessness to Taylor’s stories, including one where a new groom gets so caught up in the joy of being in the pub that he simply forgets about his new bride upstairs in her lilac underwear. He automatically goes home to his mum’s house at the end of the night, alone, and ‘no one knows what to think at all’.

Boyt also gave a synopsis of a brilliant short story by Taylor of two people posing as a married couple in order to land a job offered to a pair of married waiters: these people are serious enough about their vocation to be lifted by ‘the glacial table linen’ and the elegance of the clientele. The ‘husband’ takes their cover story seriously enough to put a photograph of ‘their son’ in the flat, and asks her to leave out her hairbrush and a pot of face cream in order to convince any curious visitors. Of course the story does not end well.

Taylor expertly shows all the things in family life that can go wrong, something that Boyt, who described herself as liking ‘to write dark books with high spirits’* and with the same moral agenda as Taylor, clearly sympathizes with. A slightly more optimistic way of describing it could be a way of showing how to be good in the world without being ground down to a paste.
This concludes Part One. Part Two, featuring Evie Wyld and others will follow shortly.

*Boyt on cities: “I like dual carriageways and litter and all the things you are not supposed to like but I really do”.

The Editors

Don Quixote 3: the beautiful shepherdess

The genius of the Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha, Sñr Don Quixote, lies partly in the juxtaposition of his lunacy against absurd social norms. Cervantes splits open the idiocy of social conventions by the non-conformity of his ludicrous knight ‘errant’. Don Quixote does not fit within the social constructs of his day and the characters he meets regularly depart from his company in discussion of his madness: “they left him and continued their journey, during which they had much to talk about, from the history of Marcela and Grisóstomo, to the madness of Don Quixote.”

But in the episode preceding this passage, Cervantes’ caustic irony splits open the normative chauvinism of the group of male shepherds who consider Don Quixote to be mad. Cervantes portrays them in their ignorance, despite their apparently acceptable views, by leaving reason to be defended by a woman (albeit a beautiful one) and a madman.

Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and the shepherds, who are at this point travelling together, come across the funeral procession of the young shepherd Grisóstomo. Telling the tale, Ambrosio, one of the funeral party, says: “He loved deeply and was rejected; he adored and was scorned; he pleaded with a wild beast, importuned a piece of marble, pursued the wind, shouted in the desert, served ingratitude and his reward was to fall victim to death in the middle of his life, which was ended by a shepherdess whom he attempted to immortalise so that she would live on in memory.” The shrill cry of a masculine group, forming around their lost companion. The tone is clichéd and anti-intellectual, it shows no appreciation that the poignancy of love is bound as much to the imminency of loss as to the strength of feeling of the lover. It says only, he loved, was unrequited and this is somehow an offence of the subject of his love.

A short while later the group, now travelling together, comes upon Marcela, the shepherdess in question. Ambrosio, in his ludicrous almost camp manner, accuses her of several ridiculous things including coming “in your arrogance, to tread on this unfortunate corpse”, a string of accusations which prompt an exceptional response from the beautiful shepherdess.

“The lover of the beautiful thing might be ugly and since ugliness is worthy of being avoided, it is absurd to say: “I love you because you are beautiful; you must love me even though I am ugly”… According to what I have heard, true love is not divided and must be voluntary, not forced. If this is true, as I believe it is, why do you want to force me to surrender my will, obliged to do so simply because you say you love me? But if this is not true, then tell me: if the heaven that made me beautiful made me ugly instead, would it be fair for me to complain that none of you loved me?… if chastity is one of the virtues that most adorn and beautify both the body and soul, why should a woman, loved for being beautiful, lose that virtue in order to satisfy the desire of a man who, for the sake of his pleasure, attempts with all his might and main to have her lose it?… it is correct to say that his obstinacy, not my cruelty, is what killed him. 

… I am free and do not care to submit to another… The limits of my desires are these mountains, and if they go beyond here, it is to contemplate the beauty of heaven and the steps whereby the soul travels to its first home.” 

After her astounding and excellent soliloquy she departs into a dense thicket of forest, intending not to be followed. “And some – those who were pierced by the powerful arrow of the light of her beautiful eyes – gave indications of wishing to follow her, disregarding the patent discouragement they had heard.” But Don Quixote refuses to allow them: “Let no person, whatever his circumstance or condition, dare to follow the beautiful Marcela lest he fall victim to my fury and outrage.”

The truth in Cervantes, it seems, is like a paste-board knight, riding on a lean old donkey, frail, regularly beaten but determined in the face of ignorance, convention and stupidity. Don Quixote forever challenges accepted convention with his naive honesty, is dubbed mad and ignoble as a result and pays no attention to his critics. For that, we can only salute him.

The Editors

Making it up

100YOMThe Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared
– Jonas Jonasson

Reading this book gave me the feeling that Mr Jonasson was writing to an urgent deadline and making things up as he went along. More often than not, novels give the opposite feeling, a feeling of profound heaviness as though the author has weighed every word against its alternatives over a period of years, maybe decades, in order to refine what it is that he or she actually wanted to say. This can work well, and it is fair to say that most of the ‘great’ works of literature are probably crafted agonisingly slowly by committed people prepared to dedicate an enormous amount of time to their art. However, as we would like to think this blog has show over the course of its two-and-a-bit year existence, books are not confined to any one type (or weight) and this particular book about an old man who goes AWOL from his care home is ample proof of the ability of literature to depart from the expectations of even the most seasoned readers.

Perhaps Jonas Jonasson was not writing to a deadline, but his plot unfolds like a bedtime story that has ballooned grotesquely out of proportion into something it was never intended to be. As though, scrambling desperately for something to keep his child interested, Jonasson stumbled upon the goldmine of twentieth century history in all its convoluted glory and blithely sourced it for the invention of preposterous anecdotes revolving around key geopolitical events and characters. It is in this way that the 100-year-old-man, Allan Karlsson, comes to meet President Truman, Chairman Mao, Stalin, Albert Einstein’s brother and an infant Kim Jong-Il. But the narrative, like its protagonist, remains both impulsive and utterly indifferent to its inherent absurdity: Karlsson’s life story develops as a sort of funfair ride through the 1900s, reminding us in the process that a lot can (and did) happen in 100 years. Embarrassingly, I still found myself having to do a lot of background research on Wikipedia.

The president continued to describe military strategy, but Allan had stopped listening. He looked absentmindedly around the Oval Office, wondering whether the windows were bulletproof and where the door to the left might lead.”

In short, Allan Karlsson may seem a man like any other, but he is not. He is willing to drop his hundredth birthday party on a whim and embark on an adventure because he still has the legs for it. He rallies around himself a ragtag band of misfits and although it seems only a matter of time before the curtain comes down on his remarkable life, he defies convention much as Mr Jonasson does, carrying on as indifferent to politics/the opinion of others as he is to the fact of his geriatric status. In a world overrun by cynicism, Mr Karlsson is a man whose unquenchable lust for life is too inspiring to ridicule.

So what does it amount to? To be honest, the question seems obtuse when asked of a book that is essentially a shameless literary joyride over several hundred pages. There is a genuine sense throughout that caution was thrown to the wind, that the question “why stop there?” was asked at every step of the way and received the ecstatic response “why indeed!” – like Forrest Gump when he got to the end of his driveway – and perhaps this is how, at a stretch, it was meant to tie together.

The Editors


sJJ Abrams used to be a fairly acquired taste. An elite few of us sat, agape, through several seasons of his TV series Roswell High many years ago, but not everyone could stomach the subtle metaphor for teen alienation being delivered via the plot vehicle of teen aliens attending high school in Roswell, New Mexico, famed for an alleged UFO crash and resulting cover up in 1947. Subtle and fairly casual about timelines, he went on to make Lost which made him more popular, until the ending made everyone cross.

However, now there is no way of evading Abrams, even if you wanted to. Much like Joss Whedon’s ascent post-Buffy and Firefly, these geeks have sidled into commanding mainstream cinema in the form of The Avengers for Whedon, and Star Trek and Star Wars for Abrams. To be helming two major science fiction franchises at once is unheard of, but regrettably this post is not about fanatical loyalty, but about Abrams’ literary side project.

An interesting reaction to the pressure of taking several massive professional commitments is writing a book. However, what makes it more intriguing is the form in which the book appears. S. was co-authored by Doug Dorst (a slightly shadowy figure who writes full time as well as being a three time Jeopardy winner), and is a singularly beautiful – or at the very least pleasing – object. The hardback appears in a box, and resembles a library book down to the label on the spine and the stamps on the inside cover. What is more, it is entitled Ship of Theseus, by an unknown 19th century writer called V M Straka, and it is full of pieces of paper: maps, letters and postcards hidden between the pages. It is also covered in notes scribbled in the margins, written in two very different (but wonderfully legible) kinds of handwriting. It emerges that this book is in fact more like three stories: there is the science fiction novel by ‘Straka’, the footnotes by Straka’s translator arguably add another level as it turns out Straka’s true identity remains a mystery to this day, and the relationship developing between the two people who take it in turns borrowing this volume from their university library in order to crack who Straka was. The stakes are raised by a rival group who are trying to uncover the Straka myth at the same time, and seem to be supported by a larger entity with nefarious influences.


Trying to keep track of the varying strands at the same time while juggling the marginalia and various paper clues means that the reader has to work rather harder than they may be used to, but this may be a welcome change for the readers so habitual they tend to gallop faster than they’d like. Going back and forth and around makes you reconsider the pages, which is both refreshing and exasperating. The reader encounters a ship manned by a silent, gaunt crew with a grim mission reminiscent of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a country broken by revolution, an American university in the grip of winter plagued by apparently random acts of violence and theft, an elderly Brazilian lady refusing to give up her secrets in any of the many languages she speaks, and two chippy academics with a certain amount of self-pity who still manage to fall rather touchingly in love.

The stories themselves may not stand up to prolonged scrutiny, but it is such a creative way of changing one of the more established formats that it does not matter hugely. The production must have been an expensive labour of love, as the end product costs no more than a standard hardback and is the sort of object you would be delighted to hold on to. S. has been compared to Nabokov’s Pale Fire and A S Byatt’s Possession with some justification, and even if you are still seething about Lost, this book will not entirely repair the damage, but it may both mollify and entertain you in the process.

The Editors


Book of Mammon, Part I

mammonMONEY [book], Martin Amis [writer]

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET [film], Martin Scorsese [director]

[Pedant warning: references to Jordan Belfort in this article are to the fictionalised character in The Wolf of Wall Street, not to the real person.]

I finished Money, Martin Amis’ novel of eighties debauchery, a few days after watching Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which has been so popular since its release last month that apparently it’s now impossible to actually go and see it.  It turns out that my timing was quite the artistic alignment of the planets; Scorsese’s film is in many respects a skewed adaptation of Amis’ novel, from the transatlantic flights to near-death experiences, by way of rampant misogyny and orgiastic self-indulgence.

Perhaps it’s easiest to get the differences out of the way first.  The protagonist in Money is an ambitious English ad-exec called John Self; DiCaprio’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street is an ambitious New York trader called Jordan Belfort.  They both consume rapaciously, but the former has a debilitating weakness for junk food and suffers from numerous associated symptoms – Rug & Gut & Gum issues – whereas the steady diet of cocaine and Quaaludes has no appreciable effect on Belfort’s outward appearance beyond mild facial sweats.

On the other hand, they are both addicted to money; of all the drugs on offer this is their favourite:

SELF: Maybe money is the great conspiracy, the great fiction. The addiction too: we’re all addicted and we can’t break the habit now […] You can’t get the money monkey off your back.

BELFORT: Enough of this shit’ll make you invincible, able to conquer the world and eviscerate your enemies. Money is the oxygen of capitalism and I wanna breathe more than any other human being alive.

In a way, this is because money is the great facilitator: without money there can be no addictions to  the more conventional drugs of cocaine, booze and sex.  But it is also because both characters see money as the ultimate goal, the end that justifies all means, and think therefore that making money will save them from having to give any thought to the complexities of life.  To this extent, Belfort’s great moment of discomfort doesn’t come with his final arrest or prison sentence (spoiler alert: we seem him playing tennis in prison at the end) but when he is confronted by his straight-laced pursuer Agent Denham of the FBI on his boat.  Denham gently makes it known that he sees Belfort as a petty criminal – “Good for you little man” – and it is this informal indictment of character that Belfort is unable to cope with: “Alright, get the fuck off my boat. Good luck on that subway ride home to your miserable, ugly wives.”  In other words, he snaps at the mere implication that there might be something to life other than money, and that he might somehow be missing out.

Similarly, John Self is troubled by the thought that there might be something else out there that he is only vaguely aware of.  This ‘something else’ manifests itself most obviously in the form of literature, and specifically the appearance of a fictionalised Martin Amis within the novel itself.  Self initially despises Amis for what he sees as aloofness and snobbery, but they eventually get to know one another, only for Self to turn his back on Amis once again when the latter’s character evaluation cuts too close to the bone.  Perhaps this is the symbolism in the final chess game between the two of them; Self thinks he’s won but stutters to a crushing defeat.  Our final impression of the protagonist is therefore as an unlikely ingénu, outwitted on all fronts by the complexities of life.

One of the things I liked most about both book and film, however, is that neither of them is a morality tale in the conventional sense (in fact, The Wolf has been roundly, and I think unfairly, criticised for glamourising city excess and psychopathic behaviour).  Both protagonists suffer comeuppance of a sort for their lives of lecherous abandonment, but that’s not really the point.  For my money the point is twofold.  Firstly, that living a life of lecherous abandonment is extremely good fun, and the depiction of the high life in both works is nothing short of hilarious, not to mention envy-inspiring on many levels.  Secondly, that the high life is actually quite a narrow life, offering little beyond hedonistic gratification.  However, this does not amount to an “I told you so” criticism because there is only an oblique suggestion that there is actually anything else out there.  The latter point is for the viewer/reader to decide, as it is in real life, and it is not an easy call to make, partly I would suggest because money is very tangible and ‘other stuff’ (art, love, justice, friendship, morality, intellectual fulfilment) tends to be less so.  Which is why in one of the final scenes of The Wolf we see a weary Agent Denham riding the subway home looking distinctly ambiguous about how things  have turned out (very much like the young couple on the bus at the end of The Graduate), and perhaps wondering whether he should have taken that bribe.

As the ever-sage Keith Richards says: “I look for ambiguity when I’m writing because life is ambiguous.”

The Editors

Review of the Year 2013: Fiction

Umbrella, Will Self

This is my favourite Will Self novel by far.  I liked it because it was demanding, intricate, heartfelt and masterfully delivered.  The reader is asked to traverse three complex, esoteric and interrelated sub-plots that are split over the 20th century.  Despite this challenge, Self’s canny prose makes the story accessible.  Umbrella is also a very enjoyable read – its stream of consciousness narrative is peppered with compassion and humour.  All in all, I was left thinking very differently about time and its relationship with human memory, ageing, infirmity and care.

Hayden Wood

Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively

Among a host of wonderful books read this year, Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively haunts me the most. We meet our narrator, Claudia Hampton, as a formidable elderly woman, who decides to write ‘a history of the world … and in the process my own’ from her hospital bed. So we learn about Claudia’s remarkable life – her career, her family, her love affairs, and, at the heart of it all, there is a powerfully affecting romance in Egypt during the Second World War. (So powerful that it left me weeping over my lunchtime sandwich!) Lively experiments deftly with narrative form, using multiple viewpoints to emphasise the inherent unreliability of memory and the impossibility of writing anything other than a subjective history. It is a phenomenal novel – inspiring in its portrayal of emotions, and also in its posing of more cerebral questions.

Emily Rhodes

Read Emily’s post about Moon Tiger here.

Platform, Michel Houellebecq

This was my first Houellebecq novel and it felt like a baptism of fire from start to finish.  Houellebecq forces you, for 300-odd pages (careful now), to view the world from his proto-existentialist perspective, and it’s a fairly traumatic experience.  However, the breathtaking intensity of the ride means that you long for more as soon as you put the book down, which left me wondering what the world would look like if more of us adopted Houellebecq’s take on the human condition.

The Editors

Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter

This made me long for the sun of LA and the Amalfi coast.

Augusta Pownall

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

The best book I’ve read this year was also the first ‘proper’ book I ever read. I was eleven and subsisting on the Hardy Boys and Undersea Adventures borrowed from a library in the next village when I – hampered by my parents’ unwillingness to drive me there – chose a book from their shelves on the grounds that it was slim. It was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Without knowing what the Gulag was, who Stalin was, what political prisoners were, I was struck more deeply even than I understood by this account of bread and cold and labour in a snowbound prison camp. (Its effect on my own life was far from positive. On day one of big school, a few months later, the English teacher, a dead ringer for Hagrid, asked the class what was the last book everyone had read. After my classmates’ ‘Biff and Kipper go to the Park’ or ‘The I Can Sing a Rainbow Book’ or ‘Nothing’ I piped up with what I had just re-read for the first time: ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Hagrid, not realising I had just sentenced myself to my own four years of penal servitude, lent me The Gulag Archipelago, impressing in the soft wax of my adolescent mind the image of a KGB interrogatrix stamping her stiletto heel through a detainee’s testicle.)

Fifteen years later, I have just read it again and can appreciate the strangeness of the inscription: From [my father] to [my mother], Merry Christmas. Perhaps that was because my mother was learning English and the book was again chosen for its slimness. After a little giggle at ‘Merry Christmas’, I read it straight through, as firmly gripped after only a few lines as I had been that first time. Solzhenitsyn had done his research or rather, it had been done to him. He was sent to the Gulag for referring to Stalin by a derogatory nickname in a letter to a friend. Eight years of it, from the age of 27 to 35. And then internal exile in Kazakhstan, with cancer (cf. a novel as cheery as The Gulag Archipelago: Cancer Ward). He shows us a good day in the camp for Ivan, when luck favours him and he is happy. He earns an extra slice of bread and works satisfyingly at laying bricks. We see the paradox that he, a once free man, is so degraded that he takes pleasure, pride even, in obeying his captor’s commands, and yet that pride is what may save his spirit, because it is in work done well, in skill employed, in the brotherhood of labour.

Reading it now, when the twentieth century and its unending coils of barbed wire already seem distant and our novels and newspapers are full of the concerns of a comfortable, affluent society habituated to comfort and affluence, it reminded me that writing can be far more than entertainment or even the art of the gallery and the connoisseur; it can be what Denisovich is, a great cry of incarcerated humanity, so loud and so real that it shattered its cage.

Alexander Starritt

Cocktail Sticks, Alan Bennett, The National Theatre

The play captured the eccentricities of the English in such a subtle, multi-layered way and had me laughing out loud. I could watch it every week and never tire of the character’s habits and perspectives for they represent how all of us feel at some point, alienated from society but in this alienation very much together as a people.

Kate Cornell

The Blind Man’s Garden, Nadeem Aslam

A stylistically accomplished and lyrical account of a young man in Aghanistan uncovering imploring letters written by a young woman to the UN for help. Asleem is writing about Aghanistan for the second time, and he consistently portrays History as a force with which people must contend, and does not commit himself to a particular political cause.

The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud

A wonderful book about female anger amongst many other things. The narrator, a teacher called Nora who decides to follow up on a long suppressed ambition to be an artist, and develops an important relationship with the woman with whom she shares a studio.

See this interview in Publishers Weekly on the likeability of her characters.

The Editors

Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch

donnatarttDonna Tartt, the Southern writer who produces a book a decade and politely avoids interviews aside from those necessitated by book tours, gave a reading from The Goldfinch in St. James’s church recently.

She was interviewed by Kirsty Wark of Newsnight, whose questions came just above “Where do you get your ideas?”* but seemed very pleased with herself to have finished the book, as well she might be. The Goldfinch is over 800 pages long, and sprawls over much of the United States and Europe over several decades.  It shares certain commonalities with The Secret History: alcohol and drug dependency depicted with an uncomfortable level of accuracy; central protagonists who observe and derive pleasure from historically aesthetic objects to the extent that they are hampered by the past, and a tangible desire to be taken and accepted by an elitist group. In both cases, the drawback is that once you enter these clubs – an exclusive Classics undergraduate group, or in the case of The Goldfinch, a privileged New York family – there is a cost, of course you can never really get out again.

Theo, the debatable hero, loses his mother to a terrorist bomb attack when they are admiring the picture of the entitled Goldfinch at the Met, shortly after he falls in love at first sight for the first time. He steals the picture amid the ensuing chaos. Initially housed with a school friend’s family, he is a changeling in their WASP life who fits in rather too well, and yearns to emulate their wealthy veneer. Tartt described her fascination with the claustrophobia of Park Avenue, and the cloying sense of gentility that comes with that world. Theo escapes by contacting his beloved’s family, and gains entry to their world, which is the antiques trade of reptilian gentility and skilled but naïve restorers. There he sees enough to be smitten with every aspect of the trade, before his father yanks him across the country to Nevada. The desert holds nothing for him besides the friendship of the chaotic, romantic and self-destructive Boris. Neglected and undernourished, they smoke, drink and snort their way around Vegas as they cement their friendship over several years of smeared, surreal time keeping. And all the time Theo holds the picture secretly to him as a talisman.

After his father’s demise Theo heads back to New York where he fails to get the girl, but masters the antiques game.  He swindles his way to becoming a master of the trade and affianced to the daughter of the house who took him in years before, numbed by narcotics and fuelled by the fear that the picture will be discovered after the news shows more works looted in a similar way appearing on the black market. It is at this moment that Boris reappears in Theo’s life, and the murmurs of disquiet for the reader become a klaxon of mishap, careering over to Amsterdam and ending in No Good.

Tartt is an immaculate suited figure with a dark bob like a harebell, and an endearing way of rushing through sentences in an earnest fashion. Her diplomacy came through when describing the blighted fate of the film version of The Secret History, where she pronounced Hollywood ‘complicated’. She describes writing everywhere in small notebooks in script as thin as an eyelash, and her consciousness as ‘a rag and bone shop’. In her approach to research, choosing what to leave out is reminiscent of Penelope Fitzgerald, and teaching herself to write convincingly about a skill such as woodwork from books like Nabokov, who taught himself to drive by reading.  She describes writing a long book as a sea voyage, where a tiny boat is tossed about in the faith that the facing shore is still there. There are moments when reading her work feels like as if you are a tiring swimmer on the point of being subsumed by dirty money and empty bottles, but it is worth reaching the far shore. Tartt’s world was moulded by the South – shadow, tall tales and charming manners – but never refers directly to it. Her characters turn from erudite chameleons to dysfunctional brawlers and liars who never get the girl. I can’t decide if I like them so much because I only meet them once a decade, like interesting relatives who you are secretly pleased live clean on the other side of the world.

*Easily the biggest heart-sinker of the questions asked by a member of the audience was who killed Bunny in The Secret History. Tartt’s response that the answer was in the book, and failing that on internet forums, made up for it.

The Editors