Hark by Sam Lipsyte

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My review of Sam Lipsyte’s Hark (Granta) appeared in yesterday’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s a short excerpt:

In the opening pages of Sam Lipsyte’s fourth novel, there is a spectacular riff about what it’s like to be alive in the 21st century. The protagonist, Fraz, “knows younger types already fried, or brined, not just with drugs or booze, but merely from rising in the morning, moving about in their private biospheres of panic and decay […] the stresses laced into the simplest tasks, the fight-or-flight responses to kitchen appliances, not to mention the mighty common domes, with which the individual bubbles Venn: the fouled sky, the polluted food, the pharma-fed rivers full of sad-eyed Oxytrout.”

The ideal review of a Lipsyte novel would simply quote his best riffs, or his funniest lines (“Fraz arrives, grabs a chair, straddles it like a sex criminal”), or his funniest lines of dialogue (“Lisa, David, how was school?” “Daddy, I’m glad you asked. It’s a fucking shitshow”). To a prose stylist of Lipsyte’s calibre, plot, theme, and structure are largely incidental. The point, for such a writer, is to find a scenario, or a loose cluster of scenarios, that will facilitate the maximum number of amazing sentences.

Tunnel Vision by Kevin Breathnach

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My review of Kevin Breathnach’s Tunnel Vision (Faber) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s a short excerpt:

Kevin Breathnach’s debut collection of essays has already been reviewed, in some quarters, as if it were an ordinary assemblage of critical and confessional pieces – a portrait of the artist as a young poseur – with a few sprigs of intellectual watercress sitting decoratively on top (quotations from Kafka, Thomas Mann, Claudia Rankine, et cetera). This is a purblind approach to a book that uses the confessional mode to criticise, and the critical mode to confess, and that refuses to settle into anything so reassuring as a comfy generic nook. Tunnel Vision is an unstable compound, and reading it is a destabilising experience.

In other words, Kevin Breathnach is that old-fashioned thing: a Modernist. He mixes genres and styles promiscuously. He tinkers with form – setting prose as verse, playing sly tricks with margins and layout. (The final piece in the book, “Cracking Up,” suffers through a progressive marginal narrowing so severe that by the final page, individual syllables are getting whole lines to themselves.)

New Essay in the Irish Journal of American Studies

Wearing my academic hat, I’m over at the Irish Journal of American Studies with a long article about Norman Mailer’s An American Dream (1965). Since this is an academic article, I’m not really sure it’s meant to be read by normal human eyes, but I’m proud of it nonetheless – I wrote the very first draft as a conference paper for my first Irish Association for American Studies Postgraduate Symposium in 2006, which means that it has taken – good lord – 13 years to grow into its final form. But hang on a minute, Kev – isn’t Mailer’s An American Dream the very book that you said was complete rubbish in this essay, just last year? Why yes – yes, it is. Which is to say that I think An American Dream is both rubbish and very interesting, and I’d defend that view to my dying breath. One of the things I like about getting older is that I seem to be growing more comfortable with the idea that two incompatible views can be true at the same time. Which is either the beginning of wisdom or the most banal of truisms. So it goes.

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

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This review first appeared, in a slightly different form, in The Sunday Business Post in September 2014.

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Is there a more straightforwardly readable literary novelist than Ian McEwan? His books are astonishing exercises in narrative control. He creates compelling situations: you read on, absorbed, dying to know what happens next. The prose is frictionless and often beautiful. But despite this immense readability, McEwan’s recent novels have been, in a global sense, unsatisfactory. It’s only when the book is done – when you put it away and start thinking about what you’ve read – that the flaws become visible. It’s as if McDonald’s served foie gras. A treat for gourmands – but you’re hungry half an hour later.

Partly this has to do with the hermetic isolation of McEwan’s characters. He writes exclusively about the English upper middle classes: neurosurgeons, mathematicians, composers, civil servants. He has always been commendably interested in getting inside the heads of non-literary characters – people for whom literature is not the central business of life. He wants to show us what it’s like to be a neurosurgeon, a mathematician, et cetera: and in an aesthetic if not a journalistic or biographical sense, he very often succeeds. His new novel, The Children Act, inhabits the life and career of Family Court judge Fiona Maye. As usual, the details are compellingly marshalled. McEwan can give us the shape of a judge’s inner world: the gossip, the regrets, the judgements composed in “almost ironic, almost warm” prose, written while “supine on a chaise longue.”

But the book feels hollow – and unpleasantly sealed off from reality. When it comes to characters who fall outside the hypercivilised penumbra of his preferred North London milieu, McEwan’s imagination falters. His ethereally bourgeois protagonists – with their Talisker whiskeys and their baby grand pianos on which they practice Bach partitas – float above the human fray, insulated unto abstraction by the sort of incomes that mean you are free to interrogate yourself at leisure about your values. If circumstances do compel McEwan’s characters to visit the foul rag and bone shop of the heart, they hold their noses and dive on in; but they are infallibly protected by the trappings of their class.

In Saturday (2003), Henry Perowne’s urbanely materialist daily round is disrupted by the intrusion of Baxter, a thug who invades Perowne’s family home and threatens to rape his daughter, Daisy. In one of the least believable scenes in recent fiction, Daisy distracts Baxter with a recitation of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” allowing Henry and his son to push Baxter down the stairs. Henry then heads to the OR, scrubs up, and repairs the damage to Baxter’s brain, pro bono. The threat has been neutralised. Henry’s humanistic values have prevailed.

The drama of McEwan’s recent novels has come from violating (or seeming to violate) the cerebral self-regard of his protagonists. In The Children Act, Fiona Maye is called to rule on the case of seventeen-year-old Jehovah’s Witness Adam Henry. Adam suffers from leukaemia. The necessary medicines have eroded his white cell count. He needs a blood transfusion to give him a chance at life. But Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that accepting transfusions is prohibited by God. The hospital has petitioned the court for the right to administer transfusions. Fiona must decide if there is a legal basis to grant that right.

Naturally, Adam’s case – coinciding with her husband’s decision to leave her for a younger woman, from whom he expects “Ecstasy, almost blacking out with the thrill of it” – threatens to destroy the equilibrium of Fiona’s carefully-argued life. A visit to the rag-and-bone shop looms: “A professional life spent above the affray, advising then judging, loftily commenting in private on the viciousness and absurdity of divorcing couples, and now she was down there with the rest, swimming with the desolate tide.”

But – as in Saturday – the threat of violation is only a feint. At the end, the balance is restored. Fiona is reunited with her husband: “[T]hey would likely find a way of being back, more or less, with what they once had.” The real trauma occurs offstage, in those parts of the world where people don’t own baby grands or drink Talisker whiskey. But McEwan cannot take us to those places. His imagination refuses to let him believe in a world in which Bach partitas have no purchase, a world in which “viciousness and absurdity” are the rule, rather than the exception. In McEwan’s novels, Orpheus emerges smiling from the underworld with Eurydice on his arm. Loss is for the lower orders.

There is much beautiful writing in The Children Act (a coffee machine is “lit from the inside, brown and cream, as vivid in the gloom of the recess as an illuminated manuscript”). But this beauty serves only to furnish the monk’s cell of privilege in which McEwan’s characters have their straitened being. His novels fail the first test of realism: they leave out great raw chunks of human reality.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

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My review of Marlon James’s new novel appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s a short excerpt:

There is a sense in which Black Leopard, Red Wolf is fundamentally unreadable. Take this, from the novel’s cryptic opening paragraphs: “No, I did not kill him. Though I may have wanted him dead […] Oh, to draw a bow and fire it through his black heart and watch it explode black blood, and to watch his eyes for when they stop blinking, when they look but stop seeing […] Yes, I glut at the conceit of it. But no, I did not kill him.”

Violent imagery unspooling in a vacuum is no way to begin a 620-page novel. For half a dozen pages, the reader flails around, trying to deduce basic things like where and when the story takes place, who’s speaking, and so on. Clarification arrives, eventually. But James’s actual plot – which involves Tracker being recruited by a shape-changing leopard-man to find a missing child for unclear reasons – takes another 115 pages to even begin.

The Wolf and the Watchman by Niklas Natt och Dag

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My review of Niklas Natt och Dag’s historical crime novel The Wolf and the Watchman (John Murray) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s a short excerpt:

Cecil Winge is a freelance consulting detective. His beat? The mean streets of Stockholm. The year? 1793. Winge is dying of tuberculosis (he spends quite a lot of the novel coughing into a bloodstained hanky). In moments of tension, he browses the shelves of a photographically-memorised library in search of soothing lines from Ovid. Every night, in his cheap lodgings, he takes apart his watch and reassembles it, thinking, “This is how the world should function; rational and comprehensible.” Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic pastiche!

For its first hundred or so pages, Niklas Natt och Dag’s debut novel is a publisher’s (and a reader’s) dream: a smoothly engineered piece of upmarket commercial fiction in the latter-day Holmesian style, in which a brilliant egghead teams up with a penurious bruiser to avenge a crime of quite startling horribleness. From the sewage-sodden waters of the River Larder, a mutilated corpse is hauled: lacking teeth, eyes, arms, and legs, the body of Karl Johan resembles either Sherilyn Fenn at the climax of Boxing Helena or the soldier in the Metallica song who ends up a limbless vegetable (choose your preferred naff cultural reference). The moribund Winge (the Wolf) joins forces with the only-slightly-healthier Mickell Cardell (he works as a Watchman) to find the killer. The search leads them, naturally, to the upper echelons of the Swedish aristocracy, where amputating limbs, it seems, is the latest trend.  

An American Story by Christopher Priest

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My review of Christopher Priest’s fascinating An American Story (Gollancz) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

An American Story contains a great deal of detail about doctored CCTV footage, conflicting eyewitness accounts, and supposedly expert testimony about the inability of burning jet fuel to melt steel beams – the sort of thing propounded by 9/11 “Truthers,” who refuse to accept the official account of the attacks. And the question arises: how seriously does Priest intend us to take this stuff? How seriously does Priest himself take it? In an Author’s Note, he is careful to distance himself from “crackpot conspiracy stuff,” but insists that “awkward questions” remain about 9/11. It’s an open question: how far down the road of real-world paranoia can a novelist lead us before we stop trusting him?

But An American Story is tricky in another, more traditionally literary, sense. Ben’s account of his experiences is written in a calm, rational, highly circumstantial prose – the prose, that is, of a sane, reasonable man. But as the novel progresses – looping around in time, digressing, resuming – it begins to dawn on you how strange his behaviour is, and how little evidence he has for his presumptions about 9/11. Small mysteries accumulate. Who is the woman – Jacqueline, or Jaye – who keeps turning up in Ben’s life? Why does Ben’s dementia-afflicted mother-in-law recognise Jaye and call her “Lilian”? Why does everyone in Ben’s life have some connection to 9/11?