Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

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My review of Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, Lake Success (Hamish Hamilton), appears in this month’s issue of Literary Review. Paywalled, I’m afraid, but here’s a short excerpt:

Lake Success is located very precisely in time. The action takes place during the last six months before the Presidential election of 2016. In other words, the America through which Barry spirals is the America of Donald Trump: a nation at the end of its tether. A note at the end informs us that this was also the period during which the novel was written. In his Acknowledgements, Shteyngart thanks Greyhound “for spiriting me from one coast of our troubled land to the other with a strange, almost melancholy competence.” So, Shteyngart has done his due diligence: he has travelled across Donald Trump’s America, and Lake Successis, in a sense, his report on that experience.

You might expect such a trip to give rise to a deeply pessimistic book – after all, Shteyngart (a Jewish Russian immigrant who teaches writing at Columbia) unquestionably represents the liberal elites for whom Trump’s supporters display such open contempt – and there are, indeed, several vividly conjured encounters with pro-Trump southerners that have the unmistakable tang of reportage. 

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The Peripheral by William Gibson

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This review first appeared in The Sunday Business Post in February 2015.

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Critics who don’t read much science fiction tend to call successful science fiction writers “prophets” – as if science fiction were a set of Tarot cards, or as if J.G. Ballard (say) were seriously warning us that the planet might one day turn into a giant maze of crystals. But SF has never been about prediction. Kingsley Amis came closest to articulating SF’s true purpose when he called his 1961 study of the genre New Maps of Hell.  SF, at its best, is the visionary literature of our time, charting the infernos that we have already made. Set alongside the retrograde medievalism of contemporary fantasy, SF starts to look like the most grown-up of popular genres.

If this is so, it’s largely thanks to William Gibson.  Gibson, of course, began as a science fiction writer – maybe the most important science fiction writer of the 1980s. He minted new words (“cyberspace,” “microsoft”) that sounded like they’d been around forever. More vitally, with his first novel, Neuromancer (1984), he minted – or consolidated – a brand-new style: a noirish high-tech vision of the very near future. Critics at the time called it cyberpunk, a word that now comes wrapped in its own nimbus of fuzzy nostalgia. Cyberpunk mapped a very 1980s Hell, all matte-black hardware and corporate malfeasance. It didn’t seem like where we were going; it seemed like where we already were.

It was a high point. For much of the 1990s, Gibson seemed to be marking time. But with the advent of the new century his focus shifted: the SF Hell he was interested in charting now looked almost exactly like the contemporary world. The Blue Ant Trilogy – Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), and Zero History (2010) – gave us a new Gibson: mainstream heir to Pynchon and DeLillo, tech-savvy tracer of the shimmering horizons of our mediated globe.

Fredric Jameson has pointed out that in a postmodern age (evacuated of meaning, lacking in affect, deprived of motive), we can experience the world only as a series of self-conscious postures or styles. The Blue Ant Trilogy embodies this apercu with eerie grace: in these novels everything – character, setting, plot, theme, imagery – boils down to an encounter with style. Gibson’s protagonists are hyperalert to the material circumstances of their alienated worlds: they clock the matte-black limousines, the microfiber jackets, the bleeding edge computer tech. They observe things like “polymers” (in Pattern Recognition, Cayce Pollard notices that an empty refrigerator smells of “long-chain monomers”). They drift through Gibson’s weirdly suspenseless narratives like freelance style journalists (Hollis Henry, in Spook Country, is literally a freelance style journalist), taking the temperature of the contemporary, never seriously threatened by the buoyantly Pynchonian conspiracies in which they find themselves enmeshed.

Now, with The Peripheral, Gibson has returned to full-fledged science fiction. The new novel is set unequivocally in the future – in two futures, to be precise. For hardcore Gibson fanboys, this will be an exciting prospect. For the general reader, however, it will probably feel like a large step backwards.

The plot of The Peripheral is complicated without being particularly involving. There are two time zones: Near Future and Slightly Farther Future. In the Near Future, dropout Flynne Fisher’s army vet brother Burton beta-tests virtual reality games for shady operators. As the novel begins, Flynne finds herself covering for Burton. Piloting a drone in what she takes to be a boringly realistic game, she is drawn into an assassination. Meanwhile, in the Slightly Farther Future, international spook Wilf Netherton finds himself investigating, via an internet connection to the past, the assassination Flynne committed in what was (of course) not a virtual reality game. Got that? Me neither; and after 486 pages, I was scarcely the wiser.

At his best (as in the Blue Ant novels), Gibson’s pages audition image after fugitive image of our money-glazed, post-everything century. At his worst – as in The Peripheral – his sentences stumble over their own too-cool-for-school feet. “They didn’t think Flynne’s brother had PTSD, but that sometimes the haptics glitched him.” “Netherton was fully as annoyed with the bohemian nonsense of Ash’s workspace as he would have expected to be.”

Gibson’s vaunted stylishness has always been a matter of carefully managed ellipsis: the know-it-all asides, the tough-guy imagist poetry. In the early novels this could engender moments of epigrammatic richness (Neuromancer: “In an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it”). But in The Peripheral, Gibson’s obliquity has become a hindrance to readerly pleasure. The prose is chequered with neologisms (“klept,” “polt,” “moby,” “patchers”) and opacities (“haptics,” “thylacine”), and the syntax is riddled with needless conditionals. Simply put, it’s often hard to tell what’s going on. Worse, it’s even harder to care. The vision that gave rise to Gibson’s style has gone AWOL, leaving only the style behind – a very Gibsonian predicament.

I Will be Complete by Glen David Gold

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My review of Glen David Gold’s memoir, I Will be Complete (Sceptre), appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. This is, incidentally, my 300th published book review, which may or may not be a significant milestone, depending on how you look at things. Here’s an excerpt:

Most memoirs aren’t written in the epic mode, because life mostly isn’t an epic business. But Glen David Gold has written a memoir that feels as big as an epic. Partly this is a function of sheer size: I Will be Complete is, at 477 pages, a monster. But the epic feel of Gold’s book is also down to the fact that it’s the record of an obsession – the story of Gold’s lifelong attempt to understand his mother, who is also a sort of monster.

The first thing to say about I Will be Complete is that it’s a brave book. “I tell myself,” Gold writes, “that if what I say here is true, I will be complete.” If that sentence gives off more than a whiff of the analyst’s couch, that’s because Gold’s book is at least as much an act of self-therapy as it is a work of art. Driven by an instiable hunger for understanding, Gold pounds away at his subjects – his own misery, and the misery of his mother – with unrelieved intensity. Reading I Will be Complete often feels like paging through Gold’s diary, or eavesdropping on his conversations with his therapist – and this is, at points, literally what we’re doing.

Writing Advice

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This article, by Richard Skinner, seems to me so exhaustively wrong – and so representative in its wrongness of the kind of bullshit that gets offered all the time as “writing advice” – that I thought it was worth doing a brief point-by-point refutation, to wit:

“Writing is about claiming ownership of yourself in order to become the person you know you can be.”

Nope. Writing is a set of technical skills that it takes a very long time to master. We do not ask of people learning to play the piano that they “claim ownership of themselves.” We just tell them to practice until they get good.

“A novel is making your mark on the world. It is your cri de coeur.”

No it bloody well isn’t. A novel is a made object designed to evoke certain responses in the people who read it. If it does not evoke the responses you intended it to evoke, your novel is, I would suggest, a bad novel. To the extent that your novel is a cri de coeur, it is, I would suggest, of use only to you.

“Good writing isn’t about describing the world around you, it’s about creating something out of nothing.”

Or: good writing is almost entirely about describing the world around you, as in the works of, say, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Joyce, Wharton, Faulkner, Bellow, Nabokov, and all other good writing ever written by anyone. You create something out of nothing every time you write your name on a cheque, for Christ’s sake.

“[W]riting your first novel is a very precious process.”

No again. Writing is a job. If you need your special fluffy pillow and absolute peace and quiet to write, you are being unprofessional. Don’t be precious. They’re just words.

“Try to write from your stomach, not your head or heart.”

This means: write from your feelings. This is exactly backwards. Your job, as a writer, is to think about the precise technical moves that will evoke the desired emotional or intellectual responses in your readers. Writing is about technique, not getting your emotions all over the page. Writers who shove their own emotions in your face are not artists but manipulators, and should be scorned.

“Your task isn’t to learn many techniques, but to learn the simplest techniques perfectly.”

Jesus. The body of existing literature – with which you should spend your entire life becoming familiar – is a repository of technique. You should learn as many aspects of fictional technique as you can, from the simplest to the most complex. I.e. you should know where to put a comma, and you should know how to create an unreliable narrator. Imagine saying to a pianist: “Your task isn’t to learn how to play Chopin, but to get really good at “Chopsticks.””

“I believe that all the novels you want to write are already written. They already exist inside you in a preverbal, rhythmic, motor place in your body. The trick is to find a way of tapping into them.”

This “trick” exists and is called technique.

The prevalence of articles like this one has to do, I think, with the popularisation of Romantic ideas about writing, cf. Keats’s “Poetry should come as naturally as leaves to a tree or it had better not come at all,” or Kerouac’s philistine “First thought, best thought.” We seem to have decided that writing is about self-knowledge or self-expression. But these are very minor and ancillary benefits of writing. Of course, this is the age of the self-as-project – the age of “wellness” and workouts, of TED talks and snake-oil detoxes. It’s probably inevitable that writing – which looks, after all, like the sort of thing that anyone can do – should be taken up by the self-improvement industry. It tells you everything you need to know that Skinner’s article appears under the Health & Fitness tab of the Guardian website, and is labelled “Self and wellbeing.” Writing shouldn’t be about either. But here we are.

Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer

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My review of Andrew Shaffer’s Hope Never Dies: An Obama-Biden Mystery appeared in yesterday’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

As a cultural artefact, Shaffer’s book is slightly more interesting. The current President of the United States is unashamedly corrupt, incompetent, bellicose, illiterate, and crass. It is hardly surprising that America should start telling itself comforting stories about his predecessor, who was none of these things. Hope Never Dies gives us a superhero Barack Obama, working behind the scenes for justice. It’s a nice thought. But it is, alas, just a thought.

The nonfictional, actually-existing Obama popped up recently to deliver a speech on the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth. It sounded like an ode to democracy. But it was really a confession of bewilderment. Real-life Obama isn’t going to stroll in with a sawn-off shotgun and set the world to rights. The only thing animating Hope Never Dies is the heartbreaking hope that he might.

The Artist as Critic

“Though art is one of civilisation’s chief defenses, the hammer that tries to keep the trolls in their place, and though artists are by nature makers, not destroyers, the artist ought not to be too civilised – that is to say, too meekly tolerant – especially toward other artists, who may be trolls in disguise. The artist’s trade is essentially an unreasonable one, though he may reason about it. However reasonably he may talk, if the artist believes in what he’s doing he cannot help but feel strongly, at least some of the time, about what he believes to be fraudulent art. If he can stand to do so, he should speak out, especially now, when so much art is fake. He should defend – with dignity but as belligerently as necessary – the artists whose work he values and attack with equal belligerence all that he hates.” – John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (1978).

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

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My review of Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, Warlight (Jonathan Cape), appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

The world is full of bad writers: ideologues, cliché-merchants, axe-grinders. It therefore feels churlish to complain about the work of Michael Ondaatje, who writes lushly romantic historical tragedies in sober prose and who is not an ideologue, or a cliché-merchant, or an axe-grinder. But there’s  something mysteriously lifeless about Ondaatje’s novels. Like Laura Ashley curtains, they gratify a snobbish taste without taking any aesthetic risks. His books are so finely ground that they slip through the fingers like sand. […] Here is Ondaatje on a bit-part character: “I knew, as very few probably did, that under his white shirt were three or four deep scars on his stomach, a bevelled permanence on his white skin.” This sort of writing looks poetic, but isn’t. “Bevelled permanence” is a fancy phrase. But it doesn’t show us these particular scars, or the specific person who bears them. Instead, it shows us Ondaatje’s facility with ten-dollar words. And if we do peer beneath the poeticism, we find not a character but a cliché: the unassuming functionary who had a bad war but never talks about it.

Letters to Vera by Vladimir Nabokov

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This review originally appeared in The Sunday Business Post in October 2014.

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Vladimir Nabokov – the Cambridge-educated son of Russian aristocrats displaced by the Bolshevik Revolution; the author of glittering, gamesome books about savage subjects; the hard-up lepidopterist who contrived to spend his retirement in a suite of rooms on the sixth floor of the west wing of the Montreux Palace Hotel in Switzerland – presents, to the contemporary eye, a preposterously unlikely figure. He resembles, in many ways, a character from one of his own novels: remote, haunted by tragedy, imposingly witty, glacially condescending.

Martin Amis once remarked upon the “novelettish glamour” of Nabokov’s life. And the life of the author of Lolita is almost indecently good fun to read about. He was a child prodigy, chatting away in English, French and Russian in the nursery of his family’s estate (“I was a perfectly normal trilingual child in a family with a large library”). As an adolescent he wrote lyric verse of astonishing maturity. In the 1920s, when Berlin became a centre of Russian émigré life, Nabokov established himself as one of the central writers of the emigration, publishing his first novels under the pen-name V. Sirin. These novels – long since translated into English, and including the extraordinary black comedies King, Queen, Knave (1928) and Laughter in the Dark (1933) – now open a window to that vanished world: a world of cultured Russians suffering the agonies of genteel poverty and exile. The Berlin of Nabokov’s early novels is long gone – it was one of the earliest casualties of the Second World War. But it lives on in the pages of books like Despair (1934), a vivid and antic precursor to Lolita (1959).

It was in Berlin that Nabokov first met Vera Evseevna Slonim, the woman who was to become his wife. Vera’s father ran a small publishing firm, and approached Nabokov with the idea of translating Dostoyevsky into English. The project came to nothing, but at a charity ball on the 8th or 9th of May 1923 (biographers disagree about the date), Nabokov was introduced to Vera. It seems to have been love at first sight, or something very near. Vera wore a mask that she refused to take off – which is, of course, the sort of thing that might happen in a novel of Nabokov’s. (This is what amazes you, as you read about Nabokov’s life: the sheer frequency with which incredibly Nabokovian things kept happening to him.) Though of course, in a Nabokov novel, the woman beneath the mask would turn out to be a vain and boorish coquette. And Vera was none of these things. She, too, was literary: she knew Nabokov’s poetry and had heard him read. Vladimir was 24; Vera 21. They were married two years later.

“And there,” wrote Martin Amis in 1981, when Vladimir was dead and Vera in her eighth decade, “the visible story ends.” By which he meant that there was no way of seeing into the private recesses of the Nabokovs’ marriage. With the publication of this hefty volume of correspondence, this is no longer the case.  Reading the letters a writer composes for his partner’s eyes can be a queasy business: who can forget their first encounter with the scatological fantasies that James Joyce sent to Nora Barnacle? Very properly, while the principals are still alive (or cushioned by the lingering respect of living memory), we regard the inner workings of a marriage as none of our business. But time and prurience have a way of eroding propriety. So here – handsomely accoutred with prefatory matter, and exhaustively annotated – are the letters that Vladimir sent to Vera, whenever they were apart, over the five decades of their love.

The first was sent soon after their encounter at the masquerade ball. Plainly Vladimir had been struck by a lightning bolt: “I won’t hide it: I’m so unused to being – well, understood, perhaps, that in the very first minutes of our meeting I thought: this is a joke, a masquerade trick… I need you, my fairy-tale. Because you are the only one I can talk with about the shade of a cloud, about the song of a thought.” If Nabokov’s character was an admixture of the romantic and the sinister, then it is the romantic Vladimir who predominates in these pages. The letters are full of lyrical flashes and flights of fancy: “Angels themselves smoke – in their sleeves. But when the archangel goes by, they throw their cigarettes away: this is what falling stars are.”

With the exception of Vladimir’s single adulterous affair – with a young woman who worked as a dog-groomer, another seamlessly Nabokovian detail – Vladimir and Vera enjoyed a cloudless marriage. The letters collected here testify to a shared lifetime of openness and generosity. Those looking for dirty secrets will be disappointed; but anyone in search of yet another reason to admire Vladimir Nabokov will be hugely rewarded.

Figures in a Landscape by Paul Theroux

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My review of Paul Theroux’s new essay collection (Hamish Hamilton) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

Paul Theroux’s Wikipedia page solemnly informs us that the author of The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) and The Mosquito Coast (1981) was once a Boy Scout. But we hardly needed to be told. Theroux is still a Boy Scout: an intrepid outdoorsman, a wide-eyed respecter of nature and culture, he has never met a “bus or train or cattle truck” he didn’t like.

“Name a Chinese train and I took it,” he gushes, of the travels recorded in his 1988 book Riding the Iron Rooster. Give him a wartorn border and he’s already filing copy: “Anyone can land at the airport in the capital and be fooled by modernity, but it takes a certain nerve to ride a bus or train to the frontier, always the haunt of the rabble, the dispossessed, people struggling to leave, trying to get in.”

Cynical Ballyhoo

“[S]incere enthusiasm for a mediocre work is more damaging to literary standards than any amount of cynical ballyhoo. One can guard against the Philistines outside the gates. It is when they get into the Ivory Tower that they are dangerous.” – Dwight Macdonald, “By Cozzens Possessed,” in Against the American Grain (1962).