Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh

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My review of Henry Marsh’s absorbing memoir appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine (chopped to bits by the subs, as usual). Here’s an excerpt, with the cuts restored:

Early in his career, Marsh pioneered the “awake craniotomy,” a procedure for removing tumours in which the patient is kept conscious as the surgeon tests the brain matter, separating cancerous growth from healthy brain. His description of this procedure is riveting: “All you can see, as you look into the patient’s brain with the microscope, is the brain’s white matter, which is like a smooth, thick jelly. It is usually – but not always – slightly darker than normal because of the presence of tumour within it.” Meanwhile, Marsh asks the patient: “Do you want to see your brain?” If they say yes, he tells them: “You are now one of the few people in the history of the human race who have seen their own brain!”

During his four decades as a neurosurgeon, Marsh has seen and done things that vanishingly few human beings will ever see or do. He has opened up the sealed space of the skull and probed living tissue with his “ultrasonic aspirator” – a “sucker with an ultrasonic tip that emulsifies what you are operating on.” His perspective on certain large philosophical questions is therefore unique. He is a convinced materialist, scoffing at mystical (or dualist) notions of the self: “I”, he writes, “am a transient electrochemical dance, made of myriad bits of information […] When my brain dies, “I” will die.” 

Joyride to Jupiter by Nuala O’Connor

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My review of Nuala O’Connor’s new short story collection appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

These are stories in which trauma obtrudes, often awkwardly, into the textures of quotidian life. Several pieces end with the sudden wrenching intrusion of a painful memory, as when, in “Consolata,” the narrator remembers witnessing her father having sex with a nun, Sister Consolata, in the orchard behind their house. The effect is sometimes powerful, sometimes jarring. In one of the better stories, the McGahernesque “Tinnycross,” there is no clinching revelation: Oliver returns to his family farm to ask his bitter, resentful brother, Bernard, for financial assistance; Bernard’s new wife, Fidelma, offers the promise of a reconciliation between the two brothers. It’s a lovely, carefully balanced piece of work, with some wonderful bits of prose: “a stand of rape burned its yellow among the green and brown,” “The familiarity of everything was both balm and thorn to him.”

If “Tinnycross” stands out, it is because it obeys one of the cardinal rules of short story writing, which is that nothing happening is generally better than something happening […] Most short story collections – even the best – offer an uneven reading experience. In Joyride to Jupiter, the good stories outnumber the less good – and the good stories are very good indeed.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

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My review of Arundhati Roy’s first novel in twenty years appeared in yesterday’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

The novel’s first long section hinges on the life-story of a trans woman named Anjum, born Aftab, a Muslim in Delhi. Fleeing her family, Anjum moves into the Khwabgah, a refuge for trans people, in which “Holy Souls trapped in the wrong bodies were liberated.” Here is how Anjum’s mother reacts when she discovers, “nestling underneath his boy-parts, a small, unformed, but undoubtedly girl-part”: “Her first reaction was to feel her heart constrict and her bones turn to ash,” “Her third reaction was to recoil from what she had created while her bowels convulsed and a thin stream of shit ran down her legs.”  This manages to be unpleasantly coy (“boy-parts,” “girl-part”), grammatically irregular (“undoubtedly girl-part”), and psychologically unconvincing (would Anjum’s mother really shit herself in horror?), all at the same time.  

When Roy moves away from Anjum, offering sidebar portraits of dozens of other characters, her prose deteriorates even further. Anjum’s father, a businessman, is frequently interviewed by Western visitors, for whose benefit he quotes Urdu poetry: “What escaped them was that the couplet was a sly snack, a perfidious samosa, a warning wrapped in mourning, being offered with faux humility by an erudite man who had absolute faith in his listeners’ ignorance of Urdu, a language which, like most of those who spoke it, was gradually being ghettoized.” This is a terrible sentence. To begin at the very beginning: “a perfidious samosa?”  Really?

Laurent Binet & Hanif Kureishi

Two recent reviews of mine appeared in the Sunday Business Post magazine – the first of Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language (Harvill Secker) and the second of Hanif Kureishi’s The Nothing (Faber). Excerpts below…

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The 7th Function of Language begins with a real-life event: the death of renowned semiotician and literary critic Roland Barthes. On the 26th of March, 1980, Barthes was struck by a laundry van while walking across the Rue des Ecoles in Paris. He had just attended a “cultural lunch” hosted by the Socialist presidential candidate Francois Mitterand. One month later, at Salpetriere Hospital, Barthes died of his injuries.

In Binet’s version, Barthes was carrying a document composed by the Russian literary theorist Roman Jakobson. This document reveals a hitherto unknown form of speech (the “7th function” of the title) that might be a key to political power. As Barthes lies dying, the hapless Superintendent Bayard is assigned to investigate his accident. Bayard finds himself trawling the higher echelons of French intellectual life, uncovering in the process a conspiracy involving then-President Valerie Giscard d’Estaing, up-and-comer Francois Mitterand, the Bulgarian secret service, and a rogue’s gallery of real-world French intellectuals.

The central joke in The 7th Function of Language is that everyone appears under his or her real name – meaning that a high degree of familiarity with the last three decades of French intellectual life is required, if you want to get the most out of Binet’s gags. Popping up in The 7th Function are, in no particular order, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Phillippe Sollers, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Umberto Eco, Bernard-Henri Levy, Louis Althusser, Michelangelo Antonioni, Paul De Man, Helene Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Claude Levi-Strauss, Camille Paglia, Roman Jakobson, Gayatri Spivak, Noam Chomsky, and John Searle. Binet’s satire is not subtle. At one point, Derrida is eaten alive by a pack of dogs unleashed by Searle. In real life, they had a philosophical disagreement about how language works. If this is the sort of thing that sends you into gales of laughter, then The 7th Function of Language is just the book for you.

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The title of Hanif Kureishi’s new novella is a dirty joke out of Hamlet. “That’s a fair thought,” the Black Prince quips, “to lie between maids’ legs.” “What is, my lord?” asks Ophelia. “Nothing,” Hamlet replies. “Nothing,” therefore, means the female genitalia – a subject of obsessive interest to Waldo, Kureishi’s aging and impotent narrator. But “the nothing” is also, of course, the void that awaits us after death. Waldo is terminally ill: he suffers from “diabetes, prostate cancer, an ulcer, early MS, constipation, diarrhoea and only one good hip.” In The Nothing‘s 167 lean pages, then, Kureishi addresses himself to a classic, if now debatably relevant, theme: the failing powers of male flesh.

The opening sentence lets us know what we’re in for. “One night, when I am old, sick, right out of semen, and don’t need things to get any worse, I hear the noises again.” As Waldo repines in his sickbed, he overhears his wife, Zenab, copulating with his friend, Eddie, in the room next door. Zenab is twenty years younger than Waldo. His thoughts about her never stray very far from the sexual: “Her ass is still firm. When I could rim her little hole, or halo, as I call it, and push inside, she’d almost slice the tip of my tongue off.” Quite. Eddie is a former public schoolboy, a rogue, and a chancer: “one of those Soho characters you see at screenings, festival openings, parties and dinners.” At his zenith, Waldo was an internationally famous filmmaker. Now he wheels himself about his decaying mansion flat in London, spying on his wife and her lover, embracing his “descent into voluptuous masochism,” and plotting his revenge.

House of Names by Colm Toibin

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My review of Colm Toibin’s House of Names (Viking) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. It’s the usual deal with the Iron Paywall, but voila, a brief extract:

Myths, as the philosopher John Gray reminds us, are not the same as fantasies. Where fantasies console (think of the festival of happy endings that concludes The Lord of the Rings), myths encode harsh knowledge about the truth of our condition. The Greek myths – particularly those that tell the stories of doomed families – have proved lastingly attractive to artists who are interested in uncovering this harsh knowledge – who are dedicated, in other words, to pursuing higher forms of consolation. […] Colm Toibin is one such artist […] House of Names retells the guts of several Greek tragedies, chiefly Aeschylus’s Oresteia and Euripides’s Iphigenia at Aulis and Electra […] Toibin displays a remarkable gift for telling tales. It is the final proof of his mastery that he has made the frozen statues of this endlessly retold myth come, once more, to life.

The Dead House by Billy O’Callaghan

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My review of The Dead House (Brandon) by Billy O’Callaghan appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

In many ways, the ghost story is as traditional a literary form as the sonnet. There must be a skeptical narrator (check), a haunted edifice (check) with a history of violence (check), an ill-thought-through attempt to communicate with the dead (check), peculiar behaviour (check), characters who are receptive to messages from the spirit-world (check), and – most difficult of all to handle – a sense that the deepest truths are just out of sight, beyond the narrator’s (and the reader’s) ken. O’Callaghan – who has already published three collections of short fiction – handles each of these elements with restrained aplomb. “Traditional,” when it comes to ghost stories, is not a term of disapprobation, and The Dead House fulfils its formal obligations with subtlety and grace […] O’Callaghan’s descriptive prose reaches impressive heights, as when Michael notices “in one of the two small bedrooms [of the cottage] the whitened remnants of something bigger, a dog or fox, but now just a kindling of bones splayed in the natural order of its undisturbed collapse.”

List of the Lost by Morrissey

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This review of Morrissey’s List of the Lost first appeared in The Sunday Business Post in October 2015. Fun fact: the paper’s lawyer read this piece before it went to press and remarked that it was worst review he’d read of anything, ever.

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Steven Patrick Morrissey’s debut novel is so terrible – so galactically, monstrously awful – that it actually represents a kind of negative achievement. Where others have only tried, Morrissey has succeeded: he has written the worst novel ever published by a serious publisher. The bar has been set. It remains only to try to go lower. It won’t be easy. But nothing worth doing ever is.

You don’t, of course, scale these depths without at least some practice. Morrissey’s previous contribution to world literature, the mammoth Autobiography (2013), was a promising start – semi-comprehensible, bloated, and poorly written, it contained many tantalising hints of the anti-masterpiece to come. But for all its straining and searching, Autobiography had one serious flaw: it remained basically readable.

Now, mirabile dictu, Morrissey has solved this problem once and for all. In List of the Lost he throws off the shackles of comprehensibility and produces, at long last, a text so un- or non-readable that the reader can only watch and marvel as its gnarled and gnomic sentences stumble gracelessly by. “You would be offered a hearty shake of the javelin hand as expressions of possession of command from the four boys, each one fully developed into the blissful torment of their turnabout twentieth year – a pleasantly resolved marital union almost closed off in its camaraderie to the onlookers of the mookish greater world.” Indeed.

“The reader,” advised Kingsley Amis, “must never be made to pause without profit.” Well, “pausing without profit” precisely describes the line-by-line experience of reading List of the Lost. From the subliterate murk, some kind of story does – haltingly – emerge. It makes, of course, absolutely no sense. But an artist like Morrissey is always conscious of his obligations. He isn’t going to spoil the negative perfection of his novel by burdening it with anything so bathetic as a logical plot.

The protagonists – if that’s quite the word – are the four members of “America’s most sovereignly feared college relay team.” Their names are Ezra, Nails, Harri, and Justy: “deltoid deities” who live in “a pleasing suburb of the city of Boston” and are trained by a coach named Mr Rims (hmm) who has a “magnified-fish countenance.” The lads make a good team – as Morrissey assures us, “People magnetically attract others with similar weaknesses, as marriage rings the bell for the servile in hiding.” Okay then.

Ezra and the gang attend a retreat at a “sportsman’s haven” called Natura, where their “wet-knickered nerves” will be “weeded out.” Cavorting in the woods, they encounter an “elderly imp” who delivers a five-page monologue about American foreign policy. For no reason whatsoever (““Why did we do that?” asked Nails”), they kill the imp and run away. Deciding that they probably did the right thing (“The syphilis-itch of the hobo’s grope would be enough to repulse the softest composure”), the lads think no more about it. Some digressions follow. Alan Turing is mentioned; also Dick Cavett. As in the movie Final Destination, though with considerably less clarity and wit, people begin to die in unexpected ways. Eventually – and largely by guesswork – the reader deduces that the “elderly imp” was a paranormal creature of some description, and that the boys are now doomed to suffer its revenge. Then, its mysterious purposes apparently achieved, the text peters out on page 118.

All of this is, of course, sublimely, even majestically meaningless. But Morrissey’s greatest triumph – the brightest jewel in his artistic crown – must be his serenely sustained ignorance of the conventions of fictional narrative. His dialogue, for instance, is in italics throughout. This is an error that crops up in a lot of amateur prose – in prose, that is, written by people who have managed to read novels without noticing how they work, and who seem to think that dialogue needs some extra typographical oomph to distinguish it on the page. To advertise his novel so glaringly as the work of an amateur! Only a genius would even think of it.

You might think you have it in you to write an exceptionally bad novel. But without the effortless command of ignorance, ineptitude, and illogicality that Morrissey displays in List of the Lost, I’m afraid you don’t stand a chance. You’re better off leaving it to the amateurs; they always get to the bottom of the barrel in the end.

Skintown by Ciaran McMenamin

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My review of Skintown by Ciaran McMenamin appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. It’s business (post) as usual I’m afraid re: Iron Paywall, but here’s an excerpt:

McMenamin’s style is […] marked by an anxious vividness that sometimes ends up obscuring, rather than clarifying, the action: “There was genuine doubt between her ears while she waited for me to decide whether or not to accompany her home to the countryside with two mysterious older lunatics under the guise of being her boyfriend, then take a lift back to town all by myself with said lunatics.” Or try this: “I’ve never given much thought to divinity, never mind its powers of intervention, but as I sit in the back of a car preparing to forsake the blue skies of Ulster for the grey skies of a shallow grave, the good Lord himself arbitrates and the Ford Fiesta levitates.” To be truly effective, fictional prose does require the occasional firework-free sentence – if for no other purpose than to orient the reader in space and time. Skintown is so intent on making every sentence zing that it occasionally trips over its own syntactical ambition.

Words

“What are words made of that writers should feel them to be such precious coin, to be struck one at a time and hoarded for years on end? Words are to be spent. They are the currency of the mind.” – Saul Bellow, “Great and Not So Great Expectations,” in The Noble Savage 3 (1961).

On Joseph Heller

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This review of Tracy Daugherty’s Just One Catch: The Passionate Life of Joseph Heller (The Robson Press) and Erica Heller’s Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller was Dad and Life was a Catch-22 (Vintage) first appeared in The Irish Times on 8th October 2011.

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“T.S. Eliot.” “The first time Yossarian saw the Chaplain, he fell madly in love with him.” “He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt.” “They arrested Yossarian for being in Rome without a pass.” “I have named the boy Caleb, in accordance with your wishes.” “Who promoted Major Major?” “They don’t have to show us Catch-22. The law says they don’t have to.” “Which law says they don’t have to?” “Catch-22.”

It’s roughly thirteen years since I read Catch-22, but on sitting down to re-read it, on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, I discovered that all of the jokes, sentences, and exchanges quoted above had survived almost completely intact in my mind, with scarcely a word out of place. Clive James has remarked that, five years after we’ve read it, even the best novel is reduced in our memory to a set of indistinctly-recalled images: Emma Bovary in her carriage, Nick Carraway standing by the green-lit shore. But Catch-22 remains as quotable as The Simpsons. In retrospect, Joseph Heller appears to have schooled us in a style of humour that we now take for granted – absurdist, brash, hyperintelligent, rooted in despair. When Homer Simpson tells his children, “Trying is the first step towards failure,” he sounds an awful lot like Yossarian. Heller’s style is all around us; amazingly – and while it does bear certain traces of its period (its circular structure is perhaps a little “experimental” for contemporary tastes) – Catch-22 might have been published yesterday.

Over the last 50 years, Joseph Heller’s first novel has sold in the tens of millions. All writers thirst for this kind of success, of course – but Heller achieved something much rarer, something writers generally won’t even admit to coveting: his book gave the language a new phrase. You can look up “catch-22” in the dictionary, if you want – but you’d be better advised to read the book again. In Heller’s hands, the conceit has a savage elegance, and the book’s tangled narrative unfurls in gorgeously modulated prose, in which even the simplest sentences end with the snap of sharp teeth: “Doc Daneeka was a very neat, clean man whose idea of a good time was to sulk.”

So, what of the man who wrote it? The average reader, I suspect, would be hard-pressed to name another of Heller’s novels. And, in fact, he never wrote anything else as good as Catch-22 – but as Heller himself used to say, “Who has?” Two new books, one a full-length biography and the other a memoir by Heller’s daughter Erica, attempt to give us some sense of Joseph Heller, the man – with, in both cases, disappointingly uneven results.

Tracy Daugherty’s biography, Just One Catch, is chatty, gossipy, and takes some bemusing liberties with the form of the literary biography – fiddling with chronology and lapsing frequently into a version of free indirect style: “Time yo-yos back and forth as he crosses green fields with his wife and kids…” – that sort of thing. Nonetheless, a picture emerges: Heller, born in Coney Island in 1923, lost his father Isaac to a botched stomach ulcer operation when he was four years old, and grew up among the amusement parks and hotdog stands with a family struggling to fill the gap that Isaac left behind. “I didn’t realise how traumatized I was,” Heller recalled. He felt that his childhood bereavement had left him with a “haunted imagination.”

Late in 1942 Heller enlisted in the army. It was “like going off to a baseball game… [We] had no idea what we were doing except that it was more exciting, more romantic, more adventurous that what we were doing at home.” Heller was trained as a bombardier and sent to Corsica, and from there he eventually flew sixty bombing missions over Europe. The generals, he found, kept raising the required number of missions.

Thirty years later, the protagonist of Something Happened (1974), Heller’s second novel, would reflect: “Something did happen to me somewhere that robbed me of confidence and courage.” What happened to Heller was the war. The most harrowing sections of Daugherty’s biography confirm what readers of Catch-22 have always suspected: the novel’s central event, the awful death of Snowden during a flight under heavy flak, came directly from Heller’s own experience. “I’m cold,” Snowden cries, in the book’s most nakedly despairing sequence – just as a young gunner cried out in Heller’s arms.

It seems fair to say that Heller – although he did fashion an enduring work of art from his trauma – simply never recovered from his experiences as a bombardier. For thirteen years after the war, he couldn’t travel by plane. “Man was matter,” Yossarian realises. “Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret.”

It was an insight that authorised the blackest satire, and that underwrote every memorable gag in Catch-22. But it can’t have made Heller an easy man to live with. Yossarian Slept Here is Erica Heller’s account of her relationship with her father, and on the evidence presented, he was not a man with a natural gift for paternity. “I don’t do kids,” he told the interviewer Barbara Gelb. He certainly appeared to have no real clue as to how a daughter might be raised. He refused to meet her boyfriends; told her she shouldn’t bother writing fiction unless she was as good as Martin Amis; and, when Erica did write a first novel, Heller’s verdict was: “Not as bad as I expected.”

When Something Happened appeared (and it is an extraordinary novel: obsessive, anxious, hysterically paranoid), it contained a chapter called “My Daughter’s Unhappy,” in which the narrator observes that his daughter is “often mean, often depressed.” “How could you write about me that way?” Erica asked. “What makes you think you’re interesting enough to write about?” Heller countered.

Yossarian Slept Here is hampered by a lack of what people will insist on calling “closure.” Plainly Erica Heller has not quite recovered from her father’s sexual betrayals of her mother, nor the divorce that ensued and that tore the family apart. The Joseph Heller she depicts is a monster of narcissism – capricious, hungry for fame, indifferent to the happiness of his children. Erica Heller’s is, of course, a partial and heavily weighted account – and when she reveals, in her closing chapters, that she has never actually read Catch-22, the reader, instead of being charmed, trusts her less.

As chronicled in these two books, Heller’s parallel lives – as novelist and as family man – each describe a declining arc. His novels got steadily worse after Catch-22, and his family disintegrated, which much trauma and sorrow for all involved. Daugherty’s biography is strongest on the literary milieu in which Heller thrived; Erica Heller’s memoir, on which Daugherty disproportionately relies, throws up the occasional revealing anecdote. Neither is entirely satisfactory. But both books serve at least one useful function: they make you want to reread Catch-22. “Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some have mediocrity thrust upon them.” I remembered that one wholesale, too. Now that’s the stuff.