The good people at EFACIS (European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies) have set up a new website, Kaleidoscope, which collects essays about the art of writing by contemporary Irish writers. My contribution is an essay called “My First Novels,” which you are very welcome to read here.
This review first appeared in The Sunday Business Post.
Ben Lerner’s extraordinary second novel begins with a classically postmodern flourish: the author, having just eaten a decadent New York dinner (consisting of baby octopuses that have been “literally massaged to death”), looks down from the High Line across Tenth Avenue and tells us what his book will be about: “I’ll project myself into several futures simultaneously […] a minor tremor in my hand; I’ll work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid.”
Contemporary American Fiction by Writers Under Forty (David Foster Wallace, the patron saint of the field, would abbreviate this to something like CAF/WU40) has taught us to greet pronouncements like this as bits of airy irony – to expect of any novel that begins with such a statement that it will consist of a nebbishly hermetic account of why such a project is impossible. But Ben Lerner, it turns out, is deadly serious. He means to do what he says: he means to attempt an escape from the trap of postmodern irony and fashion a new kind of political, or poetic, sincerity, with Walt Whitman – the great 19th century poet of American community – as his tutelary spirit. Even to articulate this ambition is, of course, to go right to the heart of what CAF/WU40 is currently all about. Does Lerner manage it?
Of course he doesn’t, I was tempted to say at various points throughout 10:04 (the title refers, enigmatically, to the moment in Back to the Future when lightning strikes the clock tower). But by the time I’d finished it, I was convinced. Lerner is prodigiously gifted: maybe the single best creator of CAW/WU40 currently publishing. He’s so good that he tempts you to make large predictions about his career, predictions like: Ben Lerner may be the future of American fiction. 10:04 isn’t a perfect novel. But one of its lessons may be that perfection is beside the point.
10:04 opens with a 50-page blue streak of flawless prose, of which, in a short review, it’s really only possible to quote a small sample: “Emerging from the train, I found it was fully night, the air excited by foreboding and something else, something like the feel of a childhood snow day when time was emancipated from institutions, when the snow seemed like a technology for defeating time, or like defeated time itself falling from the sky, each glittering ice particle an instant gifted back from your routine.”
Lerner is describing the mood of New York City in August 2011, as it braces itself for the impact of Hurricane Irene. Fourteen months later, in October 2012, the narrator walks through the downtown blackout caused by Hurricane Sandy. The novel in between, bracketed by storms, is defiantly unstormy: a plotless melange of fiction and autobiography, unified less by dramatic action than by Lerner’s uncanny way with resonance. Images, metaphors, ideas, and experiences recur, are recollected or permuted, and gain new meanings with each iteration.
This is, of course, an essentially poetic way of writing and thinking. It’s no surprise to find that Lerner began as a poet, publishing three collections of verse before his first novel, 2010’s Leaving the Atocha Station. His poetry (like his prose) is spiky, casual, intimate. There is an artisanal quality to Lerner’s stuff, as if it were the work of a stubborn hobbyist of genius.
His language sets registers jostling: the literary, the industrial, the neurological. Of New York he writes: “I was aware of the delicacy of the bridges and tunnels spanning it, and of the traffic through those arteries, as though some cortical reorganisation now allowed me to take the infrastructure personally, a proprioceptive flicker in advance of the collective body.”
Highfalutin guff, you might protest. But people said that about Whitman, too. To move beyond the dead end of postmodern irony while acknowledging its terrible seductiveness is Lerner’s project, and he doesn’t always succeed. 10:04 has a patched-together quality that occasionally detracts from the wonder of its many astonishing perceptions. At one point Lerner simply reprints a short story he published in The New Yorker in 2011, apparently at a loss as to how he might otherwise include it in his scheme. It’s much the worst thing in the book.
But as the novel goes on, its wanderings and digressions begin to add up. Lerner ends his novel with a Whitman quote, from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1855): “I am with you, and I know how it is.” In a writer less talented, this would be laughable. But Lerner makes it work. He has done that most remarkable thing: made his life resonate in a universal (or semi-universal) way. No irony here: Ben Lerner is with you; he knows how it is. His novel makes you feel less alone. Of how many recent examples of CAF/WU40 can you say that?
My review of Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel (Faber) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s a short excerpt:
Unsheltered’s turgidity derives in large part from Kingsolver’s prose, which is a hideous blend of folksy sentiment and ersatz formality. Try this: “In her family, in her profession and her husband’s, in strained European economies and the whole damned world, where is the cash that once there was?” (Linguistic contortions aside, what kind of magazine editor knows nothing about the state of the world economy?) There’s also a fair admixture of waffle. Here’s Thatcher, arriving home to find his wife Rose in the parlour: “Alone, he was relieved to see. Not with her mother on the sofa parsing threads of gossip, both ready to drop their needlework and turn up their eyes with bottomless female expectation.”
Those last three words are echt Kingsolver. What the hell is female (as opposed to male) expectation? Whatever its putative sex, can expectation ever be “bottomless”? Or try this: “Unbustled and unbonneted like this, Rose was a gravitational body that drew his front against her back, his bearded jaw against her tidy zenith.” Her tidy zenith! What a phrase!
Over at Strange Horizons, the excellent Abigail Nussbaum reviews The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix), Mike Flanagan’s freehand adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel. Nussbaum describes Jackson’s book as “a story about women who have been failed by men.” This seems to me an odd and tendentious way to read Hill House. The men in the novel – the psychical researcher Dr. Montague and the shiftless playboy Luke – are hardly central. In fact the book is haunted, excuse the pun, by domineering and abusive women. Eleanor Vance’s mother, who dies before the story begins, was, we are repeatedly told, an abusive tyrant – she is one of the reasons Eleanor is so unhappy, and has been forced to escape into a life of fantasy. Late in the book, Dr. Montague’s wife arrives, and sets about bullying her milquetoast husband with her fake-psychic nonsense. There are other indicators that the failures of men are not the point of Jackson’s book. At the very beginning of the novel, we’re introduced to Eleanor in terms that describe her relationships with other women – her mother and her sister – but not her relationships with men (“The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister”). And Eleanor’s key relationship in the novel isn’t with a man – it’s with Theodora, the Bohemian painter. In fact, this relationship is what the book is largely about.
The Haunting of Hill House really only makes sense if you understand it as a story about repressed homoerotic desire. Nussbaum mentions Theodora’s lover – but doesn’t point out that the sex of this lover is never stated. It should be clear to a contemporary reader – as it was clear to Jackson’s readers – that Theodora is gay. It should also be clear that Eleanor is gay, too, but is unable to come to terms with this. When Eleanor and Theodora first meet, they skip around the grounds of Hill House, and decide that they must be cousins – in other words, they flirt. Eleanor’s sexuality is made even clearer when she is alone with Luke and thinks: “he is simply not very interesting.” Later in the novel, Eleanor begs Theo to take her home; when Theo refuses, Eleanor is enraged. The chalk graffiti on the wall of Hill House says “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME.” Eleanor interprets this as the voice of her mother, asking for help. But I think we should read these (signally unpunctuated) words as an instruction from Hill House to the other guests: they are to help Eleanor come home, i.e. they are to help her to acknowledge her repressed sexual desires.
Nussbaum isn’t the only critic to elide or omit this aspect of Jackson’s novel. In Danse Macabre (1981), Stephen King suggests that “there is the barest whiff that Theo’s sexual preferences may not be 100 per cent A/C.” More than a whiff, I’d say. Theo’s sexuality – and Eleanor’s – are what the book is, in large part, about. “Journeys end in lovers meeting,” Eleanor repeats to herself throughout the novel. But she doesn’t meet her lover – in fact, she is rejected by Theo – and, driven mad by Hill House, she commits suicide at the end. That’s my two cents on it, anyway.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix): what a weird and interesting show this is. It may be the first TV show that is all references. In the first episode, it tells you what it’s going to do: Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka), a teenage witch, goes to see Night of the Living Dead (1968) with her classmates. Afterwards, in a local diner plastered with horror memorabilia, they discuss the hidden sociopolitical meanings of the film. Chilling Adventures is instructing us to read it cannily. It’s a self-conscious bit of aesthetic positioning. So, let’s look at Chilling Adventures and see what we can see.
The first thing you notice about the show is that it’s synthesized entirely from allusions to previous works of horror, fantasy, and teen drama. Setting aside its basic derivation (from Archie Comics via the 1990s ABC sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch), there are simply too many references to list, but here’s a partial attempt. Like Harry Potter, Sabrina’s parents are dead; also like Harry (and like Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and like the protagonists of all other YA fantasy novels), Sabrina is the Chosen One, in whom the grown-up characters take a special interest.
The first episode, “October Country,” is named after a book by Ray Bradbury. As in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina’s home town is located above a Hellmouth. In another Harry Potter reference, Sabrina attends a magic school that she accesses by following some railway tracks. Here she runs afoul of three teenage witches straight from The Craft (1996). (She also meets an oleaginous young man named Nicholas Scratch, a dead ringer for Gossip Girl’s Chuck Bass – the music even tinkles along in a Gossip-Girlish way whenever he’s on screen.) As in Charmed (1998-2005), witches say cute, offhand things about demons and warlocks. As in Six Feet Under (2001-2005), Sabrina’s house is a funeral parlour. (Her house also looks a lot like Norman Bates’s house from Psycho, and the woods that surround it are quite a bit like the Wendigo-haunted woods from Pet Sematary – and lo! the garden contains a plot of ground that brings people back to life!)
Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose keeps a library of books about demons, like Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (The kids also congregate regularly in the school library, just as the Scooby Gang did.) The owner of the bookstore/diner in which several scenes are set is dressed as Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931). Later in the series, Sabrina’s Aunt Hilda (Lucy Davis) dresses as Elsa Lanchester from Bride of Frankenstein (1935). At one point, the sleazy school principal (Bronson Pinchot) is attacked by a swarm of spiders, evoking M.R. James’s “The Ash-Tree” (1904) and the movie Arachnophobia (1990). A later scene, in which a demon is cocooned in a spider’s web, reminds us of the Shelob sequences in The Return of the King (2003). Later still, Sabrina’s friend Roz develops a precognitive knack called “the Cunning,” which I think we can all agree sounds quite a bit like the Shining.
Throughout the series, Satanic imagery is borrowed from classic British horror movies like The Devil Rides Out (1968) and Witchfinder General (1968). The ritual-in-the-woods scenes borrow from more recent movies like The Last Exorcism (2010) and Kill List (2011). In Episode 2, Sabrina walks through the woods, winding string around a twig to create a creepy folk-art summoning device reminiscent of similar thingummies in The Blair Witch Project (1999) and the first season of True Detective (2014).
Episode 3 is a riff on Stephen Vincent Benet’s story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1936), in which the devil takes the surname “Scratch.” (See what they did there, with Nicholas?) Episode 4 lifts the psychopomp sparrows from Stephen King’s The Dark Half (1989) and a bit of astral projecting from Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing (1984-1987). (Moore is namechecked at one point by Sabrina’s otherwise pointless boyfriend, Harvey.) In Episode 4, Sabrina is tasked with solving a puzzle-box called “the Acheron Configuration” (although when this box appeared in the Hellraiser movies, it was called the Lament Configuration, and it summoned the Cenobites). Sabrina solves the puzzle-box; as in Hellraiser, a demon arrives. Episode 5 uses this demon to repeat the plot of the Buffy episode “Restless,” itself an homage to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. (Aunt Hilda’s dream in this episode literally mentions a “dark half,” and also borrows the parasitic-twin idea from the classic X-Files episode “Humbug.”)
Episode 6 combines the story-moves and imagery of IT (kids in a small town haunted by an evil creature that only they can see) with the story moves and imagery of The Exorcist (the possessed man tied to the bed, vomiting, levitating, etc.). There are numerous direct visual quotes from The Exorcist, including an echo of the famous scene in which Max von Sydow looks up at the lighted window of the possessed Regan’s bedroom. Also quoted in this episode is the bathroom scene from IT (though without the blood). Episode 7 is about a sacrificial ritual for which “tributes” are chosen: this is straight from The Hunger Games, of course.
Even the presence of certain actors invokes the history of genre. Miranda Otto, who plays Sabrina’s Aunt Zelda, was Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings. Lucy Davis was in Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Wonder Woman (2017). Michelle Gomez, who plays the demonically possessed Miss Wardwell, was Missy, the female incarnation of The Master during Peter Capaldi’s tenure in Doctor Who. (The acting in the show is self-consciously serious, even operatic, but in a weirdly dead-eyed way: it conveys total seriousness without any conviction behind it, which lands us right in the middle of the Uncanny Valley. Central to this is Kiernan Shipka, who delivers her lines as if she has to invent language from scratch every time she needs to communicate something. The actors know that they’re stuck in a Twice-Told Tale [more on which anon] – they know that they’re not playing characters but embodied references. All they can do is sell the reference.)
I could go on – but I think my point is made. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is all quotes. And what, you may legitimately ask, is wrong with that? Isn’t this just intertextuality wrought to its uttermost? Isn’t Sabrina really just another joyfully baroque labyrinth of referential slippage, in the now-familiar postmodern/meta style? Isn’t the predictability of all those borrowed plot moves entirely the point? After all, the show tells us to be alert readers, in that Night of the Living Dead scene I mentioned above. Aren’t all those references just Easter eggs for the fans?
Well. There are a couple of ways in which we might think about Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. In 1971 the science fiction writer and critic Joanna Russ published an article in College English called “The Wearing Out of Genre Materials.” In this article, Russ proposes that all genres follow a three-stage evolutionary path (Russ calls it an “order of degeneration”) from “Innocence” to “Plausibility” to “Decadence.” She uses examples from science fiction to describe what she means. The Ambrose Bierce story “Moxon’s Master” (1909), about a thinking robot, belongs, according to Russ, to the Innocent stage of SF’s evolution. In this story, the idea of a conscious machine is the shock revelation towards which the story tends. The idea is not developed. The story consists of “a set of devices to delay that final revelation.” By contrast, Isaac Asimov’s “Reason” (1941) assumes that conscious robots are not in themselves either shocking or new: “What we think of now as typically science-fictional questions are being asked: How would such a machine be constructed? At what level would technology have to be to make such a machine possible?” With “Reason,” Russ suggests, “we have reached the stage of Plausibility,” at which pulp materials “can be used by good writers.”
The third stage of Russ’s model, Decadence, is the one that concerns us here. (Her example is a third robot story, Brian Aldiss’s “But Who Can Replace a Man?”). Russ identifies several ways in which a genre can become decadent:
(1) Stories may become petrified into collections of rituals, with all freshness and conviction gone. Television westerns are at this stage. This is the stage of foregone conclusions.
(2) Stories may become part of a stylized convention – not to be confused with complete petrifaction. In a petrified genre, the details are more important than the whole, e.g. the cowboy’s tight pants, while stylized fiction retains the sense of an aesthetic whole and a subordination of parts to some sort of aesthetic order […]
(3) What were big scenes or frissons of whole stories may be shrunk, elided, compressed, or added to – that is, until only the original wish/scene is left as a metaphoric element among other metaphoric elements.
It seems to me inarguable that Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a pure product of horror in its Decadent phase. It fits Russ’s criteria for Decadence eerily well: instead of a story told with freshness and conviction, it offers a collection of ritual gestures in the direction of previous tales. (This means that the whole series is coated in a dreamy glaze of unreality. When Sabrina’s boyfriend Harvey ends up trapped in a mine in Episode 8, the townspeople and emergency services gather at the mineshaft entrance in a scene that clearly cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to shoot; not for one single second do you believe that you’re looking at real people or a real mine.) The details – the costumes and references, the sets liberally sprinkled with posters advertising films and books from older eras of horror – are vastly more important than the whole (what, after all, is the point of Sabrina’s story, beyond a cavalcade of horror in-jokes and allusions?). What were once big scenes – Father Karras and Father Merrin exorcising Regan, for example – now zoom past in compressed or elided form, drained of meaning.
But this line of thought only gets us so far. Russ was interested in the Decadent phase of genres because it was here, she thought, that pulp storytelling stood the best chance of transforming itself into the language of metaphor – and hence of becoming the raw material for great art. (The robot, for instance, becomes, in the Aldiss story, a metaphor for the human.) “I wonder,” she writes, “if metaphor is not the ultimate destination of every narrative element.” Here’s where Russ’s essay becomes less useful, I suspect, in thinking about Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Because the baroque Decadence of Chilling Adventures isn’t productive of metaphor. Compare Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which used the creaky conventions of the Gothic, and the equally trite protocols of the high school soap opera, to engineer startling metaphors for puberty, sexual desire, responsibility, and friendship. (Russ, I think, would have approved of what Buffy was up to.) Chilling Adventures of Sabrina isn’t doing anything like this. It is metaphor-free. It is a riot of borrowed tropes with nothing original to say.
In other words, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina isn’t so much predictable or aesthetically decadent as it is unnecessary. Every plotline is pointed (as Russ would put it) towards a foregone conclusion, not because the writing is bad (it’s often quite good, in a pulpy sort of way), but because we know these stories already. We clock each scene with a knowing nod: Harry Potter, we say, or Snow White, or Buffy, or Twilight: I get it! But a reference is not a metaphor. A thousand references glued together is not a work of art. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is only superficially Decadent, in Russ’s sense; what it is, in reality, is tautologous.
And this is the second way in which I think we might understand Chilling Adventures: as representative of a logic of tautology that underwrites a significant chunk of our current popular culture, and that is also shaping – I would suggest – much of our current political discourse. Tautology, of course, means the saying of the already said. It means redundant repetition. I met you yesterday, when I met you. And it is, in fact, precisely that exemplary formulation – I met you yesterday, when I met you – that describes the feeling evoked by whole swathes of contemporary popular culture and politics. We have been here before. We are back here again.
Examples are always nice. Let’s limit ourselves to the movies, for the sake of our sanity. An early harbinger of the present rot was Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho (1998), which seems, in retrospect, to have ushered in an era of tautological filmmaking. (It’s an extreme instance, but it fits the bill.) Since then, we have watched film franchises endlessly permute the same scenes, dialogue, story moves, and setpieces. Recent entries in the Terminator series – Rise of the Machines (2003), Salvation (2009), and Genesys (2015) – needlessly reworked images, characters, and storylines from the first two movies. The Alien films – most recently Covenant (2017) – are all the same film, with occasional Decadent variations, mostly in the set design.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was a pointless and dead-eyed supplement to the original movies (which were, of course, themselves pastiches of the movie serials that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg loved as children) – and, as if for good measure, it also resurrected the aliens-visiting-ancient-America theory first popularised in Erich Von Daniken’s 1968 bullshitfest Chariots of the Gods? Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) reiterated the original 1977 Star Wars, point for point. Rogue One (2016) went even further, and digitally recreated a dead Peter Cushing in a bizarre act of cinematic necromancy. Blade Runner 2049 (2017) retold the original Blade Runner (1982) – again, almost point for point.
Remakes and reboots proliferate. You can name your favourites. Our popular movies are no longer telling new stories: they are simply retelling older ones. Even very recent films are tautologously restated, often within months of their release: the existence of The Hunger Games trilogy (2012-2015) surely obviates our need for The Maze Runner trilogy (2014-2018). And that’s before you get to the multiple origin-story retreads of Spiderman, Batman, Superman, et. al. that have been released, like dandelion seeds in a strong breeze, over the last two decades. All of these films are iterations of the already said. They are tautologous in precisely the ways that Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is tautologous, i.e. their existence is not aesthetically required, and everything that happens in them is something we have seen before.
It is naive, of course, to presume that a movie or a TV show gets made because it’s aesthetically required. Certainly this plethora of remakes and reboots is underwritten by the profit motive. But cultural forms – or, to put it in a less pretentious way, works of art – have their own interior necessities. Good art has always operated in and through the cash nexus. Bojack Horseman might have been commissioned in an effort to make money. But it’s one of the best artworks of our time: a genuinely original synthesis of psychological realism, absurdist comedy, and surrealist metaphor. (It represents the adult cartoon comedy, the form created 30 years ago by The Simpsons, in its last and greatest incarnation.) Each new season of Bojack is aesthetically required, in the sense I mean here. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and all the other tautologous shows and films I’ve mentioned, are not. There’s also the inescapable fact that these tautologous shows and films make money. They are produced in the first place because people keep going to see them. There’s a cultural tropism towards tautological art, and the money men are happy to stimulate it.
So. On the evidence of Sabrina and her tautological coevals, the grammar of much of our culture is now essentially reiterative. Why? Early in “The Wearing Out of Genre Materials,” Joanna Russ connects the decay of genres to changes in the social order:
That art changes when society changes is one of the commonplaces of the history of art. That is, the old forms (as well as the old styles) do in fact disappear only when social conditions change, and a static society is apparently content to represent the same things over and over in the same way [.]
In the culture of the West, after the financial crisis of 2008, a general sense of stasis did, I think, take hold. This feeling has been articulated by various commentators, but perhaps the most eloquent of these is Adam Curtis, who in his excellent documentary Hypernormalisation (BBC, 2016), argued that the contemporary West resembles the Soviet Union during its final decade: it is a world in which the old systems no longer work, and everybody knows this. But no one is able to imagine a new system, or set of systems, to replace them. This is the condition that Curtis calls “hypernormal”: a strange, static time in which we cling to the old stories and ideas, even though we know they no longer mean anything.
Curtis isn’t the only commentator to have remarked on our present sense of cultural stasis. The science fiction novelist William Gibson, in this interview, notes “how seldom, today, we see the phrase “the 22nd century.” Almost never. Compare this with the frequency with which the 21st century was evoked in popular culture during, say, the 1920s.” If Gibson is correct – and I think he is – then we are no longer able to imagine a future. We are end-stopped, stuck, recycling the past. Hence our endlessly reiterative popular art. (I haven’t discussed how a tautological grammar also informs other spheres of contemporary culture, but it’s there: pop songs keep recycling the Millennial Whoop, and quite a lot of recent literary fiction mimics the moves of early 20th-century Modernism – cf. Eimear MacBride, Will Self, Karl Ove Knausgaard.)
We are, in Russ’s terms, “a static society […] apparently content to represent the same things over and over in the same way.” But the key word here is apparently. It seems to me that our reiterative cultural grammar doesn’t reflect a stable, highly developed society (i.e. the sort of society that is “content” to express itself in established cultural forms, like Greek tragedy or Elizabethan verse drama), but rather a deeply uneasy and exhausted culture looking for comfort in reiterations of the already said.
This becomes even clearer when you notice that the present logic of tautology extends beyond the aesthetic sphere to the world of politics. In cleaving so doggedly to the empty dream of Brexit, Theresa May’s Conservative Party iterates a political tautology. “Brexit means Brexit,” May keeps saying – a phrase that Chris Johns, in this Irish Times article, suggests is “empty of any content whatsoever.” Donald Trump’s verbal style is, to understate the case, heavily dependent on tautology. “I know words. I have the best words.” “I see the people. I mean, they’re men. They’re mostly men, and they’re strong men.” “We don’t have victories any more. We used to have victories but [now] we don’t have them.”
As with “Brexit means Brexit,” Trump’s endless tautologies are the verbal signals of a non-narrative (or post-narrative) political project. Brexit, I’d suggest, isn’t really an idea: it’s a kind of empty form via which old ideas (about nationalism, imperialism, self-sufficiency, and so on) are tautologously reiterated. The same is true of Trump’s presidency. Trump’s “ideas” are zombified reiterations of old prejudices. Trump’s America replays bankrupt stories about white nationalism, the American Dream, fear of the other, and so on – and it does so in a weird, affectless way, like the umpteenth Decadent instalment of an exhausted movie franchise. Politically, we live in a tautological world, in which Nazis are once again ascendant, anti-Semitism is once again virulent, and nation-states scrabble to re-inhabit old, exploded stories about racial superiority, power, and self-determination. Since 2008, there have been no new stories in politics: just the old ones, told again to weird, empty effect. To adapt Fredric Jameson’s famous phrase about postmodernism, tautology is one of the cultural logics of post-crash capitalism.
Up above, I used the phrase “Twice-Told Tale.” Here’s John Clute, in his astonishing Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), writing about the origins of the term:
The term “twice-told tale” comes from a line in William Shakespeare’s King John (circa 1597): “Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale.” It is almost certainly this sense that Nathaniel Hawthorne intended to convey in his Twice-Told Tales (coll 1837), a volume which contains mostly Supernatural Fictions whose protagonists are locked into the Bondage of their nature and precisely “twice-told” in their conviction that nothing they can do can release them from punitive reiteration of that which damned their ancestors and which will damn them as well.
I submit that “punitive reiteration of that which damned our ancestors and which will damn us as well” is as precise a description of the current political landscape of the West as you could hope to find. Into the empty cultural forms of the present, the narratives of the past are crammed, and retold meaninglessly. We need new myths. But new myths are hard to make. They arise from a potent collision of character and context – of the individual past and the generational present. It takes a lot of good and bad art, and a lot of good and bad politics and history, distilled and transmogrified, to make a myth. (Saul Bellow’s rule of thumb pertains here: “Garbage in, synthesis out.”) In the meantime, of course, you could always while away a few hours, at the end of the West, watching Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Hey, look! Another reference to a movie I liked! Isn’t that comforting?
My review of Eoin McNamee’s latest (Faber & Faber) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s a short excerpt:
Eoin McNamee’s novels dependably evoke a very specific mood. Imagine a lonely man living on the outskirts of a provincial town – perhaps somewhere near the Northern Irish border, perhaps in the English midlands. The weather is bad. The few buildings nearby have long since succumbed to decay. The man carries a heavy burden of secrets. He moves furtively through a world of mildewed archives and one-night cheap hotels, waiting for a signal from his past. He works for a secret organisation, official or otherwise. There is a mystery. The mystery might be solved – but don’t hold your breath.
Very few Irish novelists – John Banville comes to mind – have marked out their fictional territory so clearly and with such single-mindedness of purpose. Like Banville, McNamee is a stylist. He lavishes attention on his sentences, frequently working miracles, sometimes (the bar is set very high) falling flat. You don’t really read McNamee for his plots – though he is superbly good at them, and can nudge a gripping conspiracy thriller to life with just the right touches of jittery menace. You read him for his sentences – and for the downbeat mood that they so vividly evoke.
My review of Reporting the Troubles: Journalists Tell Their Stories of the Northern Ireland Conflict (Blackstaff Press), edited by Deric Henderson and Ivan Little, appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s a short excerpt:
Reporting the Troubles comprises seventy short essays by journalists who spent time reporting from the heart of the conflict. It runs in roughly chronological order, beginning with Martin Cowley’s brief memoir about his involvement with the 1968 Duke Street protest [i.e. Bloody Sunday, widely understood as the first day of the Troubles] and ending with Gail Walker’s reflections on a troubled peace (“we are faced with a frightening dilemma and responsibility: what to remember and what to forget”). In between are dozens of snapshots from hell: recollections of that period, in the 1970s, when (as the editors put it) “one day’s murders would routinely be overtaken by the next day’s atrocities,” or of the depradations of the Shankill Butchers in the early 1980s.
Every piece fascinates and moves. Robert Fisk speaks for many of his fellow contributors when he remembers writing “DIED” over names in his contacts book. Gloria Hunniford describes staying on air for BBC radio as a car bomb exploded outside the studio building. Justine McCarthy grippingly reconstructs an interview with the “moral contortionist” Martin McGuinness (he declined to be photographed with a graveyard in the background: “People might think I’m responsible for these”).
My review of Haruki Murakami’s new novel (Harvill Secker) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s a short excerpt:
If Killing Commendatore is anything to go by, the faults of Murakami’s work are largely indissoluble from its virtues. Sure, his books are ludicrously padded: the English translation of Killing Commendatore (by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen) weighs in at 674 pages, and rare is the paragraph that couldn’t be purged of flab. Sure, his plots feel improvised: oh, look! The strange man who lives across the valley has a hidden story of thwarted love! Now they’re digging up a well to find the source of a mysterious ringing sound! And sure, he really, really likes describing women with small breasts (in the new book, this gets particularly odd: the unnamed narrator is attracted to small-breasted women because they remind him of his dead sister).
But most of these things are, somehow, of a piece with Murakami’s tremendous gifts as a storyteller. Padded writing, of the sort that Murakami indulges in, is easy to read (half a page about the narrator buying a used Toyota slips by almost without you noticing – all you have to do is skim the words and think, “buys car”). His plots may feel improvised, but they drag you along – especially because, at any moment, the general weirdness seems poised to turn truly crazy. And as for the recurrence of small-breasted women characters – well, it does have the unfortunate effect of making Murakami look like a bit of a perv. You can’t win them all.
I interviewed Dermot Bolger for the Sunday Business Post Magazine, and the piece appears today. The occasion is the arrival of Bolger’s new novel, An Ark of Light (New Island). Here’s a short excerpt from the interview:
In 1977, Dermot Bolger was a young poet in need of friendship and recognition. His mother had died of a cerebral haemorrhage when he was 10. His father, a merchant seaman, was often away in long voyages. Alone in his family’s house in Finglas, Bolger stayed awake until the small hours, banging out poems on a manual typewriter, using carbon paper when he couldn’t afford a fresh ribbon. He was 18 and unemployed. A literary career seemed scarcely possible.
Then a letter from a stranger arrived, inviting Bolger to stay the night in a caravan parked outside the village of Turlough, in Co. Mayo. The sender had seen Bolger’s name in the Irish Press. Packing up his poems, Bolger hitchhiked to Mayo and found his way to the caravan (which was known, he later learned, as the Ark). It was the home of Sheila Fitzgerald, who would become one of the most important figures in Bolger’s life. “How marvellous you’re here!” Sheila cried, as she opened the door. “Isn’t life exciting?”
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 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 Success is, 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.