The Wolf and the Watchman by Niklas Natt och Dag


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.  


Hating Franzen at the DRB

An essay I wrote about Jonathan Franzen’s most recent collection of essays, The End of the End of the Earth (Fourth Estate) – in which I ask the question on almost nobody’s lips: just why does everyone hate Jonathan Franzen? – is up now over at The Dublin Review of Books, and you are most cordially invited to have a read.

An American Story by Christopher Priest


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?

2018: A Round-Up

As is traditional, here’s a quick round-up of stuff I did this year.

For this blog, back in February, I watched all 629 then-extant episodes of The Simpsons and wrote a piece about it.

For the Spring issue of The Dublin Review I wrote an essay about my experiences working in the call centre of a major provider of TV and broadband (“In the Call Centre”).

A short story, “A Theft,” appeared in Issue 6 of Banshee.

I wrote an essay about Norman Mailer’s work of the 1960s for The Dublin Review of Books.

For the Words Ireland website, I wrote about Anne Enright’s event at the National Day for Writers.

For Literary Review, I wrote about Joseph O’Neill’s short story collection Good Trouble and Gary Shteyngart’s novel Lake Success.

I contributed op ed pieces to The Irish Times and The Times (Ireland).

For The Millions, I wrote a piece about Don DeLillo.

For this blog, I wrote about Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix).

For the EFACIS Kaleidoscope website, I wrote an essay about writing.

And for The Sunday Business Post, I wrote about the decline of The Simpsons and interviewed Patrick McCabe (about his novel Heartland) and Dermot Bolger (about his novel An Ark of Light).

Flames by Robbie Arnott


My review of Robbie Arnott’s debut novel appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s a short excerpt:

Ideal prose embodies a highly wrought conversationalism – or, to put it in a less pretentious way, good writing shouldn’t stray too far from the textures of the spoken language. You should be able to understand a sentence the first time you read it. The deeper stuff (allusion, texture, irony) comes later. When prose announces itself as prose – that is, when it differs too greatly from English as it’s actually spoken – the result is mannerism.

The crucial thing about mannered prose is that it’s very difficult to read. Here’s an example, from Robbie Arnott’s intermittently impressive debut novel, Flames: “Talking to Levi would have done zilch; he would’ve given her the same look he’s been giving her ever since their mother died, the look of pity and care and concern spiced with that skinny jut of resolve in his jawline – the jut that meant he would not be changing his mind, no sir, no matter what his unreasonable, uncontrollable sister said or did or thought.”

10:04 by Ben Lerner

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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?

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

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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!

A Quick Note on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

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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.