The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

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My review of Salman Rushdie’s new novel The Golden House (Cape) appeared in this week’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. A wee excerpt:

In the past, Rushdie’s ear was one of the most potent weapons in his arsenal. But in The Golden House, he’s capable of using “presidency” and “prescient” in the same sentence – not three words apart, in fact – or of deploying “slowness,” “snowplow,” and “slowdown” in the same subordinate clause. He’s also capable of writing “the new year struck” and following it up immediately with “she cast her fateful hook”; of writing “overpowering him with the most powerful spell of all”; and of writing, “safely enclosed or dangerously exposed.”

Rushdie’s sentences, in The Golden House, are full of try-hard collisions and puffy periphrasis. “He was like a continent of erratic garrulity containing a no-go zone of oral paralysis.” This is prose that takes up a lot of space but weighs very little, like the styrofoam wedges that keep the components of an Ikea wardrobe safe in their cardboard box. Occasionally, there are glimpse of the old Rushdie magic: describing a sex scene between Nero and Vasilisa, René writes: “She… and here I rear back and halt myself, ashamed, prufrocked into a sudden pudeur, for, after all, how should I presume?” For an instant, the language comes alive. But soon René is up to his old tricks: “in too deep to stop now […] must continue the peep show.” He shouldn’t go on. He goes on.

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Smile by Roddy Doyle

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My review of Roddy Doyle’s new novel, Smile (Jonathan Cape), appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Paywall etc, but here’s an excerpt:

Victor Forde, the narrator of Roddy Doyle’s tenth novel, appears, at first glance, to be a familiar sort of character in a familiar sort of predicament: he’s a middle-aged man, estranged from his family, haunted by his past, and morosely adrift in a changed and changing Dublin. Separated from his wife, the wealthy and glamourous Rachel (she hosts an entrepreneurial reality show on RTE called Hit the Ground Running), alienated from his son (they haven’t spoken in three years), and largely friendless, Victor has, when the novel begins, moved into an anonymous block of Celtic Tiger flats in the Northside neighbourhood where he grew up.

Nursing a pint – and brooding on his wounds – in Donnelly’s pub one evening, Victor is accosted by Eddie Fitzpatrick, who claims to be an old school friend […] Under Eddie’s hostile questioning, Victor is compelled to revisit his past – in particular, his experiences as a pupil at the (fictional) St Martin’s CBS in the 1970s, when he was groped by the Head Brother, Father McIntyre, under the pretext of a lesson in wrestling.  

 If you’re worrying, at this point, that Smile is yet another Irish novel about the traumas of clerical sexual abuse – well, in one sense, you’d be absolutely right. But you’d also be underestimating Roddy Doyle, who remains the outstanding fictional chronicler of his generation – of the private lives of the men and women who experienced first-hand Ireland’s transition from Catholic garrison-state to globalised republic. 

Submission by Michel Houellebecq

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This review first appeared in the Sunday Business Post on 27th September 2015.

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In Arabic, “Islam” means “submission” – “voluntary submission to God,” with added connotations of wholeness, safety, and peace. Translated into English (or French), the word resonates rather differently. When, in 2004, the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh and the Somali dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali released a short polemical film about Muslims’ treatment of women, they called it Submission. Their intention was clear: “submission,” in English, is a posture of defeat. Van Gogh was murdered for his satirical effrontery: stabbed to death on an Amsterdam street in November 2004 by an Islamist fanatic named Mohammed Bouyeri. Hirsi Ali was forced to go into hiding.

Now the word “submission,” with all its attendant unwelcome ironies, has returned to haunt us once again. Michel Houellebecq’s sixth novel appeared in France on 7th January, 2015. This was the day on which two masked men carrying assault rifles walked into the offices of Charlie Hebdo in the Marais and shot 11 people, in revenge – they said – for the paper’s publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Houellebecq was Charlie Hebdo’s cover story that week, for his novel about the peaceful rise to power of an Islamic government in a near-future France – a novel called Submission.

The Anglophone press has painted Submission as a kind of Dreadful Warning – France must not capitulate to Islamist terror! – and Houellebecq as a kind of reactionary prankster, a dolled-up purveyor of highbrow porn whose pronunciations on Islam mark him out as basically unserious. But in France, Houellebecq’s novels are taken very seriously (after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, even Francois Hollande made sure to announce that Submission had jumped to the top of his reading list), and Houellebecq himself is taken for what he is: a subtle and profound critic of both Islam and the West.

The narrator of Submission, Francois, is a 43-year-old lecturer at the University of Paris III-Sorbonne. He teaches 19th century literature, even though “the academic study of literature leads basically nowhere.” He lives alone in a high-rise apartment in Chinatown and subsists on a diet of microwaveable Indian curries. His sex life is limited to brief, inconclusive affairs with his female students. He no longer speaks to his parents and he has no other family. “Should I just die?” he wonders. But: “The decision struck me as premature.”

Meanwhile, it’s 2022: a Presidential election year in France. The two most popular candidates are Marine le Pen of the National Front, and the charismatic Muhammad Ben Abbes, leader of the moderate Muslim Brotherhood. After some initial tremors – shootings, stolen ballot boxes – Ben Abbes smoothly accedes to the Presidency. The star and crescent rise over Paris’s public buildings. Women are no longer allowed to work. France submits to Sharia law. Will Francois, too, submit?

Thus baldly summarized, Submission does indeed sound like a Dreadful Warning. But Houellebecq is a sly and sinuous operator, and his satire is always Janus-faced: he wants us to see not just our ideological opponents but ourselves, and his message to the West is a grim one. Francois is haunted by the life and work of the 19th century Decadent writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, whose most famous novel, À rebours (1884), described a European civilisation dying, as the critic Arthur Symons phrased it, of too much civilisation – the very predicament in which Francois finds himself, as the Muslim Brotherhood overturns an exhausted and nihilistic democracy and replaces it with the sinister vigour of revealed religion. Huysmans’s solution to the problem of nihilism was to become a Catholic; and so Francois finds himself tempted to convert to Islam, simply to join – as it were – the winning team.

Submission is a deeply literary novel, but it is also a deeply satisfying entertainment – quite aside from all the heavy stuff about the decline of the West, there’s also a good helping of Houellebecq’s signature sex and existential comedy, as well as some good jokes about the enduring stubbornness of male chauvinism. His prose is brisk and perceptive and, in Lorin Stein’s translation, sublimely readable. To write a novel that is both a cunningly-fashioned literary artefact and a suggestive intervention in a bloodily pertinent public debate is no small thing; with Submission, Houellebecq proves that he is still one of the most interesting novelists alive.

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer

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My review of Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne (Fourth Estate) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

If the Southern Reach trilogy was a sly, sinuous, allusive riff on the anxieties of the West in the 21st century, then Borne is a frontal assault on those anxieties: a haunting, and haunted, vision of a self-harming world brought to the brink of collapse. It also features a giant flying bear (but, perhaps surprisingly, no mushrooms).

The bear’s name is Mord. He is Godzilla-sized; he crushes buildings wherever he lies down to sleep. He is the de facto ruler of Borne’s unnamed post-apocalyptic city – a place in which unregulated genetic engineering has led to a biotech apocalypse. Feral children with mutant wasps for eyes prowl the remains of burnt-out buildings; red salamanders rain from the sky and melt into a poisonous mush; rivers roil and bubble with a stew of fatal toxins. The organisation responsible for creating Mord – as well as sundry other monstrosities – is known simply as the Company. Daily, from the ruins of its HQ, the Company sends out more biotech abominations. Civil order is a wistful dream. […] This should be ridiculous – a giant flying bear? A shapeshifting blob who acts like a stroppy teenager (“I need my space”)? But it works. Freely mingling horror and absurdity, Vandermeer channels the darkest nightmares of the West – its terror of the other, its terror of itself. In its dark beauty, in the sombre extremity of its vision, Borne bypasses the higher reaches of consciousness and shows us not what we fear, but what we are: “We cared but we didn’t do.”

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty

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My review of Bernard MacLaverty’s new novel appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. The Iron Paywall supervenes, as usual, but here’s a wee excerpt:

“The novel,” said the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, “is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” And almost all novels do have something wrong with them: dead patches, boring bits, lapses of talent or taste. Readers, as a rule, don’t mind this: it’s part of the unspoken contract that pertains whenever you open a novel (I’ll put up with the dull parts, you say to yourself, if the good parts are sufficiently good). But some writers have minded it very much. The quest to perfect the novel – to write a novel with no bad bits – begins with Flaubert, who spent five years labouring to make Madame Bovary letter-perfect. Flaubert’s 20th century heirs include James Joyce (who spent seven years on Ulysses) and Truman Capote (six years on In Cold Blood). Even in our age of laxities, the Flaubertian standard lingers as an ideal, pursued by writers who believe that the novel can – indeed should – be as formally exact as a lyric poem.

I don’t know how long Bernard MacLaverty spent composing Midwinter Break. But it is sixteen years since his last novel, The Anatomy School, appeared, and the new book is evidently the product of a fanatical scrupulousness. As a result, Midwinter Break is that rarest of things: a near-perfect novel. It is Flaubertian (or Joycean) in the sense that it conjures a luminous universality from the sensuous details of two purely ordinary lives. And it is a masterpiece in the traditional sense: a work that establishes beyond all doubt its author’s credentials as a master.