The President is Missing by James Patterson and Bill Clinton

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My review of James Patterson & Bill Clinton’s new thriller (Century) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

The President is Missing: A Novel, says the cover. This is inaccurate in two senses. For one thing, the Presidential hero of The President is Missing doesn’t actually go missing (he does, as the parlance has it, “go rogue” for a while, but his Secret Service team knows exactly where he is at every second, which does spoil things a bit). And for another, The President is Missing is only a novel in the sense that it has chapters and sentences and dialogue and things like that. It’s actually just the sort of disposable flotsam you buy in the airport on your way to a beach holiday, like those miniature tubes of toothpaste or those inflatable pillows for the plane. Suntan lotion? Check! Gimmicky book? Check!

The Unique Selling Point of The President is Missing is that it promises to disclose (testify, O blurb!) “details only a President could know.” So, does our protagonist and narrator, manly war hero President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan, let us in on some juicy official secrets? Well, no, actually. Unless it thrills you to learn that the tunnel connecting the White House to the Treasury Building next door “was designed in a zigzag pattern precisely to mitigate the impact of a bomb strike,” you will come away from The President is Missing disappointed. Things you might actually want to know – like, what’s the protocol when the President needs the loo? Do Secret Service agents stand guard outside? – never crop up.

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Good Trouble by Joseph O’Neill

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I reviewed Joseph O’Neill’s superb new collection of short stories, Good Trouble (Fourth Estate), for this month’s issue of Literary Review. This might also be a good opportunity to recommend O’Neill’s most recent novel, The Dog (2012), which is excellent and sorely underrated.

My Brother Jason by Tracey Corbett-Lynch with Ralph Riegel

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My review of Tracey Corbett-Lynch’s memoir about the life and death of her brother Jason Corbett (Gill Books) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

In 1941 an American psychiatrist named Hervey Cleckley published a book called The Mask of Sanity, in which he proposed a new theory of human evil. Living amongst us, Cleckley said, were psychopaths: people who, by any standard psychometric criteria, appeared perfectly normal, but who secretly lacked both empathy and guilt.

Cleckley’s belief in the existence of psychopaths has not been universally accepted. In The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), her classic study of the convicted murderer Jeffrey McDonald, Janet Malcolm pointed out that a diagnosis of psychopathy is largely in the eye of the beholder.

Malcolm has a point. Despite the popularisation of clinical ideas about psychopathy, we are still left with the mystery of evil – the question of why certain human beings spread emotional and physical destruction wherever they go, often disguising their cruelties behind a façade of energy, charisma, and glamour.

Thundering in The Times

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I’ve contributed a Thunderer column to the Irish edition of today’s Times about how writers should be skeptical of new national narratives about a liberal Ireland. It’s online & you can read it by registering for 2 free articles a month over at the Times website.

Fat Old Dad Versus the Chess Club

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In April 2014 I was invited to give a keynote talk at “The Writer and the Nation,” a conference organised by the English department of St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra (where I would later end up working for two happy years, and which has now been incorporated into the School of English, DCU, my current and very lovely place of work). My talk was about the perennially vexed question of Irish identity. In the aftermath of Ireland’s wonderful and transformative decision to repeal its constitutional ban on abortion, it seems like an interesting time to post it here.

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Yesterday morning I was in Court 19 of the Criminal Courts building to see for myself the trial of former Anglo Irish Bank executives Sean Fitzpatrick, Willie McAteer, and Pat Whelan. Looking at the three of them sitting in the dock like three bold boys in the naughty corner, I felt that Court 19 – with its polished dark walnut panelling and its dormant flatscreen TVs reflecting the defendants like dull black mirrors – was where a certain set of narratives about Ireland had come to die. Partly this feeling derived from the sense of belatedness you find in any courtroom in the ninth week of a complex trial. By now the barristers and the judge are so familiar with one another that they begin proceedings with murmured banter and big broad smiles (presiding Judge Martin Nolan as he took his seat grinned encouragingly at everyone like a priest at a confirmation). There was a smattering of gawkers – retired men with shopping bags, mostly, the fate of the Anglo Three being, for various reasons, of particular concern to the demographic to which the three accused themselves belong. The mood was like the mood of any office on a Friday morning – discreet high spirits, generous bonhomie.

Only the three men in the dock seemed not to be having a good time. Willie McAteer kept putting on his spectacles and taking them off again as he peered at his copy of the Companies Act, and stroking his face in a gesture of self-comfort. Sean FitzPatrick held a trembling hand over the screen of his smartphone. His mouth has developed a twitch and he sat there wincing, like a man expecting nothing but more bad news.

Once the prosecution, in the person of Una Ni Raifeartaigh SC, began re-outlining the fundamentals of the state’s case against the accused (the facility letters, the last-minute flights to Portugal and France), FitzPatrick began writing in a spiral notebook, looking up often – not at the bench, but at the members of the public at the back of the room. Why were they there? Why was I there? Well, I was curious – not about the details of the trial but about the people, and about one person in particular. I find Sean FitzPatrick interesting, for reasons that have very little to do with feeling outraged about the crimes he did or did not commit. He interests me because he’s a man of a certain type – my friends refer to this type as Fat Old Dad – under a very particular set of pressures. I found myself trying to look at the trial through Seanie’s eyes – how did he feel about us, the gawkers? Did he hate us? Was he still angry or did he just want the whole nightmare to be over at last? What mixture of boredom and terror was he feeling, as he scribbled on his spiral notepad? Seanie is Fat Old Dad in extremis. What he represents, on one level, is the end of Fat Old Dad as a teller of the Irish story.

Fat Old Dad ruled the roost for a time. He was a man in late middle age who exuded something that was not quite authority and not quite charisma but had elements of both, as if he had read about these concepts in a book and determined to simulate them without the benefit of any real-world models. He wore bespoke pinstripe suits and he shot his cuffs as he sat down, the better to discreetly flash his costly cufflinks. He didn’t slap backs, but he did make a point of leaning in and grasping your elbow as he shook your hand, nodding as he made a mental note of your name. He knew everyone and was surprised to find you didn’t, but this wasn’t the surprise of a genuine aristocrat who assumes everyone is as privileged as he is, it was the feigned surprise of the arriviste. He had grown up on a farm or in what he recollected as poverty and made a point of telling you how driven this made him, how he may have come very far but he still knew what it was like to have no arse in your trousers. Fat Old Dad was competitive to a fault and he saw the other bank, the other developer, the other investor as just the latest incarnation of the team from the next town in a Sunday hurling match. He understood that the real news was to be found in the business pages and he always kept a pair of wellies in the trunk of his aging Mercedes to keep his suit from getting muddy on building sites. His business was transacted in brief, allusive conversations, and was generally concluded with the phrase “We’ll sort it out.” The seemingly permanent world of concrete and glass through which we all move every day Fat Old Dad saw through; to him this world was epiphenomenal, a shadow cast by movements in the real world, which was the world of money.

The story Fat Old Dad told about Ireland was a story about a country released from repression and stagnation by the miraculous intervention of globalized free-market economics. It was a story about money and belonging: now we had money, we belonged to the contemporary world. People agreed with this story or they didn’t, but the story was there, and it had tremendous shaping power. When, round about September 2008, this story became impossible to tell in its classic form, it became fashionable to say that the story had been a deception all along, cultivated deliberately by Fat Old Dad for his own malicious ends. But this response was merely another interpretation of a powerful national story – the final interpretation, as it were. When we tell this story now, we have to tell it as history. Even to satirise it would now seem beside the point.

We are living through a peculiar historical moment – not just in Ireland, but in the West in general. What makes this moment strange is the absence of powerful, shaping narratives from our public life. The re-organisation of regimes brought about by the financial crisis of 2008 was not the radical re-alignment of priorities that the crisis might seem to have demanded. Instead we have found ourselves ruled by technocratic, managerial elites. Watching Fine Gael sweep to power in February 2011, I said to myself: The Chess Club takes charge. The Chess Club: nerds with MAs in obscure branches of the social sciences, policy wonks who have pictures of Michael Collins on their wall, who go mountain-climbing on the weekends, who somehow always seem malnourished despite their consciously-cultivated air of ruddy good health, who played chess in school and who think the Irish Times is a newspaper for hippies.

Government by Chess Club has its advantages, but vision isn’t one of them. If the Labour-Fine Gael coalition have a signal failing, it’s their inability to offer a convincing counter-narrative to the one espoused by the government of Fat Old Dads that preceded them. Even at the very hour of his demise, Fat Old Dad was a fount of story. Suddenly our national story became the account of how we were exploited and betrayed by Fat Old Dad. But even that story seems to have lost its power to convince. This is what I felt in Court 19 yesterday. The trial of these three particular Fat Old Dads was meant to be cathartic. But it felt like housekeeping. Some people will, I suppose, experience a certain amount of satisfaction if FitzPatrick, McAteer and Whelan are found guilty. But what will that satisfaction mean? Will it mean Ireland is “ours” again? Having dispatched Fat Old Dad to outer darkness, will we feel better, more free, more in charge? What will the Chess Club have to say about it all? One of the expectations of the Anglo Trial was that it would put a failed vision of Ireland in the dock and reject it, once and for all. But the power of that vision has evaporated so thoroughly that the trial now seems like an historical vestige, a weird throwback to a time when we had an authoritative story that we could tell or untell as we chose. Now our national story – the Chess Club’s best effort – is, aren’t we good little boys? Not like those three chancers in the naughty corner. We do what Mario Draghi tells us and we don’t rock the boat. And maybe – just maybe – everything will be grand.

The Chess Club aren’t entirely to blame for their inability to tell a powerful story about the country they’re managing. The problem is general. The financial crisis of 2008 revealed incontrovertibly that the systems we believed could shape our world were delusions. But these systems have demonstrated a kind of zombie resilience. We know they don’t work; but they go on anyway. This is because we have been unable to think of anything better. Across the West, leaders have come to power who see themselves primarily as managers of these zombie systems. The story they tell, implicitly, is one of inaction: if we do nothing, and if we tinker with the broken systems for long enough, maybe everything will go back the way it was. There has been a failure of political imagination on a global scale. Fat Old Dad has been replaced by the Chess Club not just in Ireland, but in America, Italy, Germany – take your pick. (Some examples: George W. Bush is a classic Fat Old Dad. Barack Obama is unquestionably a member of the Chess Club. Gordon Brown is Fat Old Dad; David Cameron is the Chess Club. Sylvio Berlusconi may be the apotheosis of Fat Old Dad; Mario Monti is Chess Club, Italian-style.)

Our collective response to this situation has been a kind of numb bewilderment. In search of authoritative interpretations of our current crisis, we have turned to the only people who profess to understand the delusional systems that failed us (but for which we can find no replacement): the economists. Tasked with diagnosing cultural phenomena, we now reach instinctively for the economic explanation. But the explanatory power of economics as it’s currently practiced is, it seems to me, dismally limited. There are what Saul Bellow called “higher spheres,” sources of meaning and motive that cannot easily be analysed using economic categories. We all know this; and when someone offers you an economic explanation for some new cultural turn, some new revolt of the spirit, you can usually see the internal demurral, the embarrassed shrug, that tells you they know what they’re saying is inadequate. Money – to quote Saul Bellow again – is one of those evils that has managed to survive its identification as an evil. And economics, it seems, is one of those pseudosciences that has managed to survive its identification as a pseudoscience. But in the absence of anything more persuasive, it’s what we’ve got. Economics is the language of the Chess Club: it is a jargon, rather than a narrative. And jargons foreclose interpretation, while stories inspire it.

Fat Old Dad told a story about Ireland that was deeply problematic – as problematic, in its way, as the American narrative of the militant market-state that it shadowed. It was in no sense a true story – no national narrative is ever a true story, in the strictest sense. But it was coherent. And in this, the Age of Vanished Coherence, its seductive power can be poignantly discerned.

So what led us to settle for the technocratic geekery of the Chess Club, in place of a story that offered us a sense of power? Has the collapse of Fat Old Dad and the world he built left us so bewildered that we have lost faith completely in the very idea of a national story? Or are we simply telling a very different kind of story – a cautionary tale whose moral might be summed up as, Don’t think you can get above your station? On my way in to the Criminal Courts yesterday morning I passed the unfinished Anglo building on Spencer Dock, that big dark hulk with its stacked wafers of empty floor space, lurking like the Ancient Mariner among the happy steel-and-glass Wedding Guests of the rejuvenated docklands. It seems like part of the old story but it is actually part of the new one – the one about an aborted future, the one nobody wants to admit we’re telling.

Implicit in a powerful national story is a set of permissions: to believe or disbelieve, to reject or amend, to offer new versions, to write and rewrite. The story we are telling now offers few permissions. It is a story about powerlessness, about going through the motions of faith in a set of systems we know to be illusions. It is the kind of story a depressed person tells about himself and his future. To experience depression is to feel that one has apprehended clearly the terrible final truth about reality: that it is meaningless, a grey void without hopefulness or love.  This, too, is a story – a story whose meaning is that there is no meaning. But it is a story that is almost impossible to alter or subvert. How can you begin to tell meaningful stories when the final story, the story about the world having no meaning, has already been told? If Ireland is a depressed patient, then the rise of the Chess Club begins to make a kind of sense; depressed people don’t want a potentially dangerous visionary, they want a competent doctor who will put everything back the way it was. Depressed people want the old story, the familiar one about how everything was going to be okay; but what they need is a new one, one that offers permissions, one that reminds them that they are in charge of making everything okay, or at least of trying. This is the kind of story we so conspicuously lack.

It’s hard to tell where such a story might come from. Speaking to a conference about “The Writer and the Nation,” I’m tempted to offer some grand generalisations about literature and the national story. But I won’t. Writers are not in the business of supplying national narratives, and once you start telling writers what to do, you’re already making a fool of yourself. Not all writers care about the national story anyway, although in Ireland it can be oppressively difficult to get away from it. And then there’s the long-standing Irish tendency to hug our writers close – to put them on the ten-pound note, to send them abroad as representatives of the Gathering, to export their work like Aran sweaters or kegs of Guinness – to subsume them, in other words, in the conception of Ireland as a business, the only national story permitted by the jargons of economics. Writers would do well to avoid becoming merely ambassadors of the state. But then, a lot of writers are the sort of people who joined the school Chess Club, too.

Watching Sean FitzPatrick discreetly sucking on a Polo Mint as he sat in the dock in Court 19, I felt very clearly that a certain story of Ireland has been told, and awaits a successor. I can offer no predictions about what that successor might be. We can’t go back; we may not have any money, but we are nonetheless marooned in market-state modernity for good and ill. Our response to this has been disheartening. But perhaps there are ways of being Irish and modern that haven’t been tried yet. There are always more stories – this is what the depressed person, who tells only one story, tends to forget. The only way a writer can know if a story is a good one is to sit down and start telling it. We have very little to lose.

The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen

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My review of Helen Cullen’s debut novel (Michael Joseph) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s a short excerpt:

Back in 1979, John Irving defended Dickens against the charge that his characters were absurdly sentimental by suggesting that, well, real people are absurdly sentimental, too. And Vladimir Nabokov once remarked that “people who denounce the sentimental are generally unaware of what sentiment is.” More recently, academic critics have pointed out that the tag “sentimental” has frequently been used to deny the power and appeal of fiction written by women.

All of which is an elaborate way of saying that your humble reviewer found Helen Cullen’s The Lost Letters of William Woolf a pretty sentimental sort of book, and that it wasn’t entirely to his taste – which isn’t to say that it’s a bad book. It isn’t at all a bad book, in fact: it’s a solidly-crafted piece of commercial fiction with a high-concept hook and some well-realised characters. Its saccharine-ness (saccharinity?) is, as it were, built in: it’s a story about searching for true love; a certain amount of sentimentality is inevitable.

What I Read in 2009

Perhaps of personal archaeological interest merely – back in 2009 I kept track of every book I read, from January to December. Herewith, the list, which I recently found in a pile of old papers. A couple of notes: 1) I was freelancing back then, which meant I had much more time to read. Now that I teach full-time, I read rather less. 2) If I was reading a book for review, it’s marked (for review). 3) If I was rereading a book, it’s marked (again). 4) Books that seemed particularly good I marked with an asterisk – I don’t know if I’d necessarily find all of the asterisked books equally worthy of an asterisk now, though many of them are obviously great (Kafka, Conrad, etc) or have since become part of my personal canon.

January 

Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11*

James Ellroy, The Black Dahlia

Elmore Leonard, Get Shorty

Gilbert Adair, The Act of Roger Murgatroyd

PG Wodehouse, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves

Ken Bruen, The Dramatist

Peter Carey, My Life As a Fake

Eoin McNamee, Twelve Twenty Three

Will Self, Feeding Frenzy

Claire Kilroy, Tenderwire

Dale Peck, Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fiction *

Anita Shreve, Testimony (for radio review)

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao*

February

Andrew Sullivan, Love Undetectable: Reflections on Friendship, Sex, and Survival

Peter Carey, Wrong About Japan: A Father’s Journey with his Son

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad’s Green Zone

Paul Krugman, The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008

Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror

Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance

Katrina vanden Heuvel, ed., A Just Response: The Nation on Terrorism, Democracy, and September 11, 2001

Peter L. Bergen, Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden

Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time

Alain Badiou, The Meaning of Sarkozy

Ian Buruma, Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance

Barry H. Leeds, The Enduring Vision of Norman Mailer

Norman Stone, World War One: A Short History*

John Kenneth Galbraith, The Great Crash 1929

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

March 

Janet Browne, Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography

Garry Wills, Saint Augustine

Bill McGuire, A Guide to the End of the World: Everything You Never Wanted to Know

Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism & Requiem for the Twin Towers

Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Mark Leonard, What Does China Think?

Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women*

Tony Judt, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century

Rick Moody, The Ice Storm

Fintan O’Toole, After the Ball*

Eileen Warburton, John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds

R.F. Foster, Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change, 1970-2000

Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands

Richard Laymon, Allhallow’s Eve

Robert Stone, Bay of Souls

Jonathan Lethem, You Don’t Love Me Yet

Ian Buruma, The Missionary and the Libertine: Love and War in East and West

Saul Bellow, The Bellarosa Connection

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath*

April 

Gene Kerrigan, Dark Times in the City (for review)

Toby Litt, I play the drums in a band called okay

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

Michael Chabon, The Final Solution

Toby Litt, Exhibitionism

Toby Litt, Journey into Space

Zadie Smith, The Autograph Man

Will Self, Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe

James Lasdun, It’s Beginning to Hurt (for review)

Bret Easton Ellis, Glamorama

Jay McInerney, How It Ended

Jay McInerney, Model Behaviour

May

Claire Kilroy, All Names Have Been Changed

John Boyne, The House of Special Purpose

Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading

Martin Amis, House of Meetings (again)

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

Alaa Al Aswani, Friendly Fire (for review)

Joan Didion, Democracy (again)

June

Zachary Leader, The Life of Kingsley Amis

Nick McDonell, The Third Brother

David Foster Wallace, Girl With Curious Hair

Paul Howard, We Need to Talk About Ross

Edgar Allan Poe, Spirits of the Dead: Tales and Poems

Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger

Charlaine Harris, Dead Until Dark

Aravind Adiga, Between the Assassinations (for review)

Dale Peck, Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye*

Dale Peck, Martin & John

Zadie Smith, ed., The Burned Children of America

Christopher Isherwood, All the Conspirators*

Christopher Isherwood, Lions and Shadows (again)

July

E. M. Forster, Abinger Harvest

Arundhati Roy, Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy (for review)

Irvine Welsh, Reheated Cabbage (for review)

E.M. Forster, A Room With A View

Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1910

Graydon Carter, ed., Vanity Fair’s Tales of Hollywood: Rebels, Reds, and Graduates and the Wild Stories Behind the Making of 13 Iconic Films

Justine Delaney Wilson, The High Society: Drugs and the Irish Middle Class

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

August

Alan Moore & Brian Bolland, Batman: The Killing Joke

Rob Long, Conversations With My Agent

Tom Stoppard, Arcadia (again)

Glenway Wescott, The Pilgrim Hawk

Henry James, Washington Square*

Henrik Ibsen, When We Dead Awaken

Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera

Albert Camus, The Plague*

Euripides (trans. WS Merwin), Iphigenia At Aulis

Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea

Franz Kafka, The Trial*

D.H. Lawrence, Selected Letters

Diderot (trans. Jacques Barzun), Rameau’s Nephew

Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Boudoir

Moliére (trans. George Graveley), The Would-Be Gentleman

Aristophanes (trans. David Barrett), The Frogs

Honoré de Balzac, Old Goriot*

John Summerson, The Classical Language of Architecture*

Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent*

D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover

John Carey, William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies* (for review)

Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory

Clive James, From the Land of Shadows

John Updike, Bech at Bay*

Erich Heller, Kafka

Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac

September

Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilisation*

Sebastian Faulks, A Week in December (for review)

John Updike, Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism

Dwight Macdonald, Against the American Grain *

John Banville, The Infinities*

Andrew Sullivan, The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back *

Janet Malcolm, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice

Robert B. Parker, A Savage Place

Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones (unfinished; read the first 200pp)

Anne Marie Hourihane, She Moves Through the Boom

John Banville, Athena *

Mark Lilla, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics

October

Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Rick Moody, The Black Veil (terrible)

Adam Mars-Jones, Venus Envy: On the Womb and the Bomb*

Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning *

Francine Prose, Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles

David Hare, Berlin/Wall

Thomas M. Disch, The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World

Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister

Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading

J.G. Ballard, Crash

David Hare, The Power of Yes: A Dramatist Seeks to Understand the Financial Crisis*

David Murphy & Martina Devlin, Banksters: How a Powerful Elite Squandered Ireland’s Wealth

Edmund White, My Lives

November

Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us *

Fintan O’Toole, Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger*

David McWilliams, Follow the Money*

Julie O’Toole, Heroin: A True Story of Drug Addiction, Hope and Triumph

Chris Binchy, Open-Handed

E.L. Doctorow, Homer and Langley (for review)

Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

Blake Bailey, Cheever: A Life (for review)

Elizabeth Wurtzel, More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction*

Abraham J. Twerski, M.D., Addictive Thinking: Understanding Self-Deception*

Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking

Vladimir Nabokov, The Original of Laura

Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

Mark O’Rowe, Howie the Rookie *

Stephen King, The Dark Half (again)

Alan Glynn, Winterland

Stephen King, “The Mist”

December

Jason O’Toole, The Last Days of Katy French

Philip Roth, The Humbling

Philip Roth, Indignation *

Vladimir Nabokov, The Enchanter

Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America – A Memoir

Colm Toibin, Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar

Mark Harrold, Parenting and Privilege: Raising Children in an Affluent Society

Margaret Atwood, Lady Oracle (165)

Len Deighton, Billion-Dollar Brain

Declan Hughes, The Wrong Kind of Blood

Harlan Ellison, The Glass Teat

Jacob Weisberg, The Bush Tragedy: The Unmaking of a President

Upstate by James Wood

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My review of James Wood’s rather excellent second novel, Upstate (Jonathan Cape), appears in today’s Sunday Business Post. Here’s a short excerpt:

Asked about his critical method, T.S. Eliot once said: “There is no method, except to be very intelligent.” In Wood’s case, there is no method, except to have superb taste. Wood’s taste isn’t infallible: he was wrong when he faulted The Corrections for being fatally implicated in the social confusions it so brilliantly recreates. And his taste isn’t particularly catholic, either: he has little to say about genres that deal with imagined futures or alternative worlds (“Since fiction is itself a kind of magic,” he once wrote, “the novel should not be magical”).

No: what Wood likes is realism. This is perhaps why so many readers find him narrow, or puritanical, or reactionary. The word “realism” carries heavy freight: it makes you think of clunking great 19th century novels, crammed full of wearisome detail about the lives of coal miners or provincial bishops. But what Wood admires is a realism that lets itself get mussed up by life – fiction that allows a disciplined prose to be torqued and “fattened” (a favourite word of Wood’s) by the textures of the given world. This is why he admires Saul Bellow above all others – Bellow, who writes, as Wood puts it, “life-sown prose […] logging impressions with broken speed.”

Last Stories by William Trevor

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My review of William Trevor’s Last Stories appears in today’s Sunday Business Post, along with reflections from Nuala O’Connor, Danielle McLaughlin, and William Wall on Trevor’s greatness and lasting influence. Here’s a short excerpt from my piece:

It may be that to the present generation of young readers, Trevor’s work (seventeen novels and sixteen collections of short stories, plus sundry plays, TV scripts, and memoirs) now has the slightly dowdy air of a time-capsule sent from a lost world: a place of loneliness, bourgeois striving, and shabby-genteel stoicism, haunted (often as not) by the spectre of ordinary evil. The times, places, and themes about which Trevor wrote so perceptively – postwar Ireland and Britain; the provinces, and the starved lives of the people therein – have been comprehensively vanquished by the forces of modernity. Or so it seems.

But if Trevor is no longer a touchstone for younger readers, this is surely a temporary state of affairs. What keeps a writer’s reputation alive beyond his or her lifetime is the regard of other writers. And other writers – people who know greatness when they see it – have always acknowledged Trevor as a master.