First Person by Richard Flanagan

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My review of Richard Flanagan’s new novel, First Person (Chatto & Windus) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s a wee excerpt:

Richard Flanagan’s previous novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, won the Man Booker Prize in 2015. It was not a decision welcomed in all corners. Michael Hoffman, writing in the London Review of Books, held The Narrow Road up as an example of “the novel in an advanced and showy state of dissolution,” before going on to call it “entitled,” “cartoonish,” and “rudimentary.”

Hoffman’s review prompted the pen of A.C. Grayling (chair of that year’s Man Booker committee) to flash from its scabbard. Hoffman’s review, Grayling wrote in a letter to the LRB, must have been “written on a bad haemorrhoid day.” Hoffman responded by describing Grayling’s letter as “bullying, untrustworthy, interested, substanceless and witless.” Good fun, if you like that sort of thing. But Hoffman and Grayling’s exchange (descending as it did almost immediately to the level of brute ad hominem attacks) begged some larger questions – such as, what is the purpose of a major literary award like the Man Booker Prize? What truly constitutes literary excellence? And was Flanagan’s novel actually any good?


The Best Books I Read in 2017 (That Weren’t Published in 2017)

  1. We Who Are About To… (1976) by Joanna Russ

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An accident occurs on an interstellar transport ship; a small group of passengers are marooned on an inimical planet. They lack the skills to survive. Blithely, they imagine that they can Robinson Crusoe the shit out of things until help arrives. Only the unnamed female narrator understands the truth: they are all going to die. In the short period before the narrator is proved correct, the poisonous divisions that have bedeviled human society throughout recorded history recur. We Who Are About To… is at once a feminist parable, a work of revisionist SF, and a satire of human nature. It was reissued in 2016 as part of the Penguin Worlds series, with a beautiful cover (above). It’s 119 pages long and completely unforgettable. You should check it out.

2. Mating (1991) by Norman Rush

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Intimidated by the size of Mating – 496 pages of densely worked prose – I started off, a couple of years ago, with Rush’s Subtle Bodies (2013), which turned out to be a strange little masterpiece. Describing the plot of Subtle Bodies (some college friends, former 60s radicals, reconvene for the funeral of their ultrawealthy former ringleader) does hardly anything to prepare you for how rich a book it is – how much it packs into its 236 speedy pages. Rush is one of those writers who has evolved a prose idiolect of remarkable originality – a way of representing consciousness that feels genuinely new, without being remotely arduous to read. He does the same thing in Mating, which I read while the Mrs. & myself were in New York in January (leading our fancy jet-set lifestyle, as we do). Mating is incredible: an unnamed female graduate student (her subject is anthropology) treks alone into the Botswana desert to find a commune founded by the charismatic reformer Nelson Denoon; inevitably, they fall in love. There is a description of Victoria Falls in this book that is one of the greatest pieces of English prose I’ve ever read. I’m saving Rush’s only other novel, the enormous Mortals, for 2018, a year during which I suspect I will need a certain amount of cheering up.

3. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) by Philip K. Dick

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I’m late to the Dick party (oh do grow up) but am now doing my best to get around to his most important books (Ubik is up next). The Three Stigmata is a genuinely visionary novel – a kind of gnostic horror story about the demiurge Palmer Eldritch, who comes back from Proxima Centauri with a new drug, Chew-Z, that allows him to manipulate reality itself – or does it? Dick understood, better than anyone has since, what it means to live in a tech-drowned, politically incoherent world – how slippery your grasp on reality can get, when everything’s gone hypernormal and there seems to be no end in sight.

4. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Late to the party with this one too – I finally read it for a Gender & Sexuality course I was teaching this semester, having had a copy on my shelf for years – but it turns out, of course, to be the real right thing: a beautifully compassionate vision of human possibilities written in immaculate storyteller’s prose (by which I mean prose that doesn’t get all up in your face about how written it is). It made me feel nostalgic for a time (and there was, surely, such a time) when SF used to assume that the future would be better than the past. No more of that.

5. Haunted Castles: The Complete Gothic Stories (2016) by Ray Russell

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This was, unexpectedly, one of the most fun books I read this year. Russell was a New York writer and magazine editor who worked for Playboy in the 1950s (and who kept up his connection with the magazine after he’d left, editing The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy [1966] and The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural [1967]). Russell’s first novel, The Case Against Satan (hell of a title) appeared in 1963; but before that he had published the three novellas that went to make up Unholy Trinity (1964): “Sardonicus,” “Sagittarius,” and “Sanguinarius.” All three of these are included in Haunted Castles, a Penguin Classics omnibus of Russell’s short gothic fiction. Tonally speaking, the stories are a bit like Hammer horror movies, with an added dose of Schopenhauerian irony. The plots sound bonkers – “Sardonicus” is about a doctor’s attempts to cure a wealthy lunatic who suffers from an extreme case of risus sardonicus; “Sagittarius” resurrects Gilles de Rais as an actor at the Theatre du Grand Guignol – but the stories are preposterously gripping and the prose is a wonderful pastiche of the old Victorian high style. Hat tip: I was first put on to Russell’s work by Will Errickson’s excellent Too Much Horror Fiction blog.

6. In Viriconium (1982) by M. John Harrison

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At some point I’m going to have to do a proper essay on the work of M. John Harrison – he isn’t like anyone else – but I’m still working my way through his back catalogue, so watch this space. In Viriconium is the third volume of the Viriconium trilogy, following The Pastel City (1971) and A Storm of Wings (1980). Viriconium is a kind of parody of the Dying Earth venue patented by Jack Vance – it’s a fantasy city designed to destroy the very idea of fantasy cities. In Viriconium is set during Viriconium’s decadent phase – all wilting artists and syphilitic dandies. A strange plague is encroaching on the city. Gradually we realise that this plague is not a disease but entropy itself: the fictional is losing energy to the real. Harrison should, I think, properly be regarded as one of the major British writers of his generation. He hasn’t had the attention he deserves, though this seems to be changing: no less an eminence than John Gray has written about Harrison’s work for the New Statesman, and the piece is very much worth reading. Gray calls Harrison’s work the “supreme achievement” in the “modern hermetic tradition.” And if that doesn’t sell you on it, I don’t know what will!

7. Metaphor and Memory (1991) by Cynthia Ozick

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I picked this up secondhand in the world’s greatest bookshop (the Strand in New York). Ozick is one of those literary essayists who is dangerous to read, if you happen to be in the business of writing literary essays yourself. She is a consummate stylist, and alarmingly erudite. Her pieces, here, on William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) and Saul Bellow’s Him With his Foot in his Mouth (1984) are fantastically dense and illuminating. I haven’t been able to get on with Ozick’s fiction: I also read her novel The Messiah of Stockholm this year, and I thought it was just a pallid imitation of Henry James. But I keep picking up Metaphor and Memory and going back to it. And every time I do, I think: Must write better. Must read more.

8. Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen

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…speaking of which: I finally got around to reading Pride and Prejudice this year (aged 36). Yes, yes, I know, disgraceful. For a long time this was my entry in David Lodge’s game Humiliation, in which you name the most famous book you haven’t read. Obviously I can’t use P&P for this purpose any longer. But it’s ok: I still haven’t read War and Peace (though I had lunch with a group of academics the other day – English PhDs, all – and none of them had read it either). Not to worry: I can spend all of 2018 putting off War and Peace (I have gotten very good at putting off War and Peace).

Quick Thoughts on the List

Looking at this list, I’m surprised by how much SF/horror appears – though perhaps I shouldn’t be. SF and horror have always been a big part of my reading diet, though there’s a tendency  – don’t you find? – to pat yourself on the back for reading “literary” fiction and to justify your reading of genre stuff by dismissing it as a “guilty pleasure.” One of the things I want to do in 2018 is review more SF and horror (and perhaps even write some myself – though I have a non-SF/horror novel I want to get around to final-drafting first). And that means I have to keep reading it (what a shame).

A couple of days ago I drafted the opening paragraphs of a blog post about how nowadays I only read contemporary literary fiction if I’m being paid to review it – largely because (I groused) so many of the literary novels that get published every month aren’t worth the trees that died to make their physical existence possible. But I gave up on that: it was just a temporary case of reviewer’s jaundice (a serious disease, this, coming soon to a DSM near you). Complaining is easy. Celebrating is hard. Hence, a celebration of 8 books I read in 2017 that gave me joy, and that made me feel better about the world. Reading good books and talking about them isn’t just an adjunct to civilised life; it’s civilisation itself. In a dark time, reading good books reminds you that human beings have lived through dark times before, and that they have salvaged something from the wreckage. We can do the same. Over to you.

You Can’t Spell America Without Me by Kurt Andersen & Alec Baldwin

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My review of Kurt Andersen & Alec Baldwin’s Trump parody appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. It’s paywalled as always, but here’s a short excerpt:

The Trump manner is easily recreated. Pile on the intensifiers (“phenomenal,” “great,” “really great,” “the likes of which the world has never seen”). Throw in a few capitalised words at random (“TAX CUTS,” “FAKE”). Add a climactic exclamation mark (“Sad!”). Make sure that the content of each sentence is a boast or a lie. Voila: you have the verbal prose of a man for whom language clearly means nothing at all.

In his great essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), George Orwell observed that political language is “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Trump’s presidency marks a fresh nadir in the story of the political abuse of English, to wit: he doesn’t even try to make his lies sound truthful. When Trump tells a lie, it sounds like a lie. Almost 63 million people voted for him nonetheless – intimating, among other things, that a truly debased political language is no longer an obstacle to electoral success. Plainly, we are in trouble. To put it at its simplest: clear language both reflects and promotes honesty. If large numbers of people no longer care about clear language, it is a sign that they no longer care about being honest.

The Higher Twaddle

“To be painfully candid, I consider a great part of what is offered to students as intellectual discourse, at least in the humanities and social sciences, to be a sort of higher twaddle. This so-called learning, most recently “theory,” seems harmless in so far as it has no meaning outside the classroom, or beyond the journals and conferences that sustain it and establish the hierarchy of its practitioners. But it is deeply harmful in that it wastes time and teaches students to think and write badly, to master as they can the terms and assumptions of twaddle. It lifts words from other disciplines and languages, which for its purposes suggests a sort of sophistication that floats above particulars, above the interesting books and cultures that are its putative subject, for example. Reading, writing, and thinking are so closely linked, and learning by means of them is so highly individual, that the intrusion of fashion-driven academic pidgin between the reader and the text is a defeat of the purpose of education.” – Marilynne Robinson, in the New York Review of Books. See also this.

Foolish Thoughts

“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” – Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (1946)

The Secret Books by Marcel Theroux

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My review of Marcel Theroux’s The Secret Books (Faber) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

In 1894 a book called The Unknown Life of Jesus appeared in France and became, very rapidly, a sensation and a scandal. Its author was a Jewish Crimean journalist and adventurer of dubious reputation named Nicolas Notovitch (pronounced “Know-to-vitch”). Notovich claimed to have visited the Tibetan Buddhist Monastery of Hemis, where he had discovered a hidden manuscript that recounted the early life of Christ. In Notovitch’s version, Christ fled Galilee as an adolescent and travelled to India, where he absorbed Hindu and Buddhist traditions of spirituality.

Notovitch’s tapestry was unwoven with impressive speed: biblical scholars cried, “Hoax!”; journalists reported that the lama of the Hemis Monastery had no recollection of Notovitch’s visit. “History,” as Marcel Theroux writes in his absorbing new novel, “considers Nicolas Notovitch a buffoon who did a grubby thing.” But novelists have always been fascinated by hoaxes and impostures – by the men and women who have done their best to seize control of the stories in which they find themselves. The Secret Books is a gripping reconstruction of the story of Nicolas Notovitch and his hoax – the most interesting book yet from a very interesting writer.

Help by Simon Amstell

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My review of Simon Amstell’s Help (Square Peg) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Implacably paywalled, but here’s a short excerpt:

If you know Simon Amstell only as the former host of Never Mind the Buzzcocks on BBC2, his stand-up routines will probably come as something of a surprise. On Buzzcocks, Amstell was waspish, sharp, and often plain cruel: he caused Preston from The Ordinary Boys (remember Preston from The Ordinary Boys? No? Not to worry) to storm off the show by snarkily reading extracts from a memoir written by Preston’s wife Chantelle (she appeared on Celebrity Big Brother in 2006. No? Me neither).

But as a stand-up, Amstell is cruel only about himself. His routines miraculously hit the sweet spot between comedy and confession. “I’m quite lonely, let’s start with that,” is how his 2009 show Do Nothing begins. “I bought a new flat about two years ago. In this flat, in the bathroom, there are two sinks. I thought that would bring me some joy […] Now, every day, I brush my teeth in the left sink and in the right one, I mainly cry.”

Laura by Alan Shatter

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This review of Laura (Poolbeg) – the first and, to date, only novel by former Fine Gael Minister for Justice Alan Shatter – originally appeared in The Sunday Business Post back in July 2013.


There are, at present, two reasons why a publication may be outlawed in the Republic of Ireland. The first is if that publication is judged (by, presumably, a panel of highly qualified experts) to be obscene. The second is if it “advocates the procurement of abortion or miscarriage” (meaning that a fun-sounding tome called How to Drive Your Man Wild in Bed remains inaccessible to Irish readers, doubtless to our considerable loss).

Recently, some wag noticed that the Justice Minister, Alan Shatter, had published a novel in 1989 that featured a randy TD impregnating his parliamentary secretary and suggesting she abort the child. A complaint about Shatter’s novel, Laura, was submitted to the Censorship of Publications Board earlier this year – whether on the grounds of obscenity or the suspected advocacy of abortion, we don’t know. But this particular bit of political mischief has, of course, backfired: here is Laura, billed (inaccurately) as “A Novel You Will Never Forget,” in a shiny new edition, just in time for the summer holiday market.

The villain of the piece is fiercely pro-life TD Sean Brannigan: “a handsome man whose athletic appearance was more like that of a footballer than a politician.” Sean’s parliamentary secretary is “a slight blonde girl” named Colette James. “Colette found [Sean] to be a very conscientious deputy.” So conscientious, in fact, that you can hardly blame her for what happens next: “Their relationship rapidly deepened […] He told himself that it was not his fault that the young secretaries of Leinster House were attracted to him.” Indeed not. Two breathless and slightly squicky pages later (“When he entered her, he knew it was her first time”), the worst has happened: “Brannigan had assured her that he always withdrew in time and that she was not at risk. She now knew this to be untrue. Colette James, convent educated, twenty years of age and unmarried, was going to be a mother.”

Potent stuff, back in 1989. The crux of the matter, as far as the Censorship Board may or may not be concerned, occurs when Colette tells Deputy Brannigan that she’s pregnant and he ungallantly asks, “Have you considered an abortion?” Given that Colette appears unable to tell if her Pro-Life lover has ejaculated inside her or not, it seems unlikely that she’s gotten as far as considering an abortion, and so it proves: “How could he of all people suggest an abortion? She would not have an abortion.”

Phew! But the question remains: what to do with the baby? Well, little Laura is adopted by a preternaturally bland middle-class couple named John and Jenny, who are so thrilled to hear that the agency has found them a child that “their bodies joined together in a passionate celebration.” But then disaster strikes: Colette decides that she wants Laura back. Everyone ends up in court. The prose scales fresh heights of tedium: “In Colette’s presence a letter was dictated to the adoption society stating that if Laura was not returned to Colette within ten days, court proceedings would issue, seeking a court order granting custody of Laura to Colette.”

I don’t mean it as a criticism, except in the literary sense, when I say that Laura is in every way a book written by a lawyer. Whether or not you support his politics, Alan Shatter is clearly a fine legislator with a distinguished career behind him. But his novel has all the zing and pep of a legal brief. It is hilariously literal-minded (there isn’t a metaphor in sight). It is populated by triple-ply cardboard characters. It is drier than the Gobi desert. But then, there are really only three questions worth asking about Laura. 1) Is it obscene? Absolutely not. 2) Does it advocate the procurement of abortion or miscarriage? Absolutely not. 3) Is it a good book? I think we already know the answer to that question, don’t we?