On Imaginary Novels and Ned Beauman

…though not, of course, at the same time. Which is to say that I have two pieces out this week: the first being an essay I wrote for The Millions about the mystery of why novels by fictional novelists always have such godawful titles  – do have a gander.

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And the other being my review of Ned Beauman’s new novel, Madness is Better Than Defeat (Sceptre), which appears in this month’s issue of Literary Review. And – in the immortal words of David St. Hubbins – why not?

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The Empathy Instinct by Peter Bazalgette

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My review of Peter Bazalgette’s The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society (John Murray) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. It’s entombed, as usual, behind the Iron Paywall, but here’s a taster:

“If we made more of our capacity for empathy,” Bazalgette believes, “we’d all be optimistic about the future.” Bazalgette, it turns out, is a moral tinkerer in the great liberal tradition. He has also fallen for what you might call the MRI Delusion: the belief that magnetic resonance imaging is on the verge of clarifying the mysteries of human behaviour. Data gleaned from MRI scans, Bazalgette proposes, can help prisoners reactivate their empathy circuits, and teach parents how to instil empathy in their children.

This is a technophile edition of what the American political essayist Paul Berman has called “rationalist naiveté.” MRI scans can tell us which parts of the brain light up in response to certain stimuli; but they cannot tell us how to be moral, or show us how to prevent atrocities. The notion that they can is one of the forms that scientism – a blind faith in science itself– takes in our time. The lesson of history is not that when empathy absents itself, horrible things happen; it’s that human behaviour is a volatile concoction of the rational and the irrational. And even the most advanced neurological studies have yet to decisively tip the scales in favour of rationality.

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.

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.

On JFK

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This piece first appeared in The Sunday Business Post in 2013 (the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination) as a review of two books: JFK’s Last Hundred Days by Thurston Clarke (Penguin) and To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace by Jeffrey D. Sachs (Bodley Head).

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This November it will be fifty years since John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, bringing an era of seeming hope and promise to a horrifying end. Kennedy’s ghost haunts us like the ghost of no other twentieth century statesman: his death still marks, for many people, the shadow-line between American innocence and experience, between the bright stability of the postwar boom years and the chaos and confusion that followed.

When he accepted his party’s nomination for President in Los Angeles in 1960, Kennedy promised a “New Frontier – the frontier of the 1960s, a frontier of unknown opportunities and paths.” It was what America was ready to hear. Kennedy was young, he was handsome, he was rich, he was a gifted speaker. His beautiful wife had style in spades. He was a war hero: when his Navy torpedo boat, PT-109, was sunk by a Japanese destroyer in the Pacific, Kennedy swam for four hours with the life-jacket straps of a burned crewman clenched between his teeth. He was a voracious reader. His biography of eight maverick Senators, Profiles in Courage, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957.  He was the saint of liberals, an American success story, confident and charismatic, born – it sometimes seemed – to be the leader of the free world.

Only one or two observers sensed the darkness underneath. “Kennedy’s most characteristic quality,” wrote Norman Mailer in 1960, “is the remote and private air of a man who has traversed some lonely terrain of experience, of loss and gain, of nearness to death, which leaves him isolated from the mass of others.”

Mailer was closer to the truth than he could possibly have known. Behind the suntan and the perfect orthodonture (Mailer remarked that Kennedy’s teeth were “clearly visible at a distance of fifty yards”) was a man driven by chronic illness and a rabid sexual appetite. The Kennedy White House was corroded by paranoia and by the young President’s obsessive hunger for risk.

The Kennedy countermyth is by now as familiar as its obverse. We now know that the 1960 Presidential Election – in which JFK triumphed by the narrowest of margins – was stolen for him by his father’s mob cronies and by the Democratic Party machine in Chicago. We also know that Kennedy installed auditory surveillance devices in the Oval Office and in various key meeting rooms, including the room in which his ad hoc crisis committee discussed the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. And we know that the deep bronzing of Kennedy’s skin was actually a symptom of Addison’s disease, an adrenal gland malfunction that doctors treated with steroids and amphetamines.

Young women – starlets, prostitutes, Washington staffers – were brought to the White House every day to serve as Kennedy’s sexual partners. There were dangerously high-profile affairs – with Marilyn Monroe, of course, but also with Ellen Rometsch, a prostitute suspected of being a Communist spy. Kennedy told one aide that unless he had sex with “a strange piece of ass” every single day, he developed crippling migraine. His administration was perpetually on the brink of scandal; only luck, and family connections, kept the public image clean.

The fascination of all this is easy to explain: behind the war stories and the garden parties at Hyannis Port, behind the thrilling oratory and the winsome smile, there was the grim reality of the Kennedys: a family committed to attaining wealth and power by any means necessary – hugely glamourous, hugely sordid.

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of books that get written about the Kennedys: the hagiographical retelling of the myth, and the muckraking exposure of the countermyth. Two new books, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the assassination, tend towards the hagiographical end of the scale.

Thurston Clarke’s JFK’s Last Hundred Days is a sombre, respectful – at times too respectful – account of Kennedy’s last three months on the job. It was an eventful period, and included the death of Kennedy’s infant son Patrick, born prematurely in August 1963, as well as the passing of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, ratified by the US and the Soviet Union, one of Kennedy’s greatest achievements.

Clarke’s pages contain a good deal of gossipy stuff about family holidays and so on – sample photo caption: “Jackie was not a keen golfer but gamely tagged along” – and his interpretations of JFK’s seamier antics err on the side of the generous: “His principle motive for taping selected conversations and meeting was probably to provide accurate and irrefutable material for his presidential memoirs.” Sure.

In comparison to Jeffrey Sach’s To Move the World, however, JFK’s Last Hundred Days is a model of unillusioned clarity. Sachs’s text stretches to 169 pages; the rest of his book is bulked out with reprints of Kennedy’s speeches. The prose is execrable: “hardliners on their own side who denied that the other side would abide,” goes one particularly abominable phrase. Worse, Sachs thinks Kennedy and Khrushchev “saved the world” during a Missile Crisis they started in the first place.

Balanced books about the Kennedys are hard to come by. Clarke’s effort goes some small way towards capturing the complexity of the man: it is particularly good on Kennedy’s lifetime of ill-health. Sachs – an academic and a UN Special Advisor – adds nothing to the familiar tale, beyond a reminder, useful in its way, that despite the squalor of his personal history, Kennedy did at least intend to make the world a better place. Which is something.

Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra (full review)

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This piece – a review of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger (Allen Lane)  – originally appeared in The Sunday Business Post in February of this year. I previously posted a wee snippet, but here’s the whole thing, in its original form.

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To quote Howard Beale – the alcoholic anchorman and “mad prophet of the airwaves” who streaks like a meteor through Paddy Chayevsky’s great film Network (1976) – “I don’t have to tell you things are bad. We know things are bad.” Oh, things are bad, alright: Trump, Brexit, ISIS, North Korea’s nuclear programme, the US Muslim ban, Steve Bannon, the return of white nationalism, “fake news,” worldwide protests and demonstrations, Putin, war in Syria, secret dossiers…  As Saul Bellow wrote, presciently, in 1976: “For the first time in history, the human species as a whole has gone into politics […] What is going on will not let us alone. Neither the facts nor the deformations.”

Well, the deformations are clear. But the facts are perhaps less so. How did we get here? In his dense, gripping, and sinuously brilliant new book, Pankaj Mishra offers a powerful alternative history of the modern world – a vade mecum for our frightening times. Mishra is Indian-born, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, and the author of works of fiction, travel, and historical analysis. He is formidably learned – a brief list of major sources for his new book might include Rousseau, Nietzsche, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Francis Fukuyama, Raymond Aron, Hannah Arendt, Max Weber, Herbert Spencer, Theodor Herzl, Dostoyevsky, Marx, Alexander Herzen, Voltaire, Emile Zola, and Stendhal. There are many more.

To skip to the upshot, let me say it at once: Age of Anger is a profoundly important book and everyone should read it immediately. As Mishra notes in a preface, his text “went to the printers in the week that Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.” In the years to come, we are sure to be deluged with hot takes on the Trump catastrophe – blaming the Democrats, the white working class, what have you. But Mishra’s assessment, which barely mentions Trump, already feels definitive. Mishra sees clearly. He has read everything.

Mishra is one of a small number of contemporary thinkers – his closest peer is perhaps the English political philosopher John Gray, author of Straw Dogs (2002) and The Soul of the Marionette (2015) – who reject the idea of historical progress. “There is no deep logic to the unfolding of time,” Mishra observes, demolishing centuries of Western utopian complacency. Mishra’s targets are those Western thinkers – from Voltaire to the editors of The Economist – who believe, baselessly, that history is leading to the triumph of free-market liberal democracy. It is this “malign illusion,” Mishra says, that has brought us to our present state of woe, and that has left us utterly unprepared to cope with the barbarous forces now returning to power across the globe.

After the Berlin Wall toppled in November, 1989, optimistic Western thinkers calmly awaited a worldwide “convergence on the Western model” – as The Economist put it in 1992, “there is no serious alternative to free-market capitalism as the way to organise economic life.” But in the West, as Mishra points out, “the Western model” had already led to genocide and tyranny. For Mishra – as for a handful of other clear thinkers – “the history of modernisation is largely one of carnage and bedlam rather than peaceful convergence.”

Mishra locates the roots of our present crisis in the much larger, and ongoing, crisis of modernity itself. The violent advent of the modern – heralded by the Enlightenment philosophes and their Jacobin offspring – led inescapably to what the German sociologist Max Weber called “the disenchantment of the world,” and the birth of revolutionary terror. For as well as “cosmopolitan liberalism,” individualism, and religious and economic freedom, the modern world brought with it a dangerous new idea: that “human beings can radically alter their social conditions.”

In the maelstrom of the modern – in which, as Marx observed, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” – everything is theoretically permitted. But freedom is a dangerous gift, and the idea of progress is impossible to sustain without the corollary idea of winners and losers. Undermining the West’s “gaudy cult of progress,” a new class of people began to appear – “those who saw themselves as wholly dispensable in a society where economic growth enriched only a minority and democracy appeared to be a game rigged by the powerful.” Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man is one such “superfluous” citizen of the West. Adolf Hitler was another. These “frustrated men,” Mishra says, have “defined whole new modes of politics, from nationalism to terrorism, since the French Revolution.”

As Nietzsche put it, the disruptive forces of the modern world awakened a powerful ressentiment: a deep emulative rage that drove such barbarisms as Nazism, Soviet Communism, and religious fundamentalism – all of them attempts to roll back the clock on modernity. Ressentiment, Mishra points out, cuts across all ideological divisions. It is the underlying force beneath all attempts to combat the forces of modernity. It is the rage that festers at the heart of the modern world.

It is, Mishra points out, modernity itself that “has everywhere weakened older forms of authority” and empowered “unpredictable” actors from Somali pirates to English nationalists to Boko Haram to ISIS to Donald Trump. In other words, emotionally speaking, there is no difference between a gun-toting Trump voter and a “bearded Islamist in Pakistan.” Both men are enraged by the rootless chaos of the modern world, with its parade of failed illusions. In this regard, Mishra says, “The modern West can no longer be distinguished from its apparent enemies.”

Mishra reminds us that the equilibrium of the post-1945 liberal democracies, in which the idea of progress thrived, was “precarious and rare.” That equilibrium is now profoundly threatened. A pulverised global middle class, an obscenely wealthy elite, an enraged and impotent underclass: these are the radioactive materials from which our immediate future will be woven. We are about to see what happens when Western governments junk their long-held liberal values in favour of a largely improvisatory politics of ressentiment. We have been dreaming. Now we are awake.

Fantasex!

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From the back cover of this – the 1976 Mayflower paperback edition of Michael Moorcock’s The Final Programme:

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They really knew how to sell books, in the 1970s. What on earth is happening to that woman’s hair and breasts?