Categories
BOOKS

The House in Smyrna – Review

A version of this review originally appeared in Lip Mag.

*

According to Martin Amis, that sharp satirist and white male English literary giant, there are two things that literature can’t do. The first is sex. Amis agrees with his father, Kingsley (that bigoted white male English literary giant), who believed that sex has the effect of de-universalising the reading experience. Good sex, Amis junior opines, is out of the question. Fiascos are acceptable for their comic value, as are novels in which everything revolves around sex—for example, he cites the brilliant Lolita. The second is dreams. ‘Tell a dream, lose a reader,’ Henry James said. Tatiana Salem Levy’s debut novel, The House in Smyrna, tries to do both, with unexpected results.

Translated from its original Portuguese (Levy is Brazilian), The House in Smyrna is narrated by a suffering female who in alternating sections dialogues with her dead mother; addresses an abusive partner; and narrates her grandfather’s immigration from Turkey to Brazil, her parents’ temporary exile in Portugal, and her own journey to back to these countries. The switching between situations—each kept short, with spare prose—creates a dreamlike effect: the novel reads like a sequence of snippets of letters, memories, and indeed, dreams. The narrator has nightmares about being locked in her grandfather’s house in Smyrna, which in ‘real life’ she sets out to Turkey to find. In others sections, she says:

I tell (make up) this story about my ancestors, this story of immigration and its losses, this story about the key to the house in Smyrna, about my hope of returning to the place that my forebears came from,

implying that the writing process is a vehicle for her to resolve the pain caused by her mother’s death and her partner’s abuse. The narrator—as unreliable ones tend to do—blurs the lines between reality and fiction, and we don’t know whether her trip to Turkey is ‘real’ or written. As a result, the woman’s dreams are contiguous, rather than in conflict with the novel’s reality. Levy tells a dream and the reader reads on.

With respect to sex, Amis may have a point. There is plenty of sex in The House in Smyrna, much of it cringe-worthy. Often, the loftiness of the prose verges on comical in its incongruity: ‘I remained standing while you implored something between my legs, in a language understood only by the two of you, my clitoris and your mouth’; ‘Your penis was hard, upright, and I liked seeing it like that, as if it were looking at me too.’ There are also overcooked similes about vulnerability: ‘It was as if you were touching my organs directly, my blood, my flesh, without any protection.’ These scenes are, as Kingsley put it, de-universalising, because they create a rift between writer and reader by causing one to doubt whether people really think such abstract things when having sex, or as Levy puts more loftily, ‘making love’.

Sex, however, is important to the novel insofar as it relates to central ideas about the body. The narrator’s body is both an object of desire and a vessel through which she fulfils her own longings. On the first date with her partner, she recalls: ‘I listened to every word and felt my body quake: with fear, desire, happiness.’ Eventually, when their relationship sours, sex becomes the means by which the body is degraded, which removes agency and causes the paralysis the narrator professes to suffer from in the book’s opening paragraph: ‘I wouldn’t know what to do with this body that has been unable to move ever since it came into the world.’ The scenes in which the sexual assault is described are raw, confronting and genuinely tragic: disturbing reminders of the horrors of domestic violence. On top of her, her partner ‘delighted in my pain, and asked: Isn’t it good?’

Pain and physical suffering are acutely felt by the narrator, partly as an aftereffect of abuse, partly as a result of her mother’s death, and partly due to the weight of the past that she feels burdening her. Decay of the body is frequently alluded to: the narrator tends to her dying mother, ‘covered with sores, riddled with holes, filled with pus, with its acidic smell, its smell of death’; in another section, her own body is ‘Dilacerated, covered in open wounds, purple and yellow spots, boils.’ Death, she says to her mother, ‘had been lying in wait for us the whole time’. Saying goodbye is a major theme of the book. But beyond death, beyond the moving meditation about losing those who are dear to you, the novel is about what it is to love and to live.

*

The House in Smyrna

by Tatiana Salem Levy

Scribe, 2015

Categories
BOOKS

This Week’s Theme: A Matter of Life and Death

This week, I was saddened to learn that the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks has terminal cancer. His is among the unfortunate two percent of ocular melanoma cases which metastasise; nine years after the original diagnosis, he now has metastases occupying one third of his liver. Addressing his mortality in a poignant New York Times piece (link below), he writes:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

For me, Sacks’s meditations on his life evoke the lyrics of Nat King Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’ (1948), which I first heard in its haunting David Bowie incarnation in Moulin Rouge!. In the film’s opening scenes, the camera zooms in classical Luhrmann fashion through seedy 1900 Montmartre to reveal a disheveled, distraught Christian (Ewan Macgregor at his best) click-clacking the words on his typewriter as they are sung: ‘The greatest thing you’ll ever learn / Is just to love and be loved in return.’

The themes of love and life are also central to Luhrmann’s first feature, Strictly Ballroom, with its recognisable motto: ‘A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.’ Being prone to not-infrequent existential crises, life and the search for its meaning (other than 42, of course) are particularly interesting to me. What constitutes a meaningful, full life? If everything is doomed then perhaps is hedonism the best philosophy? Why go to work when you could spend a day lying on the couch, scoffing pastries and watching Netflix (it’s finally coming to Australia in March)?

It doesn’t help that the career path I have chosen to pursue has basically no practical value whatsoever. In a 2000 interview, Zadie Smith remarks—discussing her own education—: ‘Generally, an English Lit degree trains you to be a useless member of the modern world’. Seeing as we’re discussing grand themes, it might be helpful to broaden the scope a little here and mention an oft-quoted Oscar Wilde quip. In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, he declares: ‘All art is quite useless.’ Which is not to say that art isn’t important—what else entertains us, moves us and allows us to temporarily escape from the inevitability of mortality like it does? But in purely practical terms, Wilde is of course correct. In usefulness, making art pales in comparison to other callings. The writer Jonathan Safran Foer, for example, who dropped out of medicine at Mount Sinai, struggles like the rest of us in considering the purpose of writing. His doubts are surely exacerbated by the consideration of medicine as a pragmatic alternative. In a New Yorker interview which featured as part of its 20 Under 40 issue (June 4, 2010), Foer describes medicine as ‘Such a good profession. So explicitly good. Never a waste of time. No obstetrician goes home at the end of a long day and says, “I delivered four babies. What’s the point?”’

But as a writer who brings no lives into the world and spends large chunks of her working day alone, staring into a blank screen (or, more commonly, scrolling through Twitter), I often find myself asking: what, indeed, is the point? The answer, I figured, could probably be found online; the infinite expanse of the internet is now surely the closest approximation of an omniscient and eternal God, right? Two of my favoured findings are linked below. The first is a sweet comic strip featuring a doughnut as a metaphor for one’s life; and the second, which is written in listicle-style but lacks the triviality of most Buzzfeed articles, is a Quartz piece about the questions one should ask in order to find purpose in life.

My Own Life – New York Times

If we all end up dying, what’s the purpose of living? – Eye Opening Info

Questions that will help you find your purpose in life – Quartz

Categories
BOOKS

On Immunity – Review

A version of this review originally appeared in edition #477 of The Big Issue.

*

Much of the antagonism that characterises the debate about vaccination involves stereotyping that pits ‘ignorant mothers’ against ‘educated doctors’, writes Eula Biss. On Immunity narrows the divide: it’s an exploration of the history, effectiveness and safety of vaccines, as well as a personal account of a first-time mother’s anxieties. Given our interdependence on each others’ immune systems, Biss contends that choosing to vaccinate is to fulfill collective responsibility.

 

The book is both well-researched and interesting. Her explanations of scientific concepts are clear and stripped of medical jargon. Any dryness is averted by the inclusion of informative tidbits: about historical vaccination at gunpoint, chickenpox lollipops, that the term ‘conscientious objector’ originally designated someone refusing vaccination, or that 25% of American adults still incorrectly believe that vaccines cause autism. Beyond medicine, Biss draws on history and literature— everything from Greek mythology to Dracula and pop culture vampires. Both broad and detailed, the book is a compelling case for the undeniable benefits of vaccination.

*

On Immunity: An Inoculation

by Eula Biss

Text Publishing, 2015

Categories
BOOKS

Lolita – Review

As a preface, of sorts, to this essay, I want to begin by admitting that I made the rather demoralising choice of reading Christopher Hitchens’s 2005 The Atlantic piece entitled ‘Hurricane Lolita’ after having already written my own. No prizes for guessing whose pales in comparison (although I would advise desisting from his until after you’ve read the novel). In the introduction to Hitchens’s 2011 book of essays, Arguably (in which his Nabokov piece is included), he writes: ‘It took me decades to dare the attempt, but finally I did write about Vladimir Nabokov…’ I have dared, perhaps rather prematurely, to write about Lolita, and the ersatz result is an essay that cannot possibly do the novel justice, and which I will, in all likelihood, later come to detest. But, alas, one must try to hone their craft, however crude the prototype. In an optimistic mood I might tell myself, quoting from Macbeth, which I seem to do a lot in this essay: ‘My strange and self-abuse / Is the initiate fear that wants hard use.’

In a recent interview with CBC’s fantastic Eleanor Wachtel, Martin Amis expressed his belief that Lolita ‘may be the richest comedy in the language’: he cites the book’s complexity of humour, the fact that it engages with the ‘laughter of disgust, self-disgust.’ That the tale of the sexual abuse of a twelve-year-old girl could be humorous may beggar belief, but Amis’s assertion isn’t far off the mark. The brilliance of Nabokov’s most celebrated novel is indisputable, and it lies in the fact that taboo and troubling subject matter is rendered so beautifully by playful and lyrical prose. Nabokov once declared to his university students that ‘it is no use reading a book at all if you do not read it with your back.’ The shiver of delight he refers to, which he believed to be ‘quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and science,’ is precisely what one experiences again and again in reading Lolita.

The book is framed as a memoir: it has been written, we are told in the prologue, by self-styled Humbert Humbert during the period of his incarceration. It details the particulars of his ‘humiliating, sordid, taciturn love life’, which may not have eventuated in his affaire du coeur with poor little Dolores ‘Lolita’ Haze had he not had a teenage relationship another ‘girl-child’ in ‘a princedom by the sea.’ Humbert, a Frenchman who moved to the US in 1939 because he felt his ‘life needed a shake-up’, grew up in his father’s hotel on the French Riviera, where at age thirteen (1923) he fell in love with Annabel Leigh, a half-English half-Dutch girl a few months his junior. Humbert’s memories of the attachment echo that of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’:

I was a child and she was a child,

In this kingdom by the sea,

But we loved with a love that was more than love—

I and my Annabel Lee—

With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven

Coveted her and me.

Humbert’s darling Annabel and he ‘were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other.’ Their trysts – as teenage ones often are – were limited by parental suspicion to surreptitious romps in public places, and unfortunately for Humbert, the consummation of their pubescent passion was prematurely interrupted by two bearded men yelling ‘exclamations of ribald encouragement.’ A few months later, Annabel died of typhus. The probable effect on Humbert was an arrest of his sexual development, preventing him – as he ages – from finding his female coevals attractive. Of that formative relationship he writes:

We loved each other with a premature love, marked by a fierceness that so often destroys adult lives. I was a strong lad and survived; but the poison was in the wound, and the wound remained ever open, and soon I found myself maturing amid a civilization which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve.

In the early stages of the novel, when adult Humbert fantasizes about certain pubescent girls but has not yet acted on his desires, his unhappy adolescent relationship almost – not quite wholly, but almost – justifies his adult state of sexual deviancy. Humbert designates certain girls as ‘nymphets’: they are, he explains rather didactically, roughly aged between nine and fourteen, ‘the little deadly demon among the wholesome children’, which ‘you have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy’ to discern from the innocent rest. The attraction is relatively harmless and hysterical (Humbert recalls sitting ‘on a hard park bench pretending to be immersed in a trembling book’ while ‘nymphets played freely’ around him; his attempt at procuring a young French prostitute results in ‘a monstrously plump, sallow, repulsively plain girl of at least fifteen’ whom he refuses but is forced to pay the relatives of anyway) until, of course, he meets Lolita in 1947. At twelve, she is ‘changeful, bad-tempered, cheerful, awkward, graceful with the tart grace of her coltish subteens’, the daughter of widowed Charlotte Haze, Humbert’s proprietress. The decisive moment, the fateful first sight of her is described in a passage of stunning prose:

I was still walking behind Mrs. Haze through the dining room when, beyond it, there came a sudden burst of greenery – “the piazza,” sang out my leader, and then, without the least warning, a blue sea-wave swelled under my heart and, from a mat in a pool of sun, half-naked, kneeling, turning about on her knees, there was my Riviera love peering at me over dark glasses. It was the same child – the same frail, honey-hued shoulders, the same silky supple bare back, the same chestnut head of hair. A polka-dotted black kerchief tied around her chest hid from my aging ape eyes, but not from the gaze of young memory, the juvenile breasts I had fondled one immortal day…The twenty-five years I had lived since then, tapered to a palpitating point, and vanished.

Humbert’s fascination with nymphets, and with Lolita in particular, while aberrant, is at this point pitiable rather than reprehensible, because we understand that it results as ‘a fatal consequence of that “princedom by the sea”’. Meeting Lo in the piazza, he conflates the two girls: ‘Annabel Haze, alias Dolores Lee, alias Loleeta’.

The balance tilts towards monstrosity when Humbert succumbs to temptation, realizing his obsessions in an escalating series of reprehensible acts. When phocine ‘Big Haze’ isn’t around, he kisses Lo on the eyes, or grooms her while she sits on his lap on a sofa. That the girl clutches an ‘Eden-red apple’ before the sofa incident isn’t lost on the reader. Then there’s the fact that Humbert marries the adoring Charlotte Haze, whom he finds much too thick-thighed and ‘plain-faced’, in order to be close to her daughter. He fantasizes about ‘administering a powerful sleeping potion to both mother and daughter so as to fondle the latter through the night with perfect impunity.’

Initially, at least, Lolita is not entirely blameless: she, like her mother, nurses a girlish crush on Humbert, who describes himself as an ‘exceptionally handsome man’. In a memorised diary entry from 1947, he recounts:

I have all the characteristics which, according to writers on the sex interests of children, start the responses stirring in a little girl: clean-cut jaw, muscular hand, deep sonorous voice, broad shoulder. Moreover, I am said to resemble some crooner or actor chap on whom Lo has a crush.

After Humbert picks the girl up from summer camp, the following exchange occurs:

“Why do you think I have ceased caring for you, Lo?”

“Well, you haven’t kissed me yet, have you?”‘

Dolores, impetuous and flirtatious, then proceeds to ‘positively flow’ into Humbert’s arms.  Humbert, overwhelmed by the passion of a twenty-five-year long desire on the brink of coming into fruition, is unable to resist. ‘Remember she is only a child, remember she is only—’ To quote Macbeth: things bad begun make themselves strong by ill.

Humbert, in his sexual rapacity, willfully overlooks the inevitable damage of his abuse and control. Lolita’s vulnerability and emotional trauma become subjugated by his sexual appetites. He pries her with money and attempts to manipulate her thinking by quoting sections from apparently reputable books:

I am not a criminal sexual psychopath taking indecent liberties with a child…I quote…: Among Sicilians sexual relations between a father and daughter are accepted as a matter of course, and the girl who participates in such relationship is not looked upon with disapproval by the society of which she is part.

Addressing the reader he similarly draws upon literature, history and religion (well-read Humbert is a scholar of French and English literature) as if other instances can justify his own behavior, which he in the end knows to be monstrous: ‘Dante fell madly in love with his Beatrice when she was nine, a sparkling girleen’; ‘when Petrarch fell madly in love with his Laureen, she was a fair-haired nymphet of twelve running in the wind’; ‘Virginia was not quite fourteen when Harry Edgar possessed her.’

Humbert believes that nymphets lack the ‘purity and vulnerability’ of ordinary children, for whom he proclaims to have ‘the utmost respect’, yet Lolita’s obvious immaturity serves as no deterrent to his appetites. In her interests, poor Lolita is like any other non-nymphet child: ‘Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth – these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things.’ Despite the fact that mentally, he finds ‘her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl’, despite the fact that he listens to ‘her sobs in the night – every night, every night – the moment [he feigns] sleep’, Humbert fears any potential obstacle to having his way with her.

Humbert’s attraction to Lolita, which he describes as ‘pederosis’ (paedophilia), technically constitutes hebephilia, the attraction to pubescent individuals (aged approximately eleven to fourteen), distinguishable from paedophilia, which primarily involves an attraction to prepubescent children. That Humbert is not perceived as insurmountably evil owes to this distinction; the variable legal grounds pertaining to sexual relations with girls of pubescent age shed a slightly less morally dubious light on Humbert and Lolita’s relationship. The legal age of consent – which must consider the consenting party’s maturity, both sexual and emotional, as well as their vulnerability to exploitation – varies from country to country. Had Humbert and Lo travelled to Spain, where the age of consent was 13 until last year, their relationship – technical incest aside – would have been legal, as it would have eventually been in Italy, Germany, Portugal and other countries where the age is 14.

Whether legality necessarily equates with morality is altogether another question. In Lolita’s case it is not so much that her age and immaturity undermine the validity of consent as the fact that she becomes an unwilling participant altogether. As an afterword to Lolita, written a year after its 1955 publication in France, Nabokov details the original ‘shiver of inspiration’ for the novel: a newspaper article about an ape who produced the ‘first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal’ – a sketch of the bars of its cage. Lolita is similarly imprisoned by Humbert, resentful, and so cannot requite the love and passion Humbert so uncontrollably experiences.

In a Guardian article compiling various writers’ advice for others, Geoff Dyer made the following suggestion: ‘Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.’ It seems like a pragmatic, timesaving measure considering Nabokov’s trilingualism (he was fluent in Russian, French and English – but also to a lesser degree German and Italian; Lolita is peppered with Humbert’s French and humorous parodies of those poor Americans’ attempts at it), his nonpareil talent and his inimitable, blissful writing style; one might as well quit while they’re ahead. But awe and admiration are reflexive responses to his writing, so perhaps one just can’t help themself. Writing for the newyorker.com, Jay Caspian Kang recounts that Lolita became a treasure trove of inspiration for him in college, a ‘personal literary liquor store – whenever I got stuck in a scene, or whenever my prose felt flat or typical, I’d open Lolita to a random page and steal something.’ Its effect seems to be universal. In The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favourite Books (2007), the novel was voted as the best fiction work of the 20th Century by 125 of ‘modernity’s greatest writers’, which included Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Franzen, Peter Carey and Norman Mailer. Perhaps literature since Lolita has benefited all the more for sucking up a little to Nabokov. I suspect that – as uncontrollably as Humbert lusts for his Lo – from Nabokov’s magnus opus I will end up borrowing many gems ‘“– you know, as the Bard said, with that cold in his head, to borrow and to borrow and to borrow.”’

*

Lolita

by Vladimir Nabokov

Penguin Books, 1995

 

Christopher Hitchens’s The Atlantic essay can be found here.

Categories
BOOKS

The Road – Review

Cormac McCarthy’s work is known for its detailed focus on the American South-West, its graphic violence, and its pithy, minimally punctuated prose. New Yorker literary critic James Wood has lauded him as ‘one of the greatest observers of landscape.’ He is widely touted as Faulkner’s successor, and both the subject matter and lexicon of his novels are as fixedly male-centric as Hemingway’s. The Road, for which McCarthy won a Pulitzer in 2007, is as bleak, confronting and gory as you’d expect from an author whose previous novels feature a violent necrophile as a protagonist (Lester Ballard in Child of God, 1973), a gang of scalphunters (The Blood Meridian, 1985) and a psychopathic hitman (No Country for Old Men, 2005).

In a dead, bitingly cold America, a man and his young boy walk along the old roads, interstate routes, heading south. As in The Blood Meridian, in which the protagonist is referred to only as ‘the kid’, the father and son are never named. The novel is set several years after a fiery apocalypse has ravaged the land, killing everything, melting the tar roads and covering the country with a pall of ash. The numbers of survivors have dwindled significantly, and any human encounter is potential danger. The boy – who has no living memory of any time before – was born to a woman who has long since died. Their story alternates between hope and despair, spoils and starvation. Between each fortuitous discovery of more food – in a well-stocked hidden bunker, old apples in a dead orchard, unpilfered tins in long-abandoned and well-looted houses – there are interminable days of weakness and desperation. On they trudge, trying to reach with coast with the aid of a rotting, fragmented map, ‘treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel.’

The old world is all but lost to the man – slowly fading from his memory as the years pass – and totally ‘alien’ to his son. McCarthy renders this slow disappearance exquisitely. At recognisable places, the familiar yet irrevocably transformed landscape recalls memories of the life that used to abound. At night, the man has ‘siren dreams’ about birds and flowering woods, but once awake he lies

there in the dark with the uncanny taste of a peach from some phantom orchard fading in his mouth. He thought if he lived long enough the world at least would all be lost. Like the dying world the newly blind inhabit, all of it slowly fading from memory.

The Road is technically simple yet a challenge to read. It presents without flourish bleak images one isn’t likely to encounter in comfortable civilised society. What is gruesome to us is commonplace to the man: ‘He’d seen it all before. Shapes of dried blood in the stubble grass and gray coils of viscera…’ and ‘a frieze of human heads, all faced alike, dried and caved with their taut grins and shrunken eyes.’ All this gore highlights the terrible yet unavoidable truth about what humans are capable of doing to each other, which has been exemplified by real atrocities dating from time immemorial. Thievery, slavery, murder, rape as a weapon of war, cannibalism.

Unlike other post-apocalyptic books of the suspend-your-disbelief/zombie variety, The Road poses realistic questions about morality and forces one to consider how one would act given such difficult extremes. We discover, for example, that the man’s dead partner, the boy’s mother, died by suicide, preferring that to the alternative:

Sooner or later they will catch and kill us…They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it. You’d rather wait for it to happen. But I cant. I cant.

The possibility of being caught weighs heavily on the man, who has taught his son how to act if the event so arises, in a moving and devastating passage:

He took the boy’s hand and pushed the revolver into it…If they find you you are going to have to do it. Do you understand? Shh. No crying. Do you hear me? You know how to do it. You put it in your mouth and point it up. Do it quick and hard.

The central issue The Road addresses is the matter of life and death, of what or who makes a life worth living. McCarthy, in infrequent past interviews, has said that the author’s preoccupation should be with death. Death pervades the thoughts and dialogue of his characters. After each setback, what hope drives the man and child to plod on? Death is a tempting option, and one that was irresistible for the mother:

We used to talk about death, she said. We don’t anymore. Why is that?

I dont know.

It’s because it’s here. There’s nothing left to talk about.

I wouldnt leave you.

I dont care. It’s meaningless. You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot.

Death is not a lover.

Oh yes he is.

As a reader, like the father and son, you go on despite yourself, fuelled by the promise of their redemption, yet all the while plagued by the fear it is impossible.

*

The Road

by Cormac McCarthy

Alfred A. Knopf, 2006

Categories
BOOKS

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Review

Novel writing is a fickle business. The success of a debut book depends more often than not on a precise, unknowable mixture of perseverance, publicity and sheer luck. Literary merit may not even feature: there are rubbish books that sell millions of copies – Fifty Shades of Grey being the most obvious recent example – and fantastic ones that don’t even get picked up – take John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which went on to win the Pulitzer only after his mother found a publisher for it eleven years after his 1969 suicide. The question then, for some commercially successful writers, is whether or not their books would be nearly as successful if it weren’t for established reputation. This, for example, was one of the reasons Stephen King adopted the nom de plume Richard Bachman for several novels he wrote in the late seventies and early eighties. The Cuckoo’s Calling was an experiment of the same sort: within three months of the book’s publication, Robert Galbraith was revealed to be a pseudonym of J.K. Rowling’s. Sales for the book on Amazon surged by more than 507,000% after she was outed.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is the second novel Rowling has written for adults since the end of the Harry Potter series, the first being The Casual Vacancy, which was published in 2012 to positive reviews and astronomical sales. It is the first in a series of crime novels featuring the private investigator Comoran Strike. A sequel, The Silkworm, was published in June this year. Growing up, I adored the Harry Potter series, but I chose to review this book for pragmatic rather than sentimental reasons: a gratis copy was given to me earlier this year, which I wanted to read and discard prior to moving cities. For full disclosure of bias, I will admit that tend to get bored by the formulaic conventions of crime fiction.

The plot unravels thus: Lula Landry, a supermodel, falls from her third storey apartment balcony. The death is hugely publicized; under widespread media scrutiny, the police investigation concludes it a suicide. But Landry’s brother, John Bristow, convinced otherwise, hires Comoran Strike to review the case. Strike, who formerly worked in the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police and was injured serving in Afghanistan, has an old connection to Bristow: Bristow’s older brother, Charlie, who died as a child, was one of Strike’s close childhood friends.

Paparazzi photos from Landry’s funeral form a visual catalogue of most of the persons of interest to the investigation. There is Ciara Porter, a pale, blonde supermodel with whom Landry was close; Guy Somé, a fashion designer who proclaimed Lula his muse; the inhabitants of the first floor apartment of Landry’s building – film producer Freddy Bestigui and his mercenary wife, Tansy Chillingham, who looks ‘like a rake with two plastic tangerines tied to it’; and Evan Duffield, a drug-addled musician with whom Landry had a tumultuous relationship and whom many suspect, given the very public knowledge that they rowed on the night of her death. Strike systematically works through the catalogue, also talking to several others: the security guard on duty the night of Landry’s death, Landry’s regular chauffeur, and a homeless woman Landry met in a mental health clinic.

In all respects, Strike conforms to the conventional requirements of the archetypal private eye: he is tall and physically imposing, strapped for work, disenchanted by and maladjusted to his mundane civilian life, and socially isolated. The only person he sees himself as being in regular contact with is his secretary, Robin Ellacott. Robin, for who detective work has been a ‘lifelong, secret, childish ambition’, begins working for Strike as a temp job while she searches for permanent employment. She is a recently engaged, young, ‘tall and curvaceous’ strawberry blonde – how many books will it take for her to meet some trouble and dutifully assume the role of damsel in distress? Naturally, Robin’s fiancé disapproves of Strike, and her continuing employment by him predictably strains the relationship, which is reinforced by clumsy symbolism. Following an argument she and her fiancé have, Robin ominously notices ‘a fragment of frozen pea caught in the setting of her engagement ring’, which disturbs the brilliance of the sapphire and diamonds she so recently couldn’t stop herself gawping in awe at.  One feels acutely the irony of overstatement in a book about deduction.

As his investigations continue, Strike begins to think that the suicide isn’t a suicide after all, even in the absence of any tangible evidence to the contrary –quelle surprise! He imagines a killer ‘lost in rage, half dragging, half pushing her, and finally, with the brute strength of a highly motivated maniac, throwing her’ over the third floor balcony.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a classic whodunit of the cozier English variety: we are presented with an array of potential suspects, wary of their testimonies and accounts, unsure of which to believe, and kept guessing in the dark until the ‘incurably observant’ protagonist perfectly connects the dots, jumping to conclusions that are inevitably correct, to reveal the truth and restore justice to the blighted world.

The popularity of commercial crime fiction seems to exemplify the fact that there are many people in this world who, like Robin, harbour a secret fantasy about being private investigators. The point of these sorts of novels, of course, is that we are given the opportunity to try and identify the perpetrator as the facts are revealed. Determined not to be caught out by unexpected twists, I read with wariness both the direct testimonies and Strike’s presumably accurate impression of the individuals giving them, the unfortunate result of which was that I found myself not particularly caring who committed the crime at all.

Though formulaic, the novel is intricately plotted and reasonably entertaining. In places, the narrative voice is intrusive (that Strike, an ex-army, knows that Robin’s hair is styled in what is called a chignon, for example, beggars belief). Rowling favours certain words that are used repeatedly and a little too inelegantly to elude notice (perfunctory, evinced, stolid, gaudy and desultory, to name a few). The adverb ‘coolly’ is also characteristically Rowling: when Strike responds ‘coolly’ to a dig about his background (he is an illegitimate child of a famous musician), I couldn’t help but recall the icy exchanges between Harry Potter and Malfoy. And as she did throughout the Harry Potter series, Rowling continues to demonstrate her mastery of humorous writing. By far the most enjoyable passage in The Cuckoo’s Calling is a conversation that takes place in a pub between Robin and a very drunk Strike.

Ultimately, though, The Cuckoo’s Calling lacks oomph – even the final confrontation is slightly lacklustre. I am of the same opinion as Kate Mills, fiction editor at Orion Books, who described the book as ‘well-written but quiet’. She belongs to one of several publishing companies who must be kicking themselves now for rejecting the novel, the manuscript of which Rowling reportedly submitted anonymously. As for the question of talent versus luck, it’s a pity that Galbraith’s cover was blown so soon, because, well, now we’ll never know, will we?

*

The Cuckoo’s Calling

by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

Sphere, 2013

Categories
BOOKS

Lionel Asbo – Review

There is a section in Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo: State of England where the eponymous antihero relates to his nephew, Desmond Pepperdine, his unsuccessful foray into reading a bit of history: ‘After a page or two I keep thinking the book’s taking the piss. Oy. You taking the piss?’ It is a fitting meta-fictional allusion to the comical satire that characterises Amis’s book. Amis does take the piss, with outlandish pizazz, out of the state of wealth inequality in England, the tension between the classes and tabloid media.

The book is set between 2006 and 2012, mostly in Diston, a fictional place on the outskirts of London, which has demographical statistics on par with third-world countries: the average life expectancy, we are informed, is fifty-four for men and fifty-seven for women and the fertility rate is six children per couple or single mother (which falls between Malawi and Yemen, we are told). As one would expect, teenage pregnancy is rife. Desmond (Des, Desi), whose mother died when he was twelve, has since been ‘raised’ by Lionel, who although is his uncle, is only six years his senior. Lionel is the youngest of Grace Pepperdine’s children; Cilla, Des’s mother, was the eldest. Ordinarily shocking facts are revealed with commonplace bluntness: Grace had Cilla when she was twelve, the same age Cilla was when she gave birth to Des; and Grace’s seven children are borne of six different fathers.

In the opening paragraph of the novel, we learn that Des, aged fifteen, and Grace, aged thirty-nine, have recently begun having sexual relations, the morality and legality of which Des seeks to reassure himself about by writing to Daphne, The Sun’s resident agony aunt. Horrified to discover that incest is illegal, young Des’s woes are compounded by the fear that Lionel – criminally violent and pathologically quick to anger – will find out. Fortunately for Des, the affair soon ends and he is spared the fate of another schoolboy Lionel discovers Grace has also been bunking up with: the boy disappears entirely. When questioned by Des, Lionel responds, ‘“I didn’t kill him. I sold him.”’

Lionel’s character is not alluring so much as entertaining it its vulgarity. His first run-in with the law – for smashing car windscreens with paving stones – occurred at the age of three. At age eighteen, he changed his surname by deed poll to ASBO, standing for the Anti-Social Behaviour Order made against him at age three (a national record). Up until 2009, while he still works, his trade involves two ‘psychopathic’ pitbulls and legally dubious ‘selling on’. His motto is to ‘never learn’, which explains his repeated bouts of incarceration, the most absurd series of which occurs between 2006 and 2009:

Lionel Asbo served five prison terms, two months for Receiving Stolen Property, two months for Extortion With Menaces, two months for Receiving Stolen Property, two months for Extortion with Menaces, and two months for Receiving Stolen Property.

To be repeatedly imprisoned for the same offences, as Des remarks, requires giving ‘being stupid a lot of very intelligent thought.’ The effect of such comical obstinacy is to call into question the troubling issue of real repeat offenders, for whom the prison gates seem to be revolving ones.

Lionel’s life changes when he wins £140 million in the lottery, which instantly turns him into a perennial tabloid feature. His wealth unwillingly unmoors him from his past life in the lower class. On his first day in the fictional Pantheon Grand Hotel, the ‘dearest’ place in London, he feels like ‘an astronaut, weightless, without connection, swimming in air’. Lionel – ghastly a man as he is – experiences an almost pitiable inner turmoil about the incongruity of his roots and present wealth. Despite the fact that Lionel now possesses a fortune that plants him squarely in the top one percent, not to mention investments that have ‘prospered almost uncontrollably right from the start’, his tastes and elocution betray him. He still pronounces his ths as ffs (hypothesis is hypoffesis, wrath is roff, and so on), talks and writes with glottal stops (computer is cumpew uh) and reads daily his Morning Lark, a lads’ mag consisting mainly of topless girls and other such reputable features as GILFs (MILFs but grandmothers). He senses acutely that he doesn’t truly belong to the world of the rich, for the inhabitants of which it seems – incredulously – to be ‘halfway normal’ to live until eighty. For comparison, there is the farcically premature and poignant decline of Grace Pepperdine, whose degenerating mental state prompts Lionel to institutionalize her in Scotland. In response to her protests, Lionel exclaims, ‘“Woman – you forty-two. You can’t fight the march of time!”’ Lionel feels what a tabloid reporter (the same agony aunt, Daphne, no less) derides as a ‘violent insecurity’ about his alien status, experiencing for the first time ‘something like an unexamined fear of derision’ by well-rooted members of the upper echelons.

What makes Lionel interesting is the unexpected care he shows for Des. Taking a preteen under one’s wing is no small matter, especially if the carer himself is only eighteen. Lionel has taught Des how to drive, buys him his first mobile phone and in the pre-lottery days treats him to feasts of KFC. At his high school, Squeers Free, where he would otherwise be a prime target, Des is rendered inviolable by the fact of his relation to Lionel: it helps that once a term, Lionel drops off and picks the boy up, accompanied by the pitbulls. Des loves his uncle ‘deeply and more or less unquestioningly’, despite the fact that he feels ‘slightly ill in his presence.’ The unresolved tension that underlies their relationship is, of course, the unknown matter relating to Grace.

The younger Des is bafflingly precocious (at age seven, he already knew he was ‘not religious’) yet a hopeless punctuator (the first confessional letter he pens features such gems as ‘ther’es’ and ‘i’ts’, both of which I am yet to see used by the worst illiterates on the Internet). Despite the odds – being an orphan and living alone during Lionel’s many prison stints – Des does well academically and gets accepted into university. A gentle soul and a self-professed romantic from the age of 15, he falls in love with a young woman named Dawn Sheringham. Their narrative is the novel’s only that is conveyed without irony or mockery.

Many passages in Amis’s novel read like scenes in a farce. There is a family reunion wedding that ends with forty-two imprisonments; a trilogy of pitbull pairs with names starting with J; and repeated issues with an industrial bin that either stays open or closed for weeks on end, prompting Lionel to alternately accuse Des of being the culprit and sitting on its lid, and demand that he sit on it. The novel’s denouement, deftly plotted, is a wonderful collision of the absurdity and humour of Amis’s writing.

*

Lionel Asbo

by Martin Amis

Jonathan Cape, 2012

Categories
BOOKS

Let the Great World Spin – Review

On August 7, 1974, Frenchman Philippe Petit stepped out onto a 200kg wire cable suspended over 400 metres above street level, stretched between the tops of the recently built Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre, a 25kg custom-made balancing pole in his hands. During his tightrope walk that lasted three quarters of an hour, his co-conspirators watched him run, lay down flat on the wire, and kneel and salute, making eight passes in total. Around him rang out the siren song of the New York City Fire Department, the thuk-thuk-thuk of helicopters, the appeals and threats from police on the rooftops of both towers, and the cheers of onlookers.

This historical event forms the nucleus of Colum McCann’s fictional 2009 book, Let the Great World Spin. In the great city that hummed and whirred by the shadow of its Twin Towers, McCann’s novel interlinks the diverse lives of its characters. Each chapter is a slice of life taken through the eyes of a different person; as in life, varying perspectives co-exist in mutual opposition.

In an interview last year with Irish author, Catherine Dunne, McCann discussed his belief in the ‘democracy of storytelling’, his conviction

That stories can cross all sorts of borders and boundaries. I don’t know of a greater privilege than being allowed to tell a story or to listen to a story. They’re the only thing we have that can trump life itself.

McCann’s pluralistic ethos strikingly characterises Let the Great World Spin. The book gives a voice to the traditionally voiceless, those who have been pushed to the fringes of society, be it by race, gender or circumstance. Take, for example, Gloria, an African-American twice-divorced mother of three dead Vietnam veterans; or Adelita, an immigrant, nurse and widowed mother of two whose medical studies were arrested by war in Guatemala. Particularly moving is the account of Tillie Henderson, a 38-year-old grandmother and streetwalker, a poignant example of the vicious cycle of drug abuse, prostitution and poverty. Then there are those sympathetic to their plight: John Corrigan, an ascetic Irish monk, – known to all, including his brother Ciaran, simply as Corrigan – called to serve in the Bronx, who looks out for Tillie and the other prostitutes; and Claire, a grieving well-to-do Park Avenue housewife who meets Gloria through a gathering of veterans’ mothers. The book is a profound testament to the fundamental human desire to share, communicate and connect with others. Gloria, during one of the mothers’ meetings, reflects:

Funny how it was, everyone perched in their own little world with the deep need to talk, each person with their own tale, beginning in some strange middle point, then trying so hard to tell it all, to have it all make sense, logical and final.

The effect of the democratic structure of the book is a wonderfully realistic rendering of the city it is set in. The diversity of background, history, race and outlook present in McCann’s novel is what also characterises New York City, in all its clamorous, frenetic, gritty splendour. Writing a book with as many developed characters as feature in Let the Great World Spin would be an ambitious and impressive feat in itself, even without McCann’s deft interweaving of stories. The lives of its characters converge gradually, puzzle piece by puzzle piece slowly assembled to create an intact rendering of both New York and the novel as a whole. Claire, the Upper East Side housewife, desperately needs someone with whom she can vocalise and share her grief, and so becomes attached to Gloria, who lives in the projects in the Bronx, near the underpass where Tillie and her daughter Jazzlyn prostitute themselves, who use Corrigan’s bare apartment as a tinkling spot, and so on.

The connections, although distinct, are convincing rather than contrived (in the latter category, for example, would fall the comet-shaped birthmark all the focal characters are blemished by in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas). They are fictional manifestations of the real findings of the small-world experiment, which reminds us that despite our highly prized individual autonomy, we are far more interconnected than we realise. The well-known study, authored by Jeffrey Travers and Stanley Milgrim, concluded that the average path of communication between two arbitrary people in the United States was less than six intermediaries, which undoubtedly has contributed to the popularity of the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory. (Randomly selected people in Boston and Nebraska were asked to send a letter to a target recipient in Massachusetts. The average path length was 4.4 intermediaries from Boston and 5.7 from Nebraska.) But the connections created in Let the Great World Spin cannot begin to be approximated by data. McCann depicts them with such insight and humanity that they are unreal, in the sense that they are fictitious, and yet simultaneously hyper-real: fortuitous, uncanny and unexpected in the way that life is. And where better of a place for them to surface than in the density of the Big Apple? Gloria becomes keenly aware of this:

It had never occurred to me before but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected.

There are peripheral links in addition to the major narrative nexuses. One chapter is focalised through a 14-year-old amateur photographer who shoots photos of underground graffiti. Similar, although brief, descriptions pre-empt his story in the accounts of Ciaran – John Corrigan’s brother and a new New Yorker – and Claire, the housewife. Blink and you’ll miss it. In one of the book’s few awkward exchanges, one of the Corrigan brothers declares to the other, rather too forthrightly, that every night he dreams about a woman (whose name I will omit for the sake of not ‘spoiling the plot’), in which he is ‘“running [his]… lips down along her spine, like a skiff down a river.”’An hour and a half north of the city, in a cabin in upstate New York, Lara Liveman, a 28-year-old visual artist, lies on her stomach as her husband, Blaine, sprinkles cocaine in the hollow of her back. These are subtle reminders of the relationships we have with others even in the ignorance of their existence.

The centrepiece of the book, to which all its narratives are connected, is the tightrope walk. Petit spent six years planning and preparing for the feat, and in the lead-up staged walks across the northern pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge as well as the towers of the Notre Dame. A photograph of his World Trade Centre walk is included in McCann’s book: Petit an inkblot between the towers, a large commercial jet in the top left corner. Both transfixing and ominous, it is a visual equivalent of the presentiment of disaster in E.B. White’s fantastic 1949 essay, ‘Here is New York’:

A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate millions.

In the final section of the book, set three decades years after the walk, a young female character reflects upon the image:

A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don’t fall apart.

Two crimes: one dubbed ‘the artistic crime of the century’, that brought the Twin Towers widespread appeal and attention; and another that would later destroy them. The responses to witnessing Petit’s walk, of both real spectators and McCann’s characters, parallel eyewitness accounts of watching the planes collide with the towers in 2001: there is a common strand of disbelief, of the surreal.

Also shared is the simultaneous dread and anticipation of the fall. In the opening section of Let the Great World Spin, McCann describes the onlookers:

…many of the watchers realized with a shiver that no matter what they said, they really wanted to witness a great fall, see someone arc downward all that distance, to disappear from the sight line, flail, smash to the ground…

Who can forget the tragic images that emerged during 9/11 of people trapped in the floors above the collisions, their heads out of windows, some waving white. And then there was the heart-rending footage of those who jumped, their bodies floating downwards to oblivion. The Falling Man.

September 11 was, as the tightrope walk is in McCann’s novel, ‘the collision point of stories.’ A senseless act of terrorism wreaked destruction of terrible beauty, from which emerged so many interlinked stories of grief, of sacrifice, of courage and of the fortitude of the human spirit.

*

Let the Great World Spin

by Colum McCann

Bloomsbury, 2009