Reading Anakana Schofield’s anarchic debut novel, Malarky, I was reminded of the underrated mid-century writer, Jane Bowles. Her comedies are full of people whose ideas of propriety are at odds with one another, having flummoxing, cross-purpose conversations. Much of her unsettling humour is born of female paradox: women may be the conservative bearers of culture passing on standards between generations, but they are also “natural outlaws”, disrupting patriarchal rule with their non-sense and malarkey. In the hands of skilled writers, like Bowles and Schofield, the tension between these two positions can lead to a good deal of hilarity, with characters who appear to conform to acceptable norms also pursuing undercover lives of heroic eccentricity and dubious, self-invented meaning.
Malarky’s central character, is just such an unlikely rebel, a band of one whose mundane existence and “foolproof predictability” give her the perfect cover. Known to her family and friends as “Our Woman”, she is an Everywoman of sorts, a farmer’s widow in her sixties who has spent her life looking after her husband and son while trying to keep the peace between them. But her commonplace character is not of the kind that novelists have tended to heroize or universalize, as a person who can stand for us all. Rather, her ordinariness is so obscuring that on the rare occasion someone like Our Woman makes it into fiction, she is relegated to the background – a familiar piece of furniture, there just to help us get our bearings.
Much of Malarky’s subversiveness follows from giving pride of place to such an overlooked figure, and the discovery that her meanings are not as ready-made as we might expect, so we must struggle to make sense of them. Schofield’s writing reflects this difficulty: perspectives shift, sentences fragment, time slips back and forth. But rather than aestheticizing Our Woman’s experience and distancing the reader, there is a companionability in this that is perhaps the novel’s finest achievement. Schofield’s humane intelligence and her attunement to Ireland’s demotic shine through every page of Malarky, bringing Our Woman vividly to life and rendering her apparently demented pursuit intelligible: as she flounders, so do we; her search for meaning becomes our own.
As with many women, it is not until a rather late stage in the game that Our Woman comes to understand that the house she lives in is a fiction, that her husband and son have conducted affairs she is not party to and cannot fathom – the older with a pop-sock wearing floozy, “Red the Twit”, the younger with a succession of dull men. But on making this discovery, rather than abandoning herself to “weeping and wailing”, she decides to try for herself a little of their game. Fittingly enough, for a novel set in rural Ireland, she embarks upon her quest in a spirit of perverse religiosity. With Eveish determination, Our Woman sets out to reunite herself with the men who have excluded her, to become their equal in understanding and experience.
Her first attempt at acquiring their carnal knowledge takes place in a hotel with a rather crumpled travelling salesman (“this fella needed attention the way birds need nests”) – a masculine correlative for her husband’s bit on the side. Then, following the death of her son in Iraq, she picks up a Syrian man whose youth and background, in some incalculable manner, edge her closer to the boy she is grieving for. What she wants from this man is to see how it feels – the pushing and shoving, the interlocked hips, all “the malarky” she “cannot name”, but has seen her son get up to with other lads, down among the farm’s bramble and briar.
They are a mismatched couple, she and the Syrian, but their love-making is erotic precisely because of the awkwardness with which they grope towards one another. Schofield is funny about the translation of desire into mechanical movement – about who wants to put what bit where and why, and the tact required to negotiate these transactions. He, naturally enough, has his own interests to pursue, involving “strange questions” about the nature of the cervix and the difficulties of conception. But like much else in the story, the reason for his inquiries remains comically elusive.
Some reviewers have suggested that such gaps and obliquities weaken the novel, but Schofield is a brave and purposeful writer. She trusts the reader to understand, as Our Woman does, that meaning is often tantalizingly reticent, the most important things are variously conceived of, and we have to fumble our way to common ground. In Malarky’s final, summarizing words: “It’s beautiful when it all make sense, so it is. Occasionally, it makes sense, just for a moment.”
This review first appeared in the Camden New Journal on 07.11.13.
Here’s my TLS review from August of Eleanor Catton’s second novel, The Luminaries, which won the ManBooker Prize today.
As the horror of history repeating itself unfolds in Egypt – the young abandoning the early improvisations of Tahrir Square for the certainties of another military leader – I have been reading two remarkable novels by Parker Bilal that seem to predict these events, and help to make sense of them.
At the height of the Arab Spring in 2011, when it appeared that a new generation had done away with the old tyrants once and for all, a warning voice sounded out on Twitter. Getting rid of the dictator was not enough, wrote the journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy, what the Egyptian people needed was to eliminate “the Mubarak in our heads”.
It is this idea that Bilal explores in the Makana Mysteries, a series of novels about a Sudanese detective living in Cairo. The first of these, The Golden Scales, appeared in 2012, the second, Dogstar Rising, has recently been published by Bloomsbury. Although Mubarak himself is rarely mentioned, Bilal’s tales bulge with his imitators: gangsters, businessmen, fanatics and bullies, all of them tyrants, all powerful obstacles to individual freedom. The books are set in the decade or so leading up to the revolution, providing the reader with a chance to reflect on the conditions that laid its ground while giving the stories historical propulsion: out of the chaos of the city, with all its secrets and entanglements, many are struggling to break free. But as Bilal’s exiled detective knows from experience – and as history is demonstrating once again – the tyrant is tricky to eject: he keeps reappearing in different guises.
In a wealthy part of the city, in sight of the pyramids, one of Makana’s employers lays claim to the mystique of the pharaohs, surrounding his swimming pool with life-size statues of himself. Hanafi is a businessman who owns the city’s favourite football team, and in The Golden Scales he recruits the detective to search for a missing player. Like his boss, the absent footballer is beguiled by the power of images, and dreams of becoming a movie star. Like his boss, he too was once an orphan in the slums. Fifty thousand homeless kids live on the streets of Cairo, but Egypt’s media transfixes people with its rags to riches legends, “keeping the country asleep”. Few seem able to break the trance: only the odd café pariah who shouts, “Lies all of it. Stories to cheer us up while we rot down here like rats”, or Makana’s friends, sceptical journalists and academics, wondering: “Who is going to wake us up?”.
Behind the saga of the missing footballer lies an ancient feud between Hanafi and Bulatt, an old adversary. Once a childhood friend, Bulatt re-emerges as an Islamist demagogue linked to a shadowy network of politicians, bankers and foreign businessmen. What Bilal enacts in these novels – against Egypt’s pervasive “fantasy world of fairy tales and deceit” – is a form of iconoclasm: his are spell-breaking fictions. Aligning forces routinely posed as opposites, he exposes both the business modernizer and the religious traditionalist as vain and jealous men, hiding their petty rivalry behind the masks of power.
There’s a similar theme of opportunism in Dogstar Rising, where politicians manipulate sectarian attacks on the Coptic Christian minority for their own ends. When Makana’s journalist friend writes about this, he is asked to drop it, because “No editor in his right mind would publish a story claiming that State Security are trying to stir up anti-Christian feeling in order to take people’s minds off the economy, right?”
Makana himself brings something new to the detective canon, recasting many of its characteristic tropes. His wise-cracking is a sharp as any detective’s in Chandler or Hammett (“There was something about him that was hard and cheap. It made you want to count your fingers after shaking hands”) but it stems from a more literal world-weariness. Having watched Sudan fall into religious authoritarianism and seen his family destroyed by it, Makana has arrived in another country where the pattern seems to be repeating itself. Similarly, Conan Doyle’s figure of the detective as supreme rationalist in a superstitious world takes on more urgent meaning when he operates in places where women are raped for wearing the wrong clothes, academics murdered for teaching Darwinism, journalists imprisoned for reporting stories and detectives forbidden from investigating these crimes.
In Sudan, Makana, the policeman, was made into an outlaw. Now in Egypt, his life as an exile is precarious: even his riverboat home on the banks of the Nile is constantly in danger of sinking. But whatever setbacks Makana encounters – and however recidivist Egyptians seem right now – Bilal suggests that the tide of history is turning. It is precisely Makana’s place on the margins, and the ironic cast of mind it generates, that make him the perfect twenty-first century detective, capable of unravelling our most intricate plots and seeing behind our tricky guises. Any producer worth their salt should rush to pick up these novels and film them immediately.
Parker Bilal is an alias for the novelist Jamal Mahjoub. This article appeared in the Camden New Journal as ‘Swirls in the Tide of History’ and online as ‘Dogstar Rising: A Makana Mystery; The Golden Scales: A Makana Mystery, by Parker Bilal’ on 22.8.2013.
A link to my essay on politics in Hollywood which appeared in Guernica on August 21st 2013.
A Man in Love, the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgård’s autobiographical novel series, My Struggle, continues his remarkable exploration of the modern self. The first volume, A Death in the Family, 2009, created a publicity storm with its uncensored portraits of family and friends, many of them members of Scandinavia’s literary elite. Noted for its candour, it was widely read and acclaimed in Norway, and has been similarly praised in translation. In this volume, Knausgård opens up part of the earlier story, looping in and out of memory. We learn how he left his wife and country, moved next door to Sweden, fell in love and started a family, all the while struggling to carve out space to think and write. This tension, provoking endless complaint in Knausgård, might seem to be an updated version of Cyril Connolly oppressed by the pram in the hall, but it signifies a larger shift in the relation between the individual and the world and how we think about what it means to be free.
The series has been compared to that of Proust. A Man in Love, though, is not so much a poetic remembrance as a confessional recounting. Knausgård seems laceratingly frank, but as with all confessions we are aware of narrative being spun, an alibi sought out. The effort is to scrutinize and explain himself fully, to convey, as the last words of his novel say, “how it felt”. He describes his day-to-day movements in exhaustive detail, sinking the reader into a family routine that veers from the banality of getting things done to the hallowed ritual of caring for others.
As before, there are forthright appraisals of people, some dismissive, others lit with imaginative sympathy. Always strong, because each is a testament to his freedom, Knausgård’s judgements are open to alteration in the light of later understanding: sometimes he discovers he has misread someone (often the case among his ultra-competitive literary set). With Geir, his best friend and intellectual sparring partner, his determination to exercise this freedom sees him discussing the possibility that as a young teacher he had sex with a thirteen-year-old pupil. The conversation is provisional, though, couched in misgivings about the reliability of memory or the certainty of any conviction. There is further doubt about the credibility of his thinking, he tells Geir, because the education his generation received trained them to think only in the abstract, critically comparing schools of thought, but excluding concrete reality in which “all independence is rooted, including independent thought”.
What emerges from this is not the kind of self-reflexive novel we might expect, where doubt is indicated in textual game-playing. Here, Knausgård wants to reinstate the supremacy of the self over all else, including the text, so his language is unobtrusively prosaic and he seems always to be reaching for immediacy. He speaks of wanting “to go to the essence”, lay himself bare – in all his guises and circumspection, even the mysterious and “stupid” parts, impossible to conceptualize – and to meet the reader “at eye-level”. In the creature glaring back at us what we see is something new: as no other writer has quite managed, Knausgård captures our modern self-preoccupation, which is both liberating – a limitless realm of internal exploration – and at the same time caging. He grapples continually with how to be open to the world while defending himself against its onslaught.
Much of the novel has Knausgård enduring life as an emasculated house-husband, despairing of the boredom parenting forces upon him, resentful of being kept from the self-absorption of writing by his needy children and neurotic wife. (His moment of greatest humiliation comes, when in a playgroup with his daughter, he is handed a rattle to shake.) Yet he is full of agonized tenderness for his daughter, watching her straining to connect or impose her will, to discover – and defy – the “rules of the game” by which life is mediated and arranged. These are Knausgård’s own struggles, too, and part of his fascinated love for his child derives from the way her storminess and maladroitness mirror his own. There is comedy in this, of course: it is impossible to divide Knausgård the fitful bully, whiner and narcissist from Knausgård the fearless self-interrogator, meditating on the grand existential questions. Only teenagers now read Dostoevsky, he observes ruefully.
Unlike the older writers he admires, he cannot refrain from the publicity sideshow, submitting to a parade of interviews, lectures and seminars. Every appearance brings a new sense of capitulation. It’s a fight he wages elsewhere in life when he finds himself parroting something he doesn’t believe or making “agreement noises” as the social situation demands. The target of much of his anger at the unseemly and “feminized” position this places him in is Sweden’s social democratic system, bent, according to Knausgård, on enforcing equality and levelled to the point where everything becomes interchangeable and indiscriminate. He mounts a comedy of exacerbation out of the problems of “house rules” and cooperation – in the nursery where he is forced to have an opinion on which sausages the children should eat, or when war breaks out with a noisy neighbour. But generally his sense of self is so imperious that he finds only tedium and coercion in the idea of getting along together: “relationships [are] there to eradicate individuality, to fetter freedom.”
When Milan Kundera argued that the novel “did more for freedom of mind than…noisy protest” or collective action, he was arguing for its pre-eminence in the struggle for liberation. In Knausgård’s book the instinct for collaboration is so debased, the self now so defended that the quest for freedom has itself become a form of entrapment. While complaining about homogenization he seems blind to the different lives all around him (there are endless swipes at multicultural conformism); while arguing that “getting things to run smoothly…is the antithesis of art’s essence…which is based on restricting or being restricted”, he rages against the “sameness spreading through the world, making everything smaller”. The novel’s sole obligation is to search for something different, he argues, but (perfectly in tune with the times) he is in danger of restricting the source of that difference to himself.
This review appeared in the TLS as ‘Rattling the bars’ on 14.6.2013.
“Metaphor is the lifeblood of fiction” Angela Carter once said, and in her late fiction, when she wrote more often about people who were at home in the world, she was fond of domesticating metaphors. In her first novel, Viola Di Grado’s shows a similar taste for the homely (“the river’s surface rippled and thickened like the skin that forms on milk when you warm it too much”), but it is Carter’s early novels about alienation in provincial bohemia that 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool most resembles. For Di Grado’s narrator, Camelia Mega, a young woman in Leeds on the verge of independence, the pull of home proves irresistible – even when it becomes unheimlich. After the death of her father and his lover in a car crash, Camelia’s mother, Livia, stops speaking, washing, and soon, even dressing. She wanders like a revenant through her run-down house, which rots with “dust and spiders and castles of mold, participating gleefully in her death, like Bluebeard’s secret room.”
Camelia returns to this home where, in an eternal winter, time seems to have stopped: my Year Zero, she thinks. However, this is not to be a tale of wiping the slate clean, for though she is the epitome of the modern heroine – economically independent, sexually free, technologically hip and multilingual – Camelia is somehow not equipped to create her own story. For all her contemporary wit (“It’s so ugly, Christopher Road is, that it qualifies as proof of God’s nonexistence”) she is confined in a nineteenth-century parody, still trapped with a madwoman in the attic and a mocking parrot who looks at the windows “not like a bird but like a woman in a Victorian novel”. Attempting to coax her mother out of the front door, Camelia buys her a camera. Livia responds by taking photographs of holes in the floor, in the curtains, in her underwear. What they signify Camelia can only surmise. The ditch her father died in? Her mother’s wish to die?
As in all good Gothic writing, Di Grado invests what is ostensibly straightforward with uncertainty. Is Camelia’s impatience also generational, a frustration with mothers who seem trapped by their biology? Perhaps. Yet she frets over her own lack of beauty and is horrified by Livia’s decline from a feminine ideal (once “radiant and untouchable like utopia”) to coarse animality (“my mother ate her scaloppini the way tigers eat in documentaries”). Conversation of a kind resumes with Camelia interpreting Livia’s looks: “Don’t use that tone of gaze with me!”. But her mother is now so decomposed a figure that she’s become “a landing pad for every kind of bug”, so these are dubious exchanges, full of ambiguity about who holds power. Soon the women are competitors in martyrdom as Camelia develops her own “verbal anorexia” and thinks about sleeping forever.
Di Grado has the proper anger of a young author – she was twenty-three when she penned this winner of the Campiello First Novel Prize – and her black comedy, pungent metaphors and controlled ambiguity announce the arrival of a considerable talent. Her self-consciousness is more than literary, however; it also reflects a quality now ingrained in the young, developed by Google, YouTube and all the other disseminating channels mentioned in 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool. Everyone narrates themselves, and Camelia, the child of Italian immigrants, a student of Chinese, living in an area full of ethnic takeaways and street kids pushing drugs, is peculiarly alert to language – its problems of translation and intelligibility. As a child, sensing in her parent’s marriage the affairs that threaten her world-view, she wonders – as only children and totalitarians do – why one story is not enough, and is horrified when her father insists “stories are everywhere”. In adulthood she remains vulnerable: “All it takes is a passerby’s glance and next thing you know you’re imprisoned in somebody else’s story”.
Having grown up in a place where the sun was never brighter than the “colour of a raw chicken thigh”, built with “an eye to saving money on materials and aesthetics”, Camelia cultivates her estrangement by hanging out in cemeteries, decapitating flowers, and re-watching the same Icelandic movie. She thinks, precociously, “I am the erotic dream of windows in a former working class town”. When she finds a pile of defective garments in a “dumpster” she takes to wearing them. (Except for such occasional Americanisms, which stand out in a novel set in Leeds, Michael Reynolds’ translation sounds note-perfect.) These strange clothes, like a bread trail in a fairy story, lead her to Wen, who Camelia takes lessons from, becoming fascinated by Chinese ideograms. Wen’s unwillingness to sleep with her results in a fraught affair with his brother. But despite his reserve it is Wen who opens up this traditional drama of confinement: through Camelia’s struggle to understand him and the different rules that govern Chinese, she may learn to see herself in a new light. The novel closes, however, with a Hitchcockian twist, Camelia mocking readers who hoped for a sentimental ending. Yet behind her narrator’s bravado Di Grado leaves a window open to further questions. The most interesting of these are whether the house of ‘women’s fiction’ has itself become a prison – and, if so, whether young writers have the will and imagination to break out of it.
This review appeared as ‘Doing Time’ in the TLS on 29.3.2013.
“The war tried to kill us in the spring…While we slept the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer…While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation… It tried to kill us every day.” This semi-autobiographical first novel by Kevin Powers, about a soldier during the Iraq war, opens impressively, picturing the immense force that the Americans believe themselves to be up against, a force that is insatiable, irrational and utterly indifferent to them as individuals: “The war would take whatever it could get. It didn’t care about objectives or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all…the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on.”
With this rhetorical flourish Powers sets out his stall. He also establishes the novel’s battlefield between an impersonal war machine – connected metonymically to the enemy but largely abstracted from those on either side responsible for the war’s organization – and a lone soldier, John Bartle, who struggles with his personal “obligation to remember correctly”. Bartle’s recording duty is complicated by his need to challenge the bill of goods he’s been sold (“I’d been trained to think war was the great unifier…Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists”), by self-suspicion (“I felt like a self-caricature…falsely strong”), by the untrustworthiness of memory and language (“there was a sharp distinction between what was remembered, what was told, and what was true”); and by his fear that finding patters, in war or in narrative, brings only false consolation (“It seems absurd now that we saw each death as an affirmation of our life”).
Bartle has joined the army for all the usual reasons: to get out of town, to find adventure, to test himself. His story is told retrospectively, as he looks back on a less articulate and more deceived self. The narrative is non-chronological, moving back and forth between his training in New Jersey in 2003; battle skirmishes in the Iraqi province of Nineveh in 2004; a moment when he goes AWOL the following year in Germany (in a cathedral among effigies of bloodied, martyred saints, and in a bar where the violence continues and a soldier beats a woman); and his release from the army and return home to a difficult reunion with his mother.
The final section, set in 2009, yields answers to the questions raised near the novel’s outset about Bartle’s responsibility for the death of his friend and fighting partner, Murphy. There is a further mystery about the role played by their gung-ho leader in the war, Sergeant Sterling, with whom Bartle has an ambivalent relationship: this is the man whose professional vigilance gives the young soldiers their best chance of staying alive, but he is also the one who rallies them to action and keeps them killing.
Traditionally, the novel has often viewed war through the eyes of a complicit individual, a pawn in the wider game. It is from this perspective that The Yellow Birds derives much of its emotional power and testimonial authenticity – qualities that have won laurels in the form of the Guardian First Book Prize and perhaps overexcited praise from writers as diverse as Tom Wolfe, Colm Tóibín and William Dalrymple. But it is also Bartle’s tunnelled vision, his admitted solipsism, which sets the novel’s limits.
Unlike, for instance, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1961), which reveals something of war’s extreme dehumanization through a science fiction foil – and whose catchphrase for quietism, “So it goes”, is quoted here – The Yellow Birds has no counterpoint. Death, mutilation, castration, body bombs and all the other brutalities Bartle witnesses or is party to, are contrasted with his lyrical and existential musings. But the individualism these signal seem as much a part of the problem as an answer to it. Bartle’s quest in the book, “to discover what it was I was guilty of”, and his scrupulous self-interrogation sits uneasily in a novel which so persistently evades the larger question of responsibility for the war.
A version of this review appeared in the TLS on 18.01.2013.