Ali Smith is that rare thing in Britain: a much-beloved experimental writer. Part of her attraction for readers is that she continually connects formal innovation and the freedom to reinvent a story with the freedom to reinvent the self. It’s a beguiling proposition that can make liberation seem like a matter of style. Following the success last year of How To Be Both, the most dazzling and accomplished of her novels, Smith planned to write a long-gestated novel quartet, its four volumes reflecting successive seasons – an idea that would allow her to pursue her fascination with what is perhaps the novel’s greatest subject: time. But the times overtook her, and the events of 2016 turned Autumn, the first of her intended novels, from a farce in an antique shop into a meditation on the upheavals of Brexit.
Autumn opens by acknowledging that it is a tale, one, which like all tales, is influenced by others and fashioned in part from their language. “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times”, Smith begins, and once again, “things. They fall apart”. From the imaginative place Christina Stead once called the Ocean of Story, and Salman Rushdie, the Sea of Story, a figure emerges, washing up on some unknown shore. He is a literary figure trailing the memories of Odysseus and Crusoe in his wake, who questions everything (is he dead or alive?) and keeps changing shape, morphing from nakedness to leaf-dressed Green Man, from old age to youth. Daniel Gluck is his name and he recalls a life of good fortune, of being lucky through the accidents of time. But as he strolls along the beach to discover what kind of world he has landed in, Gluck finds the corpses of children lying close by holiday-makers sunning themselves under parasols. Something is amiss here: in more ways than one the times are out of joint.
From these dreamlike beginnings, Smith’s novel jumps into a prosaic world where Elizabeth Demand keeps vigil at Gluck’s bedside as he lies unconscious in a care home, hovering at death’s door. A refugee from fascism in Europe, Gluck was once a neighbour who befriended her in lonely adolescence. Watching him now, she thinks back over this vital relationship in which he opened up the world of art to her. The rest of her time is spent queuing for a passport in a soon-to-be-closed-down Post Office, battling with the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that seems determined to stop those unhappy about Brexit from leaving the country. She also visits her mother who lives in an English village where the mood is turning sour. People glower at strangers on the street, someone has daubed “Go Home” across the front of a house, and a faceless company erects a giant fence around a patch of common land. Meanwhile her mother, in the grip of nostalgia, obsesses about an antiques TV show. This is England 2016, Smith tells us: narrow, suspicious and backward-looking. As the three parts of her book progress through the season’s three months, the political climate darkens with the weather.
Against this all too familiar gloom, Smith offers ideas about the moral value of art. In How To Be Both she argued for the inherent “friendliness” of narrative, here (drawing on The Odyssey) she makes a demand for “hospitable” stories. And where in the former novel she lionised the swinging Sixties and the young, free and stylish women of the French pop scene, so here the figure of hope is another Sixties figure, the similarly young and glamorous pop art painter, Pauline Boty, discussing in particular her portrait of Jean-Paul Belomondo with a huge open rose on his head. It is clear that Smith is emphasising the delight and openness of art, its ability to hearten and fortify us in difficult times. But is this enough? The unease in Autumn stems not just from troubling signs of a nation becoming more divisive and cruel, but from a writer looking to aesthetics as a salve for ugliness in politics. The final demand of the book, the demand of art, is that we pay greater attention – in this case to a “wide-open rose” still blooming in the depths of November: “Look at the colour of it”. But it feels as if Smith has failed to do precisely this, to look hard enough at what’s novel in the Brexit situation, what might disturb well-trodden narratives, relying instead on the consolations of art.
This review appeared in the Spectator as ‘Things Fall Apart‘ on 19.11.2016.
Hélène Cixous, Abstracts and Brief Chronicles of the Time: 1. Los, A Chapter; Death Shall be Dethroned: Los, A Chapter, The Journal (translated by Beverly Bie Brahic) – TLS
“Clearly literature is never where you think. It is not in the story. It is in the elbows of the sentences…It is guarded, dissimulated, behind a piece of canvas, disseminated in the idiom…” For Hélène Cixous the elusiveness of literature has long been a badge of honour, something she has diagnosed in her criticism and perpetrated in her fiction over nearly half a century of writing. Her work has always explored what it means to be a writer, the prerequisite “state of without-me” necessary for an author to be inhabited by her characters. In turn, those who “possess” Cixous most powerfully are themselves missing, for it is the dead – their loss, absence, and revisitation in memories or dreams – who give life to her beguiled, yet ultimately death-defying prose.
Two new associated works, elegantly translated by Beverly Bie Brahic, epitomize this condition. They aim to “give death its due” while at the same time, dismantling its power over us. Both are subtitled “Los, A Chapter”. Both are haunted by “The-Book-I-Don’t-Write” – a platonic or ultimate book whose failure to materialize has preoccupied Cixous over the years. And one is described as “the journal” of the other. Contained within these works there is the promise of more to come in the “Los” series, but “none will be more first than the other” Cixous reassures us, characteristically refusing any suggestion of hierarchy. The books also elude classification, being in turn, poetic elegy, dream diary, time-travel and ghost story, and their uncanniness is mirrored in the narrator’s sense of herself as spectral (“I myself am the shadow of myself”) and scattered (“I have several selves to house, I visit myself diversely”).
Abstracts and Brief Chronicles of the Time tells of the narrator’s attempts to come to terms with an author’s death, a Latin American writer called Carlos (Cixous was a friend of Carlos Fuentes). His unexpected loss evokes memories of their love affair and nostalgia for the revolutionary upheavals of 1968, making her marvel: “To think that in France you [could] kill a state with ridicule.” The “Los” of Cixous’s subtitles also refers to the transvestism of authorship and, in particular, to the figure of William Blake’s Los whom she imagines as the kind of circular puzzle she’s partial to: “the malefemale offspring of the author he is”. In the companion journal, Death Shall Be Dethroned, Cixous’s narrator discovers that her letters to Carlos have been stored in a box at Princeton University, giving rise to further meditation on their life together and on his turbulent afterlife, still inhabiting her head and her heart. The locked box has the allure of Pandora’s: it is a kind of “death’s door”, containing “the excess, the phosphorescence” of their relationship.
For Cixous’s generation the death of the author, of course, means the amplification of authorship, the freedom to speak in other voices. So her texts are sprinkled with quotations and commonplaces: “Call me Ishmael…Call me Los…Call me It All Depends”, she jokes. But for all Cixous’s inclusiveness (“The whole troop of them. Welcome!”), and her refusal to be pinned down (all her thoughts contain counter-thought), she is never as universal as she aspires to be. However atopic Cixous’s writing becomes, her “state of without-me” is unrealizable. This is because anonymity is in itself a style – defining, like any other – and it places her on the literary map. That she is aware of the paradox only makes her efforts more heroic. What matters in her lifelong writing project is the determination to be “myriad-minded”, to elude ready-made meaning, and to ceaselessly interrogate herself and her art. So, Cixous asks us: “This life born of death, might this be literature?”.
This review appeared in the TLS on 9.11.2016 as Hélène Cixous and her Art.
Rachel Cusk is a writer who provokes strong reactions in her readers, and her critical reputation has swung wildly in a short space of time. Many, who not long ago were offended by the overflowing emotion of her memoirs of motherhood and divorce, are now full of praise for her current trilogy of novels, admiring particularly their restraint. What’s interesting about this turnaround is that while Cusk’s mode of presentation has changed, her subjects — the uncertain nature of reality, the relation of the individual to society, and the calibration of power — have not. Moreover, switching her focus from an outraged, opinionated woman to a recalcitrant, enigmatic one, has intensified her writing and clarified her project.
In Outline and Transit, the two volumes published so far, we learn little more about Cusk’s first person narrator than that she is recently divorced and temporarily living apart from her children (they phone in occasionally, often in a state of mild distress). We know, too, that she is a writer disinclined to interject or interpret, emphasising instead the value of listening. The people she encounters (ex-lovers, builders, hairdressers, friends, fellow writers, students, relatives) all tell her stories that stand out from the day’s ordinary muddle with an electric charge. The purity of these narratives and the individuated humanity they contain has a narcotic, transporting power, yet they remain at the centre of the writer’s daily life, and her occasional prompts or questions show her shaping them. In both novels the writer is named only once, and her name, Faye — which denotes either unreality or belief — underscores her scepticism: ‘I did not have the blind belief in reality that made others ask for concrete explanations.’ Instead Cusk’s rather proud and brittle narrator is drawn to dramas of perception — the neurosis involved in looking and judging, and the reciprocal fear of being misread, disregarded or found out.
At the beginning of Transit, Faye is homeless. An estate agent warns her that buying a house requires ‘the blindness of fixation’, but she immediately feels he is trying to marginalise her, and decides she will ‘want what everyone else wanted… run with the pack’. She acquires a shoddy house in an expensive neighbourhood and then battles to make it over in a style of her own. But something about the process of following convention, and becoming fixed or placed, leaves her at odds with herself. It’s as if Cusk has taken central metaphors from literary criticism — about the figure of the modernist artist, exiled and unaligned, about the estrangement of the woman writer in the house of fiction, about the violence of creativity — and translated them back into life. From the outset the house is inhospitable: floors undulate, plaster blisters, the garden is full of grot and junk. And she is beset by neighbours who intimidate or humiliate her. The tenants in the basement make dark threats about noise, while the members of the perfect family next door — who eat al fresco while talking loudly in multiple languages — high-handedly informs her that by tradition they are given the apples from her tree.
There is a great comedy of mismatching and cross-purpose here, but the reader is never allowed to find consolation in it, nor any affinity with Faye, whose alertness to her neighbours’ class-inflected putdowns and incursions are mirrored in her own petty-bourgeois snobbery. But Cusk is not writing to be liked. She once said admiringly of D.H. Lawrence that he left more room for the reader to hate him than any other author in the English language. In Transit, the ‘ambiguous glint’ of Cusk’s writing often induces a sense of panic about the validity of one’s own responses, and frustration at being unguided through an uncertain world where, as her hairdresser observes, ‘the fake generally seemed to be more real than the real’. But this refusal of ‘concrete explanations’, or a secure guiding narrator, is not an expression of nihilism or futility; rather, an exercise in the morality of freedom. When Faye picks up her son’s diary, she finds a message blazoned on the front: ‘You read, you take the consequences.’
The jackets for Cusk’s novel trilogy are from Man Ray’s solarised portraits of Lee Miller – a technique which she discovered while working as a photographic assistant in his Montparnasse studio in the early 1930s. This review of Transit appeared in the Spectator on 1.10.2016.
“To be American is to be blank, and a true American is truly blank. Thus, all in all, Josie was a truly great American.” This is Dave Eggers’s narrator, at the beginning of his latest novel, Heroes of the Frontier, joking about the story’s heroine. Given the state of Josie, an angst-ridden single mother, it is a self-evidently false statement – but the logical fallacy is just one of many means Eggers uses to interrogate contemporary reasoning, or, to be grand about it, the logic of late capitalism. His book is among a group of recent novels about families which, like much current American fiction, are preoccupied by the legacy of trauma and the question of whether this can be overcome. The blankness referred to here is psychological as well as geographic. Josie has no idea where her family hail from, remembering only “vague references to Denmark . . . some connection to Finland”. So when, in quick succession, she is deserted by her husband, sued for malpractice as a dentist, and faced with the news that a young patient she encouraged to enlist has died in Afghanistan, she feels she has nowhere to run to but America’s furthest edge: the empty wilderness of Alaska. Packing her two small kids into the back of a rickety RV, she heads out into its vast open spaces, searching for “purity” – a blank canvas on which to redraw their lives.
Josie has become so worried about the “anxiety of influence” (Harold Bloom’s phrase, smuggled in by Eggers as if to pre-empt the inevitable comparisons here with Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth et al) that she decides she is “done with all mouths, beginning with her own”. The gamble she is taking is that the “oblivion” of Alaska’s frozen landscape will help to mute and control her, to numb her anxiety and mitigate her sense of guilt. But the journey doesn’t turn out as she had hoped. Presented with the radical uncertainty of their new lives, her kids have endless questions about where they’re heading and what they’re doing, questions to which Josie has no ready answers. And she finds that having escaped the tyrannies of suburban life,the freedom of the open road presents unexpected dangers. Soon, her children’s interrogations are supplemented by her own as she tries to discern the level of threat. Some threats are just phantoms of the timid, suburban mind she is working to free herself from (a “leering” old man turns into a friend). Some are universal, such as the danger children let loose can pose to themselves. But others – like the father of a family her kids play with, who suddenly pulls out a gun – are more distinctly American. This ever-present menace feeds into the children’s enquiries about the world. Even the fiercely unafraid five-year-old Ana, when introduced to new phenomena like planets and stars, wants to know: “Are they good?”
As Josie leads her small tribe to ever more remote places – sleeping on the roadside, in campsites, or, like some latter-day Goldilocks, breaking into deserted cabins in the woods – her search becomes indistinguishable from flight. The family flees from forest fires, from possible emissaries of her husband, and from a past Josie wants to “write . . . in disappearing ink”. She is haunted by a scandal from decades earlier, known popularly as “Candyland”, involving the suicides of over-medicated Vietnam veterans at a hospital where her parents worked. Once Josie’s parents started dipping into the patients’ drugs family life collapsed as her mother fell into addiction and her father absconded to Cambodia. So the idea of starting again is not new: we learn that at seventeen Josie “emancipated herself” from her parents and then moved around, living in Panama, London and Spain. But in modern America, movement has become a dubious practice, associated by Josie with failure, insecurity and her parents’ disgrace: “Was it wonderful to have changed so many times? She suspected it was not”.
Candyland stands as the emblematic centre of Eggers’s novel, from which the ills of American – and by extension, Josie’s – life flow. The country is ignorant of the wars it is fighting (Josie and a lover argue about whether her patient died in Afghanistan or Iraq, uncertain as to how long hostilities have lasted), its people increasingly aggressive and entitled (she singles out the “breed” of lycra-clad cyclists and pony-tail mums whose rage erupts at any infringement of what they believe is their due), tranquillizing themselves with drugs, or, like Josie, unable to get through the day without knocking back the wine, and penning their children in to keep them safe. Against all this enclosing, sedating and forgetting (here we are again in Gore Vidal’s United States of Amnesia), there is the wonder and subversive riot of Josie’s children: the wild, red-haired Ana, a force of nature, “bumping into things, yelling randomly, making up words”; and the sensitive Paul, three years older, who acts as Ana’s proxy parent. What Josie wants for her children, above all, is that they don’t merely succumb to life, but show courage in the face of it; and the further they travel, the more resilient they become. Heroes of the Frontier ends with one final test of endurance, in which by heading into disaster the family overcome it, approaching “something like sublimity”, a touch of American greatness. The frontier may be long gone, but setting the inertia of his countrymen in his sights, Eggers is banking on the idea that pushing ahead still lies deep in the American psyche: “She wanted to tell every mother, every father: There is meaning in motion”.
Sara Taylor’s second novel, The Lauras, also takes the form of an American road trip. This time it is the wife who walks out on her husband, bundling her adolescent daughter into the car one night and setting off on a journey that will take the two of them zigzagging across the country. The Lauras is the (still) rarely told story of a girl’s romance about the life of her mother – here less a source of anxiety than of mystery. The novel is narrated some thirty years after the trip by Alex, the androgynous daughter, in a Southern vernacular thick with the imagery of sweet things (“the land behind us was a caramel-peanut-butter smudge”) and of blood, or menstruation (“she lay back in the trail of the dying sun,it’s blood clotting in her clothing”), reflecting both the teenage sexuality of the speaker and also something of the country’s immaturity.
Held in her daughter’s regard, “Ma” is an alluring, enigmatic presence: chain-smoking to keep herself awake, pulling in at truck stops when she is too tired to drive, and grabbing greasy burgers for the two of them to munch on. The reason for their leaving is undivulged; Ma tells Alex only that she wants to “figure out which way is up”. As they cross state lines, improvising their lives, it becomes apparent that Ma is in pursuit of the existence she had before her daughter was born. Astonishing as this idea is to Alex, her mother’s focus on herself is also oddly reassuring: Alex’s questions about the safety of their trip are breezily batted away: “Quit worrying kid. We should be golden”. Pressed to reveal her story, Ma remains taciturn, only slowly doling out the tale after successive dramatic encounters with the people or places she once knew.
What Alex finally gleans is that her mother was abandoned repeatedly by immigrant parents who “were horrible at life”, forgetting to clothe or feed her, and who “didn’t understand how America worked”. Moved between group homes, then living in a station wagon, drinking absinthe, possibly dabbling in prostitution, she encountered a succession of girls called Laura (the intensity of her relationship with the first makes the name talismanic), each of whom demonstrated styles of being that, even in unpromising circumstances, offered new possibilities. Alex herself gets into trouble when she hitches to another city to post her father an (untrackable) letter, forced into performing a blow job on the man who picks her up. But though she later traces “the blank in me to that event”, when Alex comes to explain to Ma what happened, she creates a story that allows her to hold back the worst of her journey. She does this in part because she has no words for what has been done to her, nor her ambivalent feelings about it, but also because she’s learnt from her mother’s continence.
What marks Taylor’s novel out from many of its contemporaries is how little psychic damage Alex and her mother sustain – or pass on – from their experiences. Indeed,the storytelling mode allows them to cast their lives as adventures through which they “hustle”, extemporize, love and sometimes act heroically. Alex understands that “reality rarely rustles up a satisfying narrative shape”, but her “mythic desire” gives her the ability to see her mother not just in relation to herself but as autonomous, sometimes even as legendary. When Ma finally reunites with one of the Lauras, Alex describes them as “outside of humanity, the way lovers are”. There’s a lesson here, important for storytellers and for women, about not giving yourself away too easily, about possessing your own life. What it instils in Alex is the bravery to be herself (to maintain an open sexuality and not be boxed into definition) and confidence in her instincts: “I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t have to know. The road was beckoning; all I had to do . . . was follow where it led”.
The intergenerational trauma at the heart of Adam Haslett’s new novel is rather harder to shake off. Imagine Me Gone features five narrators, all members of one Anglo-American family beset by the “beast” of mental illness, their lives recounted over half a century, by the parents, John and Margaret, and their three children, Michael, Celia and Alex. As one might expect of a novel exploring the irrational, there is also much concern with form – from the repressive British manners John has inherited (“asking questions wasn’t the proper form”) to the linguistic and political structures in which Michael becomes passionately interested. The novel itself is tightly formatted: divided into three acts, with an epilogue and prologue, and each section further demarcated by the different speaking voices. We begin near the end: Alex, the youngest sibling, is at a cabin in the American countryside, and traumatized by something terrible that has happened to Michael. At first he imagines the sound of a neighbour chopping wood might revive his brother – a desire stronger than reason: “What kind of person would I be if I didn’t try to call him back?”
Then comes Michael’s voice: ghostly, disembodied (and yet, like all voices in fiction, as if looming out of the ether). In what we will learn is his characteristically parodic mode, Michael speaks “as” the telephone answering machine of his therapist, one Dr Walter Benjamin. And because his is a parodic voice, always carrying multiple meanings, this is also a suicide note – a salve to himself and anyone out there listening: “[if] it seems likely that the words you are about to speak into this machine may be your last, then please know that you tried very hard indeed, and that you loved your family as deeply as you could”. In a way that only fiction can, Imagine Me Gone then proceeds to do what Alex wanted, what anyone bereaved wants: to bring the dead back to life.
Haslett’s novel masterfully negotiates the different planes on which it operates, sustaining for a long time the ambiguity whose exploration, he has said in interview, is the business of fiction. From the beginning, John expresses anxiety about the future of his garrulous son: words pour out of Michael as if nothing can contain him. John moves the family about, even back to England for a while in pursuit of work that never materializes. And this failure to settle down symbolizes to Margaret her husband’s failure to get a grip on life. On returning to the States, he commits suicide – the only way to chase the “monster” of depression out of him. Michael, called home from school in England, finds that he is numb: “You were all so upset. But I didn’t feel anything. Nothing. I was blank”, he tells Alex later. The pain of this moment lingers on in Michael’s life as an indefinable ache – something for which he finds correlatives in ideas about slavery’s “transgenerational haunting” and black music: “The backward ache. That’s what music is. The trouble – for me – is that at some stage I realized those aches, they have a history”.
From these traumatic beginnings, his siblings develop lives of ordinary difficulty, though perhaps with greater wariness: Celia struggles over the question of motherhood, Alex in building a monogamous relationship with his boyfriend. And their chapters convey this, expressed in the particularity of the real. But Michael is never ordinary: from the beginning his flamboyant intelligence and intense political theorizing make it seem as if he were somehow a different order of being. His chapters, reflecting this apartness, are delivered as exercises in literary style that challenge the “realist” frame surrounding him – whether in letters to his aunt, where his commitment to the fantastic, comic form overtakes the plausibility of events he is relating; or in medical questionnaires, in which his answers satirize the premiss of healthcare, refusing its narrow logic, while also being utterly honest: “What are your treatment goals? 1. Ordinary happiness 2. Racial justice”.
The degree to which Haslett allows the reader to entertain the possibility that these everyday forms and political structures that shape our lives may be at fault, and not Michael, is the degree to which ambiguity is richly sustained in Imagine Me Gone. But Michael’s obsessions are not just a matter of worldly critique; they are also a product of his solipsism (“the problem – for me”). At the beginning of the novel Margaret reflects on Armies of the Night and Norman Mailer’s idea that “it’s in motion that Americans remember”. But Michael never finds a cohort or movement, remaining boxed in, static in his obsessions and unchallenged in his relationships. While this may be true to the character of obsession or mental illness, it comes close to manipulation in terms of the novel. Successive black girlfriends remain somehow beyond his reach, as if such relationships were themselves a category error, outside of acceptable forms. Looking back on the story’s beginning and her love affair with John, Margaret says: “I had that American openness he admired”. However, unlike Dave Eggers and Sara Taylor, who keep faith with the idea of American openness and the possibility for remaking that it entails, Adam Haslett casts doubt on this notion. Sealing Michael’s fate from the outset, he suggests instead, as Celia advocates, the need for “acceptance” of who we are. Alongside this stoicism, in the presentation of Michael’s isolation, and the speed with which people stop listening to him, there is also something gloomier in play here, like the closing of the American mind.
At first glance Sean O’Brien’s new novel appears to focus on England’s devotion to the past. Even its title carries the sense and long-sustained rhythm of things going on as before. As if to underscore the point, Once Again Assembled Here is set in the autumn of 1968, a year often portrayed in fiction to describe a revolt into the new. But in O’Brien’s novel it merely serves as a reminder that whatever ideas were being cooked up elsewhere, here tradition and continuity would prevail.
Here, in this case, is Blake’s, a jingoistic public school on the outskirts of a city still marked by the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids. In the peculiar way in which enthusiasm for England often turns on the degree to which one is excluded from its centre, this gloomy provincial establishment — stuffed with military historians, minor poets nursing grievances and an army of boys acting out war games — sees itself as a bastion of the country.
Stephen Maxwell, a retired history teacher, still lives in the school’s grounds. A man of marked literary pretensions, he has been commissioned to write the second volume of Blake’s history. In an Epilogue from 2010, however, he warns us that the secret ‘manuscript’ we are about to read is not that dreary tome, but his private, shadow journal — a darkly entertaining thriller of secret goings-on, treason and murder. Maxwell confesses from the outset that he is guilty of having a hand in the murder and of maintaining the cover up all these years. However, his many references to Boys’ Own adventure stories, tales of espionage and war, and in particular to Graham Greene, give us a clue not only to this manqué novelist’s imaginative aesthetic, but to the moral wriggle-room the English like to afford themselves: Maxwell’s style gives him the leeway to portray himself as a kind of hero, even as he admits to being a culprit.
This moral and intellectual murkiness is reflected in the novel’s landscape. The autumnal Blake’s is often wreathed in fog or mist, and Maxwell’s sojourns into the war-scarred city are by night, when his literary cast of mind picks out the frost glinting off rubbled buildings or, from high windows, stars glimmering above the dark streets below. The high windows — one of several Larkinesque touches — belong to various lovers. Maxwell is far from rebellious, but his penchant for married women repeatedly gets him into trouble, leaving him with a reputation for minor disgraces, for not getting on board.
Then, rising out of the tedium and gloom, the worship of war dead and unthinking obedience to authority, something with its own sharp glint of fascination catches the imagination of Blake’s pupils.Encouraged by the aristocratic Rackham — once a German collaborator, now a quasi-Poundian poet and charismatic English teacher — they stage a mock election, mirroring the by-election taking place in the city. Maxwell’s failure to act means that, as in the city, a fascist candidate is fielded, and with incredible rapidity the atmosphere shifts from boredom to menace: a fight breaks out; a fire is set; a Jewish boy’s life is threatened.
As it transpires, for a novel about the past, O’Brien’s book is extraordinarily prescient. It’s impossible to read of Rackham’s sense of immunity without thinking of Tony Blair and the Iraq War. Nor fail to hear David Cameron’s recent tirade against Jeremy Corbyn, when Blake’s headmaster exhorts Maxwell: ‘Resign, man. Do it today.’ In 2010, O’Brien discussed the political history of this phrase — from Oliver Cromwell to Leo Amery — in Journey to the Interior, a monograph on the idea of Englishness in contemporary poetry. In this prose work, as in Once Again…, it’s the coercive clubbableness of the English that O’Brien dissects — an establishment so keen to re-enact tradition and so punitive to anyone less than ecstatic about its continuation.
Because of this, at Blake’s even someone as ambivalent as Maxwell poses a threat. But just as the pupils are excited by Rackham’s demagoguery, his poetry of blood and soil, so Maxwell is emotionally tethered to Blake’s, finding it hard to extricate himself from the school or from his affair with Rackham’s striking (in both senses of the word) sister. As the initials of his name suggest, sado-masochism runs deep in the English psyche.
This review appeared in the Spectator on 27. 8.2016 as ‘Sean O’Brien explores a very English form of sadomasochism’.
We have become accustomed in recent years to the revisionary spirit of much postcolonial fiction, but the ambition, erudition and epic sweep of John Keene’s remarkable new collection of stories, travelling from the beginnings of modernity to modernism, place it in a class of its own. His book achieves no less than an imaginative repositioning of the history of the Americas, a tilting away from the legends of white, puritan pioneers to a more complex pattern of continental colonialism. As its title suggests, Counternarratives contains “writing back” of the kind Edward Said proposed; its stories are imbued with potent dialectical energy, bringing to mind Paul Gilroy’s key idea of the “Black Atlantic as a counterculture of modernity”. Keene is not simply an oppositional writer, however: in his richly detailed accounts of black lives through history, dividing lines are continually crossed. So there are escapologists, quislings and prophets, and motifs of cultural appropriation, false consciousness, prohibited desire, illicit knowledge, forbidden artistry, and everywhere, the struggle for transcendence. Counternarratives consists of thirteen individual fictions – some of flashing brevity, others the length and intricacy of a novella. Together they act like a polytych: each story has its own integrity but an underlying intellectual coherence allows the reader to intimate their author’s power and purpose, and to identify the arrival of a writer who, like one of his own characters, has “a will of lead and a satin tongue”. A former student of E.L. Doctorow (under whose tutelage one of these stories was written), Keene is that rarest of things today, a writer whose radicalism connects the politics of history to the politics of fiction.
The stories advance in rough chronology beginning at the dawn of the seventeenth century with a glimpse of the New World and the arrival of Juan Rodrigues, Manhattan’s first non-indigenous inhabitant (and a real life personage). A San Domingo slave who bought his freedom working on ships, the child of an African mother and Portuguese father, Rodrigues is given a name by the “Mannahatta” islanders that reminds him of the secret one his mother gave him, a name she “summoned forth from her people, and swor[e] him never to reveal”. This resemblance between his mother’s words and the islanders’, helps him to unlock their language in a way that his Dutch shipmates are unable to, emancipating him into a new life. Rodrigues’s easy relations with these “first people” – cemented through shared meals, gestures and storytelling, “voices that spoke through fire and smoke” – suggests the possibility of an entirely different trajectory for American history.
From this alternative foundation story, Keene casts his eye across two and a half centuries of conquest, war and slavery, and concomitant with these, counter-struggles of resistance. ‘On Brazil, Or Dénouement: The Londônias-Figueiras’, presents a history of the country seen through the lens of two plantation-owning families who intermarry but also father children with Indian and black women – part of the “New World experiment”. Down the generations their sons are named “Inocêncio”. There is “no genius compared to that of [their] own people” they believe, without understanding who their people are. These innocents work their slaves to death, and one slaughters a whole quilombo – a colony of runaway slaves led by “a particularly defiant African”, Cesarao. Told back to front, the story begins with an historical reckoning in which the last scion of the family ends up decapitated in a São Paulo favela, known colloquially as “Quilombo Cesarao”. It’s a reversal encouraging us to rethink history and notice overlooked counter-cultures (the quilombo, the favela) in which the future may be gestating.
Against the brutal fates many of his characters suffer, Keene’s stories keep changing their shape, implying countervailing forces of ingenuity and will; and against the limited psychic space historically allotted to black people, he gives us subjectivity that exceeds its cramped conditions, queries notions of rationality, proposes other kinds of knowledge, and takes liberties wherever it can. In ‘An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution’, there is an exemplar of this kind of outflanking style. Zion has a talent for evasion, non-cooperation and flouting the law which repeatedly wears down the men he is sold to. As in many eighteenth century picaresques where the protagonist’s escapades are marshalled into episodes, so Zion’s sprees and outrages are divided into sections meant to contain his unruliness. But Keene hedges these with a loaded title and an interposed “Theory” – a quotation from David Hume on the origins of liberty. Together, they subvert the narrative order, transforming the meaning of Zion’s seemingly illogical acts (carousing, stealing, daring to assault white women and then, with staggering insouciance, not bothering to run away). In the face of arbitrary law which hangs “another Negro” in his stead, and a revolution in the name of liberty which will fail to abolish slavery, Zion becomes the story’s emblematic figure of reason, his flagrant disregard of the law a logical response to its great injustice.
The last entry in this section, ‘Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of Sorrow’ looks further at the idea of hidden and competing knowledge. As ‘On Brazil’ gained putative authority from imagined histories of the Londônias-Figueiras’s family, so here the story opens with a (similarly invented) book: The History of the Catholics in the Early American Republic: 1790-1825. But after a page of this, we are diverted to a footnote – the ‘Gloss’ of the title. (With the “Dénouement’, the ‘Outtake’ and the ‘Gloss’, Keene is inviting us to look at things another way around and to think about what might be discoverable in the margins of official histories.) ‘Gloss’ concerns Carmel, a silent Haitian slave girl working for one Monsieur de L’Ecart, a supposedly liberal master imbibing ideas from the Age of Reason: “equality, he had more than once penned in his journal, was the proper guiding principle, though in practice it required severe restraint.” Carmel expresses herself with wild drawings prophesying revolution. Asked by de L’Ecart’s daughter about their meaning, she tries to mime: “they are going to TEAR THE WHITE OUT”. When Toussaint L’Ouverture’s men revolt, the girls are sent to live with nuns who, underscoring the story’s historical ironies, have themselves fled from the French Revolution. Keene reflects again on the contradictions of the period, asking: under the yoke of slavery “is it even possible to invoke a rhetoric of ethics?” Like Zion, Carmel makes of her circumstances what she can, responding to abuse with an “unassimilable refusal to communicate”: for this she is feared as a “spook…black witch”. Used to being misunderstood (her dutifulness read as devotion), she instead takes her duty to herself seriously, learning to read the nuns’ books in French, Latin and Greek. As the narration slips from third to first person, she creates new knowledge by recording her experience and theorising about it. But just as Carmel’s mystificatory power is questioned, so there is a counter-side to her new reasoning: becoming literate she starts to sound like Jane Austen, losing the distinctive voice of her obscurity.
The turning point in Counternarratives comes with the Civil War. In a second group of fictions the emphasis shifts from countering to encounters that take place in the aftermath of war and on into the early twentieth century when black artists and intellectuals were now ostensibly free but still struggling against the weight of stereotype and diminished expectation. In an act of writing back that should prove as significant for American literature as Jean Rhys’s deconstruction of Jane Eyre was for the English canon, Keene revisits Mark Twain’s tales of the river rats, Huck, Tom and Jim, forty years later, once adulthood and Civil War have divided them, bringing to the surface – as Rhys herself did – racism only latent in the earlier books. By projecting the three men forward in time Keene is able to throw new light on their earlier relationship, on their now-famed “adventures” which Jim thinks of rather as “sense-defying events”, the central conundrum of his life, in which he was led by Huck “into the heart of terror”, traveling south down the Mississippi, rather than north to freedom.
Keene then presents a series of duets. W.E. DuBois and George Santayana glance over at one another on the streets of Harvard, their mutual apprehension (“Of course there will be scant possibility of a friendship“) conveyed in parallel columns on the page which the reader’s eye must travel across. In Mexico city and New York, Langston Hughes hooks up with his translator, the poet Xaviar Villaurrutia – Keene’s writing now imbued with a cadenced, modernist sensibility (“this rhythm…of men…alone together…a blues”). And Miss La La, the circus aerialist, bit in mouth, soars above Edgar Degas as he tries to capture her in flight – a story spun from one breathtaking sentence: “I want to suspend the entire city of Paris or even France itself from my lips…I aim to exceed every limit placed on me, unless I place it there, because that is what I think of when I think of freedom…”
Freedom as an absolute may be impossible to attain but Keene shows us here what human beings in straitened circumstance make of the struggle – in myriad ways and with great tenacity. Their key to self-realisation is the garnering of knowledge, and as Keene quotes in an epigraph from the Barbadian poet, Kamau Braithwaite, “Knowledge is submarine”. It’s an image of fugitive power that perfectly encapsulates the cunning and audacity of Keene’s writing, but also his characters’ efforts to uncover more room for manoeuvre. A corresponding effort is experienced by the reader in the face of many textual interruptions, oppositions and aporias. ‘On Brazil’, for instance, contains the word “but” ten times in one paragraph; in ‘Blues’ the narrator notes that although Villaurrutia is Hughes’s translator, “Xavier is not sure exactly whom or what Langston means”; and in ‘Lions’ – Counternarratives’ final story, leaping into some universal present in the aftermath of colonialism – the difficulty becomes even more pronounced as efforts to interpret are frustrated by Keene’s use of knotty aphorisms: “Everybody is a monster, but only the monsters know it.”
‘Lions’ explores the history of postcolonialism and the complicity between the freedom fighter and the poet whose “odes to gore” justify – as Frantz Fanon and others did -“violence in the service of revolution”. The poet delivers a counterblast to his old friend and lover, once the beautiful revolutionary, now a “filthy degenerate lion quisling” devouring his people. Adrift from his ancestors, a mind enslaved by American pop culture, high on power (“black steel toe boots…polished by peasants’ tongues”), squandering resources, banning artists, bribing the electorate, he is the leader of a “nation of narcissists, knowing nothing”. Invoking generations of violent dictators and suicide bombers, the freedom fighter’s only raison d’etre has become his fearlessness: “the man who listens only to death.” Keene plays brilliantly upon the excessiveness of it all, the spectacular unreason resulting from the project of enlightenment and liberation. He then calls time on this historical dead end, dismembering its agents and dismantling its stories. At the last he returns to the beginning and Rodrigues’ memory of a glass blower in San Domingo, the furnace nearly devouring him as he forged – against the heat and out of it – a miraculous “blown bowl”. In homage to the millions of Zions and Carmels who forged their own lives against, and out of, the furnace of history, Keene brings the reader back to the miracle of their self-making by drawing attention to his own. Characteristically countering – even in his final decomposing words – he finishes with the excess of writing and its unreasonable defiance of the end: its promise of a way out, of more room, of something further to come: “I’ll lie here until – … … …”.
This review, titled ‘Exceed Every Limit’, appeared in the TLS on 13.7.2016.
A discussion of Angela Carter’s work and legacy with TLS editors Stig Abell and Thea Lenarduzzi. Our conversation begins about 29 mins in.