“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.
Angela Carter, Unicorn: The poetry of Angela Carter With an essay by Rosemary Hill; Christopher Frayling, Inside the Bloody Chamber: On Angela Carter, the Gothic, and other weird tales – TLS
In the “pubescent years” of the twentieth century, a young Englishman, handsome and virginal, bicycles into Transylvania. He meets an old crone who leads him to a castle, feeds him bread and stew, then ushers him to the darkened boudoir of an ageless vampire, hungry for her own dinner. But our reasonable Hero (for that is his only name) dismisses his foreboding, deciding what he sees before him is a beautiful girl whose photophobia and pointed teeth might soon be cured by an eye doctor and good dentist. That night something unexpected happens: the innocent boy awakens unprecedented feelings of love in the vampire and she leaves him unmolested. The following morning Hero discovers that his companion – now older and infinitely more human – is dead. Saved from his fate by rationalism, coupled with a chronic lack of imagination, Hero cycles away to the First World War, where the unsusceptible boy who could not shiver finally becomes a man who can.
Angela Carter’s story, “The Lady of the House of Love”, from her 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber, is one of her most brilliant deconstructions of the Gothic, historicizing both rationalism and the imagination (bicycle meets vampire) in a way that is typical of her oeuvre. “Sex comes to us out of history”, as she reminded us in The Sadeian Woman, which was published in the same year, while her good friend, the critic Lorna Sage described the combination of fantasy and materialism in her fiction as “monsters marinated in being”. Today Carter is well known, widely taught in schools and universities, and much of what she presaged – in terms of recycling and updating (“old wine in new bottles”, she called it), or gender role play and reversal – has become commonplace in the culture. Despite this, many critics find it difficult to situate her work properly. This is partly because Carter is so sui generis (she has literary offspring but few antecedents), and partly because many struggle with the relationship of politics and aesthetics in her writing.
The “reality” in this Nosferatu revamp was something of a private joke for Carter, who was inspired to write by another friend, Christopher Frayling, who did indeed journey into Transylvania – but in the early 1970s, undertaking research for Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula (1978). It is this friendship, and with it Frayling’s claim of mutual influence (“we shared a lot of conversations, ideas and inspirations”), on which his new book, Inside the Bloody Chamber: On Angela Carter, the Gothic, and other weird tales, rests. Readers may be disappointed to find, however, that of the nine pieces in his collection, only the first essay, “Angela and me – a literary friendship” is about Carter.
The remainder are selected from his writing over the past thirty or so years – rich and entertaining fare that, like the best cultural studies, looks for links, unearths back stories, investigates a tale’s reimagining and examines its reception, legacy and mythologizing. In this manner, Frayling tracks Freud and Fuseli, Hitchcock and Gounod, Jack the Ripper, Hammer Horror, Disney’s and Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Conan Doyle’s Hound, the origins of Peter and the Wolf, and the state of the Gothic. Many of his tracks end up at the cinema (the fate of much art in the twentieth century), often newly minted with a happy ending. As stories pass from hand to hand, and from one kind of art to another, we find many strange bedfellows: there is Walt Disney, for instance, so proud ofFantasia’s cartoons that he announces to Leopold Stokowski: “this thing will make Beethoven”. For the purposes of Inside the Bloody Chamber, Frayling has added a brief introduction to each of these essays pointing to his and Carter’s shared interests (a joint visit to a Fuseli exhibition, a ramble together on Dartmoor) and to Carter’s own writing that relates to his subject. But the essays themselves make only occasional reference to her, and it is hard not to feel that in order to have earned his title, and the book’s selling point, Frayling might at least have rounded out his collection with a concluding essay on Carter, more gallantly giving her the spotlight rather than making her a player in his own show.
“Angela and me”, the essay in which she does feature, is an odd one. Frayling’s friendship with her in Bath in the 1970s gives us a valuable portrait of Carter during the middle years of her career which few others could offer: tracing the sources of her interest in vampires, werewolves and feral children (particularly as they fed into the stories, plays and filmscripts associated with The Bloody Chamber), her fascination with all kinds of automata, and redressing a critical legacy which has underestimated her socialism. His memories are fleshed out with the liberal use of her notebook-journals and published writing (though these are not always ascribed). And he finds in their dialogues the seeds of many of Carter’s ideas. Verdi’s Falstaff prompts a conversation where they “fantasised about Falstaff as a liberal education for Prince Hal” – an idea that crops up in Wise Children (1991); a trip to a Weber opera finds them in discussion about a Satanic western, something which “eventually turned into Angela’s play Gun for the Devil”; a conversation they had after viewing Murnau’s Nosferatu “led indirectly to Vampirella”; while stories in The Bloody Chamber were “inspired by” books and catalogues that he lent her.
This familiarity with Carter’s thinking, and their mutual reading and watching, means that Frayling is able to suggest many unexpected influences: they attend a screening of Miklós Jancsó’s Private Vices, Public Pleasures, featuring a “full-frontal Welsh hermaphrodite”, much to Carter’s amusement, just as she was transforming Evelyn into Eve in The Passion of New Eve (1977). He is also a persuasive judge of Carter’s sensibility: “her imagination was certainly more Jacobean than Shakespearian”; and in his hands her wit comes alive: “Angela relished the thought of a Good Food Guide for vampires”. But for all his excavation of their many conversations about vampirism (the impact of the First World War on the political geography of the vampire lands, Marx’s use of the vampire metaphor, and “whether human relationships are sometimes about ‘asset stripping’”), there is an odd lack of self-awareness about the terms in which Frayling frames his essay, none of the self-deprecation one might expect from someone claiming so great an intimacy with the generation of another writer’s work.
Something similar happens in a recent book from the historian Rosemary Hill, Unicorn: The poetry of Angela Carter. The origin of this book lay in Hill’s review of Susannah Clapp’s postcard-led memoir of Carter for the London Review of Books in 2012. Encouraged by the Editor, Hill extended her article into a longer essay which she packages here with fourteen of the poems that can be found in Carter’s archives. (The archives, which also include the journals Frayling makes use of, were bought by the British Library in January 2006; in May this year some of their contents were digitalized for a public website, “Discovering Literature: 20th century”). Carter wrote most of her poems during the early part of her career and those presented in Unicorn were published originally in small magazines and anthologies between 1963 and 1966, with three more from 1971, which she later incorporated into Fireworks: Nine profane pieces (1974). Hill’s essay is in three parts beginning with an analysis of the poetry, especially as it prefigures her later writing. This is followed by a sketch of the literary landscape of the 1950s and early 60s from which Carter started to write – a decade before Frayling crossed her path. Like Frayling, Hill emphasizes her rejection of the Leavisite school, with what Carter called their “eat up your broccoli” approach. She also discusses her embrace of the French avant-garde and bohemianism; and her ambivalent relationship to the Angry Young Men and the school of suffering of young women writers whom Hill identifies. A final evaluation of the prose pays particular attention to Carter’s first novel Shadow Dance (1966), written in the same years that produced much of the poetry.
The first delight of Carter’s poetry is just how recognizable it is: as Hill says, “at the age of twenty-three, she arrived as it were, in a single bound in the middle of the mysterious forest that was to keep her supplied with ideas for the rest of her life”. Most obvious is that from the outset Carter is set on rebalancing the books. She begins with a theatrical flourish – “Lights, action”, writing in quotation – “(bend the tab, slit in slot marked ‘x’)”, coming to rescue the virgin-heroine from victimhood, suffering and, above all, unknowing, by placing her on an equal footing with her hunter-seducer – a figure who was to turn up later in Carter’s fictions in the guise of devil, prankster, puppet-master or wolf. Here, he is the unicorn: “Q: What have virgins and unicorns got in common? A: They are both fabulous beasts”. The interrogatory joke remained one of Carter’s favourite forms; she opened her last novel in the same manner.
We must be grateful to Hill for publishing Carter’s poems, for rounding out the picture we have of her life as a young writer. Hill describes in the first part of her essay how Carter found her footing among the writers she was then studying at the University of Bristol, coming into her voice by reshaping, translating or borrowing from authors who at the time were deemed non-canonical, such as Thomas Browne (“hardly considered to be an author at all”) and William Dunbar: “writers of the Middle Ages and early modern period [who] inhabited the literary badlands, beyond the well-trodden path of Leavis’s Great Tradition”.
Hill writes particularly well about Carter’s love of bathos – “The iconography slithers down from illuminated manuscript to strip cartoon” – but can become pedantic, even unintentionally comic, when disturbed by Carter’s similes or confounded by her intentions: “‘Breasts like carrier bags’ is not the happiest of images. Carrier bags, after all, are often square, and even if round it isn’t clear whether these are full or empty”. And there is the odd slip: Hill asserts that Carter’s first five novels are “tethered . . . precisely to material reality in time and place”, but the fourth, Heroes and Villains (1969), is set in some apocalyptic, post-bomb future. Nor was Carter’s relationship to bohemia so straightforward; she is often at pains to show how tricky it can be for women.
More significantly, much of the middle part of Hill’s essay is oddly tendentious, at a stretch from Carter herself, who once again seems as if she is being shoehorned into someone else’s story. Hill reserves a large part of the limelight for her own husband, the late Christopher Logue, and friends such as Nell Dunn – and though much of this is interesting, it can leave Carter seeming like a bit-part player who failed to perform in the approved manner. Carter was “not always the most perceptive critic of her contemporaries”, Hill comments waspishly, when she neglected to respond with the right degree of sympathy to Edna O’Brien’s “heartstruck, tearful heroines, so different from Carter’s own protagonists”.
Because many women of this period suffered for their art (often this meant divorce, violent husbands, or suicide), Hill argues that Carter should have had more time for the downtrodden women represented in their novels. But from the outset – the girl in Unicorn tunelessly singing “I love the game, I love the chase”; and the bawdy, opinionated women in her other poems – Carter showed just what she thought of the spectacle of the suffering, submissive woman. In Shadow Dance, “rotten, phoney” Ghislaine is not as Hill thinks “a bit of a bore”, but the embodiment of female bad faith whom Carter disfigures and then crucifies. It is a stunningly combative debut, exhuming the worn-out plot of the martyred girl, in order, finally, to lay it to rest. She refused to stay dead for long, of course, and Carter found herself repeatedly battling her spectre, writing in her notebooks that she was sick to death of the female victim. In her critical writing, too, she observes how Jane Eyre swoons whenever she calls Rochester “Master”, and chastizes O’Brien and Jean Rhys for being writers “whose scars glorify the sex that wounded them”. After meeting Elizabeth Smart at a party, Carter wrote in fury to Sage saying she hoped no daughter of hers would ever be in a position to write a book like Smart’s: “BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I TORE OFF HIS BALLS would be more like it”.
It wasn’t a lack of sympathy that Carter was expressing, but sheer indignation at being stuck in a rehashed tale, where the meanings are played out, the symbols used up. And she had no truck with women who were still perpetrating these kinds of victims in their own stories. “Never again. Never”, Carter vows in Shadow Dance, a hugely innovative novel unlike anything her contemporaries were writing, about a world where nothing is original and life is constantly “imitating rotten old art”.
My review of two books about Angela Carter was published in the TLS as ‘Monsters Marinated in Being’ on 7.7.2016: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/monsters-marinated-in-being/
In a recent article in the Independent, the South Korean novelist, Han Kang cited Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (1975) as an important influence on her latest novel, Human Acts. Han’s book concerns the Gwangju uprising of 1980, during which the army massacred hundreds of workers and students protesting against martial law – a moment in the country’s history that the current government is reportedly trying to erase from school text books. Wondering how to write about this contested period, Han was struck by these words of Levi: “When I returned from my life as a POW…the many things I had experienced and seen with my own eyes were blazing inside me like fire. The dead felt closer to me than the living, and I felt a sense of guilt at being a human being.”
Human Acts begins with the dead, with lines of mutilated bodies laid out by Gwangju’s Provincial Office, waiting for family and friends to claim them. The army’s desecration of corpses (Han describes them dumped in piles and set ablaze), contrasts sharply with the citizens’ attempt to reinstate the dignity of their dead children, carefully wrapping their bodies in sheets and lighting candles around their heads. These expressive rituals foreshadow this novel’s argument about the need to counter brutality through art, literature and other forms of self-expression – even while acknowledging their inability to oust a government or raise the dead.
A boy arrives at the Provincial Office, searching for a friend who was shot down as they demonstrated together. Unable to find him, he joins two women struggling to identify bodies with intestines spilling out or faces blasted away. From this fearful beginning, full of pathos, the novel moves forward in time over thirty-three years, following the guilt-ridden survivors who struggle to achieve normal lives while still facing violence in the form of state torture, censorship and repression. But it is the dead who hold sway in Human Acts, rising up into the narrative with every new bruise or feared touch, with every fresh abuse of power. Despite the government’s efforts to wipe out any memory of them, they refuse to disappear. Like the novels of Levi and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Han’s book testifies to a specific atrocity while raising universal questions about what it means to be human, with all the potential for tenderness and cruelty that this entails.
Discussing Han’s novel at the Free Word centre for international literature in London, the psychotherapist Susie Orbach told the author that she found her story difficult to read at times, likening it to A Little Life (2015), Hanya Yanagihara’s epic tale about child abuse. But Han’s treatment of trauma, the restraint with which she presents horrific events, could hardly be more different from the American’s ramped-up melodrama. Writing with great formal control, Han switches easily from empathy and interiority to a more distanced, anthropological contemplation. As the Russian formalist critic, Viktor Shklovsky, noted, narratives eschewing the middle ground in this way, create estrangement, a sensation intensified in Human Acts by the characters’ profound alienation – the sight of so many slain and decomposing bodies meaning they will never again be at home in their own skin.
Among Han’s more impressive achievements is her ability to convey disintegration and alienation in work so elegantly wrought. Her aesthetic strategies – like the formal acts of the Gwangju mourners – suggest a profound humanism rather than any abstract design. This is why Human Acts has no single perspective and is full of ambiguity: its six chapters focus on different characters, each with a unique experience, and these are further personalised by the narrative voice which varies between the first, second and third person. One chapter conveys the scattered thoughts of a soul hovering around his dead body. Another is tightly structured by the six humiliating slaps an editor receives when she submits a manuscript that enrages the censor.
In an earlier novel, The Vegetarian (2015) – also translated with great sensitivity by Deborah Smith – Han emphasizes the value of art that flouts authority with a video scene in which anonymous performers, their bodies tattooed with flowers, rolled around in sexual ecstasy. In Human Acts, the same point is made by a play where actors remain dumb, mouthing the speeches forbidden by the censor. But these creative acts of defiance are rare. Further chapters tell of an activist tortured with a pen, repeatedly stabbed into one hand while the other is forced to write a confession; and of a semi-literate factory worker unable to give testimony about Gwangju because she cannot find words adequate to the task. Like the disembodied soul wondering where it can find a home (“If I could exist in dreams. Or perhaps in memories”) her living characters are also trapped in limbo. But if Han is supremely unillusioned about the forces that silence and isolate us, in Human Acts she has created a moving testament to fiction’s capacity to house even the most liminal and oppressed, to give voice to the voiceless, whether living or dead.
This review appeared in the TLS as ‘Closer than the Living‘, on 26.3.2016.
Twenty four long hours, two lonely people, one city in decline. This is the premiss of A.L. Kennedy’s new novel Serious Sweet, a work full of anger at what has happened to London since the Thatcher revolution and concern for the city’s impotent inhabitants. Kennedy’s representative Londoners are Jon, a divorced and fusty civil servant, a “passed over man” plagued by failure, and Meg, a bankrupt accountant and recovering alcoholic who jokes at her own expense that she is “Fine. Fucked-up Insecure Neurotic and Emotional”. The novel glosses over many contemporary bugbears – the loss of civility, state snooping on private lives, misogyny, and child abuse – but like the city itself, these are largely in the background or filtered through the minds of Jon and Meg. The plot of Serious Sweet, such as it is, lies in the vast interior landscapes of Kennedy’s suffering, self-lacerating protagonists (it is not by accident that Jon shares his initials with Jesus Christ).
As with other recent explorations of twenty-first century individualism (Knausgaard, Yanagihara, etc) Kennedy thinks that it takes a big novel (over 500 pages) to show just how distended the self has become. But in her case, the pursuit of people who are traumatized and adrift, and whose language is often banal (“Fuck him fuck him fuck him fuck him fuck him”, is one of Meg’s not untypical thoughts), means that it isn’t only her characters, but Kennedy’s novel itself that suffers from a sense of exhaustion: endless sweary tirades are intended to show how frustrated Jon and Meg are, but the cumulative effect is deadening, making their voices indistinguishable and undermining what is nuanced and sensitive in Kennedy’s writing.
The epigraph to Serious Sweet comes from Matthew Arnold: “to see the object as in itself it truly is”. In her effort to achieve this Kennedy gives over nearly half her book to interior monologues which intersect with, and at times threaten to swallow up the omniscient narration. It’s a technique that emphasizes isolation, showing how difficult we find it to build relationships or effect change in a world that seems to have receded from grasp. So it takes a long time for Jon and Meg, the would-be lovers, to come together, and when they finally do meet, they still behave like “prisoners in adjoining bloody cells”, making their courtship excruciatingly tentative and brittle. For the same reason both characters find it impossible to translate their outrage at inequality or corruption into effective opposition. Meg remembers the day she attended Thatcher’s funeral, turning her back on the cortege to mark her disgust. But this was an isolated act, and Kennedy dismisses the collectivism of the left just as she decries the effects of neo-liberalism. Like everything else, politics is now confined to the realm of the individual: “behind your eyelids there is black and there is red [but] there won’t be anarchy or revolution”.
What there will be, Jon finally decides, is “the other thing which is harder, which is love”. Love, Kennedy’s narrator adds, will save them – a conclusion reached only after a disquisition by Meg on distant power elites and their abuse of the poor and weak (“a kind of rape”). It’s an oddly forced ending, but of a piece with much else in this novel which makes uneasy comedy out of the clash between romantic sensibility and atomized society. Perhaps what expresses Kennedy’s ambiguity most eloquently in Serious Sweet are the random observations of strangers moving through the city. If you watch carefully, she seems to be saying, people are, on the whole, kind and cooperative. But underlying this is something more disquieting: the novel’s traditional job of bearing witness becomes here an act of detachment and voyeurism, the city appears at a distance from its people who regard it helplessly, as if through a window: “It’s the least you can do -”, Jon says, “watch”.
This review appeared in the Spectator on 14.5.2016 as ‘Disgusted of London’.