Thursday, 7 August 2008

Mervyn Peake's Collected Poems (2008)

This way, ladies, gentlemen, to a fairly lengthy review of Rob Maslen's new edition of Peake's Collected Poems.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Man Booker Longlist 2008

So, the Man Booker Longlist has been announced. Now of course, qua award, it’s no Arthur C Clarke, and although it remains a moderately big deal in the UK (I’ve no idea whether it has any profile at all anywhere else) this announcement seems to have fallen a little flat. Perhaps that’s because the list lacks the smellingsalt whiff of controversy: some white writers, some darker skinned ones; some men, some women; a lot of postcolonial reach and spice in topic and treatment. Yesterday’s Guardian had a little snuffle of half-harrumphing that Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 is on the list, on account of it being a Fast Paced But Basially Rubbish Thriller instead of a proper novel. But middle class people like reading thrillers, and this one is about the murder of children under Stalin’s regime and one courageous man standing up against the tyrannous state, which gives its through-rattle an odour of moral seriousness, and I don’t predict anybody’s really going to fuss about it. Anyway I’m interested enough in genre awards generally, even for dying genres such as those served by prizes like this, to have a look at the books selected:
Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger
Gaynor Arnold, Girl in a Blue Dress
Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture
John Berger, From A to X
Michelle de Kretser, The Lost Dog
Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies
Linda Grant, The Clothes on Their Backs
Mohammed Hanif, A Case of Exploding Mangoes
Philip Hensher, The Northern Clemency
Joseph O'Neill, Netherland
Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence
Tom Rob Smith, Child 44
Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole
Chair of judges, Michael ‘He Seems Likeable On Telly But Never Forget He’s a Tory’ Portillo, commented: ‘The judges are pleased with the geographical balance of the longlist with writers from Pakistan, India, Australia, Ireland and UK …The list covers an extraordinary variety of writing.’ That last bit isn’t true. The website, it say: ‘the 2008 shortlist will be announced on Tuesday 9th September at a press conference at Man Group's London office. The winner will be announced on Tuesday 14th October at an awards ceremony at Guildhall, London.’
Here’s where I stand on this longlist. First: I experience a sense of big disappointment that there’s no science fiction on the list at all. Not a sausage. Something is wrong, there.
Second: I have neither read, nor even seen (in libraries, bookshops etc) copies of the Arnold, the Barry, or the Berger. Indeed, though of course I know about Berger, I’ll confess that I’ve hitherto not even heard of those other two authors. They may be geniuses, they may be rubbish, I’ve no idea.
I’ve come a little closer to (close enough to hold in my hand) the enormous swag-bellied hardbacks of both Hensher and Toltz. Brit-author’s Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency, is a sprawling family saga set in Sheffield in the 1970s, a bit like Catherine Cookson in flares although (from flicking through it) not as entertaining. Ozzie Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole is another saga of eccentric family life, although which, from sitting on the sofa in Borders and reading the first chapter, seems rather more promising. At least 700 pages each, those novels, which is a lot of my life to devote to what appear, at first blush, to be enormous doodlings around the old refrain of happy families resembling one another and unhappy families being unhappy in their own way. But if either makes the shortlist I may take the plunge.
What else? I found the Rushdie resistable, though it feels a little like heresy to say so. So: a European visits the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar claiming to be a relative, with stories about an Indian princess exiled to Florence. There’s a lot of research in the book, not terribly well digested (it ends with a bibliography of historical monographs that goes on for pages and pages and is topped off with a little note from Rushdie himself saying that actually he read many many more books, he’s just not sure how many, which errs on the side of show-offy gittishness, I’d say). The writing is ormolu, sometimes evocative but more often all fucking icing and no cake. Adjectives! Colours, and smells! Exclamation marks everywhere! It’s all gold and spices, jewels, colourful clothes and colourful characters—which is to say, it’s the modern distillation of orientalism, with the racism boiled away and the thick treacle of excoticism left behind. Bookshop shelves hang heavy with this sort of cargo, I’d say: baggy collections of fictional exotica and romance and incense and purpling sunsets over the desert leavened with a bit of stink and shit, wrapped-up warm in big polychromatic dust jackets (As it might be: Rabih Alameddine’s The Hakawati; Antia Amirrezvani’s The Blood of Flowers; Kunal Basu’s The Opium Clerk) It doesn’t, as it happens, take an enormous effort of will for me to resist this. Why? Well, here's Geraldine Brooks' blurb on the Amirrezvani book: ‘a sensuous and transporting novel filled with the colours, tastes and fragrances of life in seventeenth-century Isfahan.’ Which is to say: the novel as goldie-sepia tourism. Bah.
Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger—which I sat down to read properly but found myself instead flicking and speeding through—sets out to be the antidote to this neo-orientalised, ‘it’s all so colourful, it’s all so rich and varied’ goo: it's a deliberately seedy and rather nasty portrait of India from the bottom up, tracing the amoral and often immoral life of Balram, who comes from his dirt-poor village to the sink of humanity that is Delhi. He works as a chauffeur and the scene where he murders his employer is viscerally written and not pleasant; but the writing overall is on the slack side, and I wasn’t convinced that there was much more to the novel than a eversoslightly heavyhanded smack at the silk-and-incense school of Indian writing.
Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes (quoth the publisher's blurb writer: ‘spins a tale as rich and colourful as a beggar’s dream!’) is about the real-life mystery surrounding the death, in an air crash, of the Pakistani leader General Zia al-Haq. It’s more entertaining and less, uh, repellent than the Adiga, but it’s at core a comic novel and stands or falls on how the reader finds its narratorial tone, and whether its business with wacky crows and exploding fruit comes over as funny or not. My reaction to those two things, in order: grating; no.
Then there’s Linda Grant’s The Clothes on Their Backs, a novel about a bookish girl in 1970s London, about her exotic Hungarian √©migr√© uncle and about a series of small scale coming-of-age adventures. Lots of clothes in this one, and throughout the novel tries to orchestrate an overarching metaphor of clothing, about the way we actually are and the way we perform and appear to the world, like a 70s Sartor Resartus. But it doesn’t, I think, pull it off, and it is written (deliberately? who knows) in sprawly, ill-disciplined hit-and-miss style, with lots of too-loose and inexpressive dialogue. Really not a very good novel.
But there are some good novels here too, even setting aside the ones I haven’t read (which may all be masterpieces). Well, there are at least three. Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (which I’m about a quarter into) is written in a more controlled and better way than many of the others, though it has superficial similarities with the neo-orientalised drift of this year's lit-scene it is doing, I think, more interesting things. It’s set in 1838, an opium-war-y India/China 1838, and is about a slave ship and the richly varied selection of people aboard it; a sort of ship-of-fools trope except that it's scrupulously historically located with some solid research (again a little densely unloaded), and that the foolishness is that of human nature rather than any specifically indictable folly. But it’s very well handled, and unless Ghosh goes off before the end (which I’m not expecting: the Sunday Telegraph called the climax “a tremendous scene”) I’d stick up for this book being on the list.
Then there’s Sri Lankan/Australian Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog, an intriguing superposition of excellence and rubbish. It’s about a chap called Tom working on a book about Henry James, whose problems (a tangled romantic life and a difficult elderly mother) are augmented by the loss of his dog. In part the novel darts back to mid-century India and comes under the thrall of Exotico, the super-villain of neo-orientalism (‘garlanded Ganesh fixed to a radiator grill, a scabby naked toddler ... ridges clad in rhododendron, an extravagent sunset spreading itself between mountains, Ayushi, the younger Gupta girl, who wore a diamond nose stud was persuaded to tell their fortune…’ 10-12). But mostly it’s set in present-day Oz, and mostly, actually, what is remarkable about the book is not its characters or plotting but its writing. Lots of ostentatiously good writing here, including some very striking sentences (‘a morse code of mouse shit on the sill’; ‘he stepped out onto the bath mat and into a cube of vaporous light’ 99, 274), but also including some misfiring images (‘at the sight of Tom her mouth unscrolled like a scarlet ribbon’ 156: eh?) and some lines that had me unable to work out whether they worked or not (for instance: ‘An artful spray of white clouds had transformed the sky into a screensaver’. 249) It’s an uneven book, full of second-hand observation culled from the Theory reading lists English depts give out to undergraduates---‘excrement blurred the distinction between inside and outside; amongst the things it offended against was the human need for order’ and other bits of refried Kristeva, Benjamin, de Certeau (de Krester lists some of her inspirations in an afterword)—and its overarching subject is not Tom or the women with whom he interacts, but the way experience spills over the borders we assign them with narrative. A sound, if hardly original novelistic position. But it's a book that lingers in the mind.
Finally there’s Joseph O'Neill Netherland, the only book in this selection (excepting the Rushdie, as Rushdie must always been regarded as exceptional—and I read his one with an exponentially increasing sense of metaphorical indigestion) that I had read before the list was announced. I read it because of a long, considered and generally-but-by-no-means-wholly positive review in the LRB, proof that a review need not be dithrhambic to cause a reader to seek out a book. I though it an excellent novel, I must say, although none of the reviews I’ve read have quite captured its quality. I’ve seen it described as a thriller, but although it starts with the body of one of its main characters handcuffed and murdered in a canal, it’s not really interested in the crime and punishment narrative slog. Sometimes reviewers call it ‘a cricket novel’, and indeed, despite being set almost wholly in New York, cricket does play a fairly large role: the narrator, Dutch banker Hans van den Broek, abandoned by his wife and kid after 9-11 and miserable in the Big Apple, gets involved in a US cricket league set up by his shady but likeable new friend Chuck Ramkissoon). But it’s not a cricket novel; cricket matches are not described in detail, and nor is cricket used as a metaphor (there’s a certain amount about the force of the British phrase ‘that’s not cricket’, and a certain amount about the way cricket brings together friends from all sorts of backgrounds—but lots of sports do that. Cricket is important to the novel because it is alien to America, and it is a lens through which O’Neill can say a series of brilliant and penetrating things about individuals and cultures from Europe, the West Indies, India and the various other increasingly important NY communities who are neither W nor AS nor P. The ‘netherland’ of the title is the narrator’s place of origin (O’Neill says that there are thousands of cricket players in Holland, which I never knew) and the depression into which he sinks as his marriage breaksdown. But in the end I took ‘netherland’ to be a description of precisely the debateable space—the uncertain ground of interaction between different cultures, races, wealth-groups, between law and lawlessness, between civilisation and violence, and so on—which is what the novel is really about. Another way of saying this is to shorthand it: it’s about New York, a city in which its narrator is both intensely miserable and strangely energised.
Setting aside for the moment those three I’ve-not-seen-them might-be-marvellous, could-be-crap, titles, I’m guessing this is the best book on the list. Also: thank heavens for the Spelthorne and Surrey provision of public libraries, without which an interested individual would have to drop something over £200 to be able to read all 13 of these texts. I shall report back when the shortlist is announced.