Saturday, 31 January 2009

John Updike, Seventy Poems (1972)

Updike updead. I’m still digesting this unpleasant news. This is what I said in another place:

For a man who was so consummate and brilliant a prose stylist, with such an eye for detail and such a facility with arresting and Keatsian description, I’m kind of relieved that his poetry sucks as much as it does. I’m relieved because whilst I can do prose I can’t seem to write good poetry either, and it’s heartening to think I’m not alone.
On the subject of his brilliance as a prose writer, you might, if you had time and inclination, read this. But Seventy Poems reinforces in me the sense that what he could do marvellously in prose he couldn’t do at all in verse. This is his account of sunshine on a sandstone building:

Golden photon white on granulated red
.....makes brown,
wall-broad in this instance,
splendiferous surface. [86]
That’s almost wholly unevocative, don't you think? Maybe it’s an example of his jokey inhabitations of clunky-kercuhnky old style (here’s his 4-line OE pastiche ‘Winter Ocean’: ‘many-maned scud-thumper, tub/of make whales, maker of worn wood, shrub-/ruster sky-mocker, rave!/portly pusher of waves, wind-slave.’) Sometimes he’s clearly trying for the funny. He doesn’t hit the spot, but you can see he’s trying:

Why marry ogre
Just to get hubby?
Has he a brogue, or
Are his legs stubby?

Smokes he a stogie?
Is he not sober?
Is he too logy
And dull as a crowbar?
But sometimes he really absolutely very-much actually seems to be channelling McGonagall. Here’s the first stanza of ‘Hoeing’:

I sometimes fear the younger generation will be deprived of the pleasures of hoeing;
there is no knowing
how many souls have been formed by this simple exercise.
The characteristic Updike poetic voice is pastiche, and being deliberately so doesn’t inoculate the verse against stiffness. Here’s an erotic epigram that Updike probably wrote in adult life, but which seems (again, perhaps deliberately so) to have been written by a bookish, intense thirteen year old:

Hoping to fashion a mirror, the lover
doth polish the face of his beloved
until he produces a skull.

Pretentious, that. Some of the poems are not bad, although I appreciate I’m giving a rather other impression with this sample. But I want to deal with one complete poem that rather stands out—not because it is bad poetry, because actually it’s not; but because there’s an ick-factor, a ‘he-didn’t-just-say-what-I-think-he-did,-did-he?’ quality, that is also of course very recognisable from Updike's prose.

It is beautiful to think
that each of these clean secretaries
at night, to please her lover, takes
a fountain into her mouth
and lets her insides, drenched in seed,
flower into landscapes:
meadows sprinkled with baby’s breath,
hoarse twiggy woods, birds dipping, a multitude
of skies containing clouds, plowed earth stinking
of its upturned humus, and small farms each
with a silver silo.
It is hard to get past the initial ‘hey!’ to be able to appreciate the extent to which this pastoral worldbuilding inside the stomach of a woman is striking, and strikingly rendered. But yes: secretaries. A: What are they for? Remind me. J: Blow-jobs, that’s what. A: Not for, you know, typing and such? J: Not so much. Mostly it’s the blow-jobs. The clean ones at any rate. A: And the unclean ones? J: I guess they could, eh, do a little light paperwork. A: OK. So, in sum: you see some secretaries, and find yourself thinking: I bet they swallow when they give head: I bet their insides are fair drenched! J: Sure. Don’t you? A: Well, no, actually. And you don’t think those thoughts are a bit … J: Beautiful? Yes I do. A: That wasn’t what I was going to say, actually. J: [dreamily] Beautiful thoughts! Beautiful!

But OK, we can play the game. The point of the poem, I suppose, is that fellatio is contraceptive, where vaginal sex can lead to making babies. So his poem turns, phantasmagorically, the dead-end into a new landscape in which his seed can sprout; the Pennsylvania farmland landscape of Updike’s own youth. It’s not about the secretaries’ insides at all. It’s a poem saying ‘isn’t it nice having your cock sucked?’, which is to say, it’s a poem whose implicit audience is male. ‘Having my cock sucked turns me into a fountain! It takes me back to the world of my youth! It’s all rain-damp woodland and dinky-little farms!’ To which the best response is: well, isn’t that nice for you.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Erasure 'Drama!'

I feel about this song rather as Paul Morley does about Kylie’s 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head'. It achieves a kind of perfection of form that folds shivery depths into what might seem, at first blush, a merely somatic and disposable piece of disco.

There is its initial synthesiser throb; there are tinkles; Andy Bell’s pleasantly fruity tunefulness. Then, picking up speed, the throb becomes a canter. ‘Is that not within your realm of understanding?’ the song asks, awkwardly groping for articulation of something about which it is not, yet, aware. Only when the canter shudders into a gallop, with the chime of a tubular bell, and a downwardly cascading elongation of the vowel, does the song’s weirdly insistent stress upon guilt step to the front: ‘your—shame—is—ne-[ding!]-eeeeee-ee-e-e-ehver’: ‘ending’ comes only as an afterthought, as if the song can’t make up its mind whether shame is never going to end, or never going to manifest in the first place. That’s entirely the point: guilt and arousal are, it says, the same thing. ‘You are guilty!’ sings Bell; ‘guilty!’ shrieks the echoing chorus. The fact of the matter is that this is a song that becomes palpably more and more excited and energized by the articulation of guilt. There’s something perfect in the bookending of the title’s context, all choppy monosyllables, between two vibrato stresses that turn single syllables into two (one, other): ‘just wah-on, pys-cho-lo-gi-cal-dra-ma-aft-er-an. Other.

Only listen to what is being said: ‘you are guilty how you ever entered into this life.’ This astonishing line becomes, by the song’s end--its expression underlined by the panic shout of the male chorus--‘we are guilty (GUILTY!) how we ever entered into this life.’ This is not original sin. This is original sexual orientation; a rather different thing. This is original sing. And what precisely have we to be so guilty, or shamefaced, about?

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Adam Foulds, The Broken Word (2008)

This is one of the 2008 Costa Book Award shortlisted titles, and worthily so I'd say. It is Good Poetry: a verse tale of a young Englishman’s experience of Kenya during the Mau Mau rising, full of impressive and often upsetting moments. Tom, between school and university, travels to his family’s African farm. Some nasty Mau Mau violence is described, but the real emphasis in the poem is on the disproportionate savagery of the English reaction. Tom is recruited into a band of colonial irregulars—farmers and colonists going round with guns killing Kenyans—and later becomes a guard at an internment camp. The torture facility of this place—Compound 9—is an especially nasty place; and the African section of the poem ends with Tom taking a malign sort of pity on an impressive young Mau Mau, about to be taken off there, by shooting him through the head. Then the poem jump-cuts to England, Tom at Cambridge (I take it) reading Classics, and suffering a complex of post-traumatic unhappinesses. He courts a fellow undergraduate, but it looks like he scares her off with his twitchy manner and blurting inappropriatenesses. At the very end, though, she effectively asks him to ask her to marry him. I didn’t take this to be a happy ending. Fould has practiced up, and is pretty effective with, a sort of diluted Martian poetic idiom, and he manages some very striking lines of poetry and vivid images; but by far the most vivid and striking are the most horrible ones—the murder of a couple of Englishmen, a properly revolting description of the rape of a Kenyan woman, the horrible torturing and dismemberments in Compound 9. You can believe that living through these sorts of experiences is bound to fuck a lad up pretty comprehensively, and you finish reading the poem doubting that anybody so fucked-up could be in any sense a good husband or father. I’d feel sorry for the woman (Eleanor, she is called). Or I would have done, had she been in any meaningful sense a character.

There are some lovely lines. Here’s Tom, besotted with Eleanor:
He’d seen her before at lectures
and now sat deliberately behind her
to look down onto her tender nape,
the blue threads of ink from her fountain pen
she tied into beautiful knots. [52]
Those last two lines are superb. Here’s a fly, with a bit of the context of the description:
Tom watched for a bit. He’d grown a connoisseur
of beatings: the first blows stunning and accurate,
with feints or not, and large, like sculpture.
But quickly the prisoner couldn’t focus,
looked ridiculous, bewildered, lonely
before they blacked out completely and lay there.

(The black flies, soft as hair
as they landed on you,
shivered half an inch
in any direction, bristly bodies throbbing,
before setting down the delicate leg
of their mouthparts …
There was no way to get rid of them,
you just waved at their persistence
for hours, until you fell asleep.) [34-5]

'The delicate leg of their mouthparts' is striking as description in its own right, but here, with its hint of dislocated limbs, the tangle-together of feeding and dismemberment, it's particularly memorable. Sometimes, although only occasionally, Fould strains a little (‘the fragrant blue acid/of a gin and tonic’ 7; ‘a walnut-sized/tuft of bread’ 15; a night ‘fur-trimmed with moths’ 31) but generally his poetry is a supple and effective instrument.

There is, though, something anticlimactic about the book; and I don’t think it’s deliberately so. There’s a Craig Raine-ish (a Rainey) flavour to the poetry—chapter 9 is called ‘Rain;’—which is fine; Raine is a major contemporary poet, and his is an idiom worth copying. Foulds thanks Raine in his acknowledgements, and Raine provides a backcover blurb praising the poem as ‘first-class, word-perfect, brilliant’ and adding:

The long poem is the most testing of poetic forms but Adam Foulds passes the test triumphantly.
I confess I read that as a typically oblique, suggestive Raine sentence. What it is saying, amongst other things, is: ‘I wrote History: the Home Movie, you know.’ And the truth is that compared with that long poem, The Broken Word feels a little … thin. It is a short story in verse, not a novel. But the problem with that (and I spent a while thinking: is there a problem with that, actually?) is that any poem worth its salt is a short-story in verse; and that most poems that are worth their salt achieve that effect in a few lines, rather than 61 pages. Another way of putting this, if it doesn’t seem to contradict what I’m saying, is that The Broken Word needs to be longer. It needs more heft. History: the Home Movie is sometimes overcompressed, and gristly, but there’s no denying the enormous momentum and weight it accumulates as it goes on. Other contemporary long poems of significance—Les Murray’s glorious Fredy Neptune, for instance—succeed with a kind of formal excess. The Broken Word feels filigree by comparison. Some scenes—Tom’s sister in the bath, and peering at her teeth, or the goings-on of the vile colonial officer Prior—set themselves up to be followed up, but then aren’t. In fact the poem quickly settles wholly on to Tom’s p.o.v. which turns early departures from that perspective, like these, into hang-nails. It was a poem that hasn’t quite made up its mind about whether it is just about Tom’s slightly feeble emotional journey, or about something larger: early scenes hint that it was planned on a larger scale, but that this scale falls away before the end of the African scene, and the final English chapters feel if not inconsequential then certainly an underemphatic coda.

What am I saying? I think I’m saying that Rainese, as a poetic idiom, is very good at isolating moments of intensity: vivid imagery, striking or emphatic emotional or physical states. The best Rainey images strike the mind with great force. This makes his idiom less effective at other things; even (it sounds counterintuitive to say this, in a way) nuance. In Fould’s hands this means that the Mau Mau rebellion becomes a series of forceful and often upsetting details, memorably expressed, and nothing else; and it means that his second section is almost bound to seem anticlimactic.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Le Guin, Lavinia (2008)

The single best SFF novel of the year, I'd say. And here are my strangely horizoned thoughts as to why. This was quite a long-pondered review, actually, although still not quite articulating, I fear, what it is about this fine work that affects me so very much. It has something to do with the way bats don't fly straight and owls do, certainly. Something, that is to say, to do with lyric as opposed to narrative poetries, and so presumably to do with my personal writerly problems with the latter always straining to collapse into the former. One day I'll write a novel as good as this one. I mean, I tell myself so. A man's reach should exceed his grasp, right? Or ... I forget how the rest of that goes.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Zola, The Belly of Paris (1873)

I have modified my plan. I've decided, now, that I shall bounce happily but randomly within the framework of Zola’s novel sequence.

So to Le Ventre de Paris, the third episode in Zola’s great Rougon-Macquart textual roulitrot. It is, essentially, a 2nd Empire Fattipuffs and Thinifers: a semiotically and (indeed) actually detailed if conceptually monolithic representation of ‘the city’ (Paris, bien sûr) in terms of its appetite for food; its gluttony, in the strict sense. The city is a series of villages—one character is essentially a village gossip, Mlle Saget (‘her gossiping tongue was feared from the Rue Saint-Denis to the Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau…’ 64)—and all the villages, taken together, are dominated by the huge iron structure of Les Halles. There’s something almost sciencefictional (in a good way) about Zola’s conception, here: the vast victuals market, its multifarious population of sellers and hawkers and street kids and shopkeepers and artists (the flaneuring Claude Lantier, painter, who gets the novel’s last word—of contempt for the bourgeoisie) and would-be revolutionaries. And the food. The food is described in enormous descriptive perorations, for which the phrase 'purple prose' is hardly sufficient: there's an intense and painterly stress upon the colour and composition of these huge heaps of vegetables, or fish, or meat, piled up for sale.

The story isn’t really the point, I think; although it is a good-enough little story. Florent Quenu, innocently caught-up in the events of 2 Dec 1851, is wrongly convicted and banished to Cayenne. He escapes and makes his way back to Paris to live with his brother, a prosperous butcher, and his brother's wife, the enormous-bosomed, chilly-hearted Lisa (‘la belle Lisa’). Though supposedly hiding from the police, he nevertheless gets a job at Les Halles, and joins a group of revolutionaries plotting the overthrow of Napoleon III’s government. Towards the end of the book it becomes apparent that he has been under police surveillance from the beginning—as soon as he landed back in France, indeed—and that several members of his revolutionary group, plus his neighbours and eventually La Belle Lisa herself, have all snitched him out to the fuzz. Floirent, a thin man, fastidious and virtuous (in the ingenuous, almost childlike manner that amounts to a sort of sublime selfishness), does not fit in amongst the fatties of Les Halles. Claude has a whole pseudo-evolutionary theory about this, all to do with fatness and thinness: ‘Cain … was a Fat man and Abel a Thin one. Ever since the first murder, the big eaters have sucked the lifeblood out of the small eaters. The strong constantly prey on the weak, each one swallows his neighbour and then gets swallowed up in turn. Beware the fat my friend!’ [191]

This troping of obesity as strength strikes, for the modern reader, a strange note: we’re saturated, nowadays, with the idea that obesity is a weakness, even a pathology and a degeneration. But for Zola all his fat people are prodigiously, Homerically strong. Here's an example: La Belle Lisa is admired by the feral young man Marjolin, who has grown from being a Les Halles urchin into an adolescent of unfettered savage appetites. Marjolin has a girlfriend, the similarly feral Cadine, but he nurses a tender passion for the statuesque Lisa. On a (very nicely described) amble he and Lisa take through the subterranean storage spaces and chicken coops (a pungent place, ‘the air had the alkaline coarseness of guano’) of Les Halles he makes a move on her, with brutish directness:

Now he was timid no longer, he was full of the rut that heated the dung in the chicken coops … Marjolin gave way to a sudden impulse; glancing round to make sure they were alone, he threw himself on La Belle Lisa with the strength of a bull. Grabbing her by the shoulders, he pushed her backwards into a basket of feathers, where she fell in a heap, her skirts around her knees. He was about to grab hold of her waist, just as he did with Cadine, with all the brutality of an animal following its instincts, when, without a sound and quite pale with the suddenness of this attack, she leapt out of the basket. She raised her arm as she had seen them do in slaughterhouses, clenched her beautiful woman’s fist, and knocked Marjolin senseless with one blow between the eyes. He fell backwards, smashing his head against the edge of one of the stone blocks. [182]
He’s badly hurt; and when he recovers has been cretinised by the blow; but ‘La Belle Lisa remained perfectly composed’ and just walks away, 'reflect[ing] that her powerful arms had saved her.' Phew.

Structurally it’s is a strange piece of writing. Brian Nelson, in the introduction to his excellent new translation of the piece, notes that the novel’s originality ‘has nothing to do with its plot (there is little suspense: the plot is slight, and in any case the reader of 1873 knew that there was no popular uprising in Paris in 1858). It lies, rather, in Zola’s stylistic experimentation with description , in his desire to test the limits of descriptive discorse’ [x]. That’s right, I think; although there’s something else, a formal weirdness or clunkiness. The novel is nearly 300 pages long, but these pages are disposed into only six chapters. These are, consequently, very lengthy, and the p.o.v floats rather circuitously through and around each one. The first (shorter than most) brings Florent on stage, starving and exhausting, hitching a lift on a vegetable cart on his way into town. Chapter 2, though, is a structurally disorienting mélange of retrospective backstorying, too many new characters, and an awkward series of givens—money, for instance, popping up as if from nowhere to give certain characters a bourgeois stake in things without giving them a middle-class upbringing. Chapter 3 meanders, and can’t seem to line up its foci (work, love, politics). Chapter 4 starts with a long and rather frustrating digression on the birth and upbringing of Marjolin and Cadine. By the time we get to the inevitable pay-off of the original set-up it feels overdelayed, and rather brusquely handled.

A few odd moments, for me, too. Marjolin and Cadine rut like animals all the time. How is it she does not fall pregnant? Maybe she's, or he's, infertile; maybe they're not doing it right; maybe they're practising some form of birth control: oddly, Z. keeps mum. Then again: ‘Mère Chantemesse specialized in peeled vegetables; on her stall, covered with a strip of blank cloth, she laid out rows of potatoes, turnips, carrots and white onions … all ready to be popped into the saucepans of housewives who wanted to save time.’ [156]. I can believe the onions were peeled (though surely not chopped); and I could just about buy the carrots. But the spuds? Laying over a damp cloth is not going to stop them going as brown as marmite. Here’s what I suspect: Zola never, himself, peeled a single potato. He had other people to do his cooking for him, and he was innocent of the fact that peeled spuds oxidize very quickly if you take the skin off. Tch.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Martin Amis, Yellow Dog (2003)

Science Fictional (alt-historical) or at the least satiric-phantasmagorical, Yellow Dog is set in a 2003 in which Henry IX sits on the throne of England—his wife is in a coma and his 15-year-old daughter subject to leering, video tabloidesque intrusions into her bathtime frolics. Henry is one character in Amis’s tale; another is Clint Smoker, a journalistic hack from a sub-Sun rag called Morning Lark. Another character is the improbable film-star, novelist, rock-star, ideal husband Xan Meo who gets clonked on the bonce and undergoes a change of personality into an alpha male. Then there’s Joseph Andrews, an elderly Brit-gangster even less believable than those delineated by Guy Ritchie. Hard to imagine, I know, but there you go. Amis sets these different storylines running, but seems clueless as to how to bring them back together again: he ends up literally smashing them into one another—very crudely handled. There’s also an underpowered conspiracy plotline that’s supposed to link them all, but that’s unengaging and unsatisfyingly rendered.

It almost goes without saying that Yellow Dog is a terrible novel. Ah, but it is terrible in interesting ways, in ways (indeed) that make it a more worthwhile read than any number of much better but deadened-by-competence pieces of fiction. It is, for instance, not a shabby, or ill-considered or hastily put-together piece of work. Indeed it could have done with being rather more hastily rendered: much of it (clogging its heart with the cholesterol of earnestness) is a series of leaden sermons about masculinity, pornography, pedophilia and the relationship between the genders: clearly very long-pondered if essentialist and wrongheaded. Also the prose has clearly been strenuously worked through. There are moments—images, and occasionally whole sentences—where this work has resulted in properly good writing:

The mist had lifted; out to sea a wildhaired wave collapsed, not all in one piece but laterally, from left to right, like a trail of gunpowder under the torch. [110]
Lovely, that. Amis is good with accounts of the sky, too. During a thunderstorm: ‘arthritic feelers of lightning’ lancing out ‘forming coastlines with many fjords’ [299]. But there’s something about this sort of writing:

The bright sky was torn by contrails in various states of dissolution, some, way up, as solid looking as pipecleaners, others like white stockings, discarded, flung in the air … others like breakers on an inconceivably distant shore. [289]
The more you read, the more it starts to dawn on you: Amis can write nicely when he’s describing stuff that’s far away. The further away, indeed, the better, as far as Amis is concerned. But when he gets close to people his good writing goes all whiffy and off: congeals into a peculiar ugliness that zooms straight past the human organ of imagination without connecting: ‘as he climbed from the car a boobjob of a raindrop gutflopped on his baldspot’ [187]. Or else he falls into a polysyllabic verbosity that very markedly falls short of being Nabokovian (‘there I am,’ he said, with a certain finicky jauntiness embedded in his indignation’, 272).

That’s the problem, right there. Amis has written a novel about people. Novels, after all, are about people. But, in numerous ways (although with a remarkably consistent intensity) Amis despises people. And, you know what? It turns out you can’t write neoDickensian social satire—the thing Yellow Dog egregiously strives to be—when you’re hobbled by such a thoroughly unDickensian contempt for human beings. ‘Dickens’, as a shorthand, is something like the opposite of contempt for people. But more than that, it turns out you can’t write Hogarthian, or even Boschian, phantasmagoria is you’re handicapped by that mode of contempt. You might be able to achieve a Waugh-like sharpness, but to do that you’d need to have Waugh’s extraordinary prosaic self-control and intensity, and Amis doesn’t have it. His objection to the porn industry (and my, what a hard-to-hit target Amis has lighted upon with that one) is gender-essentialist. In his world men all love pornography and women all hate it. In a peculiar little riff he speculates that maybe ‘women wouldn’t mind pornography if reproduction took pace by some other means: by sneezing, say, or telepathy.’ Then he thinks again. ‘But maybe it wasn’t that. Maybe women just couldn’t bear to see it travestied, the act of love that peopled the world’ [335]. So to recap: sex is good if it is about ‘love’ and ‘reproduction’ and a travesty if it is not. And actually, I doubt even Amis believes his ‘maybe’ has inoculated him against the infection of loony rightwingnuttery.

Yellow Dog tries, often, to be funny; but it is not funny at all: its humour either sneering and hateful, or else—an aristocrat with a servant called Love—feebly Blackadder-derivative. Its play, mostly wordplay, is lumpish and continually reaching for a significance beyond its grasp. Of the inherent sexism of porn’s fascination with the money shot: ‘they call it the pop-shot. They don’t call it the mom-shot.’ Yes. Right. I’ll go ahead and file that with ‘they call it mascara, they don’t call it pascara’ and ‘they call it cargo even though it’s carried by lorries and not by cars at all.

This novel aims to say penetrating things about the world we live in and it doesn’t. It’s a crashing, and an ugly novel. Turns out that even the harshest satire needs a ground in common humanity; that without a sprinkle of the yeast of sentimentality the dough of the Jeremiad will not rise.