Thursday, June 29, 2006

In Praise of Serious Art

In his introduction to the "Portable Faulkner", Malcolm Cowley makes the point that it is not Faulkner's individual novels which are the masterpiece, but parts thereof, and, most of all, the entire sequence of Yoknapatawpha county stories and novels. Having just finished Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" I'm tempted to say the same thing about his Newark, New Jersey. Since "American Pastoral" - but not excluding what went before - Roth's subjects have widened to the whole of American living memory whilst focussing on his own experience, his family, the Jewish community, and Newark. "The Plot Against America" has its faults - is in parts brilliant - and adds yet another dimension to Roth's American pastoral. An alternate history of America during the 2nd World War, delaying America's entry into that war; siding with Hitler, with a pro-Hitler president imagined in the election of aviation pioneer Lindbergh; but told against the backdrop of one family - the Roths - and the memories of the 9 year old younger son, Philip. This mixture of the political and the personal has characterised much of his recent work. His phenomenal unfolding sentences are still here; albeit curtailed somewhat in the voice of a child. Yet it is the view of the child - seeing things only partially, which lets the horror unwind. If an adult's role is to keep the true horrors of the world from their children, then in times of terror, doubly so. Yet that same child is here manipulative, part of the "cause", as well as the victim of "effect." The poor, decent Roth family are connected by birth and marriage to the city's Jewish aristocracy, who consider themselves American first, Jewish second - and therefore immune to the historical terrors afflicting their forefathers. This is not an alternate history in the manner of "The Man in the High Castle" or "SSGB", but a "what if" certain small things changed - and how that will affect everyone. It doesn't seem coincidental that it is post-9/11 - that "small thing" had it not happened, would have altered several histories; but how much, its too early to show. There are longeurs; to the 9 year old (and perhaps the elderly) Roth everything has equal importance, equal value. Whereas the glovemaking episode in "American Pastoral" was a masterly aside, here the asides sometimes feel a little force, a little unedited. Here, Roth is a nostalgist, like DeLillo in "Underworld", Scorsese in "Goodfellas" or Woody Allen, fascinated by the detail. It's a thin line. Yet, the "stamp collection" that means so much to the young Philip means much less to us. The "Winchell riots" section, where America's own Kristallnacht is underway sees a different writing - the clipped newspaper tautness of James Elroy's "American Tabloid" - interesting that Elroy's brutally effective reportage should find such a welcome home as a Philip Roth novel. Perhaps there's a limit to what Roth can envisage in an America that has gone to pot, (and I'm talking George W. Bush's America here), but which is still the promised land - and the allegory is occasionally a little heavy - for Roth still thinks America is good, and that Americans are good, and that the cancer of Nazism, though able to take a localised hold on this reimagined America, can never spread to the whole patient. Again, the second world war, from this perspective is reimagined through the terrible prism of the Holocaust; yet its hard to imagine what would have happened to a valiant Britain left to fight alone? It is worth recalling, that the second world war wasn't just a Jewish tragedy. Yet in all of this, despite some caveats, the force of this novel is that it makes you think - and in doing so reduces so many other writers to mere entertainers. Yet Roth also entertains, and adds another vital chapter to his expanding Americna pastoral. Coincidentally, or not, in between reading "The Plot Against America" I went to see "The Wind that Shakes the Barley", Ken Loach's latest excellent film about the Irish Free State. Like his Spanish Civil War dramatisation "Land and Freedom", this personalises a conflict that can easily become unimaginable. Yet it is even denser and bleaker than that earlier film. Loach doesn't shirk on the intensity, and the first hour of the movie is intense. Not that it lets off the tension much. Again, it is in the aftermath of the movie that you feel its accumulated power. Loach doesn't explain or lecture, he merely attempts to show - and in doing so, makes you think. In the 10th Anniversary of the largest ever bomb to go off in mainland Britain, here in Manchester, its a reminder that the roots of that explosion go back - in Sebastian Barry's phrase - a long, long way.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

More (or less)

I meant to mention James Davies's poems "Two Fat Boys" - a long sequence, funny, controlled, irreverant, minimalist - of which a number are in the latest edition of Scarecrow. Also that Transmission's ever more professional looking publication is up to issue 5. Interviews with A. L. Kennedy and Toby Litt are professional rather than revelatory, though I hadn't realised that Litt's books are alphabetical, "Adventures in Capitalism", "Beatniks", "Corpsing..." etc - somehow I felt a little disturbed by this, not sure why. (And I'm someone who loved the double L's of the Go Betweens albums - Send me a LuLLaby, TaLLulah, Spring HiLL Fair etc. - Grant Mclennan's untimely death recently was a genuine loss.)

Out of absentia

The sound that my computer was making a few weeks ago turned out to be terminal, but I'm now back up and running, and wondering what it is I should be blogging about. It's not just been my computer that's been malfunctioning; it's looking like my job might not outlast the year and I've some family health concerns. But those are the travails of life - not the stuff of this blog. The world has been taken over by world cup fever, though I feel it has lessened a little with each England performance. We live in a hyped up world where it is the "before" rather than the during or after that is critical. I'm tempted to turn back to my nascent football novel, but fear it will be another world cup before I get that anywhere near completion. Last night's Verberate was a night of prose and song, with writers from Pulp.Net - I've read some good stories on the site, but I was a bit underwhelmed by last night's readers. The prose was somewhat in that reductionist vein that has been a little in the ascendant since "All Hail the New Puritans." Like English fiction needs to narrow its linguistic horizons! They read well, and there was nothing particular wrong with it, but nothing to grab one either. Tariq Mahmood's "young adults" allegory - about the Iraq war, was the most interesting, yet ruined somewhat by his insisting on having a political Q&A afterwards. The story was strong enough not to require explication, I thought. In a political vein, I'm reading "The Plot Against America" by Philip Roth. I've been a great fan since the astounding "American Pastoral", but part of me wonders if we're suffering from Neil Young syndrome, where every new work is hailed as a masterpiece even before the paint has dried. Like "The Human Stain" and "I Married a Communist" the writing is almost too raw in being dragged from real life, and though the momentum, as always with Roth, is astonishingly controlled, like his unwinding sentences, I've struggled a little with the intimacy of it all. Being voiced by a nine-year old (one of my pet hates) probably hasn't helped; I'm appreciating it rather than particularly enjoying it. But I shouldn't comment whilst still eating the meal, should I? - it's rude to talk with your mouth full!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Oranges, lemons

3rd time lucky for Zadie Smith with "On Beauty" winning the Orange prize for fiction. It might sometimes seems that I'm not a fan of her writing, that would be unfair, their are few contemporary novelists I've avidly read their first 3 books. Whilst I like, sometimes love, her writing, I've drawn short of thinking them the masterpieces that the media insists on, that's all. I think, and hope she'll write a great book one of these days, but I don't think she has as yet. I find competitors Ali Smith and Sarah Walters not to my taste, though I'll no doubt persevere when I get the chance. My problem with "On Beauty" when I reviewed it on this blog, was how in love it is with the middle class collegiate life of its characters, rather than the characters themselves. Nobody in the book, except for the young black street poet, suffers from their errors, so its a strange kind of morality. The middle class may well be fearful of it all being taken away, and it may be unlikely that it ever will be (read a novel like Michael Bracewell's "The Conclave" or Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" for that), but it just strikes me as an odd preoccupation of a novelist. Perhaps I just like a bit more angst. I do like the sunshine, but it doesn't really like me - so I missed Dave Maass's leavetaking on Monday through hayfever; and getting caught in today's stifling heat led to a migraine that made me miss C.P. Lee's book launch at Urbis, for "I Swear I was There", about the legendary free trade hall, where I was also hoping to meet up with my old DJ partner Rupa Huq, who was up to promote her cultural studies book "Beyond Subculture". Next week sees the latest Transmission launch, as well as Michael Symons Roberts reading at the MMU. Tomorrow you can escape from the sun for the first of a series of student readings from MMU students at the Central Library.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

6-6-6 not a formation I''d recommend

My "first collection" has been sat at "fulfilling" status for about 3 weeks - and I was beginning to worry about this whole print-on-demand type thing, but I got an email today saying it's dispatched. So, once it's done, it's out. I was expecting other delays for some reason. 3 weeks is okay. It comes from the US so that's longer, and this is for one copy not many. I guess I was just impatient!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Ah, so that's it

Lured by a glossy Baddiel/Skinner World Cup Wallchart, I picked up the Times rather than the Guardian today. It's book pages is comparable in quality, and at least you get a breather from David Lodge and Julian Barnes; and there was this interesting article by Helen Rumblelow. First, thanks for highlighting that Allan Ginsberg would have been 80 today, and that "Howl" is 50 this year. She asks the very apposite question: "what would he make of today’s young generation of literary talent?" And provides a considered answer: "I can’t help but think he would be disappointed." Ginsberg and Kerouac, she continues, wrote as adults, but too many of today's feted writers "write as teenagers, looking back through the rear window of the school bus." She's put a finger on why I find myself frustrated with so much contemporary writing. Struggling with my own prolonged adolescence (look, I've just a reissue of the first Violent Femmes album playing in the background), the last thing, I think, I want from my writers, is nostalgia for a 60s, 70s or 80s childhood. And as someone who writes, I realise I got writing that out of my system quite early on thank you. I'd like to write - and read - about adulthood, for my generation, and there's precious little of it out there. Perhaps with us all expecting to live to 80+ there's still plenty of time - but I don't know - the beats were clearly avoiding the prescripted life; and therefore had little nostalgia from where they'd come from, far more interested in where they were going. What begins as a criticism from Rumblelow becomes less grudging as she concludes the article - its the urgency of teenage life that appeals to the contemporary writer. I'm not so sure. I noticed how many of the novels on my MA were not only first person narratives, but also from relatively inarticulate characters - the teenager, the drug addict, the mental patient. It was like Holden Caulfield was the only literary role model allowed. As Mark E. Smith wrote in "It's a curse", "balti and vimto and spangles were always crap, regardless of the look back bores." Just time to remind you - and me - that Mark Lawson's interviewing Philip Roth on BBC4 tonight at 7. So much for watching Dr. Who! BBC get your demographics sorted.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Various Things (inc. Booker Prize Expt #3)

I finished Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let You Go." Its a strange book, almost terrible, but redeemed by its ending. Science fiction can be a mainstream writer's achilles heel: neither McEwan's "Child in Time" or Amis's "Time's Arrow" (which uses a sci-fi technique I guess) are among their more satisfying work. Ishiguro's previous novel set in an unnamed place, "The Unconsoled" was a stylistic triumph, if not, ultimately that satisfying a novel, and "Never Let You Go" suffers both in comparison to that and his other work. It's probably giving nothing away now to say its about "clones" which information - though not trailed in the book, was trailed in all the publicity. Yet he's made some curious decisions. It takes place in the current time, "the war" it refers to surely the 2nd world war, and in this way its both a parallel world to the one we know, and one that is clearly ours. References to cassette tapes, Walkmans and other things are necessary for the plot, but highlight the difficulty of a world that remains deliberately un-imagined and underwritten. You could get away with this in a short story, but not in a novel. The main characters are seen growing up, first in a mix between public school and children's home; then in remote chalets; before being placed in the homes and hospitals which are their destinies. This cloistered environments are the only way for Ishiguro to give us both the inner lives of his characters - all told in one consistent, but dated voice - and to keep them away from the difficulties of the real world. Had he set it in the future there would have been a whole different set of imaginative problems; by setting it in post-war England leading up to the present, he can attempt to give his character's a "normal" life. They are normal children then normal adults. They are allowed - even encouraged - to have sex but cannot be allowed to form relationships. The novel is repetitive, boring, and annoying, yet, the clear aim is to humanise the characters, and in this, I think, he succeeds, so that at the end of the book, he has created a very genuine sense of sympathy. The "care" he always has shown for his characters in previous books is still here. He's always the most humane of writers, and this novel would have made a powerful short, or novella. Yet at length its contradictions, and the choices that he makes, seem to be lifted from the fifties sci-fi of a writer like John Wyndham, without any updating. Covering the same subject in "Cloud Atlas" David Mitchell achieves so much more, does it so much better, but without managing the same empathy. So this is, in the end, a mediocre book, with a good heart. Seems that the Bank Holiday gave everyone time to ruminate on Robert McCrum's article last week in the Observer. I can't really get worked up about it either way - because since then I've been busy with the story I talked about in my last post. I've spent the morning taking it apart, and putting it back together, and hopefully its a lot sharper in the new version, though I'm pleased that the story itself required little change, just the bagginess of the writing in my first-cut.