Sunday, September 30, 2012

Poems for Pussy Riot

The imprisonment of the 3 women who sung a protest song as part of the Pussy Riot arts/music collective in Russia has galvanised opinion world wide. I'm so pleased that the poetry community has been part of this, and a herculean effort over the last few weeks has seen 110 poets submit new work in support of Pussy Riot. Ranging from Booker-listed Ali Smith, to myself, via a wide range of young, old, male, female, mainstream, experimental poems its looking like a great book in itself. The book is called CATECHISM: Poems for Pussy Riot.

Supported and supporting English PEN, with its long history of supporting incarcerated and otherwise censored writers, this is not just a worthy campaign, but an active component of the struggle against state and religious censorship and the crackdown of artistic freedom. This is not just about Russia, or Putin, or the women in Pussy Riot, but a reminder that the powers-that-be are always to happy to hide behind legal frameworks, state apparatus and the religious sensitivities when it comes to cracking down on voices they don't like to be heard. (Remember, that Tony Blair's Labour government attempted to make religious satire a criminal offence.)

There will be a protest event in London tomorrow with some of the poets reading, and this will coincide with the release of the e-book, proceeds from which will go to the defence fund of the imprisoned Pussy Riot members. Its also, from the poems that I've seen posted already on the PEN website, a brilliant collection of some of the most interesting poets around.

Its worth remembering that the real women in this case are being separated from their friends and families for what are essentially political reasons, and that even if their case is no longer the first item on the news, that their situation is something that no artist here or abroad should ever face. 

You will be able to download and donate from midnight tonight at this web page on a name your price basis. Whatever you give will be welcome and the book itself will, I'm sure be worth your contribution on its own.You can read a number of the poems if you follow the links on this page.

Many thanks to Sophie Mayer, Sarah Crewe, Amy Key, Mark Burnhope and the other poets and translators who have made this happen.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Jumping Genres

Much fun was had on Thursday night at the Didsbury Arts Festival where the #flashtag collective put on a night of words and music called WORDPLAY, which I was asked to perform at.  My piece was a ten minute "audio comic" basically a noirish story with a soundtrack. I hope it went down well. An extract of my reading "Nerdtown" can be heard here. The night was all about jumping genres. The #flashtag writers basically came together from a love of flash fiction and performing - and the live literature scene is beginning to transform fiction in the same way as performance poetry gave a boot up the backside to poetry.

Second up, was Tom Mason with a soundtracked story that had the scariest image of the evening - a bus load of musicians transformed into the grinning members of Jools Holland's big band, all turned into clones of the boogie-woogie piano man. It was a model that continued through Fat Roland's piece - where the narrator is being haunted by a spectral dead Whitney Houston, the dark rumbling soundtrack morphing into Whitney singing "I will always love you".

Completing the first half of the show was  "Tether" by (murmur) featuring David Hartley with an ambitious music concept piece about Russian cosmonauts going into space via a giant umbilical cord "tethered" to the earth. Over a changing soundtrack of drum and bass stylings Hartley told the story of these first cosmonauts. What was this? Musical piece? Story? Hard to tell, but they had created a whole concept with images, video and CD to accompany the music. After a break, where we refreshed glasses, and videos of Alabaster de Plume were shown, Les Malheureux commenced the second half. A duo of Sarah Clare Conlon and David Gaffney, deadpan short stories are intoned by Clare over Gaffney's cabaret keyboard stylings as a powerpoint goes on in the background. Clare reads from a smart phone, as did Tom, and its fascinating to see how easy to use technology is helping writers be more ambitious in their presentations.

Whilst the final act set up, Benjamin Judge read from his brilliant little booklet "50 Stories about Sting."  The final act was the most ambitious of the evening as the collective had paired local art rock band Monkeys in Love with the fiction writer Valerie O'Riordan. Taking her cue from their song titles we had a series of parallel plays - story, then song - with the first piece being a collaboration where the Monkeys accompanied her; and there was even some effective use of the first overhead projector I've seen in about 20 years, to add some visuals to the story. The final song, Owl with Hands, explained Laura's "owl" costume. I think.

So that was it: a unique jumping of genres that actually made perfect sense when you were there. Loved being part of it; and glad that I was prompted to do the most ambitious of my ideas. Lots of writers I know have an interest in music, and I think all of us will be interested in continuing such juxtapositions in the future.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Literary Snobbishness

To complain about a lingering literary snobbishness around the Booker might seem pointless; and given some of its less than overwhelming choices in recent years, I'm not sure it even matters. The novel was never the snobbish one in the literary family. It was born over the other side of the blanket, the progeny of journalists, chancers and even, God forbid, women. If it became respectable in the late 19th century it was still peopled by writers who'd not gone to university; who'd had their education in the fields around Haworth or the pubs around Fleet Street rather than Oxford and Cambridge.

That at some point the novel became the "tour de force" that we like to think of it - and perhaps supplanted poetry, the essay and drama as the jewel in our literary crown - didn't particularly make it respectable. After all, what had begun as a "romance", as "a novel" entertainment, was now (and for a long time had been) capable of being amongst the greatest art - yet technically a novel was any prose story pushed between covers, whether a Mrs. Oliphant or a George Eliot, a Mills & Boon or Midnight's Children. The French have long had their literary prizes (and other kinds of prizes) with a keen sense of where those books fit in the culture. The Booker grew out of corporate sponsorship; a desire to recognise the Commonwealth as something more than an outmoded concept; and possibly a desire to reward the respectable, at a time, the late 60s, when the world was changing.

Its remained its middle-browness as a prize of course, and I'm always amazed by the breadth of British literary culture - where we have these touchstones, like the Booker, the Queen's Medal for Literature, the Poet Laureate, the TLS and LRB, and then have these many layers of literary culture under and around. Like the class system these aristocratic pursuits seem to almost exist in another world - and when an upstart Australian (DBC Pierre) arrives at the party there's something of a collective shudder. So even though its for the "best books of the year" there's always a sense that it is an establishment sense of this.

After last year's "page turners" (which weren't particularly page-turning, from my reading of them, Patrick DeWitt aside) we've a more patrician head of the judges this year, Peter Stothard. Its something of course isn't it? That these men of letters exist. I've been immersed in literature for 30 years or more and not really come across him till now, though that's probably a triumph to his integrity - after all I love the TLS at its best, though I'd rarely consider it a reliable source for reviews of  fiction or poetry. In an otherwise illuminating interview in the Independent he blows it all by complaining that Book Bloggers are harming literature. Hard to know what he's saying, as it seems to be about a critical culture that is no longer there on the web; but it somehow all about friends puffing their friends books. (Not that that has ever happened in the mainstream press at all!) Its of course more nuanced that criticising blogs - what he's doing is criticising a "mass of unargued opinion." Whilst that might be true of Amazon reviews for instance, its almost the opposite of what you find from the book blogs. Whether its a collective effort like Bookmunch, where books routinely disappoint careful reviewers, or philosophical heavyweights like Stephen Michelmore or John Self, or literary magazines like 3AM, or (dare I say it) this blog, there's always seemed an independence about book blogging that is far more trustworthy than the Guardian's usual suspects approach to reviewing.

All I'd ask is that the Booker, one day soon, actually invites a book blogger to be one of its judges - after all we've had politicians, civil servants and actors alongside the more literary folks, but if I'm not mistaken, they've yet to invite (or be accepted by) a blogger. Then perhaps we'll stop getting this kind of reactionary snobbishness from a literary establishment that is rarely relevant outside their (admirable) day jobs.

One final point - Stothard admits that he's only seen something like six films in his life. This is astonishing in the extreme. His point - that "the great works of art have to renew the language in which they're written" is one I wholly agree with, but I'd argue that over the last fifty years (or longer) its as likely to be the movies "Chinatown" and "The Godfather" that have done that, as Graham Greene and Angela Carter. Are we here again seeing the distinctiion between a high art and a low art? Hard to know - and he's chaired an interesting looking list that has admirably lifted up some of that literary underground to the top table. Whether, like the servants in Downton Abbey, those will be let in more regularly, remains to be seen.

(I've just noticed the Guardian has done a piece on this and has asked a couple of Bloggers for their POV. Read it here.) 

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max

We have the "ghost story" because on September 12th 2008 the writer David Foster Wallace hung himself at the age of 46. He had published his first novel 21 years earlier, "The Broom of the System", had with his epochal second book "Infinite Jest" written one of the key novels of the late 20th century, and published widely as a short story and essay writer. His unfinished third novel "The Pale King" was published this year, and now we have D.T. Max's biography.

A writer's life has two narratives - that expressed in the work and that as lived. For the reader, often the first is all they know, though there are hints of something else. Wallace's success came at the time of the book tour, but just before the ubiquity of the internet. Whereas Brett Easton Ellis criticises Wallace on his Twitter feed, DFW was a reluctant user of the internet. In some ways "Infinite Jest"'s success is representative of it coming at a time just before the web became our primary communications medium. So though Wallace died young, and this biography is one of the first literary biography's I've read where I can say "that was the year I was doing that", there does seem something that connects him to a slightly earlier time. His two great literary friends were Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo, the latter, an older mentor. All three writers have written extensively about the media. I first came across Wallace in the late 90s through his short stories and essays. I was reading "Conjunctions" and other American literary magazines; and there was this other wave, of what I guess you could call post-post-modern writing, beginning to show through which seemed a relief amidst the still prelavent "dirty realism."  "Irony" - that thing we in England always criticise the Americans for not getting - was a new trope in its fiction.

What I hadn't realised, until reading the life, was the arc of Wallace's career. Picked up for his first novel by a young agent whilst still at college, a respectful success with his debut, leading to opportunities such as a residency at writer's colony at Yaddo (where he got drunk with Jay McInerney, and according to Max, saw a way to be successful that he was both tempted by, but demurred from) or teaching residency's on various MFA programmes. From the mid-west, Wallace - who I'd always thought as a highly urban, media-saturated novelist - lived in a succession of small college towns; trips to NYC or large cities infrequent, or not that vital. Unless I missed something he hardly ever travelled outside of the USA; there's not a single trip to Europe mentioned - which in the age of the global superstar writer seems highly surprising.

However, there was another side to Wallace's life which perhaps explains the lack of travel. From his high school days onwards he suffered badly from depression. The life told, in Max's carefully non-judgemental life, is one of highs and lows. Wallace has an intensity that you'd probably gather from his fiction. Highly driven straight-A's student; then pot fiend; then - in a matter of months it seems - alcoholic; serial womaniser. The America of the 80s and 90s promises "everything" - but Wallace is the other side of that American dream; self-medicating I guess, against the depression. Highly intelligent, he never strays far from the academy, but the traditional discipline of study is not what he is best at - it causes horrendous strains - the worst of which, an ill-advised PhD in philosophy begun at Harvard which sends him spiralling into alcohol abuse, and being institutionalised. The painful slow recovery, from hospital, to half-way house, to a new routine of sobriety and recovery groups is the unexpected narrative of much of this excellent biography. From a British perspective, there is something alien about this world of therapy and AA groups; yet its clear that Wallace had a serious illness that stopped him, for so much of his life, doing the thing he was best at, writing.

Max is generous with his descriptions of Wallace's writing and this book should be of interest to anyone who has read him, and anyone who wants to think about the nature of the writing life. The crumpled up pages; the manic writing sprees; the agonising arguments with editors over length and house-style; but also the nature of writing for a novelist who was never comfortable with story - who quickly went from a love of Barthes and Gaddis to wanting to create something more humanised that could keep the manic energy of the surreally post-modern, but centre it on something much more real. Perhaps its no surprise that Franzen was a friend, and that DeLillo, who has more than most writers fused these two things, was a mentor. Though a "writer's writer" Wallace's base at a series of American campus's, and the necessity of the sober life, with its local support groups, means that he's serious relationships are often with "ordinary" people. He hides how he met them by saying they were from his "local church" but in reality they are his support group following addiction. He has a few mild literary feuds. Brett Easton Ellis - an early influence - is dismissed as is Mark Leyner, writer of briefly popular post-modern entertainment "My son, the gastroenterologist." He writes a long, long essay castigating a dreadful late Updike novel, and then regrets it. His popular essays are long, unexpected pieces for American magazines, ironic semi-fictional accounts of cruise ships, state fairs, and tennis. He co-writes a book on Rap music just as the music goes mainstream.

"Infinite Jest" is a massive novel and began as even bigger. This "gigantism" is still the thing that puzzles me a little. Like Fitzgerald he wanted to write novels, but could sometimes only write short fiction or essays. "Infinite Jest" grows out of a creative/destructive friendship then relationship with a poet, Mary Karr, and the experiences of the "half way house" where he met a different type of person, saw a different side of life. Yet in the long gap between "Infinite Jest" and his death, he takes on a non-fiction book about mathematics; he writes a long essay about John McCain. Reading Wallace you feel that he takes his inspiration from the culture of the time, and these pop culture essays brought him name recognition, and a wider readership. Max tries to untangle to what extent they helped or hindered the writing of the novels. If "The Broom of the System" was something he dismissed later in his life; and "Infinite Jest" seemed an impossible act to follow; one wonders about him as a novelist.Is he, like Faulkner, trying to write something large than a single book? Many parts of "Infinite Jest" and "The Pale King" were published before the novels, or read aloud at readings. The pile of papers left beside him when he committed suicide was some kind of ordering; but there was much else left out.

This, I think, is where the life does become vital. For he is never happy for long - in jobs or relationships. There is a tension between teaching (which he likes) and writing. He needs money to buy him time to write, but seems uncertain how to react when he receives a massive fellowship, or when a job at a college comes with only the slightest of teaching commitments. His problems with his family are deep-rooted, but they are also supportive; his relationships with women are many, but often self-destructive - often with women also coming out of recovery or older than him, with children. Reading the life, I'm reminded of what I think Neil Young had advised Kurt Cobain, to just stop doing what you don't want to do. Wallace's brilliance, his straight A life, his unexpected success with "Infinite Jest", and his need to keep grounded in the absence of the addictions that are killing him, are mapped out in a well-ordered biography, that goes into just enough detail, without over-emphasising the day-to-day life of the writer. I read it straight through in a day and a half. The latter part of the book sees Wallace first grounded back in the mid-west at a small college, surrounding himself with dogs and friends in recovery; then moving west again - where he finally settles down with the artist Karen Green. Though even here normal life is not that possible. "They are soon in couples therapy" writes Max. He is with Karen when he tries to go off his long term meds, and the last period of his life, leading to the suicide, seems to be the returning of the illness, that will finally kill him. The complexities of his personal life feed into "Infinite Jest", so the life and writing are somewhat entwined. In contrast, researching for "The Pale King" he goes back to the straight A student, studying accountancy this time as he wants to research a novel about the IRS. More than anything, reading Max's biography, it is not his failures that stick with you; rather that, given so much pain and difficulty in his life, he wrote and achieved so much.

Friday, September 07, 2012

The Five Foot Shelf

A series of internet links took me to an article about Dr. Eliot's "five foot shelf" otherwise known as "Harvard Classics." The president of Harvard Charles W. Eliot had said that the books central to a liberal education could be fit on a 5-foot shelf. A publisher took him up on the offer, and in 1909 the "Harvard Classics" series was published - a set of 51 books containing, where possible, whole texts.  It seems appropriate, in this age of compression - via the Kindle - that over a century ago, there was a sense that one didn't need vast space to gain an education. I guess America is home to this kind of self-improvement through books - think Encyclopeadia Brittanica and Readers Digest - but its also quite pervasive. When a family friend passed away a more modern collection - running from fairy stories, to Shakespeare, to even a Graham Greene - ended up in my direction. The list on the "five foot shelf" is heavy on philosophy, poetry, and key science texts such as "Origin of the Species" but it also finds room for fables, political speeches and essays. Fiction is there in "Don Quixote" and others - but a 2nd list - of a shelf of fiction - 20 books long - followed. Its heavy on the Russians, has no room for Melville.

It got me to wondering what would a "twentieth century" five foot shelf contain? We seem less enamoured of non fiction these days - or rather books of science get superceded. Is there one or more poetry anthologies that would suffice or would we have to create a new one? Which novels would survive? Should we find room for much science or language - and what about "art"? What about religion?  So here's the thing - five, ten, fifteen books if you please in the comments that should be there on the "five foot shelf" - or rather on our new "5 Gb Shelf" on our Kindle or iPad. I'll let you go back to 1900, and if there's anything this century that deserves preserving already then put it in there.

Its non fiction I'd find problematic - so few of the key texts have I read - I'd have to find room for some Walter Benjamin, but what about Sartre? Derrida? What about "The Second Sex" and "The Female Eunuch"?

I've made a start with 25 books that would be in contention....

Complete Poems of T.S. Eliot
The first 49 Stories - Ernest Hemingway
The Penguin Book of the Beats
The New Poetry ed. by Alvarez
The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
Howard's End by E.M. Forster
Essays by George Orwell
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Madwoman in the Attic by Gilbert & Gubar
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvestor
Kafka's Diaries
The Essential Writings by Mahatma Gandhi
The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
The Glass Stories by J.D. Salinger
All my Sons by Arthur Miller
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
Solibo the Magnificent by Patrick Chamoiseau
Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus
The Origins of the Second World War by A.J.P. Taylor
Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Death and Afterlife of a Modern Novelist

When David Foster Wallace committed suicide I was profoundly shocked, but hadn't really thought much about him as a man, rather than a writer. I knew him only from his books, including the big one, "Infinite Jest", that I'm still to read. In death - or rather in the afterlife of an artist who's died tragically - much more focus comes to the man than the work; though the two become linked when his unfinished novel "The Pale King" was released with much fanfare.

This week we will have the first biography of DFW, (by D.T. Max)  and in some ways it was more of a shock reading a review and then an extract of this than by the "fact" four years ago of his suicide. Whereas I once knew just the writing now I know something of what is underwriting it. I've ordered the autobiography and will no doubt review that at some point; but it got me thinking about him as a writer.

We no longer "revere" writers as we may have sometimes done in the past, though occasionally a book surpasses all sales expectations. DFW seems almost like a throwback to an earlier age; a contemporary writer who is praised in his lifetime as being not just a connoisseurs choice, but as someone who has had some impact on the literary culture. How many of our peers are influential? Maybe one or two a generation.

For DFW would be 50 this year had he lived; he's in that middle generation, just about a 2nd generation baby boomer, at university just before our "modern age" was formed (Thatcher/Reagan/computers), but a little young for the faded dreams of the sixties. In this he is both my "peer" and not; and I'm thinking here of him as a writer (and of me as a writer.) He certainly writes about a world that I recognise. Reading Mailer or DeLillo or Roth or even McInerney, I've not just got the distance between American and British writing and culture, but of a different generation, and that's often a difference of morality as well as language and context.

But DFW died aged 46, the age I'll be in March. I've been writing for as long as he was, obviously with much less success, and this piece isn't meant to suggest any comparison in terms of us as writers; other than from the little I've read about him, I think we share the same sense of ambition for writing; and the same sense of how hard it is, how brilliant it is when you get it right, and how important it is not just to write but to write something that matters. (And that's contentious enough: it can take twenty years just to get to the point that you might have a clue what you're doing.)

What I think I'm trying to say is that here's a writer, not much older than me, had he lived, who had not only accomplished quite a lot, against a whole range of difficulties, but had he lived would surely not be "finished." The idea that my writing could be finished at 46 - however unfinished the actual work is - would seem absurd. Whereas in the past writers died young, nowadays, surely, they shouldn't? I hadn't known, to be honest, about DFW's depressions, alcoholism etc. until I heard of his suicide; and I'm going to read the biography not to wallow in those, as to get a closer look at the intellectual and imaginative anatomy of
a writer close to my generation. I can't imagine that many writers of his age being ready for a biography and he has one now for two reasons; one, because the life is definitively finished (and therefore with it goes the writing life - we have all there is), and two, because of all the writers of the last twenty years you'd have wanted to be writing for the next twenty years, DFW is certainly one of them.

It's as true in literature as in music that death can be a good career move. There certainly wouldn't be a biography (and in the near future, the "letters" of DFW) if he was still with us. The "unfinished" and "repackaged" work comes into its own. The scholarly mechanism as well: already I know of someone in Manchester completing a DFW PhD - I doubt there are that many living writers getting the same treatment.  Ghoulish as that is, and whatever a writer thinks about the "posthumous" or the "afterlife" in letters, we know it happens - and that a name that could be lost becomes better known because of the tragedy. There's something else of course: we don't have to deal with the disappointment - the Martin Amis of "Yellow Dog"  is no longer something that we have to contemplate with DFW, for instance. It makes writers' lives, and their writing lives, more manageable, more compact.

What I hope it doesn't do though is reinvigorate the cult of the "mad" writer, the doomed artist. We know that writers are often troubled souls, but actually DFW seems to have been particularly so: a rarity in my experience, most poets and novelists I know have their moments but are somewhat grounded; they have to be. The work isn't glamorous. Nowadays it seems more likely that accountants and web designers will be drug fiends, that writers - the counterculture is for everyone, not just the "artist."There are enough writer suicides out there, but in the last fifteen years I've known a steelworker suicide; a computer analyst suicide, and yes, a writer who killed herself before she'd had a thing published.

More positively, we have the acclaim. Here is a writer who was self-consciously clever. Who was highly aware of the literary history he wanted to be part of, and, as great writers often do, had chosen his own antecedents - writers like Pynchon and Barthes who were probably somewhat out of fashion in the 1980s and 1990s.  An American publishing industry not only found room for David Foster Wallace, but nurtured him, allowed him to develop the "great novel", and to publish a diverse selection of fiction and non-fiction. It is hard to imagine British literary culture being quite so accomodating. Difficult writers are highly marginalised here: are almost doomed to teach or to research. We lack publications like "The New Yorker", and we tend to hold on to our old names like a comfort blanket.

For though his suicide remains such a tragedy for his friends and family, the interest in his life - in his unpublished works - in his letters - is because he was a writer worth reading; and therefore a writer worth writing about. I'll look forward to the biography and review it when I've read it.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway

"Hawthorn & Child" is Keith Ridgway's 6th book, but I must to admit I'd not really heard of him before. It has been heavily promoted on the web by book blogger John Self, as he points out in his blogpost, he is even credited in the acknowledgements. The last time there was a similar internet buzz around an experimental novel was for Tom McCarthy's debut "Remainder." Zadie Smith posited this as one of two directions for the modern novel, opposing it against Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland", however I said at the time I felt this was a false opposition. In some ways "Hawthorn & Child" would be a better choice. But I'll come back to that.

"Hawthorn & Child" begins with what appears to be a police procedural.The two detectives are on a particularly dull surveillance job when they get a call that something has happened. The tone is flat, they exude ennui. It's not all that easy to tell the two detectives apart, and the use of dashes rather than quotation marks for their conversation emphasises this. There is little description, little scene setting, but this is set in a contemporary London (albeit, in chapter that is titled, confusingly "1934"), with recognisably named streets and districts. This seems to be a contemporary default - you find it in "Remainder" but also in Lee Rourke's "The Canal" or Nicola Barker's "Clear" - a realism based around real London streets and place names; but like those novels, that's about as far as the realism goes. In Ridgway's police case, you're not ever convinced that policemen ever actually talk or act like this, though there feels a patina of truth about the boredom, about their interchangeability as individuals, and about their role as pawns in the service they work for - taken off one case to work on another as priorities change. The crime that they are investigating is a shooting. It may be gang related, it may have a gay subtext. We don't know, they don't know. The trail goes cold, then goes hot again - but away from their patch, as colleagues chase a suspect up North. Somehow it has a connection (or may not) with the surveillance case they are investigating.

Yet the fragments of these cases aren't about to be resolved. The novel shifts to a series of vignettes, short stories even. This too is a contemporary trope, and perhaps the oppositional approach that Smith was struggling to identify. Not that its that new an idea - Brett Easton Ellis's "The Informers" did it - but more recently we've had the novels of David Mitchell,  Jennifer Egan, and even, in some ways, Kate Atkinson. Hawthorn and Child don't particularly interest Ridgway, he is drawn to the fragmentation of city life. That we are all connected, but disconnected. Only in a couple of chapters are one of the detectives at the heart - For instance in "How to have fun with a fat man" the gay Hawthorn finds himself switching memories between the sexually promiscuity of the gay sauna, and the adrenalin rush of being in a riot situation. Both give him a hard on. The all-male scenarios are brilliantly juxtaposed. It feels a genuine piece of art.

This is a book of stories then: stories of the city, only loosely connected with these two detectives, who, on their beat, can be faced with anything - keeping a regular tab on a petty thief, called to a terrible suicide. The connections between the stories are there; as they are in "Ghostwritten" or "A Visit from the Goon Squad" but they are often minimal. There's no arching narrative. We come back to Hawthorn and Child but we hardly know them. When we do have a chapter with a policeman and his family it is their divorced superior Rivers. It turns out he knew the dead woman; yet it is the chapter from his daughter's point of view which is most striking. She's having her first teenage love affair with a boy who might actually be gay, and having strained conversations with her out of touch father who meets her in a cafe by her school. Rivers is interrupted a couple of times by unnamed policemen - Hawthorn and Child again.

It feels that our detective duo, whom we hardly get to know (or even differentiate, other than their sexuality) are not so much Vladimir and Estragon but Rozencrantz and Gildenstern as reimagined by Tom Stoppard. The "attendant Lords" whose destiny is out of their hands - and possibly never was in their hands. There's something here, I think, about the powerlessness of the individual man in a large organisation, or in modern life. The "power" that a policeman has, is only within the context of his daily rounds; that he can be redeployed at a moment's notice. The modern hero is not the anti-hero of the post-war period, but an inert character to whom things happen. In that there's a similarity to the Rourke and McCarthy novels - and to Magnus Mills, who, in his dark humour seems to do this kind of inert male friendship somewhat better than Ridgway does here.

For though there is much to like about the book, I found it both a difficult book to get into, and a novel that, finally, I don't think entirely succeeds; and given its fragmented nature, it does need, I think, to have a much better grasp of its material. Having not read him previously, I don't know if the sense I got that the author himself wasn't entirely convinced about where the book was going, or what his characters were about, is a deliberate thing. In itself, this uncertainty wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, but thinking of writers who have done similar things, this tentative nature seems a failing. It reminds me a little of the tentative character-building that B.S. Johnson does, only then to belittle it as being a fiction. The early parts of the novel have such a flat tone, and such an undifferentiated voice, that the powerful poetry of some of the later chapters comes as a surprise. Like Micheal Cunningham or David Mitchell he can change register when needed, but the general style seems to lack conviction. "I don't know how to write" he disarmingly says in an article in the New Yorker, and that confusion actually comes across a little in "Hawthorn & Child." I'm thinking he perhaps thinks too much about this. The often underrated Kate Atkinson, in her early novels like "Human Croquet", was particularly adept at pulling different stories out of a city or a town, and somehow linking them together. Her recent move to the somewhat accidental detective Jackson Brody, finds her addressing the issue of how to "pull together" the chaos of the modern city - a detective of some kind or another is an obvious interlocutor. Hawthorn and Child aren't really believable as detectives, but they lack a reality as well, and in a book that has black comedy, and mock noir at its heart, this reader at least, found it difficult to give Ridgway the full benefit of the doubt.

I've read a lot of portmanteau novels, and this one didn't quite manage to achieve the unity the form ultimately requires. That Ridgeway is perhaps unconcerned about this means that it will probably be a matter of taste whether you like this digressive novel or not. From Twitter and elsewhere, John Self's campaign has brought in quite a number of readers; and I hesitated about writing a review - for though I personally don't think it lives up to some of the praise it has been given, it's in no way a bad book. I'll certainly be interested in reading something else by Ridgeway as I think the flat, occasionally throwaway style of some of his prose, more than the fragmented nature of the narrative, was what I couldn't quite get over - yet in certain chapters he surprises you with a more fluid style that is much more powerful.