Friday, April 26, 2013

BOYB in Manchester

10 days after its announcement, 3 of the Granta Best of Young British Novelists came to the Anthony Burgess centre in Manchester to read to a reasonable crowd. The book itself is a handsome, massive thing, worth comparing its heft with the slimmer 1983 original. With either novel extracts or occasional stories from the 20 authors, plus some spiritedly conceptual author photographs, and with an introduction from Granta editor John Freeman it feels more like a "taster" menu than a coherent feast. One of the prevailing puzzles of the publishing industry is how slow it takes for books to make it from author to list - so half a dozen profiles talk about an extract that is from a "novel published in 2014." That said, it would probably take till then to read the published novels by the 20 on the list.

Manchester's "three" were Adam Foulds, Stephen Hall, and Xiaolu Guo, who all gave short readings then were interviewed by Granta's online editor Ted Hodgkinson. In some ways, you begin to see the futility of the exercise. All three writers have much to recommend them, but are so different in backgrounds, style and aspirations as to make any connections hard to fathom. They responded gamely to the questions; but finally fell down when asked about their fellow contemporary novelists. Guo said she didn't read contemporary fiction, as there was so much older stuff that she needed to catch up on. Foulds said it was probably not a good thing for writers to read too many of their contemporaries, before realising the absurdity of this, and mentioning that he "read all the time," and Hall was just pleased to be here.

Foulds new novel is another historical affair. I much enjoyed his Clare/Tennyson novel "The Quickening Maze" and the extract from his new book, full of his precise, evocative descriptions, is set in the Second World War, as a soldier leaves home to finally end up in Sicily. Lines like "we were listening to the wireless" seemed a bit phoned in, but he's a tricky writer, adept at atmosphere and unspoken connection, and extracting something from a new novel may have been not that easy to do. His interest in a very English history (he has also written about the Mau Mau rising) rather than contemporary Britain, intrigues me; it felt that he was looking for stories that resonate. Such a displacement is particularly true of Xiaolu Guo, who has been prolifically published in both Chinese and English, and is also a film-maker. She read a piece from her first novel - written nearly two decades ago - to highlight her interest in being between two languages. It came out of her being unhappy with the English translation of her first novel, and she decided to do it herself.
She felt that this displacement was a key part of her writing, but at the same time, disavowed the idea of the "immigrant" writer. There is no need to think that way, she felt, in a world where people frequently a nationality different from where they now live. Stephen Hall is in some ways the most interesting writer on the Granta list because of his interest in the trickiness of the novel form. The new book he previewed has two parallel stories and he gave us a choice - the one that is set the day after tomorrow, or the one in the 1850s. Both are extracted in the Granta book; you have to turn it upside down and change direction to read the second story.

In his introduction John Freeman shows some chutzpah in, pace Bellow,  beginning "I am an American, Cleveland born" and there does seem an air of the transatlantic NY-LON line about this Granta selection. I think our Granta crew were all catching the train back to London after the reading for instance. Its strange, for as an advocate of American fiction for so long, I'm feeling for the first time a bit of a disjuncture between the two countries and traditions now in a way that I haven't in the past. This might be a good time for British fiction, though as the Granta list shows, "British" is more a flag of convenience when it comes to these selections of late. Like the English Premier League there's now more imports from further afield than from, say, Northern Ireland and Scotland.The merits of the list will be debated here and elsewhere over time. As one of the judges is quoted as saying in the introduction, that its an unreal way of reading, reading 150 novelists "under 40". Writers missing the cut off included "young Turks" like Mieville and McCarthy (and there's a notable cluster of writers in their late 30s in the list) inevitable in a decade-apart survey. More strange, I felt, was the focus, still, on the "novel" and the "novelist" - if anything is breaking down over the next few years, its that description I think. Guo is a film-maker; Hall (like Naomi Alderman, also on the list) contributes to video games.

Freeman has just announced he is returning to New York (somewhat oddly for an editor, to teach creative writing.) The size of this Granta collection means that he may well have to pay excess baggage. I'm looking forward to reading the selections, but also some of the novels. Any taster menu should lead you onto things you haven't tried but hope to enjoy.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

"The Teleportation Accident" is a long, ribald shaggy-dog story that is both about that simplest of stories - boy chases girl - and something a little more ambitious: the way that we experience the times we live in. The protagonist, a German set designer called Egon Loeser (the "loser" reference isn't a coincidence), it tired of Berlin in the early 30s, utterly oblivious to the rise of the Nazis and wondering whether he will ever get laid again. Meeting the unfortunately named Adele Hitler, he becomes infatuated, but too late, for she has already gone off with a British novelist, a comic version of Christopher Isherwood, who has already riled Loeser by fictionalising the story of a 17th century set designer, Adriano Lavicini, that Loeser was slowly turning into a a play. The Teleportation device of the title is either a wooden contraption for quickly moving characters across stage without the audience realising it, or an actual teleportation device. In many ways, this ambivalence is the novel's real strength, as the shaggy dog story sees the teleportation device appearing at different places in history - and therefore maybe it is real after all?

Not that Beauman particularly cares, for this is an apparatus for him, just as much as it is for Loeser/Lavicini in their plays. The "accident" sees Lavicini's device exploding on stage, killing a large number of the audience and devastating the theatre its in. Flash forward a few hundred years and is the same thing about to happen in in 1940s Los Angeles? The novel plays around with this "steampunk" apparatus at will, occasionally forgetting it entirely, but coming back to it towards the end. The novel's main structure is picaresque as Loeser, never at home wherever he sits, moves restlessly from late Weimar German, to pre-war France, to Los Angeles on the edge of war. The narrative style shifts as well. From the excellent first section which richly satirises Isherwood's Berlin novels; to a slightly leaden Paris episode where Loeser gets involved with an American con artist, that's like a cut price "A Moveable Feast", to a Chandler-esque Los Angeles, where he rocks up for the remainder of the book.

The problem is that as inventive as these are, what begin as enjoyable riffs become entangled in the shaggy dog plotting that never entirely convinces. Whereas the Berlin sequence has a real tension, as the young horny Loeser wilfully ignores the growing Nazi presence, the Paris sequence is just a comic turn, as Loeser helps an American con man sew "monkey gonads" onto unsuspecting rich women's necks, in the hope for longer lives. The American section, which takes up so much of the book, quickly becomes loose, somewhat nonsensical and paranoid, where a vast cast of characters - including quite a few displaced Berliners - role in and out of an overly complex story that sees Beauman losing his way somewhat. The riffs and the clever-clever juxtapositions from earlier in the novel are buried under pages of crass dialogue and over-exposition. By the time Loeser meets Adele again (she's sensibly changed her surname) both him and us have lost interest. Loeser's main interest now is recovering a dirty book that he lost on the way over; meeting his hero the novelist Stent Mutton; and somehow staging his Lavicini play at long last.

There's much to praise in the novel, but there's also so much slackness (and some woeful editing at times) as Beauman gets tied up in knots with the ridiculousness of his plot. The characters we meet in Los Angeles are all grotesques, and maybe this is the J.K.Rowling generation coming of age, but its as if he can't resist any half-hearted joke, or possible digression that comes along. The irony about the breakneck speed and confidence of his writing, is that it doesn't stop to realise how leaden it has become.

New characters come in and take over the narrative and the book feels like a series of long shorts hung together - a bit like Adam Robert's adolescent steampunk comedy "Swiftly" - by an almost random picaresque. Compare with the brilliant "The Sisters Brothers", and Beauman's book feels adolescent, rushed, and trying too hard to please. It's been well received, and for a certain type of reader wanting something that fills that previously unfilled need for something that's both Pynchon and Python, I guess I can see the appeal. Oddly enough, for all its pyrotechnics, the writing is somewhat old-fashioned. At times it comes across like one of the hoary seventies comedies by Guy Bellamy (or even Leslie Thomas' ribald The Virgin Soldiers) albeit with a baroque imagination which is all Beaumans. In the L.A. segment it hardly comes close to the brilliance of James Robert Baker's "Boy Wonder" and "Fuel Injected Dreams" though it attempts something of their wild brio.

The ending(s) when they eventually come, are a bit of relief, and rescue the novel somewhat from its own failings - offering several conclusions to the story that tie things up or make some kind of sense. There's enough in the book to make you think that Beauman is making some comments on our sense of history, the McGuffin that is the Teleportation device, offering an excuse for any numbers of fractures in the narrative, even as he tells the story somewhat straight. More a smorgasbord than a coherent meal, his appearance on Granta's Best of Young British novelist lists is perhaps more surprising because of riffiness of his prose, which disappointed me, than the fecundness of his imagination, which - one feels - employed in shorter doses will come up with much to recomment it in the future.

Joe Dunthorne liked it a lot more than I did, if you want to find an alternate view. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

I'm late to the party with reviewing Alison Moore's debut novel "The Lighthouse" which received so much praise last year and was shortlisted for the Booker. Not for any reason, as I've liked Alison's writing since first reading her in Nightjar Press's pamphlet series, but I've finally got round to it.

It's a short novel but in no way feels slight, its circular narrative reminding me a little bit of Sebald's circumnavigation in "The Rings of Saturn." In this novel Futh, a middle aged man with a Germanic surname, is going on a walking tour of the Rhine, catching a ferry over and having his bags transferred from guest house to guest house as he completes a lonely week's holiday. We meet Futh on the ferry over. He's middle aged, somewhat self-preoccupied and not very good with people. Moore has created a very believable protagonist, and throughout his journey we are given flashbacks of his life and its key moments. Bullied by his father after his mother left them (because she found her husband boring), his own childhood was a typically circumscribed one. Moore is brilliant at the deadness of so much suburban life, where, unable to leave the place you grew up, you can never get more than a few miles away from the people you were at school with or neighbours with. His best friend Kenny moves away when his parents split, and Kenny's mother becomes close to both Futh and his father. There is always an undertow of bleak sexual tension in this novel, as characters are unable to love or to hate properly, but are also unable to break away. This might sound dispiriting but it comes with such a layer of unrealised hope that one reads each short chapter almost breathless with the sadness of it all. Futh, a kindly man, wrecked in many ways by the circular nature of his life - from his broken home, to his now ended marriage - gives a fellow passenger a lift to Utrecht as its on his way. These brief encounters with strangers on the road give an added frisson to the novel, for one is never quite sure what will happen next. Futh travels with the suitcase he took on his disastrous honeymoon, a silver lighthouse-shaped perfume container that reminds him of his mother, and a packet of condoms that he knows will remain unused.

He remembers an earlier trip with his father - taken when Futh was twelve and his father was in his forties - and his memories of the different women that he picked up each night and shagged in the bathroom whilst his son tried to sleep in the hotel bedroom. Yet we are not totally enclosed with Futh's memories, for there is the parallel story of Ester, an ageing hotelier who sleeps with her guests in the hope of getting a response from her violent husband. Moore is brilliant on the accumulation of small details to sketch out believable lives, the switching back between present and past handled deftly. Her prose is forensic in its detail, unshowy, but never afraid to pull out and emphasise the symbolism that is at the novel's heart - whether its Futh's father's anecdotes about lighthouses or memories of watching movies and eating popcorn. Like "rosebud" in Citizen Kane, life is seen here as a tapestry of key memories. If there are the occasional missteps (Futh's father is a chemistry teacher so would he really be so disdainful of his son's job creating artificial scents?) they are so slight as to hardly matter. I believed in the whole cast of characters through a few deftly told details. Though, like a lot of contemporary novels, Moore shares with a sense of impending doom, there is no authorial withholding as there is in the first person narratives of "The Sense of an Ending" or "The Gathering", rather we are prompted to think that this apparently mundane holiday by a sad man in his fifties has meaning.

Whereas so many first novels show promise, "The Lighthouse" has rightly been lauded because it fulfils it. Saying anymore about the plot would be a terrible spoiler, but like previous reviewers, I can only say that its well worth your time - but short as the novel is, you'd do best to savour it.

Literary Idol, Book Factor....BOYB

Its a big week in the literary calendar. Before X-Factor, before Pop Idol, there was the Best of Young British Novelists, celebrated every ten years since 1983 with a special edition of Granta - in itself a reason for this particular prize to continue, as it makes a lovely book. The 2013 list will be announced on Monday with the launch of a special edition of Granta. There's a Manchester launch next Thursday at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation next Thursday. Obviously we don't know who will be reading, but I'm looking forward to it. 

Nice article on the BBC about this week's list. Granta has used the idea beyond these shores in recent years, best of young American novelists, best of young Brazilians... but its the British one that matters. This is a test the pulse of British literature. Amongst those writers who might have a few books behind them (e.g. Gwendoline Riley) and are still under 40, there will be others who may be yet to burst forth, lying in manuscript somewhere in a London agent/publishers desk. That "London" I use advisedly, as I hope that in the first list to have come of age in the era of blogs that there will be a widening of the net, though if anything the literary scene (or at least the officially sanctioned one) is more London-based and flavoured than ever.

Its rather odd that Granta has been the place for this as over its history Granta has often been a little bit sniffy about fiction, preferring reportage for much of the 80s and 90s than making things up. On the "reality hunger" argument Granta always used to be very much on the David Shields side of the argument. I would say that's changed a little over the last two or three years. Recent Grantas have been big, dynamic affairs and have been actively recruiting new and younger authors such as Jon McGregor and Evie Wyld into their pages; though I imagine there will be a few on the list who have never graced its pages before.

So Granta hasn't given up on fiction - and BOYB novelists represents that. commitment. Though its not without problems. Ironically the BBC article mentions Alison Moore, a debut novelist for Salt last year who made the Booker shortlist. Alison was born in 1971, so just outside of the cut-off point for the list. Young is relative. Since 2003 there has been a massive increase in the number of creative writing courses in the UK, and that must surely feed through into the list. Then there's that blog culture. Will any 3AM Magazine alumni make the list, for instance? I'm sure the Granta list will have a few surprises, a few new names, a few predictables, and is generally for the good - though I think they may have harder job than their predecessors in taking the temperature of literature. Part of it is Granta itself, which has quite a prescriptive view of fiction at the best of times; a hangover from a culture where literature was more important than it is now. Yet from blogs to the "The White Review" there's a vibrancy about that culture at the moment that seems stronger than it was in 2003. That list was filled with thirty-somethings, (though 25 year old Adam Thirlwell could make it two lists in a row...) and in Peace, Barker, Mitchell, Kennedy and Litt had five of the most important novelists of the last decade.

Literary fiction, whether we call that a genre (as Paul Magrs did) or simply a list of what's good, is important to the culture; and like with music or poetry, there's a professionalism and competency about so many writers these days that is probably as good as at any time in history. Whether we have writers who are able to dominate the culture is another thing entirely, and to be honest, I don't know any writers who even think that way. The desire is to write good books and hope someone likes them. If the Barnes-Amis-Rushdie generation had a swagger and an ego to go with it, the writers I know are remarkably sanguine about their reputation. John Freeman, Granta's editor says, somewhat ominously that "my own preference is for novelists who can tell big stories, which sounds easy, but in my experience is as rare as the long-whiskered owlet." It would be interesting to ask him, once the list is announced how many of the twenty are telling "big stories" - as in the encomium's on the list there will be a sense that this is a generation with stories to tell and ways of telling it that are the equal of the last three lists. Writers aren't pack animals however; there's only one David Peace, one Nicola Barker, after all. My own preference is for writers who might conceivably be doing something with the language, and have something to say about our contemporary world. I imagine that there will be a bit of both on the list when its announced. 

Monday, April 08, 2013

Now is not the Time for Your Tears.

Margaret Thatcher has died, aged 87, after a stroke. She had her final days and weeks in a subsidised suite of rooms at the Ritz, which seems only fitting. Even a couple of years ago I'd have thought of having a drink to her passing, but now, well, rest in peace, Margaret - your crimes are history now; and we're too busy fighting the disastrous policies of your Conservative party successors. Too much of my adult life has been under a right wing prime minister, and it's rarely a pleasant time; and one wonders why, when apparently, according to all the encomiums, Thatcher "made Britain great" again. I've never bought this idea, at least partly because it assumes that Britain all felt the same about her - yet in Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and much of the North this "greatness" was sucked away by her policies, rather than increased.

I saw Gordon Brown just before the last election and he gave a great speech listing all Labour's achievements, from civil partnerships, to peace in Northern Ireland to new schools, and reduced waiting lists. Sure he ignored the authoritarianism, the laxness of the financial regulation and the Iraq war, but there was plenty here to be proud of - real achievements. Listening to Thatcherites speaking there's nothinig other than generalisations, as if Britain would still be in 1979 if she hadn't been in power - ignoring the modernisation that has happened in countries across Europe without having the wrecking ball of Thatcherism.

Her "achievements" are all in negatives - opposing the miners, winning the Falklands war (after prev. removing the battleship that was patrolling the South Atlantic), liberalising the city (that worked well didn't it?), selling off council houses (and that!) The only building projects I associate with her era are Canary Wharf (which lost its backers millions) and the Eurotunnel (ditto). Even things I agreed with, such as longer licensing hours and shops being open on Sundays, aren't so much about reversing the unions, but reversing a Churchillian sense of a state at war. All of her liberalisation projects seem to have merely stacked money in the hands of the speculators and unbalance the economy in favour of the south of England. Maybe I'm forgetting things, but I can't remember a single thing that made life better for me, my family and friends. The idea that the unions would have held Britain to ransom in the 80s is a myth, did it happen elsewhere in a much more militant Europe? No, of course not. Even her "rebate" from Europe had much less effect than the need for the wasted north to access structural funds during the 90s and 00s... finally providing some of the infrastructure that she'd left to the "market." Her immediate legacy was the limp administration of John Major who gave us the millennium dome, greenlighted a toll motorway and privatised the railways - none of which are unalloyed triumphs, even if New Labour foolishly went along with all three.

Visit France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, anywhere in Northern Europe and you'll wonder what was so special about the British "miracle" - these competitors, often with left wing or even communist governments, are more educated, more productive. That the south of Europe is in dire recession now is for following the same liberalisation of banking and property markets that Thatcher also followed. Economically her solution has proven a disaster that keeps on giving; there's not a single bit of social legislation that she wouldn't have instinctively have opposed. I don't deny her historical importance, or that she was a leading figure on the world stage - her character is not in doubt, it is her judgement that I reject. Her successor David Cameron and his chancellor are currently doing their best to demonise many of the British people whilst wanting "Britain" to be great - and its exactly the same confidence trick as Thatcher's governments played on us. Divide and rule. Had Tony Blair and Gordon Brown been more sceptical about her achievements then their own negative lists might have been a little bit shorter - their achievements came from the left not the right. Following a couple of weeks when that truly great leader, Nelson Mandela, has been in hospital in his nineties, it is worth remembering that Thatcher the world statesman called him as a terrorist (so much of her family and friend's business interests were based in the corruption of apartheid) and Chile's Pinochet a friend.

Yes, the Baroness is now dead, and for those who loved her, that is sad, but as Bob Dylan once wrote, for the rest of us, now is not the time for your tears.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Writing the "I" in Contemporary Fiction

Does fiction have a role to reflect the times? Not just the physical reality of the times, but its language, its undercurrents? Are we even aware of the fundamental shifts that take place from time to time and begin to distance us from our parents, our grandparents, the forgotten ancestors?

We are living through an unprecedented period of peace in the west, however much that is down to outsourcing any wars since 1945, and so the real traumas of our lives are not pitted against a national tragedy. The financial crisis seems somewhat existential, though, with the cuts coming through to welfare this week, in the UK at least (and already in Greece, Cyprus, Ireland) they are being tangible, as our dependence on a monied world (or a debt-based world) seems now total. When we've had something of a natural disaster (the Icelandic ash cloud) or a man-made one (the truckers strike) the fragile supply chains of late capitalism are laid bare. We hear in the news that we are two weeks away from gas shortages, but its not like any of us, on this cramped island, have the wherewithal to live long without our regular incomes.

This is part of a wider pattern where late capitalism is no longer content with the movement of goods, labour and money but is in some ways creating an industrialisation of private space and private life. From dating sites to internet pornography; from labour saving devices to a new domestic class: personal trainer; sandiwch maker; the web of transactional demand is necessary to feed the supply industries.

How does a fiction work in this context? I think we have to look back a little. A lot of this is about the unique role that fiction has in terms of art in showing consciousness. For of all the art forms it is the one that most often, and for longest, has tried to show us how we think. We may see - as Harold Bloom did - that Shakespeare teaches us how to be human; but though we know what Hamlet or Othello or Lear is thinking through the sleight of the soliloquy, we don't really know why they are thinking that. Shakespeare gives us action predicated not so much on emotion (which I'll come back to) as on base instincts and desires. For Othello "jealousy" is an actual thing not a feeling, and in the politically-charged scenarios of Shakespeare's staged worlds, these headline emotions are behind so much of the play's dynamism. There's not a massive distance here from mummers plays with depictions of human venalities in life-like forms; obviously what Shakespeare does with this is far more; but he is restricted by the show of the stage; so that our soliloquy's are examinations of action and motive - character is action in Shakespeare. Whether it is later in James, who used the phrase, is another matter.

The novel came of age in the 18th century and there's something of Shakespeare's layering of societal corruptions on the morality plays of the age in the (im)moral fables of Fielding or Defoe. They have no doubt about the Fall of man (or woman), but the consciousness we see in Tom Jones or Moll Flanders is a winning one, that wants to excuse their venality (if that's what it is) through circumstances. "I'm bad, but I didn't mean to be," seems to be our new found sense of self. If a Shakespearean hero's fall is pre-ordained by the deadly sins, by fate; for Moll Flanders it is an accident of circumstance. The 18th century hero(ine) is prone to regret, but also to ask for forgiveness. It is an interesting reductionism of the Christian compact. That man is born with original sin, and so rather than try and live a good life, is undoubtedly going to live a bad life, but in the living will grow wiser. The 18th century writers were men (and women) of the real world and their characters reflect that. Again though it is action rather than thought that determines character. Moll Flanders tells us she is a bad woman but wishes she wasn't. The moralists of the time could condemn her actions, whilst real people would recognise themselves and their friends in her justifying of her situation. In a less fevered sense this is the lessons of "Pride and Prejudice" as well. Characters don't purport themselves well, whilst at the same time aiming at being beyond blemish (for reasons of "reputation") yet have the capacity to change. That Elizabeth Bennet's sin seems smaller than the priggish Darcy's is part of the comedy of manners, and the reality of the times - where a person's individual thoughts were less important than their institutions.

Where the individual's consciousness is in contrast with the age's, then the conflict appears - and in many ways the Victorian novel reflected this. George Eliot lived in "sin" and wrote as a man; so her own life was a radical one for the times  yet her characters also have to face the consequences of their choices. The good doctor Lydgate in "Middlemarch", and the serious Dorothea, both marry badly out of a misplaced sense of their own consciousness. Lydgate fancies himself  a man of science rather than of fashion, Dorothea as acetic rather than the sensualist she is. The Victorian novel gives us consciousness and consequence, and the two have to run their course - unable to shift the times or society they live in. The utopianism of a 19th century hero is simply about rising beyond their original class: so an orphan becomes a Lord; or a beggar picked off the streets of Liverpool ends up ruling the family he was brought into.

A consciousness that was less societally restricted could only be found elsewhere. Perhaps this is the utopianism of William Morris's "News from Nowhere", or more likely in the enclosed worlds of the school in Jane Eyre of The Way of All Flesh. Modernism gave us a consciousness that was able to exist outside of the restrictions of society. Partly this was because of a changing world - and "modernisation" created educated archetypes who had no place in the world. Thus the narrator of Knut Hamsun's "Hunger" would have been a priest or an academic in a previous age, but as a precarious writer, slipping down the food chain, all he is left with is a sense of self. A hundred years later J.M. Coetzee would speak of the same hopelessness in apartheid South Africa with his "Life and times of Josef K." This uncoupling of the "hero" of a novel from societal norms is exacerbated during the early 20th century. I think its also a result of the more capital driven society and urbanisation and its consequence.

For Conrad travelling down into "The Heart of Darkness" the soul of man could be exposed only through some kind of extremis; yet Woolf proves in Mrs. Dalloway that the same journey can take place purely through consciousness and during the inauspicious day planning a party. The autobiographical heroes of "Sons and Lovers" and "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" want more - they want to change the(ir) world as you might expect from writers emerging from the working class and Ireland. The reality of consciousness is being explored elsewhere as the emergence of Freud's theories gives the "mind" a substance that religion had previously given to the "soul." Character was no longer a moral quality so much as a mental one. Later, we'd find it was a chemical one - in the lost souls of Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" perhaps.

That a writer like James might imagine what its like to be a young woman is partly a result of this better understanding of our consciousness as no longer being just a social construct or a moral one. The mind itself, of which we all possess one, is the factory of ourselves. Shakespeare's unfathomable Iago and the flawed Othello seem to be ahead of their time - maybe Iago is a sociopath and Othello autistic?

What modernism provided was a sense that the mind was as fertile a location to explore as the Congo or the drawing room. The world after the First World War was one that how little our individual desires actually meant - not because of some social construct - but because of the social destruction that a mechanised warfare brought with it. Those other "ordering systems" of fascism and communism had a similar dim view of the self. Consciousness was barely allowed in these belief systems - and the "I" was distrusted as autobiography - and autobiography was proof of what you were, a Jew, for instance, or against the regime. The distrust of the "I" in fiction made its way into America's post-war paranoia and the crimes of McCarthyism where the formulisation "I am not and have never been a communist" was given the status of holy writ.

No surprise then that our trust in consciousness in fiction, the role of the "I", changed again in the 1940s and 1950s. The new "I" was a rebellious loner. An "outsider" in Camus or a "catcher in the rye" according to Salinger or a rolling stone, gathering no moss in Kerouac. This template feeds into writers with an eye on the societal. For Portnoy it is sexual gratification, against the wishes of his religion; for Augie Marsh it is seeing the world different than his family do. The generational and societal changes of the 60s, as well as the enduring American myth of self-creation feed into any number of fictions. In Britain the writing is less certain of being able to change things, but as equally aware that your own personal desires are more important than the restrictions that work or family want to put on you. Cinema with its external focus on its Alfie's, its Poor Cows, has no problem with pretending it can see what we're thinking but is less inclined to this than even in Shakespeare's day; and the "I" is therefore now one that has a Micheal Caine or Clint Eastwood or Dustin Hoffman as a stand-in, whether as "everyman" or one-off. Fictional delusion comes in - the ego, if you like - in the fantasy novels of the period, where an individual can change themselves and the world, either through a roll of the dice ("The Dice Man") or the creation of a religion ("Stranger in a Strange Land.")

Female and gay emancipation created other kinds of "I". The multiple strands of "The Golden Notebook" allows Lessing to give us different layers of self - as a woman can share a hidden consciousness with the reader. In the sociopathic "The Collector" Fowles gives us narrators who we believe whilst they are speaking, but who act as convincers, con artists to our understanding. The consciousness can lie; even to itself - after all, how else can we do such terrible acts?

In the 40 years since Watergate I wonder whether our protagonists can now believe in being able to change the world any more than being able to change themselves. There are, it seems, fewer Holden Caulfields or Portnoys or rather the validity of self has itself become a commodity. The late 70s coming to consciousness of the Stepford-wives like witches in "Witches of Eastwick" feels more like a metaphor than a reality. By "London Fields" or "American Pastoral" the uncertainty of what an "I" actually means is compounded by characters acting as in-novel surrogates in order to tell the story. The author, embedded with his battalion has abandoned "I" for his character's thoughts and wants it to act as a direction-finder for a collective modern consciousness: or rather - "this is the world as I see it."

The internet has changed things again, for the physical "I" is no longer necessary the feelings of the character but some kind of construct. When a character is in the midst of the action of their own life they only seem able to tell us it now as a story, as a construct. The holding back (the "false memory") you find in Anne Enright's "The Gathering" or Julian Barnes' "The Sense of an Ending" for instance. Yet American writers, assailed with so much information, are almost unable to write character now without an intrusion of the whole world. Like Conrad having to send his characters into an extreme place to discover who or what they are, the contemporary writer almost needs to find an isolation zone: a hospital bed ("Girlfriend in a Coma"), death ("The Lovely Bones") or war ("The Yellow Birds") to actually think and feel anything real. For the young or new writer coming up the tendency is to circumvent all this worry and just write in the present tense. Consciousness as sensation. Not "I am..." so much as "this is happening to me."

What does consciousness now mean? We kid ourselves if we think we have the freedom of some of our previous generations - for freedom means change and for too many people life is now about a certain unchanging tension. Will our job/relationship/fertility last? We can no longer go "on the road" or slip into Tangiers or Mexico, because everywhere is exactly the same as where we are. We are being told what to think based upon the detritus of news stories and extreme lives on Jeremy Kyle. Our personal life, and therefore our consciousness, is seeping into the public domains via Facebook and Twitter.

In this world I'm suspicious of using the "I". It is no longer the authorial-biographer of the modernist; nor is it the voice of a character in a malleable situation. "I" has become a construct of "stuff" that may or may not be about the individual character. Too many books - even by great writers like DeLillo - are unable to distinguish one consciousness from another, like we are all parts of a bigger creature. This is not so unusual. Shakespeare would have recognised it, but felt it was an irrelevance, because the influences on our lives - jealousy, envy, fear, ambition - were so much stronger than what we actually "feel"; James would have fretted, wondering how to make sense of a senseless world, and probably finding, as many of our contemporary novelists do, solace in constructed worlds: workplaces, cities, virtual environments. The contemporary "I" seems to have more in common with the way Burroughs uses it - as a camera on a stick prodding anywhere into human existence - or as in early Gibson, as a node on the network.

When our existence is an IP address what is it that we actually feel? I'm not seeing the fictions that are addressing this.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Sad news about Iain Banks

The news that Iain Banks has cancer and has possibly less than year to live is very sad. He's older than I realised - 59 - but still, its no age. He was a writer you expected to carry on forever, mixing his mainstream and SF novels for another twenty years or more; but now it looks like "The Quarry" will be his last. I first encountered Banks, as many did, with "The Wasp Factory." I was at the airport on the way to Australia in 1985 and saw the arresting cover and read the blurb on the back and was instantly intrigued. I bought the novel and read it over the coming weeks on the other side of the world.

It remains a captivating book, a modern "Lord of the Flies", but uniquely speaking to my own generation. I wouldn't have guessed that Banks was a decade and a half older than me, as "The Wasp Factory" despite its Scottish island setting resonated strongly with me. I devoured his next few novels, only "Canal Dreams" being a bit of a duffer, and two in particular, the family saga "The Crow Road" and the rock and roll story "Espedair Street" joining that debut in my list of favourites. Its fair to say I liled Banks most when he was at his most macabre and most Scottish. Also, whilst most of his contemporaries seemed to write about a Britain I hardly recognised, his characters drank and smoke and listened to the Pixies. He always was a rock and roll novelist at heart - and there haven't been many of those in English letters. If I grew out of him after the mid-90s, it was perhaps my changing tastes rather than anything else. I've never read his much admired SF books, but perhaps I will find the time at some point.

Banks always seemed to be one of our own, a provincial novelist who had worldwide acclaim and vaulting ambition, and a world away from literary London. I can't be the only writer who aspired more to Banks than to Amis and his ilk. He's had a bit of acclaim over the years, but from interviews I've read with him, he's always been far more interested in a dialogue with his readership than fancy gongs. Outside of the SF he's not a genre writer but he's always written books that have a certain noirish brio, and have felt of the real world even when they are flights of fancy like "The Bridge".

So here's a writer I've followed since the start saying his last farewells, and it seems that as well as being a tragedy for his friends and family its a tragedy for literature. I can only hope his remaining time is as good as it can be.

Monday, April 01, 2013

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

What we want most from art about war is some telling of truth, whether thats the exact truth of what happened, or the emotional truth. In the modern world of the professional soldier it is ever less likely that we will have writers as witnesses, so to some extent, "The Yellow Birds" by Kevin Powers, who has an MFA in poetry and was also a soldier in Iraq, is welcome for that alone. The book has been highly lauded, winning the Guardian first book award and being shortlisted for the National Book Award in the USA.

"The Yellow Birds" is a short, poetic novel that tells a simple story about three soldiers in Iraq in 2004, following on from the U.S. invasion. The narrator, Bartle, meets the younger, smaller Murphy at basic training and takes him under his wing; both are part of a squad whose sergeant Sterling is a war-worn veteran. The novel is told in fragments, as Bartle skirts around the defining action of his time in Iraq. We already know that one of them, Murphy, won't survive and Bartle questions whether or not you can actually tell in advance. For Sterling it is more simple than that; he feels that Murphy is doomed almost as soon as he joins up. Sterling's lack of sentimentality contrasts with Bartle's surfeit of it. Narrating after the fact, this is not an average inarticulate soldier, but a poet-narrator. Whether in Iraq or back home in Richmond, Virginia, Bartle cannot describe a scene without it taking on a poetic hue. Yet the brutality of war is far from poetic. The "action" moves back and forth with the scenes in Iraq the strongest in some sense, but also the most senseless, as we are always only seeing a microcosm of war; a particular sorty in the town of Al Tafar, that sees the Americans take a part of the town only to be pushed back. Theirs is a dangerous war, this is before the "surge" that saw Al-quaeda pushed back, so we're here in the aftermath of the Bush/Cheney disaster - the invasion "won", the "peace" being lost on a daily basis. It seems to be a close cousin to the film "The Hurt Locker" in that, along with so many war stories since "Platoon", the desire is to show it like it is, rather than explore the broader context.

For Bartle there is only confusion, and he is a narrator who wrestles with it as he tells his story. Murphy, we know, is doomed, but what is particular tragic about this death? We only find out towards the end, and all three men are doomed in their own way as a result of one of them dying. Yet to what extent is this a typical story or a fantasy is not clear? Powers avoids the forensic telling of his war, though its impossible to totally forget the horrors, yet it is not so much Bartle's poetic descriptions as his sidling away from the truth of his own story that frustrate. By the end I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be thinking. For this seems less a book about this particular war than about young men struggling with their own inadequacies. A scene in a German brothel sees Sterling predictably in the role of a woman-beater, whilst Bartle shies away from his own desires. He's a particularly unreliable narrator, yet wanting us to believe and sympathise with him. One can't get away from the book's centreing on the experience of the soldiers themselves in Iraq. A translator is shot and not mourned, and worst of all, Sterling kills a man just because he's a witness to their cover-up. The first person narrative means that we never get anywhere near the truth of the "incident" described, and I guess Powers is trying to find a way into the "heart of darkness" of war as its experienced by the average soldier. Yet there's a self-aggrandisement about Bartle's story that doesn't work for me. This one story doesn't feel typical of the war as a whole; more it seems a little bit of an existential quest for meaning in a situation where there clearly is none. I'm reminded of the moral questions Wilder's "The Bridges of San Luis Rey" - is there a reason that one person dies and another one doesn't? After beginning the story by telling us that there isn't, in Murphy's tragedy Bartle then gives us a story where there is a reason why. Like "Saving Private Ryan" the idea of one story working for all has a narrative drive to it but excludes a wider political sense.

For me, it is not the choice of material, or the nature of the telling that disappointed about "The Yellow Birds" but Powers' much praised prose. For there is a blandness and a sameness to his writing that seems increasingly to be the stock-in-trade of a certain kind of American fiction. You could transplant a paragraph from any part of the novel and apply it to a different landscape, a different novel - a scene never takes place without nature offering some kind of supporting cast of characters, an egret flying low or a particular sensation caused by the sun on the trees. Such continual pathetic fallacy wears the reader down after a while. Ironically in his close control of this story telling there seems to be a lack of genuine observation. I'm no wiser about Iraq or Richmond. Even where the scenes call for action, there's an inertia to this kind of writing, the retrospective telling offering only a partial glance of what we are seeing.

"The Yellow Birds" clearly has to be seen as the novel it is rather than the one it isn't, so though we can't judge it on its apolitical nature, we surely can judge it on the emotional story that it tries to tell; and with its obfuscatory structure and its over emphasis on stock description it felt overwrought and at times sentimental. Like "The Hurt Locker" we see an individual who now only makes sense in the theatre of war; yet is this enough? I'm thinking of Andre Dubus's short stories and how much more real his characters are. Is there something purely existential about the contemporary experience - with its distant enemy, its dubious politics and its hi-tech weaponry? Reading A.L. Kennedy's "Day" or the sniper scenes in David Rose's "Vault" I felt much closer to the truth of that older war than I ever do in Powers' debut.