March & April Reading 2021: Lockwood, Moore (Lorrie), Levy, Moore (Susanna), Nelson, Garner, Hall, Musil

At the start of 2021 I began an open-ended Twitter thread listing and commenting on my reading as I finish each book. This was supposed to help with these monthly round-ups, to save time, which clearly didn’t work at the end of March, as I didn’t post a round-up at all. So, for this two-month round-up I’ll be picking and choosing and expanding on those thoughts on some but not all of what I’ve read, rather than going through it doggedly.

It took me a bare couple of hours to read No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, and I’ve spent at an hour elsewhere reading reviews and thinkpieces about it. Which only goes to show, as someone on here pointed out, that it’s the least well-titled book of the year. Unless she means it ironically. Or post-ironically. Or whatever. 

I did really like the book, but also I found it exasperating and even anxiety-provoking. The short, fragmentary sections are clearly designed to mimic Twitter, but unlike Twitter you seem to have to read every one of them, as if there is something to ‘get’ from each of them.

This was confusing. On Twitter, after all, you skim through a dozen tweets in as many seconds before you deign to give one your more considered attention, sometimes scrolling back up to read one you initially skimmed over. Your micro-decisions about what to give your attention to are affected by names, and digital paratexts like avis and retweet and like counts. You don’t get that with tweet-length paragraphs on the page of Lockwood’s novel, but equally the usual narrative paraphernalia that allow you to speedily and efficiently navigate a story are also absent. Even Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation had more flow and propulsion across its narrative islets than this. 

Of course you acclimatise, and for a while you drift through the novel, picking up little dopamine hits for identifying memes and moments. The incest advert. The plums poem. But the pace of reading picks up, and the drifting becomes sliding, and it takes a great line to slow you down. Thankfully there are plenty of great lines.

Then Something Happens, plot-wise, and this is where the real challenge for the novel lies. Having established a vehicle of utter affectlessness in the first half (even while critiquing and despairing over the same), can it step up and deal with a subject that demands genuine emotional engagement?

Well the answer is no, for me at least. The emotion is there, and if you’ve read the interviews and perhaps even if not you’ll know it’s real, but the novel simply cannot express it. None of the usual, traditional functional parts – the filters and switches – are present, or work as required. It’s as if the book knows it’s trapped, and wants to break out of the trap it’s built for itself – and that’s part of the project after all, that’s what so many of us want to know: is there a way through this way of being, that will lead to another, better one?

What’s missing is the connective tissue. Now, the online world, when we are in it, does contain a connective tissue, of sorts: what gets called ‘the discourse’ (as in: the discourse is particularly toxic this morning). The discourse is the suspension (in the scientific sense) in which the individual tweets float, and take their context, and to which they all, infinitesimally, add. 

The point of the novel seems to be that this way of connecting with the world is leaving us adrift and unfulfilled. But when Lockwood gets to the second part of the novel, when tragedy drags her away from the Portal and immerses her in real life, the novel doesn’t change. It’s still written in that atomised, fragmentary style. Is that because this is the only way the narrator can think the world into being? Or is it intended to show the inability of ‘interneted narrative’ to represent the deep continuum of real life? Would it have been a failure of form if Lockwood had ‘reverted’ to a more traditional narrative style to cope with what happens ‘off-screen’?

No One is Talking About This is a tragedy of form, because although it allows me to empathise with the narrator when she is feeling sad about her unconnectedness, it fails to make me empathise when she suffers genuine tragedy. And it’s the form that engineers that failure.

Anagrams by Lorrie Moore was an impulse re-read. It has such a wonderfully idiosyncratic form – four short stories followed by a novella, all featuring the same three characters in different versions and permutations: anagrams of themselves, in other words. Here’s what I said when I read it for the first time on holiday, back in 2013. “These people are us! They are us squared!” is clearly me trying to channel Moore. But it’s true that Moore does use humour to set up devastation. And in fact I’d forgotten quite how bleak the end of Anagrams is. 

(It’s also a test of reading. Looking back at the book now, I realise I was floored by the forgotten bleakness of the ending because I’d read too swiftly and completely overlooked or failed to assimilate the very clear statement early in the story that means my later shock is nonsensical. Worse than that: idiotic. And there’s me saying that Lockwood is at fault for leaving out the connective tissue. The connective tissue is frail and fallible. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe Moore meant for me to fail to read it properly? Is that how much of a genius of a writer she is?)

The book made me snort and bark with laughter all the way through, but of course some of them misfire. The characters are terrible-pun-addicts. But as it turns out it wasn’t the jokes I underlined as I read. Here’s a great example of a character’s unutterably weird behaviour that is somehow despite itself believable. When I’m writing fiction I’m usually fixed on making my characters do things that are credible above all, but they too often end up boring.

In the first passage shown here your sympathies are largely with Benna (the woman), being oddly and ineffectively manhandled by Gerard, but by the end (“You just don’t understand me at all!”) you get a pang for him. People do try to express themselves in bizarre ways. Poor Gerard! (ish)

And here – in the second page-shot – Benna is remembering how her (now dead) husband used to get her to pose for awkward erotic photographs that she – humiliatingly – agrees to, but that he doesn’t even take. 

As character traits go, this is unimpeachably brilliant. You see him, perfectly, for the arsehole he is. But just stating it baldly, like that (“Her ex-husband used to persuade her to pose in demeaning erotic poses for photographs that he never took”) would count for very little if it weren’t for the context, the discourse (“I did it because I loved him, I supposed, but maybe I did it because I’d grown up in a trailer and guessed that this was what people did in houses, that this is what houses were for”).

This also shows nearly how the book operates, is that this ex-husband isn’t Gerard (they are from a different stories), but they are clearly versions of the same kinds of behaviour. It’s a play on the idea that writers are always writing the same book.

I read an advance copy of Real Estate, the third part in Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ – and wrote about it here, which encouraged me to go back to start and re-read the first one. (I’ve also bought the middle one, The Cost of Living, which I haven’t got to as yet.)

Things I Don’t Want to Know is not quite as pleasurable/powerful to read as Real Estate, but perhaps that’s because so much of what it recounts is in the past (distant: her childhood in South Africa, where her father was jailed for anti-apartheid activities; and nearer: the lead-up to the writing of Swimming Home). What is strongest in this writing is the analysis, and I think Levy is clearer eyed writing about her experiences nearer to her. Not a surprise, to be sure, but it takes more honesty and diligence to be candid about your life now, as you live it, than your childhood. Even the ‘recent’ Levy of Things…, crying on London Underground escalators and hiding out, trying to write, in a wintery Malta, is less affecting, less powerfully present, than the ‘in-the-moment’ Levy of Real Estate. It is also pleasing to read about the experience of success (of a sort: Levy isn’t JK Rowling) in this wise, analytic, self-reflexive way. She’s isn’t knee-jerk self-deprecatory; nor is she self-aggrandising. 

I also like the clear, clean prose style, less cluttered with surrealist remnants than her fiction. I’d place the prose somewhere between Ali Smith and Rachel Cusk, where Smith deploys an almost whimsical wide-eyes childlike-ness, and Cusk a more distant, blank reserve. Levy can at times take on both of these styles, and at other times balances them.

BUT! Why is it that I choose female writers to compare her to? Is it that I am compartmentalising them? Or do they have a style that male writers don’t? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to unpick my own presumptions and prejudices enough to answer that question. In a way, it’s one of the questions that governs my reading: how can I get out from behind myself to really engage with this text, how can I slough off me? It appals me and makes me despair that I can’t come up with male writers as comparisons. Am I that shallow? 

In the Cut by Susanna Moore was reissued recently by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, but I went back to my old copy, which I had to search around to find. I remembered liking it when I first read it, 20-odd years ago, but not being bowled over. How would it stand up?

It’s still a visceral, compulsive read, sexy and destabilising and intelligent, and all the more confusing for being all three at once. It’s a riff on the hundred contemporary noir movies in which a woman becomes involved with a man who might be her saviour, might be her nemesis.

Moore slices away at the tropes and clichés, though, largely through giving us the whole thing from the POV of a woman smart enough to see through it all, but who still screws everything up. Beyond the considerable surface pleasures of the hardboiled dialogue and the crisply erotic sex scenes, I found it an unnerving book to read. It doesn’t let the reader settle, because there’s not one but two questions in the reader’s mind:

Not just, will Frannie be all right? But also: how could she let herself get in this position? Which broadens out to, is this book a credible account of rational (female) behaviour? Is my empathy misplaced? It’s only at the end that Moore allays your (my) worries, and the novel makes sense, and the reader is allowed to breathe. 

For anyone who’s read the book, this might seem an odd thing to say.

The rule of the mystery genre is that things will make sense at the end, both in terms of plot (whodunnit) and of narrative (we will understand what we’ve been told and how). What’s unnerving about In The Cut is the sense, while you’re reading, that things might not make sense. I felt genuinely worried that we wouldn’t find out the identity of the killer, not for the sake of a tidy ending, but for the sake of the coherence of the narrative. If Frannie doesn’t discover who the killer is, and who’s been stalking her, how can the novel ever end?

One other minor note: In the Cut is a novel without parts or chapters. This is something I didn’t really touch on in a recent post about chapter lengths, but it’s a useful point here.

Chapters are more than a means of doling out narrative. They offer a sense of order. Someone here is in control. And the question of whether Frannie is in control is very pertinent to the novel. The narrative has gaps in it (white spaces, lacunae) but that offers no reassurance.

I enjoyed Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, in part for its winning attempt to capture the middle ground of ‘common or garden’ romantic love à la Sally Rooney, and in part for its way of dealing with the expectations of writing the ‘Black British Experience’. The one part I found a bit unsettling was how much it was written in abstracts. The descriptions avoid the particular, the incidental, which, together with the present tense and second person narration, makes the story float free of the page a bit.

In part this fits the subject matter of a slowly growing love affair, but then Nelson does sprinkle his narrative with a particular kind of detail: the specifics of the black art that drives and inspires the narrator: Baldwin, Teju Cole, Kendrick, other artists I don’t know.

On the one hand, I found this didn’t quite settle with the narrative style of the rest of the story; on the other hand, I’d have liked more of it. I’d have liked to see Nelson push further into critical engagement. There are moments when you get it, e.g. the short description of a Skepta gig: “five black bodies moving across the stage… this feels right.” But this is where true auto-fiction (whatever the hell that is) would have delved more into the artwork. Don’t just reference it. Speak it. Engage with it, let it infect the page.

(I suppose that’s what I found slightly annoying about the cultural references in Open Water. They were ‘innocent’. They were presented as just what happened to be uppermost in the character’s mind, which makes him seem a little too-good-to-be-true. Whereas, if the book had been autofiction, then that faux-innocence or naivety would have been jettisoned, and Nelson would have had the opportunity to say, loud and clear, I’m an artist, engaging with these other artists. We are part of the same continuum.)

I’ll skip over Alan Garner’s brilliant, phenomenal Red Shift except to say: read it, if you haven’t, and note something that I hadn’t spotted at the time: that it is a perfect companion for Nelson’s book. At heart both books are simple boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl narratives. Nelson’s spirals out into a prismatic reflection of Black art. Garner’s spirals out into… well, read it. Then come back and tell me. 

Finally, Madame Zero by Sarah Hall a) contained some superb stories and b) chimed with another longstanding preoccupation of mine: the contextual apparatus of short stories. How how we read them affects the reading. Here it’s the idea of the collection, and how the stories work within the collection.

Unless you’re talking linked stort stories then the primary reading experience of the story must be to read on its own. But then probably most people that read stories, read them in collections. That balance was brilliantly achieved by Chris Power’s Mothers, with its backbone of three stories about the same character at different stages of her life.

But there’s something else at play in Madame Zero. Hall’s stories, famously, are all about sex and death, and although these can take you in a million directions, they can only end up in a few places, as it were. What I was astonished by was the way that, having read the collection linearly, apart from the couple of stories I’d read elsewhere, previously, I found the stories somehow built up to the final story, ‘Evie’, which is an absolute stunner, on its own terms, but seems to accrue additional power through its placement at the end of a collection as good as this.

And yet it feels like putting stories together for a collection means you can’t repeat tricks. There are ways – ways I can’t quite put my finger on – that stories earlier in the collection such as ‘Wilderness’ and ‘Luxury Hour’ set you up as a patsy for what happens in Evie. They’re in no way ‘linked’, in the usual sense, but they affect each other, and are best read in this order, cumulatively.

Think about what happens, and what doesn’t happen, in ‘Wilderness’, and what happens in ‘Evie’. Then think about how, if other things had happened in ‘Wilderness’, the impact of ‘Evie’ would be lessened. That’s the power of a writer like Hall. That even when (presumably) she’s not writing one story with the others in mind, beyond the need not to repeat yourself too simply, they speak to and reverberate with each other, because she’s writing them all from the same place, the place of her writing power.

Oh, yes, and I’ve been reading the first volume of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, as part of a Slack read along. I’m a bit behind, and I won’t pretend I haven’t been bored at times, but at other times it’s quite wonderful, and apposite, and brilliant. Like Lockwood’s book it’s a novel of ideas – a comedy of ideas – and like Lockwood Musil refuses to be pinned down about what it might all mean. In fact, Musil is harder to parse, because at times it seems like he’s taking everything his characters do entirely seriously. Which is odd, because at other times he is clearly laughing at the very idea of taking anything seriously. Musil was writing before we all, like Obelix, fell in the irony cauldron and were at once infected and inoculated.

Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for the copy of Real Estate. All other books are my own purchases.

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