Category: Reviewing

‘Knives Out’: character is plot, puke is truth. [Contains spoilers]

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Last night I saw Knives Out, Rian Johnson’s wonderfully ripe murder mystery, that boasts a fine array of performances ranging from the judiciously over-the-top (Jamie Lee Curtis and Toni Colette) to the genuinely affecting (Ana de Armas, brilliant), as well as those that waver between the two. Here I’m thinking of Daniel Craig, whose atrocious southern accent disguises masterful detectorial insight, and Christopher Plummer as Harlan Thrombey, the bestselling crime writer whose apparent suicide on the night of his 85th birthday set the film in motion.

The cast is great, and the cinematography and direction workmanlike, but what struck me most of all was Johnson’s brilliantly contrived screenplay, which is a masterclass not just in mystery plotting – intricate enough to keep you guessing, and simple enough to make sense as flashback after flashback sends you zipping backwards and forwards in time – but in the logical construction of the central character’s emotional arc. What follows is an analysis of one aspect of this, and contains spoilers. It is intended only for people who have seen the film.

The key character point of Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s immigrant nurse, is that she is physiologically unable to tell a lie: if she lies, she throws up. There are four (in fact five) moments in the film when this fact is utilised. Two of them are essential to the plot, but all of them are central to our understanding of the nature of her character.

Character is plot, we are taught in creative writing books and classes, and this is a perfect instance of that. (In passing: I teach on an MA in novel-writing, and it’s a constant annoyance that so many examples that come up in discussion, from me as well as from the students, are from films, rather than novels. Why is this? I hope it’s simply because i) films are more memorable, as combining visual and verbal elements and ii) they are simpler, goddamit! All the same: I’m writing this post because I think the film can teach us a useful lesson in plotting.)

The first time we learn that Marta cannot lie without vomiting is the first time she is interviewed by Daniel Craig’s private investigator, Benoit Blanc. He probes her on her actions on the night of the party, and she dissembles, trying to hide something (we don’t know what at this point), and is then sick in a flower pot. Note that we don’t see the vomit.

There’s another minor repetition of this moment later in the film when Marta and her temporary partner-in-crime Ransom Thrombey (Harlan’s grandson, played by Chris Evans) are caught after a car chase with Craig’s Blanc and the other cops. Blanc, seemingly still believing her to be innocent, asks if Ransom forced her to drive. She says yes, though that’s not true, and surreptitiously spits up in a takeaway coffee cup. Again, we don’t see the vomit, and note that it’s a small bit of puke, for a small lie.

[The spoilers proper kick in here. Don’t read on if you haven’t seen the film. It’s worth it, I promise!] Continue reading

Gordon Burn: various monsters

fullsizeoutput_db3Last night I went to the Lexington, Islington, for ‘Fullalove’, a celebration of the work of Gordon Burn, ten years after his death. Burn is an important writer for me – or rather, some of his books have been very important to me. The people up on stage to say the same thing, and prove it, were: Cosi Fanni Tutti, Adelle Stripe, David Keenan and Paul Pomerantsev. They were introduced by Burn’s former editor at Faber & Faber, Lee Brackstone, and followed by a soundscape-and-reading by none other than Andrew Weatherall.

The simple but effective set-up was that the four writers – all of whom have either been nominated for the Gordon Burn prize, or been a judge on it – were asked to read us an extract of one of their books, and another from one of Burn’s books, of their choice. They all read well, and chose interesting selections, but my reason for wanting to write this up on the blog was to record the thoughts that occurred to me, as I watched and listened, about Burn, violence and ‘true crime’.

When I say I’ve read Burn, what I mean is that I’ve read (most of) the novels: Alma CoganFullalove and Born Yesterday – plus some of the art writing, and the interview book with Damien Hirst. (For the bizarre relationship between Burn’s collaborations with Hirst and my debut novel, Randall or The Painted Grape, see here.)

What I haven’t read is the narrative non-fiction: neither the books about sport (Pocket Money and Best and Edwards) nor those about serial killers (Happy Like Murderers and Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son). This is for the very simple reason that I’m not that interested in either of those subjects – and in fact I have what might call a visceral antipathy towards the ‘true crime’ genre. I hate it. It makes me squirm. The idea of it makes me sick. The idea of the people who read that shit makes me sick. I don’t want any part of it, and I certainly don’t want to be like them.

Now, I know that Burn’s writing about Sutcliffe and the Wests is different to your average ‘Free binder with Part III’ lip-smacking, faux-appalled, entirely egregious example of the form, but still I haven’t read them, though Happy Like Murderers sits on my shelf. But what struck me, last night, which seems entirely to Burn’s credit, is that, of the writers on stage, it was the two women who chose to read from these books about the very worst kind of – absolutely, specifically – misogynistic murderers.

Tutti started the evening with a reading from her memoir Art Sex Music about her abusive relationship with Genesis P-Orridge, in which he kicks her in the crotch and throttles her when she tells him she’s leaving him. She then went straight on to read from Happy Like Murderers, telling how Fred West forced Rosemary to have sex with other men, watching, controlling and beating her. The similarities are obvious, such that, a day later, I’m not entirely sure which incidents were from which book. Tutti read calmly and clearly – almost placidly. It was the first time I’d heard her read, and it wasn’t at all what I expected: nothing ‘performance art’ about it, and a far cry from punk or Dada, but devastating nonetheless. Hirst in his interview with David Peace at the start of Sex & Violence, Death & Silence, talks again and again about Burn’s economy, and that’s certainly something Tutti shares with him.

The final reading of the evening was from Adelle Stripe, who read from and talked about Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, which she described as an incredibly important book for her (especially in writing her novel about Andrea Dunbar, Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile) but also for the cultural history of Yorkshire. Her Burn extract described Sutcliffe’s attack on Maureen Long, in July 1977, whom he left for dead, but who survived – and who was friends with Dunbar. Stripe then read a section from her own book in which the two women discuss the Ripper attacks.

The appeal of Burn’s books, to me, is not that they so deliberately stalk the dark parts of human life, but that they do so so humanely. The tape in Alma Cogan, the attacks in Fullalove – and, presumably, huge swathes of the non-fiction books – are grim almost beyond comprehension, but they are not there to titillate. There is no love of violence buried deep in Burn’s work, as there can be when people are writing about – ‘exploring’ – the dark, vicious, horrific side of life. Of course happiness writes white, and Milton was of the Devil’s party and did not know it, and we all love a monster, and to say that depicting violence breeds violence is facile in the extreme, but there is a point when interest in this stuff becomes pathological, or fetishistic.

When people are fascinated by violence, and serial killers, it’s hard not to wonder how much love is mixed up in the horror. If anything, what Burn is most interested in is the point where ones tips into the other. He is not interested in what is on the tape in Alma Cogan. He is interested in the man who collects it. He’s not interested in Myra Hindley, but in why we’re interested in her. He’s not interested in the darkness, but in our seeming need for the darkness, as a corollary to the bright light of celebrity, etc.

The third reader of the night was David Keenan, who read brilliantly from Pocket Money, then read equally brilliantly from his second novel, For the Good Times, set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. It was a passage in which the narrator witnesses a brutal, callous sectarian murder. It was well written and, as I say, well read, and while there are aspects of Keenan’s other novel (This is Memorial Device) that seem to me genuinely in the spirit of Burn, I don’t think this was. A quick online search on Keenan brings up an interview in which he says, “This is not a book specifically about the IRA and the Troubles. In a way that’s the backdrop. One of the big things I wanted to talk about is masculinity and violence, and how these cycles are perpetuated through fathers and sons.” Which is admirable, but the passage he read came across as at least as fascinated with the violence on display as with the sociology behind it.

I’m not quite sure what I’ve tried to reach for in this brief post. It was mostly that: that Tutti and Stripe read from Burn’s books about serial killers, and Keenan read a passage about a psychotic killer, and I’m pretty damn sure that Burn would never have written a scene like that.

Sally Rooney and the brilliance of Normal People (and the danger it poses to the novel form)

IMG_1583I wrote recently about my first exposure to Sally Rooney’s writing, and the dilemma I faced, or conjured, as to whether buy her then-Booker-longlisted novel Normal People in hardback or wait for it in paperback – a debate that wasn’t simply down to price. In the end I was saved my deliberations when a kind student lent me a proof copy of the book. I will certainly be buying it in paperback when it comes out, and I may well be putting it on the curriculum at St Mary’s, Twickenham, where I teach.

The usefulness of Rooney to Creative Writing students – and teachers – is something I will discuss below (and this will involve a spoiler near the end: I’ll give you fair warning) but my general response to the novel is a solid continuation of my thoughts about the extract and early version story I had read in Granta and The White Review: this is a great book, that matches a warm, oblique narrative style to a pair of characters who, while immensely likeable (or ‘compelling’, if you quail at the L-word) are also intensely uncertain about the value or depth of their own qualities: the more time they spend poking and probing at their own selves, the further they get from any definite conclusion, and so they rely on each other – on their relationship with each other – to ground themselves, but seeing as they continually misstep, misspeak and misconstrue, they are always finding that solid ground shifting beneath them.

Thus the warm – we like them – and thus the oblique – they are continually struggling to find the perspective that Rooney offers the reader, from which they can be seen as genuinely likeable.

Again, the first thing to love about Normal People is the characters; the second thing to love is the cool narrative style, that dips into each character’s thought processes, and lets them be themselves, up close and personal, for the reader, but also steps away, and allows the reader to see them at an emotional distance. The mix of this is something Rooney gets absolutely right, and people have talked on Twitter about getting very closely involved in this couple as they read the book. I concur.

A brief introduction, then. The couple are Marianne and Connell, who as teenagers in small-town Ireland develop a secret and passionate friendship that crosses class divisions both in the town (Connell’s mother is Marianne’s family’s cleaner) and in school (where Connell is popular and Marianne is ostracised). The novel shifts locus but not focus when Connell follows Marianne to Dublin to study at Trinity, where they are both high-performing students. The novel is essentially one long on-off/will they?-won’t they? narrative as the two of them repeatedly grow close, sleep together, piss each other off, take other partners and then fall back into each other. The reasons for their separate and individual inability to commit, or trust – each other, and themselves – become clear as the novel progresses, but… Well, I’ll get to the but in a moment.

(If you want to get a sense of how cherished this book might become to future generations of romantically-inclined novel readers, there’s a lovely hint halfway through, when Connell is backpacking around Europe in the summer holidays. In his backpack is “a very beaten-up copy of a James Salter novel”. I think we know which James Salter novel that is, right, people? That’s right, it’s A Sport and a Pastime. People will love Normal People as much as people love that book: take my word for it. Continue reading

Slow-cooked aphorisms and placid strangeness: Jessie Greengrass’s ‘Sight’

Jessie Greengrass has been longlisted for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction, for her debut novel Sight. I have only read one of the fifteen other books on the longlist, so I can’t give a fair appraisal of the relative merits, but I will say that Sight is one of the strongest new books I’ve read so far this year, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t make the shortlist. I reviewed the book for The White Review. Click below to read it:

SIGHT sets its tone with the decidedly ambivalent opening line: ‘The start of another summer, the weather uncertain but no longer sharply edged, and I am pregnant again.’ What follows comes in three parts, each of which focuses on a significant event in the life of the unnamed narrator – a woman living in London with her partner, Johannes, and their young daughter, and, yes, awaiting the birth of their second child – but each of which also folds in the story of a particular intervention in the history of medicine.

River by Esther Kinsky review – an outsider’s view of London’s edgelands

My review of Esther Kinsky’s strange, seductive book (novel?) River, set up and down and around the banks of the River Lea in East London. It’s not an area of the city I know particularly well, though I do visit it while reading the book. Part of the reason it has never particularly appealed to me as a corner of London during the two-plus decades I’ve lived here is that it is the part nearest Essex, where I grew up. When I came into London, it was to hit the cultural hot spots – Camden, Soho, the South Bank – and the green-grey rural-natural-urban-industrial interstices between Stratford, Hackney and Walthamstow looked that little bit too much like home. Now, though, of course, that feeling is reversed, and the Walthamstow wetlands, with the small commuter trains passing across them, raised against the sky, bring out a grey-green nostalgia. Perhaps that’s part of why the book appealed to me so much: although I didn’t recognise the changes and losses specific to the area that she records, I could bring my own personal losses to bear.

Here, then, is the review. There is one passage from the book that I didn’t have space to quote, but has stuck with me, about a man in an abandoned warehouse forecourt, burning rubbish in a metal bin, that I’ll add to this post.

Read the review by clicking below:

A woman walks around the streets and river paths of the Lea Valley in east London – that fine example of British “edgelands”, where the urban, pastoral and industrial continually overlap and erase each other. She is an outsider and an immigrant, and many of the people she encounters “drifting in the river of the city” are immigrants, too: Katz the greengrocer; the Croat who runs a charity shop for Bosnian refugees; a former circus performer. This last character is from Germany, like the author, who grew up on the banks of the Rhine and has felt drawn to rivers ever since.

Darrieussecq and Becker at Minor Lits

I was offered a copy of Marie Darrieussecq’s book about the German modernist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker by the kind people at semiotext(e), after they had read something of mine on the Les Fugitives translation of Natalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden. It was an excellent suggestion. The two books share a real affinity, a desire to do the now familiar job of recuperating the life and work of unjustly neglected female artists, but to do something more than this: to honour the artists in question by approaching them as equals, as one artist writing about another. I eventually wrote a piece about the book for minor lits, which you can read here. It’s stuck with me thus far, enough to make it one of my books of the year. It sent me back to try Darrieussecq’s fiction again, but I stumbled ten or so pages into Breathing Underwater and haven’t picked it up again. And it’s made me think more and more about Rilke, who is as central to Darrieussecq’s book, as he was to Becker’s creative life. What is it about men like him, that they can be so flaky and end up so lauded, while the women who are his equals (this is a broad statement, rather than an expert judgement) get left on the wayside?

The sad story of the Dutch Book of Short Stories

 

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I picked up Penguin’s Book of Dutch Short Stories with a keen curiosity – in part to see what I could learn about this country’s literature beyond what I know, which really comes down the books of Cees Nooteboom and Gerbrand Bakker. I love both these writers. (Here is my review of Cees Nooteboom’s The Foxes Come at Night, though for me Rituals is the killer text. And here is my review of Bakker’s June, and here (£) my review of the quite stunning The Detour.)

Well, I learned many things, including the reason why I (we) know so little of Dutch literature abroad, so much less than that of other European countries, and I enjoyed many of the stories in the collection, but what I also learned, that took a little digging, was that the saddest story of the collection was not in it, but of its very creation. I reviewed it for Minor Lits. Read on…

Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales – strange loops and the suburban gothic

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There are worse things in the world, but still I do get riled at the rise of trick-or-treating in the UK. It’s partly the arrant commercialism of the event. I hate the fact that supermarkets cashing in twice over, with the rinky-dink witch and zombie costumes shelved right next to the bags of orange and black themed candy. The now-extinguished penny-for-the-guy, by comparison, offered a simpler, less costly and more direct transaction between kids and adults: handfuls of loose change given in tribute, for the stuffing of old clothes and tights with balled up newspaper.

But it’s also the way that trick-or-treating leaches any real sense of fear from the traditions of Halloween – for the kids at least. They aren’t scared; they’re just in it for sweets. If anyone’s spooked by trick-or-treating it’s the parents, so fearful of the idea of their children wandering around at night that they insist on chaperoning them. You have to hope their kids don’t catch sight of mum or dad’s face, a rictus of stranger-danger hypervigilance and forced jollity. That would give them a shock.

I’ve never taken my kids trick or treating, like the dull dad they insist I am. One Halloween, though, I did take them to the local cemetery to hang out. It didn’t work. London suburbs: far too much ambient light. I’d like to think that the country graveyard on the edge of the village where I grew up would have been a different matter, with its wonky headstones and moonlight-blocking yew trees.

When I think of trick-or-tweeting, I think of E.T., with its mass takeover of the streets by children, producing something like the benign anarchism of a May Day carnival or Saturnalia. There is freedom here, it’s true, but no fear of the dark, no sense of the dead hovering just out of sight, needing to be appeased.

Does this antipathy translate into a bias against US horror and gothic writing? Is this why I’ve never really read Shirley Jackson, beyond her classic story ‘The Lottery’, which is apparently the one story all US schoolchildren will have read by the time they reach eighth grade? Well, perhaps – but then I don’t really read gothic and horror as a genre. (The only book I can think of that gave me sleepless nights is Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs.) A reader of literary fiction, i.e. prose tragedy, I suppose I prefer despair to fear. The world is quite bad enough without ghouls and ghosties.

So it is only right and just that I give my full attention to Jackson’s work, in this new selection of short stories – although quite what decisions lie behind the selection is unclear, as two of the three collections they are taken from are already available in Penguin Modern Classics. And, presumably, all of her tales are ‘dark’ – aren’t they? Continue reading

Some thoughts on Elena Ferrante: the long and the short of it

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Daniela Petracco of Europa Editions (standing) introduces, from left to right: Joanna Walsh, Catherine Taylor and myself. Photo courtesy Richard Skinner

Last night I was at Foxed Books in West London for the London launch for Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third in her ‘Neapolitan novels’ – a projected sequence of four books telling the intense, dialectical relationship between two women over, thus far, thirty years. What with Ferrante being a non-public author, it was up to others to do the promotional duties, and I was asked to join Joanna Walsh, who chaired, and Catherine Taylor to read from and discuss her work.

Walsh has written on Ferrante for the Guardian, while Taylor and I both reviewed the new book, she for The Telegraph and I for The Independent. It was a great evening, with what I hope was an interesting discussion, both for those that already knew Ferrante’s writing and those that didn’t, and some incisive comments from the floor.

As might be hoped, most of the talk was less about the enigmatic Ferrante herself, as about the books. As a critic, I have to say, it is a joy to be able to talk about the writer without the sense that they are listening in, and might stalk up to you at another launch, months hence, and throw a glass of wine in your face. (If it’s true, as the hints would have it, that Ferrante’s decision to absent herself from the public gaze is at least partly down to constitutional shyness, then I guess she doesn’t read her reviews.) Ferrante, so far as the critic is concerned, may as well be dead. Or, as the final two lines of one of her novels read:

Deeply moved, I murmured:
“I’m dead, but I’m fine.”

One theme that recurred over the evening, and that I think worth reiterating, is the highly specific Italian-ness of her books: the overwhelming, overweening importance of family; and, one circle further out from that, of ‘the neighbourhood’. These are facets of the Neapolitan novels that simply couldn’t be successfully transplanted to any other setting, not even really to, say Italian New York. And yet there is nothing foreign about them. The effect on the characters’ lives of ‘family’ and ‘neighbourhood’ in Ferrante’s books is at once universally recognisable and highly localised.

In preparation for the talk I read the two Ferrante books that I hadn’t read before (and, in fact, re-read another, The Days of Abandonment), and this drilled home for me one other aspect of her oeuvre, thus far, that is worth mentioning. Continue reading

January reading: Jenkins, Roth, Bakker, Houellebecq, Iyer, Dyer, Burnside, Masters, Knausgaard

I started the month finishing Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and The Hare, a mid-20th century novel reissued in chichi hardback (there’s becoming something of a glut of them, isn’t there?) by Virago, with an introduction by Hilary Mantel. It was a Christmas present, though quite why my wife chose to give me a book about the breakdown of a marriage, I’m not sure.

The novel is one of those (like Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday) that is entirely governed by the formal gesture of its narrative: in this case, the gradual and implacable usurpation of the wifely role to rich, shallow barrister Evelyn Gresham by ‘handsome’, practical Blanche Silcox – to which Evelyn’s floaty, feminine wife, Imogen, can only stand by and watch. Any deviation from this movement (the possibility of Imogen having an affair, the needs and desires of the Greshams’ horrid son Gavin) gets dragged into the slipstream of the narrative and ruthlessly flung aside.

The key moment of the book comes for the reader when they realise that there is nothing organic about the plot’s progress: it is entirely teleologically determined. Jenkins knows exactly where her characters are going to end up: Blanche in Imogen’s place, Imogen cast out. It’s as mathematical as a Pinter short, or Ionesco’s The Lesson. There is something unreal about the bluntness of this reversal, though it’s mitigated by the domestic texture of the prose. (That said, the book does commit a venal sin: “books that include minor characters just to satirise them”)

Here is Karl O Knausgaard on form: “Form, which is of course a prerequisite for literature. That is its sole law: everything has to submit to form. If any of literature’s other elements are stronger than form, such as style, plot, them, if any of these take control over form, the result is poor. That is why writers with a strong style often write poor books. That is also why writers with strong themes so often write poor books. Strong themes and styles have to be broken down before literature can come into being. It is this breaking down that is called ‘writing’.” (From ‘A Death in the Family’ – more on this below.) Continue reading