Dance Move is the second story collection from Wendy Erskine, following Sweet Home, which had some killer stories in. Dance Move is a more consistent and impressive collection, I think. There are some stone-cold classics in it, five at least that I feel I will be reading for the rest of my life, and certainly none that don’t leave an impact.
There are three things that impress and astonish me about Erskine’s writing, and that’s what I’m going to write about in this blog post, which isn’t really a review. (There’s a single spoiler right towards the end).
So, here’s what I love about Erskine’s stories:
i) the ‘realness’ of the people that she writes about.
I want to say you can barely call them ‘characters’, they’re so real, and yes I know that sounds cheesy. But they are the kinds of people you simply don’t read about in most contemporary literature (or not the literature I read, anyway). They make most characters in books look like they’ve either been put there for a reason – because the writer wants to make a point: character as sock-puppet or a straw man – or else they’ve been put there for no reason at all: the writer can’t imagine anything other than a faceless avatar of their own desires and fears.
Erskine’s characters aren’t like this. They are the reason why people mention Chekhov around her name. The characters are ‘ordinary’, but not in a fill-the-blanks way, or a central casting misfits way (like those model agencies that recruit ‘interesting-looking’ ugly people), but in an organic, from-the-inside-out, seemingly verifiable way. Because – cheesy again – nobody in real life is entirely ordinary. They’ve all got some weirdness going on. That ordinary weirdness is what Erskine’s characters have got.
ii) the very un-Chekhovian twists she gives her narratives.
The gun not hanging over the mantlepiece, but in the attic. (And you can be damn sure that if the gun’s going to be fired, it’s not because Chekhov said so.) The faded pop star’s call out of the blue for one last gig. The sister/sister-in-law’s mega-expensive party. These interventions hover around the surreal, while remaining entirely believable. I don’t mean formally or programmatically surreal, but surreal in the way they affect the characters’ lives. They are at once overwhelmingly weird, and able to be taken in the stride. They are surreal in context, not form.
And iii) the way she ends her stories.
She ends her stories brilliantly. You are so immersed in these characters’ lives (that Chekhov thing again) that you want to stay with them, but the deftness of the narrative interventions means that the stories aren’t wedded to plot, so can’t end with a traditional narrative climax or denouement.
(As David Collard said, in response to my original tweets, “Wendy Erskine’s stories don’t end, they simply stop” – which is so true. Perhaps it would be even better to say, they don’t finish, they simply stop.)
So how does she end them? She kind of twists up out of them, steps out of them as you might step out of a dress, leaving it rumpled on the floor. In a way that’s the true ‘dance move’: the ability to leave the dance floor, mid-song, and leave the dance still going.
Take the story ‘Golem’, definitely one of my favourites in the collection. It’s a story that does everything Erskine’s stories do. It densely inhabits its characters’ lives, and it has its comic-surreal interior moments, but most incredibly of all, it manages to end at the perfect unexpected moment. The story goes on, but the narrative of it ends. It departs, exits the room, taking us with it.
Perhaps the best way to put it is that you feel that, yes, the characters are ready to live on, and yes, you’d be ready to keep on reading the prose and the dialogue forever, but no, you wouldn’t want the stories themselves to last a single sentence longer. In this she’s the opposite of Alice Munro, who has the miraculous ability to extend her stories beyond where you think they surely must end. (Think ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’, or the incredible ‘Train’, from Dear Life.)
(NB, Wendy talked at her Social reading about ending stories, and it was great, and I thought I’d taken some notes, but I don’t think I did, so some of this is probably stolen from her. The only note I did take, I now see, is “against central casting”, which I now see I did steal. So it goes.)
In fact there’s one story in Dance Move where I wanted Erskine to ‘go Munro’, to stretch the possibilities of narrative: the opening story.
[Mild spoiler follows]
‘Mathematics’ introduces us to Roberta, a cleaner, likely cognitively impaired after a childhood accident, and happy enough in the circumscribed world of her job and life. (So far, so Chekhov.) Then, on a job, she discovers a primary school-aged girl in a hotel room, abandoned by her mother.
Six pages in, and Erskine has blown the floor out from under her story. Roberta tries to return the girl to her mother, via her school, but ends up looking after her. The ‘stakes’, for a story by Wendy Erskine, are incredibly high. So much could go wrong. We are so willing them to go right. Erskine has done something she doesn’t normally do: she has reached up out of the page, grabbed me by the hair and pulled me down into the story, forcing me to connect emotionally with the story. Normally she is too cool for that. (And that’s fine. I like her for that.)
And the story succeeds. Erskine pushes it just far enough, and then she does her brilliant effortless thing of deftly stepping out of it, ascending, quitting the room, leaving the dress on the floor, giving just enough for us to be sure that Roberta will go on with the narrative, on our behalf.
But, BUT, I wanted, I really wanted the story to continue, and for the floor to be blown out again. I wanted that rush again. Damn.
Thanks to Picador for the original proof copy of Dance Move. I was very happy to purchase my own copy of the hardback at Wendy’s brilliant reading at The Social, London, last week, though I had to leave before I could ask her to sign it.
So Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies was one of my May reads, but I’ve split off into a separate blog to write about it, because I found it so interesting. I’ll say straight out that it is a great collection of stories, which much of the same calm, wry, politically and socially observant writing as her debut collection, Multitudes, but the reason I want to write about it (and not just it) is something different from just the quality.
I’ll also say second out that I met Lucy last year, when she kindly agreed to talk with me, and Michael Hughes and David Collard, for the Irish Literary Society about my poem Spring Journal and its connection to Louis MacNeice, of whom she is a great fan, as evidenced by her Twitter handle @beingvarious, and in fact the great anthology of contemporary Irish short stories of the same title that she edited; and she was kind enough to say some words about the book, which were used for a blurb. So I am in her debt for that.
And but so…
Short story collections.
I own maybe 100 single-author individual collections, as opposed to anthologies or Collecteds, but I’ve got no idea how many of them I’ve read in their entirety. I do read plenty of short stories, not least because of A Personal Anthology, the short story project I curate, which pushes me weekly in all sorts of directions, some of them new, some of them old, but when I do read stories I mostly read one, two or at most three stories by a particular author at a time.
This partly comes down to the practicalities of reading. A short story you can read in the bath, and a long decadent bath with bubbles and candles might stretch to three or four, depending on the writer. Or, as I have done this afternoon, sitting outside in the garden, reading ‘Heaven’, the final story in Mary Gaitskill’s seminal Bad Behaviour, a story which… but now’s not the time.
But seriously: what a story!
What I generally don’t do is read collections in order, from start to finish. I appreciate that this might be annoying for authors, who presumably put some effort into sequencing their collections, but a collection isn’t like a music album – not quite – which lends itself almost exclusively to listening in order. (I remember when CD players came out, and the novelty of random play. It’s not something I would ever do now, and I find it annoying that it seems to be a default setting on Spotify.)
The reason why I don’t tend to read collections in order, is partly because I like reading stories in isolation. I think it’s a Good Idea. If – to be reductive about it – novels are a writer doing one big thing, slowly, and stories are writers doing a small thing, over and over, then there is a risk, in reading a collection in one go, of seeing a writer repeat themselves. After all, they most likely wrote the stories to be read individually. Read me here, doing my thing, in The New Yorker. Read me here, doing my thing again, in Granta. And here I am, doing something similar but different in The Paris Review.
Some collections of stories are just that: agglomerations of pieces that have individual lives of their own, published here and there, and their coming-together is primarily a commercial rather than an artistic act. Some collections are more integrated than that, more self-sufficient or autarchic, having no particular dependence on anything outside of its little biosphere.
As I tweeted about the theme of this blog, John Self mentioned David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son as two collections that operate like this, that need to be read in order. He’s right, though annoyingly I don’t have either to hand. The Vann I think is in a box in the loft, and I’ve never owned a copy of Jesus’ Son, despite it being a touchstone of sorts. Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond is another example, with its famous ambiguity as to whether it’s a novel or a collection of stories, but that has the oddity that I think you could read it in any order.
There must be others. I might think further and come back to this. You might have thoughts yourself.
So once you’ve leaned away from the idea of reading a collection in one go – to avoid the risk of diminishing marginal returns – then the need to read them in order seems somehow weaker. So that’s what I do. I take a collection down from the shelf, a new one or an old one, and I scan the contents page; I consider the titles; I look at the page-length. I make my choice.Continue reading
I remember the first Deborah Levy book I read, and where I acquired it. It was Beautiful Mutants, in its splendid Vintage paperback edition, with its Andrzej Klimowski collage cover, and I bought it from a remaindered bookshop in Tenterden in Kent, where my grandmother lived. Tenterden had a good old-fashioned sweetshop, and it had this bookshop, with two low-ceilinged rooms, at the far end of the high street, which I used to try to try to get to whenever we visited.
I’ve always preferred bookshops to libraries. I know how that sounds, and I do love libraries, but it’s true. Books are things I want to acquire. Reading them is not enough; I need to have them. There are reasons behind this beyond mere materialism: I want to be able to read the book in my own time; I want to be able to put it down and pick it up again; I want to be able to write in it; I like to read books I believe I will want to read again; I want it there in my house to remind me I’ve read it, so I can reread it if I want. And yes, book is a statement about the person who buys it. Books are part of the way I interact with the world. This is the way we make culture out of art, by sharing it, and sharing through it.
I love new bookshops, and I love secondhand bookshops, and I love the book sections in charity shops, and each of these venues offers something slightly different as an experience to browser and buyer, but I have always had a fondness for remaindered bookshops.
Remaindered bookshops (good ones – are there still good ones? perhaps there were more of them in the days of the Net Book Agreement) give you two fine things: a sense of getting something new, for cheap, a bargain; and a sense that you’re getting something that perhaps has slipped under the radar, that didn’t sell as well as the publishers thought, that is likely to be something you haven’t heard of, that you might want to take a punt on, that is perhaps not quite first rate, but all the more interesting for that, a potential future cult classic.
I can’t remember all the other books I bought from that shop in Tenterden, except for a book of the graphic design of Neville Brody, and a hardback collection of letters written to George Bernard Shaw by ordinary members of the public. I don’t think I have either of those two books any more, but I do have the Levy.
(How I wish had written in the front of all my books the details of where I got them. Imagine the Perecesque autobiography those details would tell.)
I do know where I got the newest Deborah Levy, which was sent to me by the publisher. Real Estate is the third of Levy’s ‘living autobiographies’, sort of diary-cum-memoir-cum-essays. I read the first, Things I Don’t Want to Know, and reviewed it for The Independent when it came out, in 2013, published by Notting Hill Editions, but I don’t know where my copy is. Either I reviewed it from a digital copy, or I lent or gave it away. I certainly wouldn’t have charity-shopped it. I didn’t read the second instalment, The Cost of Living, but having now read Real Estate, I’ve ordered a copy.
Real Estate I enjoyed hugely, and more than I was expecting to. I’ve been reading Levy since the early 90s, and loved Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography, though not so much Billy and Girl, I seem to remember. (I can’t find my copy of that either, to update my thoughts.) I was less taken with her second wave or renaissance books, Swimming Home, Black Vodka (stories) and Hot Milk. I felt she had toned down her exuberance but lost the craziness – the burning zoo, the “Lapinsky is a shameless cunt” – that seemed to carry crackling danger in every sentence, every page. The newer novels were tilted off their axis, certainly, but either didn’t entirely find their footing or didn’t take to the air.
I don’t remember that much about Things I Don’t Want to Know, and will reread it, to see how the three books operate together, but here’s what I think about Real Estate: it’s a swift, sure, clean, clear account of and reflection on Levy’s world, post-success, post-marriage, with both of her daughters now left home, leaving her to consider how she will make the most of her fully independent life at an age (she turns 60 in the course of the book) when one might hope she can fully capitalise on her promise, and success.
The title refers to the question of house ownership, as a dream and as an anchor, an aspect of self-identity and self-worth. During the book Levy writes in two sheds in two different people’s gardens, packs up her dead stepmother’s apartment in New York, travels to Mumbai for a literary festival, and decamps to Paris for a nine-month fellowship; she visits a friend in Berlin, and rents a house in Greece to write in for the summer. She is also haunted by the family house where she was once happy, and then unhappy.
All the while she cultivates her dream of a “grand old house with a pomegranate tree in the garden”, furnishing it in her mind with articles and objects she has accumulated over her life that would deserve their place in this ideal dwelling.
If Levy is playing ‘dream house-hunting’ then that’s fine with me. In a way, she herself is living a dream that belongs to many of the rest of us: a writer comes into well-deserved success after early years of promise, and middle fallow years, finding the literary superstructure bending itself as if by magic around her and to her and lifting her up. (Mumbai… Paris… Greece… what writer wouldn’t dream of that! What writer wouldn’t at least consider the painful end of a marriage a fair psychic payment for this other daydream…)
She uses the house metaphor to bring in other themes and issues: the difficulties female writers face, the lack of self-knowledge of male writers who turn up at festivals with their wives in tow as assistants, who corner you at parties with self-centred wining.Continue reading
The list of independent presses actively bringing great literature in translation is long and honourable – from And Other Stories to Fitzcarraldo to Les Fugitives to Tilted Axis – but it’s worth remembering that the big guys do do it too. Penguin Classics and Modern Classics have introduced me to writers over the last few years that now feel absolutely fixed in the constellation of my reading: Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy; Yuko Tsushima’s pellucid novels; Mario Benedetti’s urgent romantic inquisitions; Raduan Nassar’s blistering novella A Cup of Rage. To these I can now add Ana María Matute, with her 1959 short novel The Island. These writers were all working between the 1950s and the 1970s, and it feels absolutely right that our (or my) sense of the international landscape should shift to accommodate them.
The Island is not a direct rendering of Matute’s original title Primera Memoria (First Memories). I think the original title is better, although the island setting is important in the way it focuses the narrative inwards. While the Spanish Civil War is burning up the mainland, Mallorca – for that is where it is set – is a held in an almost fairy tale-like trance. There is reference to Never Never Land, and young Matia’s grandmother is like something out of a Mediterranean Brothers Grimm: ancient, domineering and bound to meddle in fates beyond her own limited purview.
Matia is fourteen, and stuck on the island when the war turns her holiday a permanent vacation. She’s holed up in her grand’s grand old house with her cousin, Borja, who is one year older, and his dopey mother Emilia. Matia’s mother is dead, and her father absent somewhere; he may even – gasp! – be a Communist sympathiser. News comes slow from the war, but there is plenty of drama on the island, largely centred around the Taronji brothers, a pair of local fascists happy to threaten and even kill suspected Republicans. They throw one man off a cliff, then poison his family’s well by throwing down it the corpse of their dog, killed especially.
These personal-political barbarities are really just the backdrop to the story of Matia’s coming of age, however. She has a love-hate relationship with Borja, who torments her even as he needs her as a partner in crime, and over the course of the novel she falls in love with Manuel, son of the man thrown off the cliff. (In her introduction the translator Laura Lonsdale explains the anti-Semitism behind these acts, referring to the Xuetes or Chuetas of the island, descendants of Jews either forced to convert to Christianity or to keep their true religion hidden. She shows how Matata uses them, and the persecution of the Jews by the Inquisition, to draw parallels with Spain’s continued persecution of Republicans, that she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to make when the novel was published.)
The novel plays out over a summer, and is a ripe and vivid depiction of place. I was struck by the many powerful descriptions of the sun – not the wonderful bright Mediterranean sun that you might wish for, but something far more oppressive:
Hatred would burst through the silence like the sun, like an inflamed, blood-shot eye through fog. To me the sun on the island was always sinister, because of the way it polished up the stones of the square, leaving them shiny and slippery as bones, like a strange and malignant ivory.
And there was a well between the agaves, where a grey sun licked at the rusty chain.
The sun outside was a silent red thunderclap, more deafening than real thunder.
So we are immersed in young Matia’s experience, but our vision of the island summer is also coloured by the book’s narrative position which places us in a vague distant future, with the adult Matia looking back on the events with something like wisdom, something like nostalgia, and something like pity for the characters – herself included, but especially Borja. She interrupts her narration regularly with parenthesised reflections, many of them starting with the boy’s name, repeated, in a kind of platonic lament:
(Borja, Borja. We may not have loved each other as brother and sister, as the Holy Mother Church demands, but we at least kept each other company. And I ask myself, my poor brother, with your bravado and your hard, proud heart, if you were not just a solitary creature like me, like all young people.)
These interpolations really make the novel, hauling it out of a coming-of-age story into something more powerful. I’ve been trying to remember what this plaintive cry reminds me of, and I can’t quite pin it down. I thought it might be Cendrar’s ‘Prose du Transsibérien’, with its refrain of “Blaise, dis, sommes-nous bien loin de Monmartre?”, which is not it, but it’s as close as I can get.
It’s a great book, unruly and passionate and brutal. The children in it are “malevolent and capricious, with their stubborn wilfulness and stupid arguments”; the adults, to the mind of the adult narrator, fare no better:
(Oh, how dirty and pathetic, how cheap and pretentious adults were.)
No one comes out of the summer well, but the dirt and the sun and the calm eye for human viciousness will leave you exhilarated.
Thanks to Penguin for the review copy of the book.
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
Last 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 Cogan, Fullalove 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.
I 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
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.
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.
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?