Feminism, Islam and the importance of complexity

When I sat down to write this post on Saturday morning, it was going to be about literary Christmas presents. Something fun and frivolous for the pleasingly alliterative festive season. However, in my pre-post pottering I came across this article by Laurie Penny. Entitled, ‘This isn’t ‘feminism’. It’s Islamophobia’, it raises various ideas about the assumption of feminist authority by far right commentators to derail and distract from discussions of structural sexism in the West with Islamophobia. I have been following the response she has received – albeit intermittently due to various travels and familial duties –  both on Twitter and in the comments section below the article itself and as such I felt moved to offer my tuppence, however insignificant that tuppence might be.

A great deal of the criticism Penny has received for this article objects to the stereotyping of different gender groups – in particular white men – and expresses outrage that it is not an article condemning oppressive practices at work in the name of Islam. Both these responses, to me, miss the point that Penny is making: this is not an article about radical Islam, nor is it an article about gender stereotyping, it is an article about language and the appropriation of that language in the name of hypocrisy and hatred. This is something she sets out very clearly in the opening paragraph, “the rhetoric and language of feminism has been co-opted by Islamophobes, who could not care less about women of any creed or colour.” Penny is calling out hypocrisy and with it an insidious brand of misogyny that dresses itself up in words like freedom and equality and, in doing so, muddies the inherent value and meaning of those words. The ‘equal’ West and the ‘oppressive’ Middle East is a dangerous and false dichotomy that plays out across a broader media and political narrative but it is particularly infuriating when, as Penny points out, it is crassly politicised by organisations of the far right whose own records on gender discrimination are themselves so questionable.

Any discussion of discrimination leads to stereotyping in some degree: by its very nature it necessitates the catergorisation of groups of people be it white men or Muslim women (though it’s interesting that one is defined by race the other by religion). This is always going to be reductive and until the language of political debate and discourse starts to privilege complexity and nuance over quotability it will continue to be so. I’ve been wanting to write a post about contemporary political rhetoric for some time and whilst the finer details of that future post are still ruminating among cobwebs somewhere dusty at the back of my brain, this article speaks to some of those ideas. I can’t bear watching politicians speak, whether it’s on Newsnight or in the Commons the priority is to deliver simplistic, quotable one-liners that will play well with whichever demographic they are playing to (look at me generalising and stereotyping there…). We should require of our politicians and commentators on both the left and the right (what could be more reductive than that?) that they embrace complexity and nuance; they should be complicating issues not artificially simplifying them. We need complexity and the culture of the soundbyte negates it.

The response to Penny’s article exemplifies this: to identify one issue – the appropriation of feminist language and rhetoric by Western politicians both to propagate Islamophobia and maintain the fundamental inequalities of Western society – does not diminish nor deny the importance of another, let’s say the suggestion of gender segregation in universities or the stoning of women for adultery. It’s not an either-or discussion. It should go without saying that Penny stands against those latter two and, importantly, just because she has written what I think is an articulate and provocative comment piece on the former doesn’t mean she is, necessarily, privileging it.

Journalists like Penny go out of their way to complicate debate and that is exactly what this article is doing. The subtext of “West good Islam bad” that permeates so much of both the media and political narratives (again note the geographic v. the religious there) is not only unhelpfully reductive in the extreme but downright insulting, not just to the women who are still, relentlessly, fighting for a voice and making themselves heard but to those women, like Penny, like Caroline Criado-Perez, who are so frequently told that they have a voice, so why don’t they stop their whining and just shut up?

Plastic Jesus, Wayne Simmons

And lo, the end of term was upon them and there was much rejoicing and writing of blogs. Apologies for my rather prolonged cyber-silence: it’s been one hell of a term but rest assured I am refocusing my attention as I find myself, as if by accident, en France avec boyfriend, laptop and a large pile of books all baying for my attention.

Regular frequenters of this blog will know that I am a big fan of Salt Publishing (see previous write-ups of The Lighthouse; Between the Crackups and Burnt Island). I also thoroughly enjoyed their Best British Short Stories 2013 which showcased some really exciting writing and effectively demonstrated the myriad power of the short form. So, you can imagine that I approached this latest offering, Plastic Jesus by Wayne Simmons, with relish. Wayne Simmons is a Northern Irish writer hailing from Belfast, best known for his horror writing (FluFeverDoll PartsDrop Dead Gorgeousand this predisposition is evident in his science fiction thriller published earlier this month, Plastic Jesus.

Simmons steals us into a near-future dystopia where a Holy War has decimated the Middle East and with it religion itself. America has become a twisted echo of itself embodied in the violence and brutality of Lark City, capital of Maalside, the New Republic that exists isolated in the Pacific 200 miles from the formerly American land mass. Code guy Johnny Lyon is asked to write a Jesus program to resurrect a new, commercially viable religion. An immediate and explosive success, a problem soon emerges with the program resulting is an infectious moral corruption that leads to total, hellish social breakdown which only Johnny can stop.

I realise this won’t mean much to those of you who aren’t teachers, but I actually managed to read this book during term time. I started it towards the end of half term and I literally couldn’t put it down. Not only because it acted as an effective tonic to some of the denser Henry James I am embroiled in with my Year 13s but because the story doesn’t give you much of a choice. The chapters are short and episodic, initially introducing you to a large cast that are slowly revealed to be connected before ratcheting up the tension as the narrative reaches its dramatic climax. Simmons draws a grim world populated by corrupt businessmen, the drug or VR-addled, prostitutes and ruled over by the terrifying Paul McBride. Simmons articulates both action and character in sharp, crisp prose that is cinematic in its precision.

As I think I said in a previous post here, a very good friend of mine has always said that “really good sci-fi is about ideas” and I’ve absorbed this mantra into my own response to science fiction (whether it’s Doctor Who or Brian Aldiss). It’s become a sort of unconscious criterion that tends to shape the conclusions I reach about films and books. Suffice to say that Plastic Jesus is rooted in some of the most interesting ideas that are increasingly pertinent to our technology-fuelled (and filled) society. Virtual reality takes on an addictive drug-like quality and becomes inextricably connected to the religious concept of salvation in a world where any such redemption seems impossible. It’s an absolutely thrilling read that plays with ideas in original and incisive ways – it’s one to get hold of and then let it get a hold of you.

NB Do not read late at night or on your own unless you are bold of spirit.

The Red Room, New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës



This collection of short fiction is another Unthank publication (I recently reviewed their new writing Unthology here) in which editor A. J. Ashworth has gathered together twelve new stories inspired by all things Brontë. As she explains in her Introduction, the collection came about as part of an effort  to celebrate the Brontës’ association with the village of Thornton where, “Our nation’s most famous sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne” were in fact born. A percentage of the proceeds from the sales of this collection will be donated to The Brontë Birthplace Trust by Unthank, not only to support the promotion of Thornton as a tourist attraction but also to contribute to ongoing fundraising to purchase 72/74 Market Street which appears to be currently be in private hands.

In addition to these stories, the collection also features ‘Emily B’, a poem by Simon Armitage that effectively captures the essence of the Brontës’ or at least, their essence as it exists in the collective imagination. Armitage conveys a wild, hard-edged natural energy, inextricable from the setting of the moors  and the ‘dry wind that rushes’ there, whilst alluding to the inherent tragedy of Emily’s, and indeed all the sisters’ lives, as ‘bad water/leaches the graveyard’ and premature death becomes inescapable.

The stories gathered here are variously dark, playful, sad and eerie. Some extremely accomplished writers engage with the work and lives of the Brontës in different ways, whether it be through the figure of the lost little boy or the isolated governess, the limitations of poverty set in contrast to the freedom afforded by wealth, or most consistently through the weather and landscape of Yorkshire, so integral to the tales they tell us.

Alison Moore’s opening piece is an eerie re-imagining of Catherine repressed in a different time. It draws on familiar ideas of religion and marriage as tools of masculine oppression, even, it is suggested, as the sinister Mr Blakemore puts “four fingers and a thumb inside her mouth so that she would not forget” of physical violation. Elsewhere, the tone shifts to a more playful one, Zoë King’s ‘My Dear Miss…’ imagines a correspondence between the ever-meddlesome Emma Woodhouse (of Emma fame) and Jane Eyre, troubled under the pressure of St John’s proposal. Other stories engage with the influence and impact of the works themselves, Sarah Dobbs’ portrait of a young boy in the anguish of grief and the impressionable teenager in Elizabeth Baines’ ‘The Turbulent Stillness’ both feel the import of Wuthering Heights in one way or another.

The writing is at times moving and reverential in its treatment of the sisters and their works and at others entirely irreverent and ironic. I teach both Jane Eyre  and Wuthering Heights and I see daily the lasting effects that those two works specifically (sorry Anne!) have on students and the longstanding power they hold within the imagination. Part of the pleasure in any tribute is tracing the lines and patterns to the originals, spotting the references and enjoying the sense that you, like a conspirator, are in on the secret. This collection is rich with clues of this nature but it is, in places, wonderfully original with them and invites you, with the contributors to meditate on your own, personal encounters with these wonderful, ill-fated sisters. I read this at home with my family for the half-term break and it’s a good job too as I find myself reaching for my own, rather dog-eared, first and very special copy of Wuthering Heights once again.

photo (1)

The Inner Landscape


I was unbelievably excited to come across this beautiful – look at it – *beautiful* specimen while I was hiding amongst the books in Camden Market. It’s a 1970 edition (inscribed on the title page with ‘rare’ by the bookseller) of three novellas variously from Mervyn Peake, J. G. Ballard and Brian W. Aldriss. The three stories are as different as their authors but each compelling, eerie and provocative in its own way.

I Boy in Darkness, Mervyn Peake

The opening story of the collection follows a fourteen year old boy’s escape and descent from the towered kingdom he rules into a deserted underworld, strange and terrifying in equal measure. The Boy although unnamed in the story has been identified with Titus Groan and the world Peake crafts here is recognisably that of Gormenghast in all its atmospheric gothicism. The Boy finds himself in a strange landscape where the pervasive evil of the Lamb has transformed men into sloping, animalised versions of themselves. Peake plays with conventions of symbolism to offer a nightmarish hellscape presided over by the Lamb, all the more sinister as a subversion of traditional image of Christian humility and innocence.

Whilst the physical movement of the narrative charts the descent of the Boy from his tower to an underground cavern might suggest some sort of allegorical exploration of the Fall (an adolescent boy on the cusp of adulthood, a lost heaven, a vanquished demon…) the imagery of the passage complicates an resists such a reading. The tower he sets out to escape begins in darkness and fire, he is returned to it by those he initially sought to escape. The result is a chilling exercise in ambiguity and atmosphere. And that I’m going to have to re-read Gormenghast…

II Voices in Time, J. G. Ballard

Whilst it’s possible to see the Peake story as strangely extra-generic in its placeless and timelessness, perhaps settling somewhere between horror and fantasy, this is much more firmly rooted in science fiction as we understand it today.

The images of a scientist, struggling in his lab with old audio recordings of a deceased mentor; strange and unearthly creatures in tanks and cages; an odd, unfathomable sickness creeping up on humanity are so much the stuff of ‘classic’ sci-fi that they are thrilling to encounter even as individual components in the story.

Ballard examines the fundamentally human preoccupation with time and mortality: the narrative is punctuated by diary entries simultaneously weaving different countdowns around and into one another and fracturing chronology so that the reader too is drawn into the dream-like patternings of time throughout the story. It is subtle and unsettling in the extreme, it plays with ideas of consciousness and sleep to excavate the tenuous and delicate relationship between human experience and scientific intervention. Reading this back, I feel like anything I write will be reductive: it is multi-faceted and intricate both in its technical construction and thematic explorations. It would make an excellent introduction to Ballard for those unfamiliar to it and for those of you who already know/love it… Well, you won’t need telling…

III Danger: Religion! Brian W. Aldiss

The final novella gathered here is again, firmly fixed in science fiction as it uses a multiversal world to address social concerns with a strong focus on the power of religion to enslave. The buffoonish an fairly dislikeable narrator, Sherry, is drawn into various matrix of differing degrees of similarity to his own in which World War 4 has been fought resulting in the irradiation of a good proportion of Western Europe.

The most striking aspect of this work is the portrayal of a militarised Church, not simply complicit in slavery but active in the subjection of a whole class of people and the manipulation of ‘extramatricial’ tribes to serve as an army in its name. It explores choice and stacks evolutionary possibilities for the human race up against each other in order to elucidate the relationship between religion and enslavement from different angles. Religion is, in this world, less an opiate more an active weapon of suppression and subjugation. The hypocrisy of the narrative voice and the single-minded ness of those he encounters are clearly intended to reflect back at the reader in questions about our own society.

The prose reminds me a little bit of G. K. Chesterton, the blow by blow fight scenes are cinematic in their precision and detail and the world(s) conjured are vivid and clearly drawn.

The title of this collection is ‘The Inner Landscape’ and it is a useful unifying idea. All three stories face the reader with alien worlds and value systems that explore what it is, fundamentally, to be human. ‘Really good sci-fi’, a friend of mine once said, ‘is about ideas. It tells us about ourselves and is about ideas.’ A statement I hold to be true and illustrated beautifully in this collection.

Unthology 4

unthology 4

Unthology 4 is – as the title suggests – the fourth anthology of short fiction to be published by Unthank Books. It showcases new and established writers, “drawing its energy from the wanderlust and shape-shifting tendencies of the contemporary short story.” I am ashamed to admit that this is the first Unthology collection that I’ve read but I hope to redeem my failings in a swift ordering of the previous three.

The anthology itself is carefully constructed and offers a sense of thematic cyclicality: the opening and closing stories explore the intricacies of perspective and perception in fracturing relationships. The stories seem to lead you on from each other, however different the subject matter, however unique the narrative voice, each tale is unified in its concern with the  plasticity of human experience. Each character we encounter figures reality in their own terms and we watch them grappling with their version of the world in their own various ways. In Marc Owen Jones’ haunting piece, ‘The Murder of the Crows’, we meet a blind girl who wakes one morning to discover that the birdsong has ended and the birds have disappeared; Joshua Allen offers a surreal and bizarre response to the world of work in his exciting experimental contribution, ‘Administration: An Intern’s Guide’ (WARNING: if you don’t like ants or swarms – avoid!). Sarah Evans’ ‘The Angel’ charts the psychological impact of paranoia on memory as remembered events begin to shift and warp under the pressure of repeated questioning and implied guilt.

Unthology 4 deals in the darkness and strangeness of life with subtlety and precision. The writing is varied but it tends to play with conventions of narrative and form to destabilize the reader’s own experience and expectations, drawing them into the sense of dread that underpins the collection. On more than one occasion, I found myself reading with gritted teeth, tensed against what may come next. There are moments that are extremely powerful; to add to those stories I’ve already mentioned, the end of Melanie Whipman’s ‘Suicide Bomber’ had me entirely in thrall as did the painfully raw ‘Treasures of Heaven’ from Carys Bray. This collection feels incredibly relevant to the  contemporary: our experience of the world, emotional and physical, is being fractured, remoulded, restructured through almost every medium and as such our understanding of ourselves and how we connect to the world is becoming increasing unstable. The stories in this collection lay these changes bare for examination and what’s more, they project the questions and ideas they raise onto the experience of reading itself.


Rodge Glass

Carys Bray

Michael Crossan

Sarah Bower

Barnaby Walsh

Rowena MacDonald

Adrian Slatcher

Melanie Whipman

Joshua Allen

Marc Owen Jones

Aiden O’Reilly

Sarah Evans

Ruby Cowling

Much Ado About Nothing

I like to think of myself as a positive theatre-goer. I want to enjoy the show and I will forgive flaws in a production if it’s interesting. Take Michael Sheen’s Hamlet at the Young Vic last year for example: also directed by Mark Rylance, it represented Elsinore as a psychiatric institution which, as a premise, is fundamentally problematic. But, it gave rise to some inspired, at times terrifying, performances and, perhaps more importantly, offered an intelligent, interrogating reading of the play. It had a clear sense of direction not determined by casting but derived from the director’s vision. It worked. I would like to point out that I have the utmost respect and indeed affection for Mark Rylance both as an actor and a director. Similarly, I love James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave; they are true titans of their profession. I saw Earl Jones as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a few years ago and I thought he was fantastic, the famous depth and resonance of his voice just sang through the lyricism of the Williams script and he effused the failing, brutal power of the ailing patriarch that dominates that play.

I was genuinely excited by the casting of this latest production of Much Ado currently showing at The Old Vic  I like the idea of Benedick and Beatrice as lovers from times past as the text hints that they were – “I know you of old”, Beatrice says at the end of their first onstage encounter – and there is undoubtedly something charming about watching an older couple being tricked into admitting their love for one another. Redgrave sparkles with child-like glee and does manage to scamper around the stage bringing some much-needed energy to an otherwise flat production. It is unfortunate perhaps, that this is my favourite comedy and it is also possible that I have been spoilt by the David Tennant-Catherine Tate production that was in London a couple of years ago which was terrific, but, the fact of the matter is that this latest incarnation of a play I adore is just desperately disappointing.

The text requires an energy and dynamism: the battle of wits between Beatrice and Benedick is among the liveliest relationships in any of Shakespeare’s plays and, as in most comedy, timing is all. There is a rhythm to each exchange, not only determined by the pentameter of the verse but by the height of emotion and sexual tension that suffuses each squabble and skirmish. The gulling scenes don’t need to be physical but they are so much funnier when they are: who can keep a straight face as Kenneth Brannagh’s deck chair collapses or David Tennant manages to cover himself in white paint? The comedy should translate beautifully for a contemporary audience: bickering-lovers-forced-to-acknowledge-their-true-feelings is  far more accessible than twin-sister-is-shipwrecked-pretends-to-be-boy-falls-in-love-with-master-while-wooing-lady-on-his-behalf-who-mistakenly-falls-in-love-with-her but it just didn’t come through. In an interview for the Telegraph Vanessa Redgrave claims not to know what Beatrice was saying half the time and unfortunately it showed. You can’t just say the words, you have to feel your way into them and find the beat. In a play where the very title invokes the insubstantial, the staging didn’t help: stark and wooden it seemed to actively seal out the vitality of the play leaving it soulless and, as I mentioned earlier flat.

I have no doubt that my reservations about the production are in part an unfortunate side-effect of knowing and loving the play so well but having seen some damned fine Shakespeare recently, I just feel a bit short-changed; not financially but emotionally (or  even intellectually if that’s not too pretentious…?). I’m thoroughly looking forward to seeing Tennant as Richard II in January and the Othello I saw at the National in June has stayed with me (it starred Adrian Lester who, incidentally, played Brick alongside Earl Jones in the version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof I mentioned and is about to reprise his role in Red Velvet at the wonderful Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn). Indeed, there are strong parallels between these two plays, the dark comedy comes very near the edge of tragedy. Like Othello, Claudio believes himself the victim of infidelity and his response is just as chilling. Claudio too, places too much faith in “proof”. He will not mourn her apparent death, nor regret his public defamation until the truth is revealed . Until she is proved honest he receives her death as a restoration of virtue and honour, just as Othello reasons himself into violence towards Desdemona.  In many ways, the world of Much Ado is darker than that of Othello: Othello and Iago stand isolated as flawed and venomous characters but here the supposedly benevolent Don Pedro supports Claudio’s actions and even Hero’s father Leonato vows to “tear her to pieces” if the allegations made against her are shown to be true. The power of female sexuality in the male imagination is at the centre of both these plays, generating fear and spinning the action outwards  in ribbons of deceit and misunderstanding. Something that resonates today where women who voice opinions, offensive by virtue of the fact that they are opinions expressed by women, are subject to rape threats and verbal abuse of a graphically sexual nature.

At a time when the accessibility of Shakespeare is the subject of public debate it seems to me that our theatrical institutions have a responsibility to demonstrate the power of the play, to be ambitious not only in the production but in the audience they are trying to reach, to show that the words are still funny and dark and relevant and, most importantly, to prove that it is NOT the preserve of the wealthy and educated. Shakespeare is and should be for everyone, not just those who can afford the tickets and laugh in the ‘right places’. All things, I’m sad to say, this production wholly fails to do.

Burnt Island, Alice Thompson

burnt island 

I was childishly excited to find this little treasure waiting for me on my doormat when I got back from France last week. I love a bit of creepy gothicism and as my Twitter feed and (these two posts) will verify I am prone to semi-coherent gushing about Salt Publishing and what excellent taste they have. Let the record show here and now that Alice Thompson’s sixth novel did not disappoint.

When struggling writer Max Long is offered a three-month sabbatical to write on Burnt Island by a mysterious benefactor, he soon finds himself entangled with bestselling author James Tait and what remains of his family. As Max becomes increasingly desperate for success in the wake of a recent divorce and in the face of crippling writer’s block he decides to sacrifice his creative integrity and to write a bestselling horror, all action and “no symbolism.” Max’s mental state begins to deteriorate and he starts seeing things: terrifying visions of monsters and figures in the dark until the distinction between reality and imagination has been entirely lost to the undulations of the sand dunes and swept away with the tide.

Thompson crafts a world in total isolation: the central device of the island generates an incredibly eerie and unsettling atmosphere of uncertainty and menace but it does more than that. It serves as a motif for psychological and personal isolation, the characters all feel strangely disconnected from each other as they are viewed through the prism of Max’s literary ambitions and musings. They are distant and unreal, intriguing figures in both the story Max is trying to write and the story he finds himself living. As the two become indistinguishable, the world around him becomes increasingly nightmarish and the reader is drawn into the meditations of imagination and reality with the same intensity as Max himself.

It’s an extremely clever book. Intensely self-referential and intricately constructed, it draws on and plays with the conventions of horror in a way that creates layers of reality, hallucination, dream and writing that are so closely woven together they become impossible to separate. You can’t work out whether Max’s imagination is bleeding into reality or it is some warped reality that is bleeding into Max’s imagination. The prose is sparse and has a lucid quality to it that lends itself to the sort of unembellished description that builds tension and suspense. Its quiet, unassuming voice tells the story (stories?) with the sort of Kafkaesque detachment that breeds uneasiness and dread.

The result is an assured and accomplished novel that I would thoroughly recommend. It’s very different from some of the other stuff I’ve been reading lately (Boxer Beetle, Cat’s Cradle and Number 9 Dream – posts on the latter two to come I promise…) and it’s been refreshing for that alone. I’ve been scrabbling around as I write this for a particular word to appropriately convey what quality it is that Thompson’s writing has in bucketloads and after 500 other words, I think I’ve found it: class. It’s a classy novel from a class-act author. Give it a read…

Boxer Beetle, Ned Beauman


I’ve been meaning to read Boxer Beetle, Ned Beauman’s debut novel, since it was published by Sceptre (Hodder & Stoughton’s literary imprint) in 2010, but, being me, I am as ever characteristically behind the times. Beauman’s second novel, The Teleportation Accident, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year and he was named as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists this year so it is fair to say that by the time I actually managed to settle onto my sun lounger – *smug teacher on holiday alert* sorry… sort of – expectations were fairly high. I started it yesterday morning and finished it at about half-past midnight with the necessary breaks to take on nourishment and liquid.

The story winds between the present day and the mid-1930s weaving together the fates of Kevin Broom, a collector of Nazi memorabilia; Seth ‘Sinner’ Roach, a Jewish, gay, stunted boxer with only nine toes; the Erskine siblings and the increasingly sinister swastika-marked beetle, the Anophthalmus Hitleri (Time Out quoted on the back cover describes this as the “creepiest McGuffin of all time” and I quite agree). The narrative voice is striking not only in its oddity but in how accessible it is, finding himself in a difficult and dangerous situation, Kevin wonders as I’m sure many of us would, “what Batman would do”. He is also the sufferer of the strange, unpleasant condition trimethylaminuria (that I confess I thought was fictional until I literally just googled it) that earns him the nickname “Fishy” from his equally unsavoury and appropriately named employer Mr Grublock. He also collects Nazi memoribilia.

Beauman draws his characters beautifully in clear, in places comical, prose that leaves you thinking, “I know exactly what he means” with each new introduction. As the dual storylines unravel and become increasingly intertwined we encounte a whole host of these sketches from rabbis to fascists to entomologists but ‘sketch’ is the wrong word. Each character, from the absurd little doctor who, keen to prove the quality of his protective merchandise, shouts into the midst of an East End boxing match ending in chaos, “Will nobody assault my testicles?” to the draw-your-breath-between-your-teeth nasty gangster Albert Kölmel who throws cats into deep-fat fryers; every character is drawn with incisive precision and detail.

This is my favourite thing about Beauman’s writing and it extends beyond his characterisation, throughout the writing it is sharp, clean and witty. Its comic instances do not detract from its unsettling ones and he creates these moments where the reality of your world is subsumed by the colour and clarity of his. He takes ideas and feelings that you, somehow, could never quite articulate and hits them dead on with a lucidity and again, a precision that I (with my writing hat on) would kill for. When we’re driving with Kevin at night,  London feels “like a whispered conversation between streetlights” and when, on the very same page, we smell a corpse, “the rot already coming on like an old dull blade being slowly sharpened” we cannot help but believe in and submit to a world so closely and exactingly drawn. It almost feels like geometr but with none of that discipline’s angular rigidity.

On top of that, the pace is great, it’s got real fluency to it: both plots rattle along nicely as they come together with a sustained sense of suspense and mystery crafted into the very structure of the text. I really don’t want to spoil any of it so I think I’ll have to stop typing now, suffice to say, read it and enjoy it for yourselves. The thought of The Teleportation Accident sitting on my other half’s bedside table at home in (currently) sunnny North West London is almost enough to make me wish away the rest of this holiday in sunny South West France.

Well, almost…

A bit of light summer reading: ‘In the Penal Settlement’, Kafka


I haven’t read any Kafka in ages. I have a vague recollection of a very teenage, angst-driven encounter with Metamorphosis and Other Stories (the very copy and collection that this tale is from) many years ago and so when at some juncture back in the semi-haze that was last term another of my  fantastically clever friends mentioned ‘In the Penal Colony’ in passing, I nodded, smiled and thought: ‘I sort of know what you’re talking about but I’m not 100% sure’ before resolving to go back and read it again as soon as the holiday began.

Well, more fool me. I read it late at night (error) and the result was a series of extremely unpleasant, eerie and increasingly gruesome dreams. The worlds Kafka draws are nightmareish and surreal at the best of times (of which there are very few to be lighted upon in his prose) and on my first night in a new house with no curtains, well let’s just say I slept with the light on.

If you are yet to come across this story, it tells of an Explorer (although I have heard from various sources that this translation is erroneous and would be better served by the word Researcher? Or Traveller? Anyone who can confirm or deny this please do…) who is invited to witness the execution of a Condemned Man effected by the Officer who is assisted/hindered at various intervals by the Soldier.

This fly-by-night synopsis may seem innocuous by our Hollywood/instant-news/TV-conditioned standards: gun violence, stabbings, even sexual violence have, these days, become entirely unremarkable in their appearance in popular culture or indeed on the news. The chilling power of this story is derived not from the plot but from the narrative voice; the characters’ various responses to the plot and of course, the horrifying piece of appartus that sits, menacingly, at the centre.

The narrative voice is entirely detached. It offers no judgement, no censureship of the fanatical Officer, proponent of the old order as epitomised by the Old Commandant and the machine that he designed. The machine in question scores the sentence into the flesh of the condemned repeatedly over a period of twelve hours using a series of needles and teeth. The Officer explains its workings to the Explorer with a kind of religious fervour, he caresses the machine as he readies it for action and will not permit another person to touch the plans that he carries with him in a briefcase. The narrative voice offers no comment. It relays the setting, a “small sandy valley, a deep hollow surrounded on all sides by naked crags” and recounts the actions and reactions of the characters but the tone of total, moral and emotional indifference remains. It remains in the face of an ingenious vehicle for human violence and an absurd justice system – the Officer is firm in his belief that no defence should be allowed because “guilt is never to be doubted”.

This indifference permeates the text and is perpetuated in its characters. In spite of the horror before him, the Explorer is hesitant, reluctant to intervene against the Officer citing his position as an outsider as protection from that responsibility. It is only when the machine begins to malfunction and its victim (I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t read it…) is subject to, “plain murder” as opposed to, “exquisite torture” and the moment of spiritual enlightenment this supposedly offers that he is moved to intervene.

The inaction and indifference of the Explorer is in many ways, more disturbing than the fanaticism of the Officer. The Officer is an absurd character, unreal in the extremity of his adherence to an impossibly cruel and inhuman system. The Explorer, however, stands on the sidelines with faint fascination and a sense of unease when confronted with torture, injustice and cruelty; he intervenes only when the aesthetics of the process are threatened by the bloody reality of “a great spike” thrust through a forehead; he beats back those who would escape their unsavoury world with a knotted rope.

It is not the machine, nor the human ingenuity that gave rise to it that perpetuates the sustained sense of dread within this story (although the sheer nastiness of it does go a long way) but the familiar indifference of the voice that tells it and those who watch it unfold. Is it surprising then, given all that is going on around the world today that since I’ve re-read it, I’ve had real difficulty sleeping?