5 Reasons to Get Excited About Alias Grace on Netflix

A very fabulous Friday to one and all. As I feverishly try to finish reading the book, the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace arrives on Netflix. It’s been on my TBR pile for yonks and was moved up the list when the release date was announced but alas, the awesome tiny person with whom I am spending most of my time at the moment is not entirely sympathetic to such ‘deadlines’ and so I am battling the temptation to binge watch before I have read the final pages. However, from where I’ve got to, I can see way more than five reasons to be excited about another Atwood adaptation but in the interests of brevity (as demanded by afore mentioned tiny person) I have exercised some self-restraint!

  1. Atwood translates brilliantly onto screen.

I have finally plucked up the emotional courage to finish watching the new and much lauded version of The Handmaid’s Tale. It strikes me that there is a reason it has become an icon for our times beyond the eerie prescience of the subject matter. Atwood has a knack for conveying the states of her characters visually: the clothes and costumes they wear are powerfully reflective not only of social position but of the political oppressions they are subject to in that position. Obviously the red habits of the Handmaids are the standout example of this but it pops up in lots of Atwood I’ve read; the MaddAddam Trilogy (currently in development by Darren Aronofsky and seeking a home) does it very well too, as does, Alias Grace.

2. Alias Grace is just as relevant as THMT. 

Without wanting to give anything away, Alias Grace is another study in the violence and oppression of patriarchy. Although it is a historical novel based on the story of a real woman who purportedly murdered her employers, it deals with many of the same themes as THMT. The disempowered female figure worked on by a brutalising patriarchal order might in this instance be set in the grime of the Victorian era but it’s a book that seethes with anger and outrage in the same way as the Handmaid’s dystopian future. The Weinstein revelations and continuing fallout in the era of “grab ’em by the pussy”, layers both books (and hopefully both adaptations) with more, very real urgency.

3. Atwood is consulting producer on the production

And we all trust Margaret, do we not?

I love the freedom she afforded the makers of THMT adaptation. She allowed it the capacity to be as pertinent as possible without compromising her world creation in any way. Indeed, as it has been confirmed that season two of THMT will move beyond the scope of the original book and an audiobook has been released with a new ending, there are rumours afoot that a fully fledged sequel may be in the offing. What is most exciting about this is the way in which Atwood sees the fluidity between media: just as her stories usually highlight ambiguity and subjectivity so she reflects this in the flexibility of her narrative modes. There is, of course, more than one way to tell a story and Atwood’s enthusiasm for this multiplicity only expands the reach and depth of her writing. Indeed, she’s been branching into another more visual medium with her graphic work Angel Catbird.

4. It’s a bloody good story. 

I have a bit of a weird thing with Atwood: I absolutely love her but I always struggle to get into her books to start with. This was no exception but, as is usually the way, once embroiled it’s a brilliant and clever thrill of a read. It won the Booker in 2000 so evidently I am not alone in thinking it rather good. And, once I’ve finished it, I will be very interested to have it retold from someone else’s imagination.

5. Well, would you check out this trailer? 

Reading into Motherhood – Stay With Me, Ayòbàmi Adébàyò

As promised, this post will set out some thoughts on Ayòbámi Adébàyò’s startling novel of motherhood, marriage and masculinity. Also shortlisted for the Bailey’s prize, on the face of it, Stay With Me could not be more different from Naomi Alderman’s The Power which eventually won. Alderman’s novel is an audacious story of speculative fiction using key players to narrate large scale calamity; Adébàyò by contrast is intensely focused on the intimacy of the family. That said, both novels present clear challenges to societal assumptions about gender; one of the most interesting aspects of Stay With Me is the toxicity of expectation, not just of women and motherhood but of masculinity and what it is to be a son, a father, husband.

Set against the turbulent politics of 1980s Nigeria (about which I know precisely nothing and now wish to learn), Stay With Me unspools the story of Yejide and Akin who, after four years of marriage, are unable to conceive a child. Despite Yejide’s protestations, a second wife is provided for Akin by his family in the hope that children will follow. Aspects of the story are familiar: it is assumed that the “problem” is Yejide’s. It is she who seeks treatment, is subject to interrogations and humiliations at the hands of the family and she who feels the childlessness they share most acutely as hers. Adébàyò, though, offers dual first person narratives that work to reveal the complexity of familial pressure, not only on a childless woman, but on a man in this position. The desire to fulfil a powerful and oppressive version of masculinity leads Akin into terrible and unforgiveable manipulation of his wife. There is throughout a pervasive sense of entitlement to the female body and to its reproductive power which, in the context of the #metoo campaign just this week and the Harvey Weinstein revelations, feels especially pertinent.

There is great beauty in the writing too. The language is lyrical in its bell-like clarity. Adébàyó’s skill is not only in the creation of voice and character but in the distillation of emotion at its most complex. And in what context is feeling more complicated than within the family?

“If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.”

It is strange and unnerving to read a novel so focused on children and their absence at six and a half months pregnant. It is not too much of a spoiler to share that Yejide experiences a phantom pregnancy soon after wife number 2 appears. Sections of the novel left me holding my bump, a tightness in my chest when the little one hadn’t kicked for a while.

I came to the book completely blind and wonder if my emotional response would have been substantially different had I read the novel before I was pregnant or indeed after the little miss was born. I suspect it would have been. Adébàyò’s subject and her rendering of it are devastating in equal measure. Reading this book into motherhood with all the anxiety that entails I realise now that the title is a sort of mantra. During those first anxious weeks through the long nine (and a half in our case) months to the tiny little person currently asleep on my chest, the mother in me unconsciously whispers to her: stay with me.

Shall we dance? – Zadie Smith’s Swing Time

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So, the length of time between posts will have already demonstrated to you that I failed spectacularly at my own challenge to read and review the Bailey’s shortlist before the winner was announced. For what it’s worth, I did in fact read and make copious notes on Stay With Me which was a deserving nominee and I promise I will upload my thoughts in more detail soon (I can partially compensate for this half-baked effort by providing a link to the author, Ayobami Adebayo’s thoughts on the integral themes of infertility and marriage here). I did though, fall at the first fence (pun absolutely intended) in reading the rather hefty The Sport of Kings. I hauled my copy to France (and now back again) and promise to revisit and indeed to finish soon. In my paltry defence, I have in the interim produced a rather awesome brand new tiny person who has taken up rather a lot of time and energy and so I hope to be forgiven.

Failing as I was to get into The Sport of Kings, I was quite easily tempted away by Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time. It received rave reviews on publication last year with many declaring it to be her “masterpiece” or “finest novel yet” and it has earned Smith her second Booker nomination (the first being for On Beauty which I thoroughly enjoyed). What then, is all the fuss about?

The novel traces the diverging paths of two childhood friends from the same Willesden estate. Both girls have parents of different races: Tracy’s indulgent mother is white, her primarily absent and sinister father, black (the right “way round”, we are told); where the unnamed narrator’s mother, fierce in intelligence and opinion, is black and her father, hapless postman, is white. The girls share a love of dance and though Tracy is the one with the talent that seemingly offers a route off the estate, our narrator is the one who leaves for a life as personal assistant to Aimée a pop superstar.

To describe this novel as a coming of age story or about race or female relationships is to reduce it to its component parts. It is extraordinary in terms of its scope and construction: yes, it is absolutely about coming of age and race and female relationships but it is so multifarious, so carefully and thoroughly layered that it, fittingly, resists those labels. Identity is shown to be relative and unstable, absolutes are undermined and selfhood shown in perpetual fragility. Smith’s writing is intricate in its exploration of identity and its distillation of intersecting influences like race, class, gender. Dance, the central motif, is portrayed throughout as a leveller of these (and many other) factors symbolising possibility and connection.

 “a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any  age may recognize him”

It is though a strange read. I spent the first two thirds in appreciating how incredibly skilled Smith is and simultaneously feeling rather disappointed and let down by the story and a sense that this was perhaps stylish construction over substantial emotional depth. I had loved the outrageous audacity of the narrative voice in White Teeth and felt short-changed by the quieter, more controlled tenor of the narrator here, unsure how much I really cared about her. By the time I had finished though, I am pleased to say that I was, quite literally, moved to tears.

Post-pregnancy hormones? Sure. Also, the focus on maternal relationships in the closing pages – I lost my own mother three and a half years ago and had just given birth to our first child, a daughter of my own, when I read it. But, it is also Smith’s unerringly precise and incisive observation that hits those nerves so brilliantly. Swing Time is indeed, disciplined, mature and elaborately plotted but it is also rich and raw in its excavation of what it means to be human and how we truly relate to those arounds us.

The Baileys Shortlist: The Power, Naomi Alderman

51406888778__FED9AB04-D00F-4046-90AC-A94F31E7BFFA.JPGThis year I have set myself the challenge of reading The Baileys Prize Shortlist before the winner is announced on 7th June. This should be no mean feat except for the fact that, as per previous posts, I am a teacher and term time reading is often a luxury not to be taken for granted. Thus I undertake this task not only because there are some exciting titles on the shortlist but as an exercise in personal wellbeing. I once heard Neil Gaiman say that, “there’s time for everything in you make it”. I have made a sometimes sporadic effort to take these unsurprisingly wise words to heart. It is not always possible but I like the premise: if something matters enough, there will always be time for it in your day. I’m thinking of getting it inked across my forehead before the baby’s born.

It does help that this challenge seems likely to prove a thoroughly enjoyable one. Taking advantage of the Easter break to give myself a head start, I have just raced through Naomi Alderman’s, The PowerWhen I say there are exciting titles on the shortlist, this is exactly the kind of book I am talking about. I heard it reviewed on The Guardian Books Podcast and the premise had me hooked before I even owned it. Alderman’s depicts a world on the brink of global “cataclysm” ostensibly precipitated by a mysterious physiological development in the female anatomy. Women, much like electric eels, are born with a “skein” allowing them to deliver powerful shocks at will.

The consequences of this new twist in evolution are far-reaching. The power dynamics endemic to patriarchy are reversed. Revolution follows in Saudi Arabia. Conventional religions recalibrate with women at the centre. Boys are segregated for their own safety and the world crackles as new orders vie for primacy and what is left of the old resist. As you can imagine, all this is rather exciting. The novel is, among many other things, a fast-paced thriller. The other things though, are what make it such an important and exciting work that is earning deserving plaudits from across the literary world as well as the science fiction corner. A very good friend of mine once said that, “good science fiction is about ideas” and The Power is certainly that. Though it has a great storyline that romps through the intellectual long grass, Alderman’s book is also multifaceted and at times desperately uncomfortable in its resistance of any binary forces for good or evil. She uses her near-future vision to probe and interrogate the injustices and inequalities of our own time and in doing so, complicates notions of victim and perpetrator in ways that will make any reader squirm.

This multiplicity is in part afforded by the unfolding of the story through four parallel narratives. Alderman follows four central characters into this strange new world: Roxy, daughter of London’s organised crime royalty; Allie, abused foster child who reinvents herself as Mother Eve; Tunde a male Nigerian reporter and finally an American politician and opportunist, Margot Cleary, who manipulates the situation to her own advantage with outrageous self-interest.

As the conventional balance of physical power shifts from men to women, so too do the central institutions of power. Alderman uses each of these voices to illustrate the various ways this shift manifests and takes root in society through crime, religion, the press and of course politics. Within these grander societal pillars of narrative, Alderman explores the nuance and complexity of gendered power. Some of the most interesting and disturbing passages in the book deal with sexual violence perpetrated by women, simply “because they can”. This phrase echoes through the text. It takes no note of gender or faith, only strength and power precipitate evil action. There is no inherent tendency towards it but a dangerous cocktail of strength and desire that makes abuse possible and where such abuse is possible, abusers will emerge. In no passage is this more evident than when a refugee camp comes under attack late in the plot and atrocity after atrocity is perpetrated by women. Equally, there are those women for whom the skein does not function properly or who are born without one altogether. The term “pzit” for a woman who cannot shock taps into the current vocabulary of masculinity: “he’s a pussy”, “be a man”, “grow a pair”. Similarly, the creeping distrust of individuals with chromosomal abnormalities that renders their bodies spliced across gender expectations is all too familiar. As is the disempowerment, isolation and shame they are made to feel.

Alderman’s prose is confident and fluid. The dialogue is bold and her characters are drawn in effervescent technicolour. The acknowledgments cite a debt to Margaret Attwood who “believed in this book when it was only a glimmer”. That debt is clear, not only in the subject matter and speculative quality of the fiction but also in the framing academic structure. The story itself is interspersed with academic documents and diagrams put together by a Neil Adam Armon (spot the anagram) some thousands of years in the future. Neil has written to Naomi with deference and gratitude for her opinion on his work. Much as I hate to say it, the humility of his letter and the earnestness of his thanks are deliberately appropriating the propensity to undervalue and undersell themselves that women so often show in the workplace (cheers, thousands of years of patriarchy).

By the same token, Naomi’s voice assumes a confidence bordering on arrogance and in places offers patronising and sceptical responses to suggestions that undermine the status quo of power relations between the genders. The assumed voice manages to capture the worst of masculine academic attitudes and it works brilliantly. The initial confusion at the masculine organising voice only makes the realisation of what Alderman is doing at the end of the book all the more gleeful.

This reading holiday has been a joyful one. Following Attrib. it has been so gratifying to get excited about a totally different kind of book and, as I turn my attention to Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀, I have a feeling that this excitement is only going to grow.

As ever, I’d be very interested to hear anyone else’s thoughts. I wonder how different the reading experience is for a male reader? Postcards, carrier pigeons or comments below both welcomed and encouraged.

Attrib. and other stories, Eley Williams

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It has been a very long time since I woke up early to finish reading something. To put this in context, I am a teacher who is six months pregnant in the second week of the school holidays; early should not be in my vocabulary. It is then, testament to this stunning debut collection from Eley Williams that I was propped up in bed just after seven yesterday morning (awoken admittedly by husband, duly departing for his commute), tea in one hand, Attrib. and other stories in the other.

To my mind, this is all the more impressive given that it is a collection of stories rather than a singular page-turning narrative. There is a coherence and a commonality to these tales that make them compelling as a body. It is hard to identify stand-out stories because the texture of the book altogether is so fluent and careful in construction. The stories are patterned with images of colour, wildlife, sounds and an overarching concern with the difficulty and problems of language in communicating meaning and connection. They are at once unified and various.

The stories are in some ways very different, from a beached whale to the tussle of the tube to kissing (or failing to kiss) in an art gallery; Williams shifts time and place with a deftness that seems effortless. The fluidity of the prose makes these movements natural, they ripple into one another like the ebb and flow of the first person that dominates the majority of these stories. The ‘I’ ever-circling back to ‘you’ with unfazed depth of affection and feeling. To say it is a collection suffused with love feels cheap, it is suffused with love yes but with all that word connotes too, everything that goes with it: the joy and difficulty of relationships, the closeness and intimacy as well as the gaps and the near-misses.

There is much that is special about these stories, not least the confidence and clarity of Williams’ own voice. She is playful too, especially in her use and consideration of language. One of my favourite sections is in the opening story, ‘The Alphabet’ in which the narrator offers their own visual interpretation of each letter, as a child’s poster might, and:

U comes as a grin, grossly extended, or an empty jar – if there were forty we would be ready for fairyland thieves, and because you ruin things with beautiful practicality let’s line up an amphora with the lip smashed clean away by vandals: V. Two such amphorae: W. The next letter marks the spot, a kiss or something like the waiter’s brace-suspenders against his fresh white shirt-back: X

The opening story makes her concern with frustrated expression and interpretation explicit in exploring the dissociative effects of aphasia and the diminution of expressive power that such a loss of language leads to. I am not ashamed to say it made me cry (though the hormones may have lent a helping hand). The text is littered with unusual words and definitions that urge close examination of each, often very brief, moment of experience as she holds it up to the light.

All this makes it sound like hard work but it isn’t. It is clear and precise and, in being so, illustrates the limitations and frustrations of communication between people. Her characters are isolated but beautiful in their isolation and their efforts to break from it. Fittingly, to justly describe Williams’ prose is tricky: words like lyrical and poetic don’t seem to apply. They feel outdated. The fluency and rhythm they evoke have been updated to include paint swatches and sound effects; it feels fresh and expansive. It is tempting to use the word raw to convey emotional depth but this would suggest something unpolished where Williams is meticulous.

In the interests of full disclosure, I was at university with Eley briefly and though we have not stayed in touch with any regularity, I have always liked her (yup, she’s lovely and talented). I say this, not in some sad effort to claim paltry connection to a rising star but lest any of you realise this and think it’s just me bigging up an old friend. As such, I feel bound to point out that I am not the only one who thinks she has produced something rather wonderful. Attrib. and other stories was fabulously reviewed in The Guardian and has been shortlisted for Best Short Story Collection at the Saboteur Awards. Joanna Walsh wrote in Granta that, “There’s no one working in the UK quite like her.” As far as I can tell, she is right.

As I sit here, gushing away, I realise that reading this book is making me (well let’s face it, it’s probably a work in progress) a better writer. I do not want to put a word out of place here, nor ever again.

Bravo, Eley. Bravo.

 

Burnt Shadows, Kamila Shamsie

First, an apology for the long dearth of posts. It has been something of a busy few months what with Christmas, getting engaged (whoop whoop!), a trip to Iceland and of course the mania that is term time all getting in the way at various points. Apologies made, I’d like to talk about this stunning novel by Kamila Shamsie. Burnt Shadows opens with the devastating words, “The one who survives…”; words all the more haunting because this story’s moment is established as “The world yet unknowing”: Nagasaki hours before the atomic bomb is dropped. Shamsie traces the life of Hiroko, the young Japanese woman whose fiancé is killed, in the aftermath of the bomb and beyond. Her life is intricately woven about political events in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and America through partition and the emergence of a politicised fundamentalist Islam into the aftershocks of 9/11.

It is an incredibly compelling novel. The writing is crystalline: characters are drawn with a deft sharpness carried into the dialogue. Their voices are deep and whole and, whilst the narrative unfolds around Hiroko those she encounters, loves, loses are etched with just as much care and detail. The story, though, skips great chunks of Hiroko’s life, structuring the narrative around moments of political conflict. We see intensely felt segments of Hiroko’s life, patterned with violence and loss focused in her own body, in her own extraordinary scars.

At the moment the bomb drops Hiroko is wearing a dressing gown that belonged to her mother, it is white silk with three swooping black cranes on the back. In the heat and radiation of the explosion the black silk fuses into her flesh, searing the shadows of that day and her own heritage into her skin as one. She sees her father burning, his skin gone crawling towards her, she finds and buries the shadow she believes to be what’s left of the man from Berlin. She will lose more.

The scarring on Hiroko’s back runs through the novel like a thread, connecting each seemingly distinct event, the recurrence of the motif (Hiroko’s hand unconsciously drifts to her back in moments of crisis) not only expose the inherent political interconnectedness of these events. But, more than that, they identify the locus of such violence as the female body. Each of the men Hiroko loses are killed violently and it is she that remains, gathering and bearing these scars but living on nonetheless. Hiroko’s body takes on the quality of a landscape damaged by war but resilient in its continued existence. Without wanting to give anything away, Hiroko’s final loss is, perhaps, not final but it is all the more chilling in its uncertainty. Not least in the context of recent revelations regarding Guantanamo Bay and other US black sites. It seems to mark a departure from the pattern established by the rest of the novel: the male body may survive here but it will not emerge unscathed and will soon bear scars of its own.

It is also refreshing to read an account of the twentieth century that resists and in fact critiques some of the received wisdoms intrinsic to an Anglo-American perspective. Especially in the early pages: Shamsie’s brutal imagining of the moments in the aftermath of the bomb are juxtaposed with the brutal selfishness of the American nurse who claims its necessity “to save American lives.” I’m sure there are plenty of alternative narratives out there (even calling them alternative feels like I’m doing them a disservice) and I feel remiss for not having sought them out proactively but this is now a pressing task on my to do list.

To conclude: thoroughly recommend – in spite of the really quite appalling front cover – get past it and let the story take over.

The Ladies’ Paradise, Émile Zola: ‘a poem to modern activity’

This was not my first encounter with Zola but it was certainly my first successful one. When I was seventeen I tried to read L’Assomoir in French and, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not get very far. I’ve always been a bit wary of texts in translation for the simple reason that a bad translation can ruin a wonderful book; a wariness much exacerbated by some rather dry, dense translations of Sartre which put me off him for a good while. Brian Nelson’s translation of Au Bonheur des Dames suffers no such impediments and unfamiliar with the story (in spite of the BBCs recent adaptation) I thoroughly enjoyed it, cracking through all 432 pages at speed. It was especially fun to read during a road trip across the south of France which encompassed Zola’s hometown of Aix-en-Provence.

The reader is drawn into the compelling and colourful world of the grand department store, The Paradise, with the same force that it entrances and fascinates our heroine: the young and innocent Denise Baudu. In the opening pages, Denise and her brothers Jean and Pépé arrive in Paris in search of their Uncle and stumble across The Ladies’ Paradise. The effect is immediate and emotional: ‘this building which seemed so enormous, brought a lump to her throat and held her rooted to the spot, excited, fascinated, oblivious to everything else.’ The shop windows are an orgy of energy and colour where the…

…umbrellas, placed obliquely, seemed to form the roof of some rustic hut, beneath which, suspended from rods and displaying the rounded outline of calves, were silk stockings, some strewn with bunches of roses, others of every hue – black net, red with embroidered clocks, flesh-coloured ones with a satiny texture which had the softness of a blonde woman’s skin…

Throughout the novel we are treated to these sensuous, vibrant descriptions of the shop and its wares. Consumption is sexualised to the point of fetishism, the calculating owner Octave Mouret sees his customers – the ladies of Paris ‘pale with desire’ – as objects for seduction: ‘His sole passion was the conquest of Woman.’ The act of selling becomes one of erotic manipulation and the great sales that structure the novel constitute moments of collective abandon, exemplified in the final climactic sale, ‘In the trousseau department’, where:

…all discretion was abandoned: women were turned round and viewed from below, from the ordinary housewife with her common calicoes to the rich lady smothered in lace; it was an alcove open to the public, whose hidden luxury, its platings and embroideries and Valenciennes lace, deprived the senses as it overflowed in costly fantasies.

Mouret’s personal seductions are as numerous and successful as those of his shop, until of course, he meets the steadfast and ‘gentle’ Denise who will not be so easily overwhelmed. Indeed, through Denise ‘the women’ will ‘have their revenge’ as predicted to Mouret himself early in the novel.

Accompanying this strain of eroticism runs a parallel current of violence; the above description of the ‘calves’ is one of many in which the body is distorted and dismembered into fragments: ‘the mirrors made the departments recede further into the distance, reflecting the displays together with patches of the public – faces in reverse, bits of shoulders and arms’. The disturbing image of the mannequins, figures of the female body, decapitated ‘each one had a little wooden handle, like the handle of a dagger, stuck in the red flannel which seemed to be bleeding where the neck had been severed’ is emblematic of the violent commodification of the female body Mouret deals in.

The Paradise itself is figured as a machine, albeit a machine that is ‘based on the flesh and blood of Woman’ and as such it is rendered a symbol of a nascent modernity driven by capital and technology. Zola set out his intentions in his notes; he wanted to write, ‘the poem of modern activity. Hence a complete shift of philosophy: ‘no more pessimism, first of all. Don’t conclude with the stupidity and sadness of life. Instead, conclude with its continual labour, the power and gaiety that comes from its productivity. In a word, go along with the century, express the century, which is a century of action and conquest, of effort in every direction.’ This ‘effort in every direction’ is captured in the relentless expansion of the physical building even at the expense of the old, family shops in the vicinity and of course, at the expense of those families themselves. The new, specifically urban space of the department store is characterised by ‘the crush’ of the crowd and the ‘madness in the air’ that brings with it.

The productivity of Mouret’s machine is inextricable from a Darwinian brutality that sustains both the structure and the dominance of the shop. It is destructive and frequently figured as ‘monstrous’ in its mechanisation and power. Even Denise whose ‘coming was to be a revenge’ is shocked ‘by its brutal operation’. Indeed Denise who is characterised throughout as ‘gentle’ and acts as a humanising influence on both man and monster cannot stem the ‘force which was carrying everything before it.’

Inexorable progress and forward propulsion beat through the novel like the shop itself, ‘regulated and organized with the remorselessness of a machine: the vast horde of women were as if caught in the wheels of an inevitable force.’ It surges forward, driven by Mouret’s speculative approach, attention fixed firmly on the future as the present dissipates into money already made and the next sale holds promises of greater profits; The Paradise remains a machine clothed in luxurious silks – and all for a reasonable price.

The Rachel Papers, Martin Amis (1973)

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I’ve read quite a bit of Amis and The Rachel Papers has been on my list/ever-increasing pile of ‘to-reads’ since I picked up this copy in an Oxfam Bookshop last summer. Finally managing to crack into the reading you’ve been dreaming of intermittently during the mania of term time is like a sigh of relief and, knowing absolutely nothing about the story (save that it clearly involved someone called Rachel) I was looking forward to digging into my reading list with this slim volume.

Amis’ debut novel is narrated by the objectionable soon-to-be-twenty-year-old Charles Highway. On the eve of his twentieth birthday he is getting his affairs (as it were, forgive the pun…) in order. In going over his journals and records of sexual encounters he guides the reader through his transition from adolescence to adulthood. At the centre of this comic and very physical coming of age is Highway’s pursuit of and subsequent relationship with Rachel the (not very much) older woman that he has fantasised about sleeping with before he turns twenty. Highway is fascinated by his own body and holds his “secret bathroom hours” in almost religious reverence, he is hypochondrial and revels in those aspects of bodily existence that might leave others revolted. I think this is what makes the text feel a bit dated: the graphically
explicit sexual and physical descriptions may have proved more shocking in the early Seventies (?) or at least more outlandish but now, with the power of Youtube and television programmes like Embarrassing Bodies this sort of demystification is commonplace.

The narrative voice is engaging and distinctive; Highway is not a pleasant or particularly sympathetic character but he is at least a convincing one. The trouble is that so much energy is drawn into framing him that the others feel two dimensional and under-developed as if they were Highway’s own creations and exist only on the pages he is sifting through. This is problematic not only in and of itself but because it leaves the reader with no-one to care about and adds to the unavoidable feeling of, ‘Meh…. So what?’ at the end of the book.

And that is the key issue here: the plot lacks any kind of intensity and any real action. I was left thinking: OK, that obnoxious little bastard turned twenty, got his own way on every possible front and learnt absolutely nothing in the process. There is no life-changing moment, no comeuppance and indeed no sense that Highway has in any way come of age. The young Amis is technically excellent though here and the structure of the novel acts as a counterpoint to lack of movement in the narrative: the countdown to midnight drives the reader and in combination with the long, pacy speeches that become characteristic of the narrative voice the reader is almost tricked into believing that the plot is really developing. It feels like a debut novel: flawed in construction but with elements that are brilliantly executed. Perhaps a coming of age for the novelist himself. What do you lovely people think? Would be very interested to hear thoughts below…

NB You’ll notice that I linked to a site called hive rather than to Amazon – this is because it sources at local independent bookshops for delivery and we love our independent bookshops don’t we?

A note on contemporary literary fiction

Contemporary literary fiction is a problematic term. It is extremely difficult to define and as a result, any discussion risks devolving into either an exercise in exclusion and inflexibility, or, an augmentation of the nebulous that becomes so vague as to be entirely diffuse. These issues have been well-documented and well-bemoaned in recent years, as have countless debates on the quality of writing that is being produced in the name of contemporary literary fiction; or rather more frequently, the lack thereof. I wouldn’t pretend to have any answers (should such things exist…) to these central problems and I certainly would not dare to make any such sweeping judgments about ‘the state of literature today’; rather, I thought I’d lay out a few points, which to me, feel most pertinent to the discussion.

As I have said already, literary fiction is incredibly tricky to define; I suspect though, that most would agree it is a label implying a sense of seriousness and technical ambition. It is certainly distinct from ‘genre fiction’ (crime, fantasy, romance) and is by and large perceived as superior, perhaps wielding a bit more intellectual clout than its genre siblings. The ‘contemporary’ element is an interesting one: whilst in this context, we may safely assume ‘contemporary’ to mean current, the majority of academic courses that cover ‘contemporary’ literature reach back into the late seventies or early eighties, further complicating any judgments or statements we may wish to make about contemporary literary fiction.

Putting aside these complexities of definition for a moment, it may be more helpful to consider the ways in which both reading and writing have changed since the early eighties. To my mind there have been two significant influences on the mechanics of writing and publishing, the first being the proliferation of creative writing courses at academic institutions; the second being, of course, the internet.

In The Salon article I linked to above, creative writing courses were being held responsible for raising some terrible writers to a level of competence and thus further abetting the corruption of contemporary literary fiction. Whilst I am sure that this is to some extent true, I think these courses have also had a wonderfully clarifying effect for writers. They offer a real sense of a craft, of an apprenticeship and encourage a critical, self-appraising approach to writing, formalising aspects of the creative process and helping writers to hone a style. There are the inevitable arguments that these courses are factory-like and become criteria-centric, churning out little replica Raymond Carvers whilst stifling originality. That is to say, graduates of these courses come out able to write in a very disciplined, carefully constructed but totally unimaginative way. To this, I am inclined to say: rubbish. I’m sure that it can be and is true of some writers but what does a truly creative mind respond to more fervently than an establishment, or ‘old school’ to react against?

Further to this, I cannot see how learning the basics in a formal context can do any writer any harm. Art is a useful point of reference here, consider Picasso’s early work: he learnt to draw under his father and mastered academic classicism, a far more realistic (is that fair to say?) mode of representation before developing the Cubism of his masterpieces (NB massive over-simplification for sake of brevity). Surely, it is far easier to break and reinvent the rules if you have developed a proficient, working knowledge of them?

It is impossible to overestimate the impact of the internet on literally anything, let alone the way we write and the way we read. Apart from anything else, the sheer volume of material available through the internet is staggering and this in itself requires a more discerning approach to both reading and writing; the reader must filter through the rubbish and make judgments on quality that we were previously not empowered to make. The writer must decide where and how their work should be distributed; they in turn have to filter through the extraordinary levels of chatter to find their audience and speak to it. We are exposed to an awful lot of stuff and some of it is, of course, dreadful, the dreadful has outlets that it did not have before and so more is required of us. We have to work out what we don’t like and why we don’t like it, which is – as both writer and reader – a really useful exercise; and just as YouTube gives a stage to some terrible singing, it has also brought to prominence some very talented musicians (and cats). New voices have any number of ways to speak, the difficulty of course is making yourself heard above the noise.

Writers, as we all do, now have far greater access to information than ever before. This sounds incredibly obvious but just as information is now available second hand so is experience. This has real implications for both the scope and authenticity of contemporary writing: if I want to write about the war in Afghanistan there are plenty of first hand accounts, videos, news-reports, blogs, poems, photos all available to click on and immerse myself in. On the one hand, research has never been easier and the experience of others more accessible; on the other, exposure becomes increasingly removed from experience. I can expose myself to all number of materials and build a narrative around them without feeling the heat of the desert. Now this is not to suggest that first-hand experience is a prerequisite for effective storytelling but it is to say that as our knowledge of the world and its affairs is increasing, our experiential understanding of it is shrinking.

This evaluative obsession with quality does appear though to be a very contemporary preoccupation and I do wonder whether it is in itself indicative of our culture of self-reflection and introspection. It seems to me that the ongoing dissection of literary fiction might be considered as much a symptom of this culture as that infamous emblem of social media, the selfie.