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.

The Passion of New Eve, Angela Carter (1977)

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The Passion of New Eve follows the transformative punishment of Evelyn (who begins the story as a young Englishman) that sees him surgically re-sculpted into Eve. Evelyn impregnates and abandons the inchoate Leilah who once danced “a dance called the End of the World, to lead the unwary into temptation –“ and is left bleeding and sterile by the Haitian abortionist. Evelyn flees the streets of a nightmarish, dissolute imagining of New York for the unforgiving sterility of the desert. There he is captured and cast before Mother, an absurd rendering of a fertility goddess who:

…had reconstructed her flesh painfully, with knives and needles into a transcendental form as an emblem, as an example, and flung a patchwork quilt stitched from her daughters’ breasts over the cathedral of her interior, the cave within the cave.

Mother exacts vengeance on Evelyn for his crimes against women and intends the re-enactment of the Immaculate Conception until she flees. In her flight, Eve soon comes under the power of Zero the poet, with one eye and seven (soon to be eight) wives whom he rapes and beats, raging against the moviestar and “dyke” Tristessa, object of Eve’s obsession, who he believes has stolen his fertility. The revelation of Tristessa’s own secret follows before the third and final phase of Eve’s journey begins: she is captured once again and finds herself a maternal comfort to the Colonel of the boy soldiers who weeps at her breast. Ultimately the apocalyptic vision of the novel comes to fruition in the multi-factioned civil war; the skies burst with flames and Eve must move forward, at once towards her past and future.

Carter’s prose is described as “pyrotechnic” in a quotation from The Observer on the front cover and that it certainly is. Graphic, colourful and lurid Carter crafts a surreal dystopia structured around mythologies and iconographies of the sexed body. It is through these mythic re-imaginings that Carter exposes the inherent inadequacy of the binarism that underpins them: a matriarchy founded on motherhood is a matriarchy defined by phallocentric conceptions of femininity as evidenced by the symbol of the “truncated phallus” by which those women define themselves. The images that Evelyn is shown during his metamorphosis in order to feminise him psychologically reinforce a phallocentric conception of a femininity that is passive, malleable and receptive: “…sea-anemones opening and closing; caves, with streams issuing from them; roses opening to admit a bee; the sea, the moon…”

The body in this world is amorphous and through Eve/lyn’s transformation and indeed through the absurd Tiresian figure of Tristessa, Carter excavates the connections and disparities between “the essence and appearance”. The opening passages detail Leilah’s ritualised robing in which the reflection of her body in the cracked mirror (an image that recurs throughout the novel) acts a blank canvas for her to decorate and costume as if for some grotesque carnival:

…applying rouge to her nether lips and the purple or peony of scarlet grease around her mouth and nipples; powders and unguents all the colours of the rainbow went on to the skin in the sockets of her eyes…

Leilah’s performance and manipulation of the body in a way foreshadows the blankness and potentiality of Eve’s rebirth. Once Evelyn’s emasculation is complete she exists as “a tabula erasa, a blank sheet of paper, an unhatched egg. I hae not yet become a woman, although I possess a woman’s shape. Not a woman, no: both more and less than a real woman.” Eve learns to perform her new sex whether in the role of Zero’s eighth wife, Tristessa’s lover or as comfort to the boy soldier who weeps. However, “to become” a woman in this novel is to be defined by phallocentric expectation of womanhood as symbolised in the rapist Zero, the murderous boy soldier and the “mythic and monstrous” Mother. The body exists as an instrument of performance but the performance is of a gender defined by sex: even Tristessa, whose “name has all the poignancy of hopelessness in its whispering sibilants” is forced to embrace the gender expectations intrinsic to his biology.

The ideas Carter dramatizes here are articulated explicitly in her work The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, published the year after this novel in 1978. It is heavily informed by a variety of feminist writings, not least of all Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous, and if these questions of gender and performance interest you I would also recommend digging into some Judith Butler. Next up for me… am I finally going to crack into The Luminaries?

Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley

Crome Yellow, 1921
Crome Yellow, 1921

The country house of Crome welcomes “a painter, a poet, a spiritual journalist and ladies of assorted morals” to a house-party. The plot follows our weak, frustrated hero Denis in his ill-fated endeavours in love and literature alike. The other members of the party as absurd as they are unlikeable and some of the most compelling moments of narrative in the book are derived from the history of the home itself as retold by its now mast, Henry Wimbush. The novel is biting, almost spitting, in its satire on early twentieth century social interaction, I was reminded of Eliot’s earlier poetry particularly, “The women” who “come and go/ Talking of Michaelangelo” in ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’. In fact Denis himself seems trapped in an almost Prufockian state of inaction as he laments actions he should have taken and moments that pass ungrasped. The cover picture displayed above captures this sense of futility, the men and women pictured as uniform figures on a carousel by Mark Gettler in ‘The Merry Go Round’ (c.1916), mouths open as if in infinite, uncommunicative conversation.

The story itself is hard work, and whilst I’m sure some of that could be happily attributed to brain-bleeding tiredness, it lacks pace and direction. The most interesting aspects are the ideas that the characters give voice to, indeed, poor Denis, indecisive and suggestible, at the best of times is left utterly bewildered by the range and ferocity of opinions that batter him during his stay at Crome. Perhaps the most sinister character Huxley creates here is Mr Scogan and it is through him that we see a prefiguring of the ideas that were to shape Brave New World. He asserts that “men of intelligence must combine, must conspire, and seize power…They must found the Rational State” assigning people roles in society to which they are best suited (though sees no place for Denis, our poet). He envisages the replacement of “Nature’s hideous system” with “vast state incubators, rows upon rows of gravid bottles will supply the world with the population it requires. The family system will disappear; society, sapped at its very base, will have to find new foundations; and Eros, beautifully and irresponsibly free, will flit like a gay butterfly from flower to flower through a sunlit world.”

These ideas, nascent here, come to fruition in Brave New World, arguably the most influential works of science fiction of the last century. Images of human hatcheries and World Controllers are at their most powerful when shaping that narrative; they are terrifying when imagined as an actual future rather than proffered as one possible direction the future might take as they are in the set piece speeches of Crome Yellow. In a way, the whole novel feels like a musing, a writer who is flexing and stretching, toying with ideas still in their formative stages. It’s impossible to come to Crome Yellow without a sense that Brave New World is hovering nearby (even though it wasn’t published until 1932, a full 11 years after Huxley’s first full length work). Whilst I didn’t particularly enjoy Crome Yellow in its own right, the two novels held alongside each other show the genesis of a mind grappling uneasily with a past fast-slipping away and a fascination, perhaps a fearful one, with what the world that replaces it will look like.

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 Inner Landscape

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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.