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.

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.

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.

Burnt Island, Alice Thompson

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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

BoxerBeetle

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…

Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson

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This novel is the second recommendation from that fabulously gifted friend mentioned in my last post. If you have already encountered Written on the Body, I’m sure you’ll be able to gather why it was mentioned in the same breath as DeLillo’s  The Body Artist. Both novels are concerned with the human psyche and exposing the relationship it bears, or in this case, exploding the relationship it bears to the gendered body.

The opening line of the novel links love with loss in posing the question, “Why is the measure of love loss?”. The structure of this one line introductory paragraph effectively encapsulates the undulating movement of the narrative that is to follow. The narrator weaves a story through memories of and reflections on the nature and experience of love and the loss of that love. The physical body – as the title would suggest – lies at the centre of this narrative. Love is examined through the body and the connection of bodies.

The narrative voice is technically genderless. The voice has girlfriends and boyfriends but is never identified as male or female to the reader. The result is not, however, the strange sense of dissociation of psyche from physicality that one finds in the DeLillo but instead an intense and bodily exploration of sexual subjectivity. Even the body here, if only the narrator’s body (a point to which I will return), is stripped of gender and with it any social gender constructs or preconceptions that the reader brings with them. Winterson herself once commented in an interview that, for her, “a love story is a love story. I don’t care what the genders are if it’s powerful enough. And I don’t think that love should be a gender-bound operation.”

In many ways, this novel reads as a mediation on the disconnect between the body as a vehicle for a gendered consciouness and the experience of love through that same body. This is one of the things that I struggled with: the novel, in denying the narrative voice a gender would seem to be aiming at the transcendent power of love. The problem I have is that the same narrative gives the body primacy within the novel. It feels contradictory. The narrator has no gender but is defined by sexual encounters and experiences of the body. The attempt to tie love to the physical and in the same moment to deny the relevance of gender to that physicality seems to fall over itself and as a result it just doesn’t quite work.

Another problem is the nature of the language, I found it very uncomfortable to read in places. Now there’s nothing wrong with that; a good book should certainly make you squirm, should ask questions of its reader and one of the text’s successes is definitely its undermining of romantic cliché. Again though, in exposing the failure of language through a sort of corrupted lyricism, the graphic sexuality somehow at odds with its own imagery, it ties itself in knots. How can the depth and truth of love be figured as textual, as “written on the body” as a name “scored… into my shoulders” if language ultimately constitutes failure? The narrator tells us that, “Love demands expression.  It will not stay still, stay silent, be good, be modest, be seen and not heard, no.  It will break out in tongues of praise, the high note that smashes the glass and spills the liquid.” And yet even the simplest expression of that love is deplored as “unoriginal”.

Am I missing the point here? Of course the text is straining past the constructs and conventions of gender and love; it embraces the contradictions I’m grappling with as inherent to the experience of love in a world where sexuality and gender are increasingly dissociated. I’m just not quite sure I buy it.

All of that said, it does make for a fascinating read. As you can probably tell, I have got myself into a bit of tangle over it and I would be very keen to hear from anyone who may be able to help me unpick it all in the comments section below…

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The Body Artist, Don DeLillo

The Body Artist

I read this on the recommendation of an incredibly gifted friend. She and I had almost parallel lives before we met three years ago: we both grew up in Kent, were direct contemporaries at Cambridge (sitting in the same seminars without really knowing each other) until three years ago we ended up teaching together. More spooky than this mysterious alignment of our fates is the correlation of our interests: we love the same kind of books.

So, as I commented airily that I would like to root my Master’s dissertation in something to do with gender and sexuality in contemporary literature, it should have been entirely unsurprising when she replied that her undergraduate dissertation had been about gender and the body in Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist and Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. Thus, I attribute this particular literary encounter to her exceptional taste.

The Body Artist marked a shift in scale for DeLillo; a novella really, published in 2001, it followed the 800 page masterpiece Underworld and it offers a far more intimate experience. The prose is strange. The reader floats through precise moments of thought, experience and feeling; the opening has an air of unreality about it as it follows the intricate motions and interactions of an individual consciousness. Giles Foden in his review for the Guardian identified this as “an example of radical hyper-realism”, and I am inclined to agree. The minutiae of each moment is magnified and just as a leaf placed under a microscope appears – though we know it to be a leaf – as an unidentifiable jumble of lines and shapes, so this normality – though we recognise it to be normality – appears distorted and fragmentary in DeLillo’s hands.

The mind we are drifting through belongs to the eponymous body artist, Lauren Hartke, eating breakfast with her husband Rey in a house on the coast that they have rented for six months. As ever, I am reluctant to offer spoilers but this story is not really about what happens next; it is about the aftermath.

We learn that Rey has killed himself in his ex-wife’s appartment. We read his obituary and it is here that Lauren’s story really begins. As a body artist Lauren transforms her body onstage, she uses her body as an instrument with which she absorbs identities and psyches that are not her own.

As Lauren grieves, she finds an enigmatic, spectral figure that literally haunts the house, sitting on the edge of the bed in his underwear. He repeats fragments of conversation from her past and seemingly, from her future recalling Rey’s voice, manner, feelings with the same accuracy as the audio recorder she becomes fixated upon. The man offers ripples and echoes of Rey and indeed of herself.

The intensity with which Lauren experiences her own physicality becomes a vehicle for her grief: she pumices, plucks, bleaches her body until it is blank, almost ungendered. She finds herself detached from the temporal; the line blurs between performance and reality. She does not just assume other genders, other identities but she becomes them.

It is an eerie and compelling work excavating the experience of loss. In doing so, DeLillo interrogates the fabric of both societal and personal gender constructions. The assumed connection between the psyche and the body is dissolved by grief, by trauma; identity is not achieved through performance but performance replaces identity.

In our world, rigid conceptions of gender and sexuality are collapsing in on themselves. The space between categorisations – gay, straight, female, male – is contracting; these pigeonholes seem increasingly simplistic, reductive even. What DeLillo explores in The Body Artist though, is how these indistinctions open up another space between the psyche and the gendered body, the one no longer dependent upon, nor necessarily connected to, the other. The result may well be as The Salon puts it, “an expert mind-f***” but it is also a work compelling, provocative and raw.