Anatomy of a Prize Winner

Olga Tokarczuk – Flights (Fitzcarraldo, 2017)

Poland likes to shout about its successes. When that Polish guy used a narwhal tusk to take down a jihadi on Tower Bridge the Polish news talked about it for two weeks. They are a proud people, over there.

So I was surprised on my recent trip to Poland to learn that a Polish writer winning the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature was not bigger news. Olga Tokarczuk, whose novels include Flights and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (both available in English from Fitzcarraldo), featured very little in their media.

She is against the government, and the government decides what’s news.

Although, in the classic post-communist style, the fact that Tokarczuk was missing from the news meant that everybody talked about her even more.

I decided to take Flights to Poland with me, it being a book about travel, and found, by pure circumstance, that my girlfriend’s mother, with whom we were staying, had just started reading the book too.

Its Polish title, Bieguni, is an archaic variant on the word “runners” and refers to a pre-Christian nomadic belief that one should always keep moving, that way the devil can’t catch up with you.

“Flights” only partly captures this meaning, but it works on another level, connecting the stories of dark age nomads fleeing the devil to murderers fleeing justice, and connecting flights of fancy with the many plane flights that fill the book.

The book is a collage novel. It has a framing device – an unnamed narrator who travels the world, chatting to strangers and noticing funny signage along the way – but the action of the book comes in the form of numerous short stories.

Some of these stories are interweaved. Anatomists play a large part in them, for example. A famous seventeenth century Dutch anatomist is shown passing his knowledge to his younger colleague. The Russian tsar uses the anatomists breakthroughs to have a loyal black retainer stuffed and mounted after he dies. A contemporary anatomist and fetishist tries to recreate the old techniques.

But the connections are slight and often trivial. Many of the stories simply come and go, leaving no traces in the rest of the writing. A Polish sailor who is arrested in Vietnam and learns English by reading Moby Dick is a funny one. The whole prison ends up speaking like salty seadogs. But it’s connection to the grander narrative is merely thematic.

The structure of the novel is in keeping with its contents and subject. Flights is up in the air. It is circling around, looking for a landing spot. Occasionally it touches down, shares a story, only to lurch back up into the narrative sky once again.

It makes good holiday reading. Lots of short sections. Although it can add to your disorientation.

By focusing on the human in transit, Tokarczuk conjures the no-places of travel and, through them, the sad truth that to become international is to lose all identifying characteristics. “Airports have more in common with other airports than with the countries they inhabit,” she notes. The same goes for motorways, travel hotels, and conference centres.

Increasingly, the whole world. I look out of the window at the communist-built tower blocks of Konin and understand that the Polish know what it means to be anonymised.

Perhaps globalisation will make a Konin of us all?

Against the anonymity, Tokarczuk delves for meaning in the specific and the rooted. Her obsession with anatomy comes in here. She recounts the discovery of the Achilles tendon. That something so physically present could lie hidden, just beneath the surface, until the 1640s, presents the body itself as a secret. We are each a closed and specific world.

A sultan, we are told, shirks his duties in the war room to visit his giant harem. Only the bodies of his girls seem real to him. The older the girls get, the less appealing, and so the higher up they are moved in the palace. It is as if, Tokarczuk writes in a beautiful bit of analogy, those at the top would simply disappear into the air.

The last that is seen of the sultan is his baggage train fleeing into the desert. He is carrying away a crowd of children. Contact with their youth will, he believes, will grant him immortality.

So much for the physical.

With its many sections and many stories, Flights can never approach a meaningful conclusion about the local and the global, about specific places and the flight away from them. Instead it demonstrates the impossibility of resolving these issues in a world where we are all now in transit ourselves.

We are limited to moments of poignance, glimpses of beauty, shocks, terror, and sudden love. We are all in a state of flight. Even rootedness itself is now a flight, a fleeing from the transient world, a flight from flights.

The most interesting story for our reading, bilingual as it ended up being, was one of Tokarczuk’s narrator’s own loose thoughts. She was thinking about English, about how everybody speaks it – Germans use it to speak to Hungarians, Polish use it to speak to Italians – and she wonders what it’s like to be English.

Is it strange to hear a room full of people speaking your language to each other, none of them being from your country? What is it like to have no secret language, no language that is “just for us”, that one can speak with a reasonable hope of not being understood by outsiders?

“I don’t know,” I said, when asked this by my girlfriend’s mother. “I can’t say I’ve ever thought of it that way.”

Ultimately, I think this is the great pleasure of reading Olga Tokarczuk’s writing. Not that she thinks new thoughts, but that shows you your old thoughts in a new and different way.

Now if only she would chase somebody down the street with a narwhal tusk, perhaps the ruling powers of her country would start listening to her.

– Joe Darlington 

Egg Bound and Angry

Sam Byers – Perfidious Albion (Faber & Faber) 

This novel has been out since 2018. I held back from reading it as I was writing something I thought might be close to it – I didn’t want to be influenced. As it turned out there was no need to worry, and the novel is surely even more essential as we begin the 2020s than it must have been in 2018.

The book opens at a party full of tossers – I do use the word lightly – who have decamped from London to somewhere fictional in East Anglia, to be tossers.

Here, the present is dead – ‘these are post-present times’. Here, without using the word, is postmodernism. The Latin ‘modo’ means now and so pomo means after-now, after the present. Byers manages to get all of this across without labouring it.

The people at the party mediate everything they do, moving out of London, walking in the countryside, they can’t do anything without turning it into a desperate, empty act of pseudo-psychogeography. They can’t, in fact, do anything that isn’t pseud.

For these mediasphere amphibians the distinction between hate clicks and like clicks has been erased by the simple and sheer desire for clicks. Therefore meaning is dead too – someone says that straight out at one point – and so here also is post-truth. This seems to confirm my hunch that pomo is shading into something much darker politically. Sam Byers seems to feel it too. Time seems to have stalled and we could go down the Mark Fisher cultural gravity hole here, but Perfidious Albion is funny, so let’s not. Later, perhaps.

Back at the tosser party, a fictional bunch of people called Rogue Statement collective have been nicknamed ‘the theory dudes’. They are very much like the real Everyday Analysis collective (EDA) who have quite a presence in Manchester. Rogue Statement collective find fascism everywhere. In iced buns, in socks. They’re a sort of neo-Frankfurt School for the post-Warhol age, and, obviously, they are all also tossers.

An artist works only in crayon and throws mud at walls. ‘To see if it sticks’ is magically written by not writing it at all: Byers pulls off a clear-cut communication with sublety and depth at the same time; he’s a great writer. Much of the weight is carried through light, economically-shaped details, ‘Jess popped to the toilet to tweet’, ‘I think your work may no longer be work.’

Byers sees his own gender and generation as tossers and can write them as such. Personally, I don’t think that’s a huge deal – it’s very obvious – but Byers’ sees women and can write them. Not many can. The friendship between Jess and Deepa is handled cleverly, again through details, they swap food and drinks, for instance. Jess, who poses online as multiple media activists, reads a sycophantic email from her own partner Robert to her alter-ego Byron Stroud. Her shock at seeing a layer of her intimate life that has been hidden from her is very well rendered.

Jess comes across Deepa when she is in a reverie that ‘is not to be shared’ and you know what it contains without being told. Deepa, quietly amused by the room full of tossers, in a corner of the room full of tossers, gives her a depth the others don’t have. You already know, in fact, these people. How shallow is our world when the silent and seeing, the quietly mirthful, are suddenly virtuous? I’ll say it again, Byers draws women well.

A guy turns up to attempt a guerilla reading. As I’ve just spent a year reading au plein air in Manchester I suddenly felt the prick of this book’s needles: this means this book is really good, not bad. Perhaps what pricks us overall is that Byers has got it right and we don’t like that.

I also contributed an article to the EDA website on behaving badly at supermarket checkouts. In my defense, it was humourous. I just looked to see if EDA are still going and surely yes, they are, the last post being ‘The Libidinal Economy and the General Election’. Take some Lyotard, smash it into what’s in front of you, then hang it online to dry. Trouble is, I then ran into the libidinal economy of the internet a few pages on in the novel, in a description of Deepa’s work in a private research institute.

Deepa has escaped Britain’s ‘failing, intellectually incapacitated universities.’ This book isn’t ‘neo-modern’ or ‘new sincerity’ – and not only because those literary-theoretical farts have barely any power in them – but because the return to meaning, belief and ‘real politics’ – the Corbynista dream – has not happened here and looks as though it never will. Prescient. Jess’s partner, Robert Townsend, with a rosy view of the working classes, defends a housing estate from predatory developers. But what he really defends and promotes is the image of himself caring about the estate, the working classes and their plight.

Gentrifiers binge on anti-gentrification articles, the sick tautologies of our time are mercilessly paraded before our hypocritical psyches. When I finally got around to reading Houellebecq properly, I realised that his popping of the European neoliberal bubble, with its roots in ‘the counterculture’ was accurate. But Houellebecq is also a tosser and a nasty one. I don’t think Byers is a tosser at all, but he skewers the shallow meniscus of the English neoliberal epoch very accurately too.

The tossers at the party the book opens with are all wanting, in a double sense, they are all full of nothing but lack, and they all desire something out of their reach. The trouble is, the reality that all of these people desperately want is already there. But you wouldn’t like that reality if you found it. If you’re deeply, abjectly poor with no way out, this whole world of authors writing about tossers talking to other tossers about bullshit means zero. That’s the world of the ‘real’ and ‘authentic’. You can’t go there on holiday, the only way you can go there at all is by making it so that you can never climb out again.

Byers tries to go there. In a decaying council estate flat a character called Alfred Darkin entrenches himself. There’s a parallel with Dickens, and Amis perhaps, just in the naming of this character. There’s a just-so ness to the descriptions here that some might object to. A lack of colour, a simplicity in the explanation of Darkin in his flat, reading the Faragesque Hugo Bennington in the Record newspaper. There’s the moment Robert Townsend enters Darkin’s flat to try to help him, and the smell that hits – fag smoke and urine – will raise leftwing sanctimony like Engels’ descriptions of Manchester as The City of Stink. Alfred Darkin automatically regurgitates the last rightwing newspaper article he has read and denies any counter-argument. Again, many will object.

Darkin’s world is black and white, it has little nuance, his wife was alive (white/light) and then gone (black/dark). We then step into Robert and Jess’s ‘educated middle class’ world and the tomato and chilli sauce is in vivid colour, their conversations are rainbows. But the infinite shades of nuance in early 21st c. living are becoming a hell here. Jess, once trolled and threatened with rape and violence, begins to secretly troll her own partner, Robert.

And so ultimately I don’t object, and I’m from a working class background. Darkin’s life may be the monochrome past and Jess and Robert’s the sleek psychedelic future, but their existence in an infinitely fluid, contextless drift is just a different hell to Darkin’s immobile, solid, heavy hades.

Trina, a character working in a department of the tech company Green, has found that becoming ‘permanent’, a secure employee, does not mean that at all. This is all of our hell. Even Hugo Bennington is flanked by a tosser and an arsehole. One is Teddy Handler, a lifehack guru the Green coders follow. Teddy Hunter makes spaceships out of Lego to help him brainstorm and he is a very convincing representative for our times. The more time you spent with Teddy the more ‘the border between the profound and the insufferably moronic began to feel dangerously porous.’

They all join up, the tech gurus love Teddy Handler’s ‘Teducationals’ and Hugo Bennington is compromised by his shares in the property firm who are trying to muscle council tenants out. Bennington then writes ‘for’ these oppressed left-behind working classes. The moment the fascists are out on the streets is genuinely chilling. Beyond Black Mirror.

This book is in a tradition and it is an important contribution to that lineage. One can move back in time from Amis to Dickens and then to Fielden and Smollett. Byers’ clear-cut communication can become cartoon, it is true. The private housing company, trying to displace tenants from the estate – including Alfred Darkin – is called Downton. But Byers’ strength here is going for the most loaded signifier. He has written a very sharp eighteenth century satire wearing the mask of the digital age. I will go so far as to claim that Byers diagnoses most humans at this point in history when he describes two tech guys as ‘weirdly eggbound and clenched with an anger they couldn’t name.’

Darkin’s interior monologue may be cut from cardboard, but the dreary monologues of false consciousness – and I don’t use that term lightly – are one dimensional. Deepa though, Deepa is just a little bit deeper. Byers’ whole picture is perhaps best judged when nearly everyone in it – of whatever social class – has been jig-sawn out of plywood, gaudily painted and propped up in a dead, wild west town. The queasy horror that the consumers of the Downton television fantasy are its victims, both historically and in terms of its immediate, energy-sapping illusion, comes to us just through this choosing of names. Names that initially appear rashly chosen. It’s a very unbeat use of ‘first thought best thought’, but it works. Somehow, just through this detail, the whole fucked-up plateau we live on, with its euromillions jackpot and One Show, with its pretentious, preening narcissists with MAs, is illuminated in a glamourless lightning flash. A sad little platform only precariously aloof from the merciless sea. How very real. How very now.

But actually, 2018, the year the book was published, at the pelting pace of politics today, is ages ago. Boris wasn’t in Number Ten when this book came out, but it seems to know he will be. If there is a parallel for Teddy Handler, it is surely Dominic Cummings.

I can’t give you an overview of how all of what I have described pans out, that would be way too big a spoiler. But this is an essential novel of historical record and future orientation.  

– Steve Hanson

New Criticism for an old-ish city

TO ALL SUBSCRIBERS OF OUR BLOG! Manchester Review of Books has been going since October, 2016, as a WordPress website.

WE WANT TO GO TO A PRINT EDITION, A SINGLE A3 BROADSHEET, WILL YOU HELP?

We see a continuing need for a Manchester literature platform. I wrote very briefly for New Cross Review of Books and now we have Brixton Review of Books. They are great, but they are all in London and you know the LRB, and its London-centrism, and all of that. Our editorial policy is to talk to the city of Manchester from within the city, but looking outwards, to Europe, and to the world. Do I need to explain why? The general election of December 2019 seems to be part of this Manchester Review of Books re-constitution on paper.

The Manchester Review of Books website contained no pictures of books right from the start, just writing. We wanted it to be as unspectacular as possible from the beginning, to go against the grain of the pizza-vomits of colour reproducing the same banal visual content you see all over the web. The planned single broadsheet edition will continue in this vein.

We’re not making some statement about this being ‘radical’, far from it, we just wanted to pare it right down to something basic and useable. We may have a visual element from time to time, cartoons, visual poems, but not illustrations, not infantile pictures of books you can see in two seconds via a Google hit. Just the thing itself, not the glamourised consumer sheen.

We’re producing what might be seen as a very old-fashioned broadsheet. We’re fine with that, but it will be one trying to overcome the widespread death of adult thinking. It will not be dumbed-down. It will begin very basically and develop slowly. It will contain lots of reading material for people whom we assume read a lot. If you want to call that ‘value for money’, feel free.

We are making changes though. We’re dispensing with our ‘only positive reviews, ignore the rest’ ethos which we have (largely) held until now. The vapid state of arts and culture needs a rebooted cultural criticism that isn’t afraid to speak and isn’t compromised.

Our back-of-a-fag-packet economics for moving into a print edition runs like this: On 500 copies per single-sheet issue, each issue costs 0.084 of a penny per issue. Call it a penny. We can get A5 envelopes for around a penny. Second class post is 61p. Physically then, the thing costs 63-64p to be made and delivered to you – the largest cost is Royal Mail’s charge – but of course there’s our labour and organisation. If we say a pound per issue, plus a pound into our kitty, we can start by charging five pounds for a four-issue subscription.

This means we can build, very slowly and modestly, and with a few subs upfront we can pay the print costs for the first few issues. The first print run is £42 and so we need eight new subscribers to meet that first print bill. Let’s say ten, to figure in rising costs (they are). If we get well-established, we will then offer our first ten subscribers free lifetime subs.

Sound reasonable? We think it does.

To subscribe at a rate of £5 for four issues please email The Editors at mrobgeneral@gmail.com

Year enders 2019: Joe Darlington

A door closes on one year and opens on another. Here at the Manchester Review of Books, December is a time for looking back over what has gone, perhaps with a wistful eye (or perhaps with a sneer, or a look of profound regret), and offering some conclusions on what books the year has brought us.

Reading, it should be remembered, is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I tend to curl up at Christmas time with a massive Victorian novel and spend some time enjoying a story well told. It’s a simple pleasure. It’s also one that seems increasingly difficult to enjoy, the more books you read.

Books are indeed habit-forming. I’ve been through three “to read” piles this year and rather than spend my money on presents for friends and family, I’m ashamed to say that a fourth has just been ordered.

I suspect this story will be told at some future bibliophile support group as an example of a “low moment”.

Yet, in spite of all this reading, I’m not sure if this year has really brought all I would have wished. I have read far less contemporary fiction. I can’t say I’ve felt this as a profound loss, but I do feel guilty for letting new work pass me by.

Instead, I’ve mostly been filling in gaps in my reading. I’ve done a lot of stumbling onto things too. With that in mind, my usual TOP 5 is more of a “here are five books”. Nevertheless, if it provokes your curiosity then perhaps I’ve done my job.

Number One: The Bible

Yes, that’s right. Why are you reading a top 5 books list when you should be praising Jesus? …is the sort of thing that someone might say who hasn’t read this thing. Or at least hasn’t read it objectively.

I’ve dipped in to the Bible before. Genesis and Revelations mostly, with the Sermon on the Mount too if I’m feeling less apocalyptic. 2019 has been the year of reading it cover-to-cover, however, and I can confirm that it’s a very different experience when read that way.

I discovered sections that are well worth reading that I, in my secularism, had never heard of before. Ecclesiastes is pure poetry. Lamentations too. Amos and Ezekiel are invigorating in their Old Testament anger, turbulent and vital. Jonah is wonderfully mystical.

But it’s not simply a sum of its parts. When they collected these separate books, all from different times and places, and brought them into one volume, they introduced a narrative arc that, frankly, I’m very surprised not to have heard about before.

This monster of a text is not just the story of man coming to know God, but of God coming to know man. God is a character. He’s like the angry misfit who finds redemption through love. It was a redemption arc I wasn’t prepared for when I started.

Obviously 2,000 pages of tiny script, written in C17th English (go King James or go home, I say), is going to be a difficult sell, but I for one found this to be one of my most rewarding reads all year.

Number Two: Jim Clarke, Science Fiction and Catholicism (Gylphi, 2019)

From the sublime to the ridiculous; in the same year that I tasked myself with reading the entire Bible, I also set myself a challenge to fill in all the gaps in my sci-fi knowledge. I set about reading everything from Stapledon to Asimov, through McCaffrey to Valente, and my God there are a lot of stinkers.

Some of the best contemporary sf I found was Tade Thompson’s Rosewater trilogy (the final instalment came out in October) and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series (ended 2015). Both combine action with ideas; something good sci-fi can do better than any other genre, although it often refuses to.

Jim Clarke’s book came out just as I was in the middle of my binge. I have reviewed it elsewhere in the MRB, but over time I have come to appreciate how his particular way of looking at the genre has informed my own understanding.

Sci-fi is, after all, obsessed with science. However, as Clarke points out, what it often tells us most about is the non-scientific presumptions that underlie modernity. Priests often appear in sci-fi as bearers of the old ways. By contrast, they show us what is new in the thinking of spacemen and scientists.

Both Thompson and Scalzi’s books contain a lot of presumptions, not about how the future will be, but about what human beings are like. I like them in spite of this, and can do so thanks to a Clarkean reading of the subject matter. 

Number Three: Laura Scott, So Many Rooms (Carcanet, 2019)

I have branched out a little with my poetry reading this year, but when I think about what I really enjoyed I always find myself dragged back to Carcanet. Rachel Mann’s A Kingdom of Love (Carcanet, 2019) was a close call for the poetry book slot but I figured putting three Christian books in a top 5 will send an unintended theological message.

Close also were non-Carcanet titles from the Manchester poetry scene. Richard Barrett’s The Face Book and Steve Hanson’s Sing were two breakthrough collections.

As a book recommendation though, I felt I should go for something intended for the page. Laura Scott’s poems carry huge weight despite a concision verging on the sparse. They demonstrate the importance of poetry as a means of purifying our language, ultimately clarifying our thought.

All poetry should aspire to the condition of this collection. An art for our times.

Number Four: John Stubbs, The Reluctant Rebel (Penguin, 2019)

The longest book I’ve read this year is John Stubbs’ excellent biography of the Dangerous Dean, Jonathan Swift. There is so much to the satirist that is only comprehensible from deep within the historical context of his works that I feel like I’ve discovered this great writer all over again.

Stubbs is a historian of the seventeenth century who turns his hand in this book to the early eighteenth. As such, we get a sense of a much longer history lying behind the squabbles of Whig and Tory, High Church and Low.

Memories of the civil war frame the century’s squabbles, turning seemingly minor disagreements over trade tariffs and Church ceremony riven with terrible foreboding and dread. Every Tory looked to a Whig like a secret Catholic Jacobite, while every Whig looked to the Tories like a Dissenter, an anarchist, and a madman.

Getting lost in the foreign country of the past is refreshing. Far better to understand the past as it was than attempt to explain it through what we think the present is. Stubbs gives us no comparisons to “what we think today”. It’s an approach I find respects my intelligence as a reader, and I appreciate him for it.

Number Five: Stephen Brusatte, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs (Macmillan, 2019).

There were a lot of books that I had in mind for my fifth slot as I jotted my notes for the article this morning. It was only after I found myself paraphrasing this book in conversation, yet again, over coffee that I realised the impact it had on me.

I have been quoting facts from this book relentlessly ever since I first read it a couple of months ago. If that’s not the mark of a great popular science book, I don’t know what is.

The book is written as part-autobiography, part-factual book. Normally I’m not a fan of these “personal journey” non-fiction books, but in the case of Brusatte’s book the narrative mode is a perfect fit with the content.

The Rise and Fall ultimately aims to bring us, the readers, up to date in our knowledge of dinosaurs. As such, the narrative form allows his own journey to reflect the breakthroughs in our scientific thinking. A lot has changed since the 1960s when a young Brusatte first took interest in the thunder lizards.

Having read a lot of 1970s and 1980s books on dinosaurs when I was a child, I found it easy to jump on board at exactly the point I’d leapt off at the age of thirteen. I was glad to learn that the asteroid theory (the one I liked as a kid), has indeed been proven true.

I was less keen to learn about dinosaur feathers. By the end of the book, however, I’d been won over. One of the best parts of the book is Brusatte’s slow revealing of information that ultimately demonstrates how a million years of dinosaur evolution led them into becoming birds.

More than that, all the body parts that make birds birds (special lungs, a wishbone, wings, feathers, beaks) are shown to have evolved for purposes entirely unrelated to flight. It’s an amazing lesson in evolution and the strange ways that creatures come about.

Overall, I feel that 2019 has been an interesting year, but not one marked by many era-defining changes. Experimental novels like Waidner’s We Are Made of Diamond Stuff (Dostoevsky Wannabe, 2019), Rita Indiana’s Tentacle (& Other Stories, 2019) and Glen James Brown’s Ironopolis (Parthian, 2019) provided me with some inspiration. Equus Press has shown the power of small presses with great books like D. Harlan Wilson’s Natural Complexions and Louis Armand’s Glasshouse. The success of Anna Burns’ Milkman (Faber, 2019) has shown that unconventional novels can do well, even if I found the book itself a bit dull (its paragraphs were too big and it plagiarised a scene from Apocalypse Now which annoyed me). Overall, however, I think this year’s great reads have come from outside of the literary novel.

And so one decade draws to a close. Another begins. May our “to read” lists be tempting, yet short, and may the written word live on despite its ever-receding reach.

– Joe Darlington

Year enders 2019: Steve Hanson

What have I read this year?

Highlights in terms of things I covered for Manchester Review of Books were Stuart Elden’s text on Canguilhem (Polity) Michael Conley’s Flare and Falter (Splice) Colin Herd’s click + collect (Boiler House Press) plus Ewan Fernie and Simon Palfrey’s Macbeth, Macbeth (Beyond Criticism).

Macbeth, Macbeth was of special interest as I will have a book out next year that is part of a series which includes a reissued edition of that work. You might say I was checking out the competition, but it turns out they don’t have any competition. Well, certainly not from me.

Also peerless is Alan Halsey and Kelvin Corcoran’s Winterreisen (Knives, Forks and Spoons). Book of the year for me, that, in terms of things I’ve reviewed.

I tackled a load of lit-crit I hadn’t read. I have crossed a lot of it already by studying semiotics and structural linguistics – and teaching semiotics in art schools. But I wanted to build on that base by reading academic literary criticism.

Barthes I’ve read – most of the books in English – but I haven’t read the Pleasure of the Text yet, I need to. I read more of Terry Eagleton’s key work, Criticism & Ideology (1976) The Function of Criticism (1984) and I started The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990). I need to try to finish that. I feel slightly guilty when I see it around.

I think I actually started those in 2018, time seems to bending the further down it I get…

I read The Sense of an Ending by Frank Kermode. Utterly brilliant. And delivered in lectures at an obscure Welsh college. That’s an incredible book, actually. I read The Western Canon by Harold Bloom. Repetitive, patchy, quixotic, but a reactionary poke in the ribs. T.S. Eliot’s Notes Towards a Definition of Culture is all over the place. Stuffy, so vague in places it verges on a spoof. I read a book on Thomas Mann by someone – I can’t find it now, but it was absolutely brilliant.* I’m reading Lukacs on Mann a chapter at a time. I can feel the Mann-binge coming on, in 2020. Magic Mountain, finally, I reckon.

I read a massive biography of Disraeli. By Robert Blake. I don’t know why I started it, but I can explain that I got a strong take on his whole era from it. I became less and less interested in Disraeli and increasingly interested in the politics of the late 18th early 19th century all over again. Plus Disraeli is interesting as a young Byron-obsessed dandy and less so as an old duffer. There were lots of side-trips into other books when I took myself through that one.

I read a lot of Burgess. I go to quite a few International Anthony Burgess Centre events and so I got through The Devil’s Mode, the first two Enderby books (great fun) Dead Man in Deptford (fantastic) and The End of the World News. IABC keep the man in mind, so their job is being very well done.

I read a pile of sci-fi. World of Tiers, which swerves from the great to the ridiculous, sometimes on the same page. Michael Moorcock’s Black Corridor, and I re-read his Rituals of Infinity, both are great. Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, which is kind of a collection and kind of not, but brilliant, which Bradbury was. I read White Light by Rudy Rucker, which is full-on Acid Scifi by a mathematician. Really astonishing stuff.

I read Atomised and Whatever by Houellebecq. I’ve been seeing curt dismissals of his work for a long time. The reality is much more complex. Atomised is a moralising utopian novel. It is right on-geist in that it reflects the sicking back up of the neoliberal era completely. In fact the new left and Houellebecq are on the same page, though I guess neither would admit that. They have very different answers to the crisis but the diagnosis is coming from the same historical place.

By reading him I’m trying to do justice to my own advocacy in my article about reading things that don’t already square with one’s own politics:

https://discoversociety.org/2015/11/02/reading-on-the-right/.

I have read a bunch of other things. An MIT book on computing, Benjamin on Brecht – some of that was fragmentary – a book on Kelvin Corcoran, and the Oxford Illustrated History of Modern Europe.

I have started things and put them aside. The usual bad novels and trash-fi that’s too trashy even for me. I picked up a copy of Nicholas Rankin’s Faber on Ian Fleming’s 30 Commando at a book swap and was disgusted by the language. I managed to take it to a charity shop and not torch it outside in a barbecue tray. I nearly did. He explains the Lancashire Fusiliers ‘winning a load of VCs before breakfast’ in WW1, jolly-what-ho. My great grandfather and his mate – who I met as a boy – were Lancs Fusiliers in WW1. My great grandfather was killed and his mate told me to never join the army. Disillusioned with the world, he then pottered around on a bit of spare ground for the rest of his life. He was a lovely man. Rankin profits from Tory war porn made for village idiots.

Other ‘epic fails’ as the kids call them: I have this wager with my friend Nigel Armitage, he reads a Dickens each year to get through them all. I decided to take this on because it’s a great idea and I raised him a Shakespeare. I have failed the core Dickens challenge and excelled in the raised game. No Dickens. Two Shakespeare, King John, and I read all the sonnets.

The biggest challenge has been the one I’m still tackling: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I read Lot 49 and the Slow Learner collection in the 1990s and have finally strolled into the vast madhouse. This is no idle metaphor. You walk into Gravity’s Rainbow thinking you’ve been had.

I’m only just over halfway through. Gravity’s Rainbow is sprawling, messy, scattershot. It is ‘bonkers’, but it is very far from nonsense.

Happy reading folks and thanks for reading us.

 

* I have found the book now, it was Thomas Mann, The Ironic German by Erich Heller.

Sunrise in the Selfish City

Rania Mamoun – Thirteen Months of Sunrise (Comma Press, 2019)

Nestled between Ethiopia and Egypt, Sudan doesn’t often make the international news. Even the best-informed reader would be forgiven for associating the country only with the ongoing civil war taking place among the warring tribes of its south.

Its capital, however, Khartoum, is divided less by its ethnic tensions than by class. Recently described by The Guardian as “the most selfish city in the world”, Khartoum is run by and for a small Arab elite. The multi-ethnic city they rule over is, by contrast, in a state of perpetual anarchy.

It is into these sweltering streets that Rania Mamoun plunges us in her short story collection Thirteen Months of Sunrise.

Mamoun’s ten stories are short but pack a mighty punch. Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, the book’s prose is concise. We are hit by rapid bursts of images, each of which evokes a clear spirit of place. Smells, reveries and dreams all sit alongside poverty, scrap iron and extremes of human deprivation.

Each story takes us to another corner of Khartoum. In my personal favourite, “Doors”, we are witness to the increasing frustration of an unemployed man whose clean shirt is slowly torn apart, catching on everything it can on his way to a job interview.

His frustrations are recognisable to anyone. We’ve all spilled coffee on our best shirt. That the man lives in a pre-fab shack without running water is secondary to his human frustration. Mamoun’s focus on universal experiences like this are what make her stories so readable, and help us to place ourselves in the shoes of the Sudanese people she depicts.

The shortness of the stories gives them the feel of prose poems. They are no longer than they need to be. The collection itself comes in at under 70 pages. Yet, despite their brevity, these stories carry a lot of weight.

The collection is structured in a loose arc. We open with a friendship between two office workers. One is Eritrean, although the speaker mistakes him for Ethiopian: the Sudanese, we are told, refer to citizens of both countries under the collective label “Assyrian”.

Our Sudanese protagonist reveals themselves to be a lover of all things Assyrian. He wears Assyrian clothes and frequents Assyrian cafes. His Eritrean colleague appreciates this and, after a trip to an Assyrian record shop, hints at the story of his emigration.

That Eritreans still flee to Khartoum, as Ethiopians did a generation ago during their droughts, shows us the relative prosperity and peace of the Sudanese capital city.

By the final story, however, we are exploring the darkest and dirtiest of the city’s slums. In “Stray Steps” the starving speaker travels the poverty-striken streets, trading sexual favours for food and other scraps.

She is relieved only by a friendly dog, in a moment of magical realism that, by pushing the boundaries of believability, ends the collection on an ambiguous note.

Mamoun’s collection is well worth checking out. Anyone interested in the contemporary short story will find in here a series of highly original narratives, each realised with masterful technique. For those interested in the Sudanese setting there is also much here to praise. Less of a tourist guide than a guided tour down the backstreets; you leave feeling you know something of the real Khartoum.

The sun is rising on this exciting writer whose works are finally making it into the English language. It shows no sign of setting any time soon.

– Joe Darlington

The New Sound

Catherynne Valente – Space Opera (Corsair, 2018)

For a while now I’ve been saying that the “s.f. / fantasy” section of Waterstones should be renamed to the “interesting premises” section. The rest of the literature shelves can then be renamed to “depression and divorces” accordingly.

Premises don’t come any more interesting than Catherynne Valente’s Space Opera. Earth makes first contact, only to discover that the universe is recovering from a terrible galactic civil war. The remaining empires are now governed by a bureaucratic coalition similar to the EU.

To avoid being destroyed by this galactic megacoalition, races must prove their sentience through the ultimate cultural challenge; a singing contest.

The stage is then set for an intergalactic fusion of Eurovision and Wacky Races, with contestants preparing for their time in the spotlight by trying to kill each prior to first rehearsal.

The novel is firmly in the comic tradition of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. However, Valente’s frenetic, scattershot approach to exposition simultaneously elevates her above comedy and, at times, threatens to undermine the simple pleasures of laughter altogether.

The protagonist of the novel, Decibel Jones of the Absolute Zeroes, is picked as humanity’s representative despite being thoroughly washed up. Aliens, Valente assures us, love theatricality, and being the last surviving glam rocker, Jones is their chosen performer.

When Jones is the focus, Valente’s prose heats up to a rolling psychedelic boil, mixing jive talk, camp posturing and wild similes in a way that is more than just funny: it’s funky! You can hear the music behind it; thudding, thumping and grinding.

Meanwhile, Valente lays out an impressively believable scenario wherein galactic civil war lead to a singing contest becoming the universe’s measure of sentience. Valente’s writing here is careful and concise. Her reasoning is logical enough that you almost start to agree. Maybe theatrical rock is the only true measure of civilization?

It is in the breaks between action and exposition where Valente’s writing falls short. She overuses the comedic allegory such that I found myself quietly skipping any sentence resembling “x is like silly thing y”. In a movie of the book, these would be the sections moving us between key scenes.

Valente heroically tries to make such sections funny, but often falls short. Still, this feels like a cult work – and what is a cult work without its lovable flaws?

Indeed, the cinematic nature of Valente’s novel extends to its structure. She introduces the premise quickly, gives us all the exposition we need and then concludes with the performance itself. One can easily imagine this as a Will Ferrell/Ben Stiller type comedy or even a British underdog movie like Brassed Off or The Commitments.

Herein, I believe, lies the root of some of the novel’s problems; the pacing. The majority of the book is the journey to the contest which, cinematically, might have worked. However, considered in terms of page count – the journey constitutes a solid 100-page chunk right in the middle – one wonders if Valente should have just got us straight to the contest itself.

The start and end are tremendous, and more than make up for the slacknesses in between.

Despite the dip in the middle, Space Opera is a still a fresh, funny and very funky book. Its literary experimentation lends it a cerebral credibility that standard space-comedy fare could only aspire to, and the exciting novelty of its premise can pull you through the weak moments, as you remember, with gratitude, how rare it is to find a novel that is truly exploring something new.

Frenetic, energetic, madcap, kooky… Valente’s novel might not appeal to everyone, but to those rare few readers who enjoy their screwball capers with post-postmodernist linguist experiment, Space Opera is one not to be missed.

– Joe Darlington

Evening in Cairo

Raph Cormack, ed. – The Book of Cairo (Comma Press, 2019)

I had friends in Alexandria when the revolution happened. I watched the events closely, feeding information to them after the regime blacked out the media and then shut down the entire power grid.

As a result, my memory of the events is perhaps clearer than other British people’s. I remember when the news, baffled at the first uprisings, labelled them terrorists. I remember when the revolutionaries, struck with a McLuhanite awe for the medium rather than the message, thanked Facebook for overthrowing Mubarak. I remember how it all ended. Bloodily, cynically, inevitably.

Every Egyptian no doubt has similar memories. Yet, living in the aftermath, most choose to forget. In Comma Press’ Book of Cairo, we can witness this forgetting transformed into artistry.

Comma Press is the UK’s most esteemed publisher of short stories. They are entirely dedicated to the form, viewing it as an end in itself and not some minor detour on the path to novel writing. Their cities books feature the best of short form writing from across the world.

The Book of Cairo provides a panoramic view of the city. From the very first story, “Gridlock”, we experience the mad rush of one of the world’s busiest and noisiest cities. Seven characters stuck in traffic put aside their seven different objectives in favour of one monumental confrontation.

From here, our narrative camera zooms in. We are treated to stories of individual struggles and individual loves. The city under its shades is like any other big city, it seems, although there is nevertheless a surrealistic twist in many of these tales.

“Talk” by Mohammed Kheir tells the tale of a doctor about whom unfortunate rumours are spread. Losing his livelihood and his self-respect, he is approached by the rumour-spreader. It turns out to be a shakedown.

The twist: the rumour-monger knows a true secret about the doctor. By spreading lies, he feels he is doing him a favour. “What would hurt you more, lies or the truth?” The doctor concedes that he prefers the lie and takes up the blackmailer’s offer. He hires the blackmailer’s public relations firm to protect him from further lies.

Appearances and performances are a running theme. In Hatem Hafez’s “Whine” a new Head of Department tyrannises his former colleagues, dyeing his hair and rearranging furniture to show them who’s boss. He must do everything in his power to stay the new boss, and not become just another old boss, waiting to be replaced.

Nahla Karam’s “The Other Balcony” is the story of a teenaged girl whose suitor moves into the apartment block opposite. He watches her as she emerges onto the balcony, demanding she dress up for him and act in a modest manner.

The act tires her, but not as fast as it tires him. Soon, she receives no messages from him at all, and she is left to wonder what other balconies his flat overlooks.

Not all of the stories are realist. Two, “Siniora” and “Two Sisters”, stand out as the wildest and most imaginative of the book. Their pacing and placement within the collection encourage you to read them as just another narrative, but soon the twists and surprises enter and we end up in a new place entirely.

The feeling overall is one of mysteries known but unspoken. Whether this is an aftermath of a forgotten revolution, or a cultural manner that has been always been there in the Middle East, it is hard to know. Acts are performative, so much that they imply their opposites. Messages are ambiguous where morals are bold.

The penultimate story of the collection is, to my mind, the greatest. “Hamada Al-Ginn” by Nael Eltoukhy follows an everyday police sergeant; one who is corrupt but, in his corruption, prays to maintain the integrity of the force overall. He becomes obsessed with clues. He reads papers, technical manuals and observes everything. He is desperate for the truth: the Whole Truth.

Our desperate policeman chances upon an old man who, under interrogation, appears to hold some part of this truth. With great sorrow and regret, he orders the man tortured. He refuses to speak. Then, eventually, the man asks only that the police ask nicely and he will tell them “the Whole Truth”.

And so, asked and answered, Eltoukhy presents the secret state police as the bringers of harmony and enlightenment into Egypt. Egyptians become a people uniquely gifted by their access to the Whole Truth, and all it took was the tireless efforts of the state’s torturers to bring it about.

Eltouhky’s story is one of the darkest bits of satire I have read in recent years, but it captures something in its excess that the Book of Cairo has been hinting at throughout. In a culture of forgetting that cannot forget, the terrible ironies of history permeate everyday life.

There is something hopeless in the Book of Cairo and yet, beneath a hardened surface, the vast hopes of the old causes still linger. All of life, we are told, is in Cairo. That there is life in this book is without doubt.

– Joe Darlington

Priests in Space

Jim Clarke – Science Fiction and Catholicism (Gylphi, 2019)

With a subtitle like “the Rise and Fall of the Robot Papacy,” Jim Clarke’s new book promises fantastic adventures from its very cover.

Dealing seriously with such questions as, “can Jesus save aliens?”, “what does the Vatican think about robots?” and, “if Priests could time travel, where would they go?”; the monograph is a mind-bending journey through the broadest reaches of sci-fi, theology and the politics of religion.

Clarke’s book is, in the first instance, a clear case of writing against. The narrative of science vs religion that predominates in Anglophone sci-fi takes for granted a narrative in which sci-fi’s forerunners are the proto-scientists of the Enlightenment and, before them, the Protestant reformers.

Such a history, Clarke writes, owes as much to Protestant pamphleteering as it does to any true analysis of Catholic “superstition”. He reminds us that Catholics had long separated science and spirituality in the form of Thomism, and that Jesuits are still among the foremost thinkers on the ethics of exoplanetary exploration.

The uncritical support for technocracy celebrated by the first sci-fi novelists, particularly H.G. Wells, are shown to have inherited a tradition of anti-Catholicism. It is a tradition that lingers on even after the genre’s faith in scientific positivism dwindles.

The majority of Clarke’s readings are, for this reason, examples of Catholicism as a villain. The Church is the foremost anti-science force in sci-fi. It comes to stand in as a representative of all religious faith; the rational, the irrational and the superstitious.

What interested me, however, more than the critique of Catholicism-as-bogeyman, was the many instances Clarke finds in which Catholicism plays a more positive, or at least ambiguous role.

Patricia Anthony’s 1997 novel God’s Fires, for example, is set during the Spanish Inquisition. A spaceship abducts a girl from a Spanish peasant village and impregnates her, leading to rumours of a virgin birth. Inquisitors are dispatched, one immediately believing this to be the devil’s work. Another, our protagonist, is of a more searching and (pardon the pun) inquisitive mindset.

The novel serves as perfect food for Clarke’s conflicted thoughts. It is at once a typical case of Anglophones writing about evil Catholics, but it is also a defence of Catholicism in the form of a rational Jesuit (the scientific Jesuit is a recurring character, particularly in religious dystopias).

The way that Anthony thrashes out the conflict between dogmatic and liberal faith is typical of sci-fi’s refusal to ever quite let go of the Roman Church that intrigues them so much.

Other points of insight include Clarke’s analysis of the sci-fi New Wave which, occurring simultaneously to the liberalising Second Vatican Council, leads to a number of strange holy alliances including robot popes, computer popes, a robot saint and devils in the form of algorythms.

Historical moments also serve to enlighten our reading. Clarke recounts the journey of Minoru Asada, chief robotics engineer at Honda, who went to consult the Vatican over the ethics of building humanoid robots. Creating sentient life is typically presented as sinful in Christian myth, Clarke reminds us. Nevertheless, after much contemplation, the Vatican ruled that, if Asada was a good man, then his robotics work must also be good.

Clarke is clearly underwhelmed by this answer.

More nuanced is the Vatican’s approach to “exotheology”: the theological implications of life on other planets. The Vatican observatory has hosted over a dozen conferences on extraterrestrial intelligence. The wide variety of conclusions drawn by exotheologists provide Clarke with a bold new set of theories against which to read his primary texts.

There are certainly a lot of primary texts too. If Clarke fails to convince in his close readings (which is unlikely, as they’re both well-chosen and well-argues), the sheer mass of science fiction writing that deals with Catholicism makes a case for this being an obsession of the genre in itself.

Science Fiction and Catholicism is one of those liminal-sounding books that, once you get stuck into it, you realise is going to impact your thinking in major ways. It obviously recommends itself to sci-fi fans and those with theological interests, but I’d guardedly suggest that it might recommend itself to outsiders even more.

Clarke’s prose is clear and concise, his use of theory is lightly done and always relevant, and Gylphi have done a great job with the book design, making the book a pleasure to read.

A perfect book for the space priest on the go.

– Joe Darlington

Ghost Goo

Louis Armand, Glasshouse (Equus Press, 2018)

A murderer is loose in Paris. More than one, in fact. Actually, the town is full of them, like every other town on earth, and for the people whose job it is to clear up afterwards, nothing is a surprise anymore.

Welcome to the midnight world of Louis Armand’s Glasshouse. A grim study of the residents of a Paris housing block that mixes black humour and grotesquery with pure cynicism to produce a concentrated burst of bad-vibes brilliance.

The book is short, 128 pages, but captures a wide panorama of down-and-out city life. It is built up of short sections, each concentrating on a specific character and delivered in a different style. These are tied together, to an extent, by the murder of a schoolteacher.

Schönbrunn is the hard-boiled detective tasked with solving the crime. He is faced with an abundance (and therefore also a scarcity) of suspects. Any of these nutters could have done it. The crime scene itself shows all the hallmarks of a sexual motive, and yet, mysteriously, it also features an unidentifiable ectoplasm.

Is it ghostly, or perhaps extraterrestrial? Schönbrunn is damned if he knows. “Shit,” is the favourite of his many exclamations. To which his partner unwaveringly replies; “with spangles on”.

The collection of deviants inhabiting the glasshouse each carry the stylistic marks of prior authors in their linguistic DNA. Qwertz, the sailor-turned-artist, speaks in ellipses… very clearly… in reference to… Celine. Gep, meanwhile, speaks in cracked poetry, reminiscent of beat poets and British experimentalists like Ann Quin.

Yadlun and Madame Lenoir, by contrast, feature a more straightforward, yet still allusive prose. Early Burroughs is lingering here, as is the transgressive tradition that comes after him.

The picture of life that Armand conjures in the first section of Glasshouse is one that is by turns bleak and captivating. It is transcended by the second section, which features characters post-death. The victim talks, as do the ants that inhabit her body. I found this section even more fascinating than the first.

When Armand moves from presenting characters to ventriloquizing the objects that move them – the Scaffold and an umpire’s chair, for example – we feel the abjection of his world disintegrating into something totalizing. The fabric of the universe itself seems to cry out with the anguish of the glasshouse.

Voices of the mob punctuate this section: exclamations in English and parallel French. The local cats are heard, as is a “fathomless” hole in the ground.

When the second section collapses into an act of violence, a brutal counterpoint to the first, we are left waiting for the third and final section. Our synthesis, however, is eternally deferred. There is, Armand makes clear, no end to the violence and counter-violence that shakes the glasshouse.

In this brutal little novel, there is only entropic pleasure and entropic pain.

Recently longlisted for The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize, Glasshouse is a highly readible work. For readers who have yet to stumble onto the bad side of literature’s tracks, the book will provide a perfect short sharp shock of transgressive awareness. For those who already enjoy the dark side of writing, there is more than enough innovation here to keep you hooked.

A murderous little book, and a fun one at that!

– Joe Darlington