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

Here it Comes

Alan Halsey and Kelvin Corcoran – Winterreisen (Knives, Forks and Spoons, 2019)

Last week a friend on Facebook was asking for definitions of the concept of ‘crisis’, for a piece of research.

She wanted the sociological roots, but I asked my go-to classicist and Deleuze translator – Robert Galeta – as I was suddenly interested to know the roots of the word crisis as well.

He said:

‘Crisis is from krinein, to separate, from two possible sanskrit roots meaning that.’

‘Occurs in Herodotus and the tragedians eg. a lost Sophocles play the judgement – krisis – of Paris. It is used about 150 years later by Hippocrates to mean a crisis or turning-point in a disease.’

Crisis as split is all over this book.

Crisis as split is coming out of a split personality. A 1-for-2 poetical bargain.

Would you strike a bargain with these two? Answer carefully now.

Halsey and Corcoran are two splitting into one. The weird, Hegelian, laughing gas logic of that could act as a key to this book.

They riff off each other, call-and-response style: …this is my mouth behind my mouth Corsey and/or Halcoran states.

But it isn’t some experimental indulgence. Halsey and Corcoran have form in yet another doubling way.

I can’t remember when or where I first read Halsey. But Corcoran I came across in Angel Exhaust. Number ten, I think.

I read the poem. It knocked me over.

These two are not messing around. Well, they kind of are, but… this kind of messing around isn’t messing around.

The strength of experienced poets can be seen in the fact that Halsey and Corcoran don’t need to raise a flag about the crisis.

Nothing is on their sleeve, not a button.

The crisis is in the structure of this book, the dates they use as sections do the work, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, now. Just using those numbers pins us all in like a moth in a case straight away.

They act as containers for words that are often so dangerously un-contained.

Up their sleeves be monsters.

Halsey and Corcoran do the only thing poets of genius – they really are – can do in the face of the new ‘geist’ and that is come on like some bad stand-up double act vomiting out ancient myths in the shape of contemporary news feeds:

‘Come on, get it all up now, you’ll feel a whole lot better.’

Morecambe and Wise start babbling and indulging in cannibalism. Ern eats Eric and becomes self-contemplating Zeus. It works as a joke and as a riddling course of education that could lead you to understand all sorts of arcana you might regret ever having put in your head.

You could take it as that, actually, look up all the references – lots of them I had to look up – and learn.

In fact you could live in this book. I am certainly going to live through the crisis in it.

Galeta has his own guidebook, Liddell and Scott. I started to see Halsey and Corcoran in some golfwear, sicking up a bit more of it all on the unfairway.

If this is a guide, then it is a kind of mad anti-guidebook to the chaotic swirl that is starting to pull us all off the floor.

All of us. If you don’t agree with me when I say that this work is completely in-geist then you haven’t been paying attention to what’s outside.

When you ingeist sometime you gotta just bring it all straight back up again.

Iain Duncan Smith becomes Guido Smith, becomes Guy Fawkes via the rightwing agent of chaos Paul Staines. Staines never appears, but does. Here be conjurors.

Similarly, as Ern eats Eric, one arm and head off, the other going in the bloody gob, Goya’s Saturn flashes up like a TV re-run. They don’t even have to mention it, there it is, and that’s the difference between really good poetry and a magical act.

This is a magical act.

It is also a musical act. Winterreise is of course a song-cycle by Schubert.

Its narrative slots right in, just through using its title. A wanderer, his love goes for someone else, he follows the river and finds the coal-burners, the crossroads, the cemetery, even death will not release him. The real wanderers are Halsey and Corcoran, drifting through war zones, a shattered London, to the moon and back.

Death will not release them.

Back in Winterreise a wrecked street musician appears, the ending is open. Later, Hendrix appears, on an ordinary bus. A warlock, make no mistake. Under all of that is all of the versions of all of those stories going back to Homer. Depth signification, sheer vertical parole.

But ‘winter’ signifies much more straightforwardly along the horizontal axis: I saw my first conker out of its shell today; here it comes.

‘Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer.’

And this book is just out.

Winter as winter 2019 and winter as end times.

This is not a King lamenting that he is loathed. It is the alchemical transmutation of the deep shit ordinary people have been cast into made gold.

The gold is the story fire made by the powder kegs of language they are all terrified of, those finks who are named here. Him, and that other one.

This is one of those rare books that makes you realise that your bestest most published poetry isn’t worth a single signifier inside the landscape of this work. You can’t trade it in for a comma.

You can’t even trade it in for one of their spaces.

You know that their spaces are different to ours, don’t you? They are not made by space bars. They can swallow you whole.

I tried to sneak my bestest most publishedest poetry in between ‘ceiling’ and ‘window’ at the bottom of page 33, but it just winked out of existence.

It seemed like a quiet moment, I thought I could get away with it.

There wasn’t even a tiny fart of posterity as it unbecame. Just gone.

It is vast.

One could get depressed. But these people are in the world doing the thing itself, so I don’t have to.

I get the book, I open it. It tells me about now and forever at the same time and it riddles how I might try to survive with mad practices. It makes me reach for resources I didn’t know I had, in books that I did.

But poets and their classical references. Sometimes, you know, it is ridiculous.

Around 2003 I worked on a new edition of a journal for someone. There had been a discussion about the name of it.

‘Classical’ names had been offered in the meeting at the university.

One working class academic scornfully objected.

‘Call it “Tossos”, Steve’, he said.

It was funny. I was just the layout boy. I said nothing. I laughed.

Poets sometimes drop in a thin classical reference, an ‘omphalos’ here, a poiein there.

You know when it’s a facile inclusion. You know it in your marrow. It makes you wince with embarrassment on someone else’s behalf.

But not here. Never here.

They trade these references like a game of crazy poker played with tarot, but they are standing in it as they do that, and they make you stand in it anew, in your existence in the world and the existence of all that human culture for three thousand years.

They are in it up to their crisping, singing eyebrows, because they smashed the pavement with each other’s hard skulls, but they didn’t find any sand under there. No no no.

None of that, not here, now’s not the time, it just isn’t…

They unleashed the word hoard under the concrete and it has ripped through them, and it will rip through you.

Halsey and Corcoran, in some parallel dimension, actually call it all ‘tossos’ and make the ancient world more serious, present and dangerous by doing so, rather than less.

But this doing isn’t phenomenological, it is epistemological. This is craft, they are monteurs. They are also witches, there is no difference.

Gove and Putin fry in this overheating pool. Hecate pulls them down. The cosmos begins to radiate new colours.

Universal and right now. Forever and today. Essential. You’re going to need this.

Just get it. It isn’t much money.

– Steve Hanson

Tapping on the Glass

Laura Scott – So Many Rooms (Carcanet, 2019)

There are moments in a poetry reader’s life when you wonder if what you are reading resembles in any way the readings other readers. Things that you are told are exceptional seem to hold little meaning for you. Meanwhile, things that truly astound you are met with puzzlement by others.

It’s easy to fall back on the platitude that “it’s all subjective”.

That’s why, when collections like Laura Scott’s So Many Rooms come along, we have cause to celebrate. For there can be no doubt at all that this is an exceptional piece of work.

Scott’s poem “If I Could Write Like Tolstoy” was the highlight of Michael Schmidt’s New Poetries VII. Here, it opens the collection, and is followed by a series of Tolstoy-inspired short pieces; each one capturing in miniature some facet of Tolstoy’s epic scale reflections.

Scott has the capacity to capture drama in a small number of words, neatly arranged. Her poetry, in this way, is the quintessence of poetry. Her clarity, concision and quiet ambiguity are yardsticks against which I find myself measuring other poets.

Highlights of the collection include “Mulberry Tree”, “Pigeon”, and “Espalier”; three minimal pieces that each use crystal clear description to open a moment to thought.

The longer poems – “The Thorn and the Grass”, “Cows”, and “Turner” especially – develop Scott’s clarity into more narrative modes. Admittedly, the word choices grow looser, but this gives the content more room to breathe, and also brings it closer to what we expect of sophisticated poetry.

This is Scott’s second pamphlet, after 2014’s What I Saw. It nevertheless has the feel of a debut collection. Its confidence and its consistency both suggest a poet who has arrived. She offers a comprehensive vision. We are watching a poet composing at the height of her powers.

Importantly, it is Scott’s style that differentiates her and defines her voice. Her themes are manifold and her subject matters move from the historical to the fantastic, from the folksy to the quotidian. Nature makes consistent appearances, but then this is poetry after all – and English poetry at that –so this should be no surprise. Her uses of nature are many. No simple pastorals, these.

Although Scott’s collection is short, 60 pages, it displays a tremendous range of poems. After reading it, you’ll feel like you’ve engaged with a major work. The shortness of her average poem’s length explains this in part. And yet, it is, in part, also her mastery of scale.

Scott manages, like Basho, to put big thoughts into small, very tidy boxes, then polish them off with a neat ribbon.

Kudos for this book seems to be rolling in already, so whether our recommendation here at the MRB counts for much I don’t know. Either way, if you like contemporary poetry, Laura Scott’s new collection is an absolute must-read. It’s not even September yet, but I suspect it might be my poetry book of the year.

– Joe Darlington

Mountains of Men

Michael Nath – British Story: A Romance (Route, 2014)

When I came across Michael Nath’s novel, British Story, at a book fair last month, I was hesitant to buy. It seemed like an interesting story, published by the small press Route, who I trust. My worry was more that, since 2016, anything with “British” or “English” or “England” in the title means Brexit.

And it doesn’t just mean Brexit. It means a Guardian reader’s Brexit. Veering wildly from sneering at the proles to trembling at jackboots within the space of moments. Brexit hasn’t even happened yet and it’s already ruined literature.

Which is why I was so pleased to discover in Nath’s novel an antidote to all of the post-Brexit ugliness. Where other novelists promised to find the “real Britain”, and “capture the spirit of a troubled nation”, only to end up embarrassing themselves, Nath has managed to say something meaningful.

His secret? He wrote the book in 2014.

Yes, I came to British Story a little late. But I feel like, perhaps, it was I who read the story at the correct time, and Nath who made the mistake of writing it too early.

The story follows Kennedy, an English Lit lecturer who, thankfully, is rather cynical about the over-intellectualised puff that is the bane of his subject area. Kennedy is old school. He understands that literature, or perhaps good literature, is all about character.

“But what is character?” his postmodernised colleagues ask. For them, it is a construct. For the blokes he meets down the pub it’s just something made up – made up stories. But characters are real, Kennedy knows. Not real as in physical. Not objects as such. But they exist and they exert power in the world.

He is studying Falstaff, the character of characters. Shakespeare’s trickster spirit who can charm the King, and who can make even gluttony and cowardice somehow heroic.

It is in the aftermath of an unsuccessful conference when Kennedy finally encounters a Falstaff of his own. The true character who emerges from the novel, overpowering Kennedy like Gatsby does Nick. He’s a Welshman: Arthur Mountain.

Once Arthur enters, the novel is impossible to put down. He is a compelling, dangerous character. A man of big passions and ancient beliefs. He drags Kennedy into a real world of character: underworld villains, football firms, a Mancunian dreamer called Ian Brown; it is a tour of the country’s big mythic heroes.

This is the beauty of Nath’s writing. He has brought to life a range of Brits who all bark and bite with equal ferocity, but love and dream as well. He is not a realist, but his characters linger on the border of reality. They are as real as feelings – the feelings of pride, shame, and frustration that led us to Brexit. Nath truly speaks to the heart of Britain in this book.

And so Arthur is revealed, in a battle with sword-drawing Michael Stone, to have been an Arthurian legend all along. But Arthur is Britain. He’s a hero so English that he was here before the English, and so is actually Welsh. If anything, his people were the enemies of the English. And you can’t get more English than that.

British Story is a novel for our time. Michael Nath knows how to write real literature, stuff with heart and character. He isn’t afraid to look life in the eye, despite all of its jagged edges and contradictions, and he knows how to take this and turn it into a story. A British story at that.

– Joe Darlington