Babysitting Brecht

Amy Arnold – Slip of a Fish (& Other Stories, 2018)

I didn’t think I’d write this review. When a book frustrates and perplexes me as much as Amy Arnold’s award winning Slip of a Fish did on first reading, I avoid, as a rule, translating this experience into review form.

But here I am, reviewing. It is the day after finishing the book and I find that sections of it are still rattling around in my mind. Certain obtuse imagery refuses to be buried. I find myself missing Arnold’s surprising prose and her protagonist’s, at times very frustrating, voice.

It’s the sensation you get from Brecht. I feel provoked. I Googled other reviews and wonder why they weren’t provoked too.

Slip of a Fish presents the internal monologue of Ash, mother of Charlie, a woman with an obsession with language befitting an Award-Winning Novel’s protagonist (you will find a similar obsession shared by every protagonist on the Booker shortlist). Ash is an outsider in the suburbs, a victim when it comes to sexual advances, and, judging by her interior monologue, is experiencing some form of psychosis. So far, so literary.

The rub comes when Arnold oversteps the unspoken boundaries of boundary-pushing fiction. Her protagonist, obsessing over her daughter, appears to rape her (although the monologue leaves this unclear). When she cheats on her husband with a bisexual, yoga-teaching female lover the experience is portrayed as a rather joyless by-product of her fixated personality.

It was in thinking about these oversteps that I realised the real subversive power of this novel. In its own, obtuse, quasi-Brechtian manner, it both contains and disrupts the usual progressive beats by which we currently measure successful literary fiction.

In Slip of a Fish, Motherhood is plagued by incest. Bisexual polyamory is haunted by the dual ghosts of fidelity and sexual predation.

Even Arnold’s language seems constructed with a willingness to provoke in mind; perhaps even an enthusiasm for it. The sequence preceding the potential rape features Ash swimming far out into the local body of water, losing herself in the experience of wading and paddling, overwhelmed by a Kate Chopin-esque disassociation as she immerses herself in the water.

As she wades further out, becoming freer and freer, we hear her six-year-old daughter crying and screaming at the lakeside. She is terrified of her mother leaving her alone, slipping away forever.

Arnold picks this moment of all moments to introduce compulsive repetition into Ash’s internal monologue. She describes each experience three times. Three times she’ll explain it. It will get explained on three separate occasions.

As a reader, I couldn’t get over how grating this technique was, and how often she was using it. It just kept coming, again and again, in every other paragraph, sometimes more.

I’m definitely not reviewing this book, I told myself. I’ll never find anything nice to say about it.

But now, after the fact, I realise Arnold’s provocative power. What better way to emphasise a character’s self-obsession than to reflect on a formal level her entirely self-absorbed mentality? Arnold creates paragraphs that strain the reader’s patience, anger them even, at just the same moment that this seemingly liberated mother is abandoning and traumatising her child.

When Ash finally returns to dry land, kisses her crying child and opens up her legs, Arnold has perfectly prepared us for our disgust.

As I say, I’ve not found this reading experience reflected in any other reviews. It may be that I am projecting my own lack of progressivism onto a text that, in other eyes, is a celebration of motherhood. The marketing blurb certainly makes it out to be this kind of novel. That it might be more complex than that, however – more provocative, more chilling even – excites me a lot.

It’s the kind of book that would be great for a reading group. A challenging read, ambiguous enough for a range of perspectives to interpret. I challenge you, my fair reader, to read it too, and then tell me exactly why I’m wrong about it.

– Joe Darlington


Water Under the Bridge

Daisy Johnson – Everything Under (Jonathan Cape, 2018)

There’s an academic term; “the new depthiness”. I have no idea what it means, nor do I have any interest in finding out. I mention it only because I found Daisy Johnson’s novel, Everything Under, to explore surfaces and depths in ways that are new and exciting. Any similarities between my excitement and nonsensical jargon are, I assure you, entirely coincidental.

The novel bears a strong relation to British experimental writing of the 1960s (my own personal academic hobbyhorse) and post-nouveau roman literature more generally. It avoids signposting either narrative or character, instead preferring to develop its story through an ever shifting landscape of symbol-ridden scenery, transformative characters and speech-mark-free dialogue. It can be disorienting at times, but the overall effect is magical.

The novel follows an abandoned daughter’s relationship with her run-away mother, her adoptive families and the aquatic folk monster, “canal thief” or “Bonak”, that follows her everywhere. There is a murder in here too, although its reality is often in doubt.

The story itself is patchy, and moves in fits and starts. If it wasn’t for the pure readability of the book I’m not sure it would work. The amazing variety of sentence constructions, however, and the play of language between literary dark and conversational light, makes the prose a joy to read.

All of this would be enough to recommend the book, but what elevates it above a readable and thoughtful tale into something of importance is its complex articulation of notions of depth and surface.

For a start, it is largely set near water; particularly the boatways and canals of the South East. This is the same geographical terrain mined for its symbolic potential so effectively in Graham Swift’s Waterland (1983). Yet, where Swift uses the waterways as a symbol of deep England – of a history and tradition only kept alive by our constant efforts in the present – Johnson’s waterways are more ambiguous, less sure in their designations of depth and surface.

The barriers between what’s on top and what’s under are forever being broken. The Bonak lives in the water, but terrorises those on land. Those on land must venture into the water to hunt for it but, once under, risk losing themselves completely. Our protagonist, Margot/Marcus, is obsessed with fate, her adoptive parents with genes – two depthy determinants – while on the surface (s)he moves between gender performances with little regard for a “true” gender, in the solid sense of identity.

A key scene shows Fiona, “a woman trapped in a man’s body like a fish in the belly of a heron”, shaving away her facial stubble using an old razor. It is the same razor that Margot uses to cut her hair, becoming Marcus. Both use the water as a mirror. The razor on the surface of the skin is reflected on the surface of the water, but what is really at stake lies in the depths below.

Language too, moves for Margot like the surface of a river. Her mother, drunk and antisocial, raises her to speak made-up words and, faced with the definitions Margot later works with as a dictionary compiler, prefers to chew up the paper and swallow it than read. Eating recurs in the novel, as do definitions. There is something voracious in both.

I worry that my points here aren’t clear. Perhaps my own prose has adapted to the novel, being allusive? Despite their binary relation; surface and depth are often too subjective in their determinants to truly signify. Their dialectical relation is itself always in flux, like the waters from which the metaphor draws its ground. Surfaces show depths, depths carry surfaces, and the two mix like mud and silt in the linguistic flow.

Johnson’s use of the river gives new life to our most ancient symbol. She shows us that depth can sometimes be banal, while surfaces can be complex and fascinating. We can seek out depth as a solace when the surfaces scare us or leave us detached.

Heraclitus taught us that life is always moving, like the waters, while the river as such is a trick of the eye. There is permanence in a river and transience in water. The search for meaning, identity, our place in life, our family, are an attempt to see permanence in transience; a desire to see our reflection staring back not only from the surface, but from the depths as well.

Johnson’s prose is enough to assure this book’s power and appeal. It is its complex use of symbolism that renders it important and meaningful. I am glad to see that it received the attention of the Booker Prize judges, although I fear that it’s legacy may depend upon the nature of the academic attention it receives within the next few years.

A true engagement with this text, on its own terms, will produce valuable lessons, I am certain. What it doesn’t need, is the sorts of cursory attention that contemporary lit crit usually specialises in. To reduce it to queer theory, for example, would be an injustice to its lack of certitude, its challenge, its indeterminacy. To measure its “new depthiness”, well… you’d do better to jump in the river.

– Joe Darlington

I Placed a Jar in Tennessee

Andrew Smith – Rabbit & Robot (Simon and Schuster, 2018) 

Andrew Smith, pioneer of ‘weird fiction’, has thoroughly confused and astounded me once again.

Although I love his work, I stress to new readers that he is an acquired taste and it isn’t wise to jump straight in to his catalogue. His latest work, Rabbit & Robot, is perfect proof of this, as it demonstrates his uniqueness but also how close he is to becoming his own parody. From an academic point of view, it was one of his weaker novels, yet it still contained many of the Andrew Smithian elements that I’ve loved in his other work and I was still able to enjoy it. It’s just that maybe Rabbit & Robot takes a little more work that we’re used to.

Rabbit & Robot follows Cager and Billy whose parents have invented two of the most ground-breaking pieces of technology of their lifetimes: the cogs, and the lunar cruise ships. The cogs are robot servants who, despite now being on v.4 of their development, are frozen them in one constant emotional state (happiness, anger, hunger, etc). Cager, Billy, and their guardian Rowan, steal a lunar cruise ship called the Tennessee; home to thousands of malfunctioning cogs.

The premise of this novel is as exciting as his previous ones, and I can never fault Smith for his originality. What I also love about his books is that despite their sheer surrealism, they always have something to say about the world that we reside in.

Rabbit & Robot was essentially a novel that explored ‘us v them’, as well as the question of what it really means to be human. Are our emotions just a form of programming? Do our genes make us nothing but cogs made out of flesh? Some of the imagery here, like the cogs oozing strange coloured liquid, and Cager being completely unfazed by inflicting violence on them, was quite shocking in its inferences.

There are other small things about this novel that I enjoyed, yet I felt weren’t fully explored. The idea that never-ending wars were being waged on the Earth below them, for example. Or the drug, Woz, that Cager is addicted to, being a substance used in schools to neurologically train children and teenagers into obedience.

The fact that Smith is never afraid to openly show homosexuality and homo-eroticism as ordinary behaviour, and actively includes trans and bisexual characters, is something I’d like to see more of. And, finally, the idea of the Tennessee as a ‘jar’. The entire ordeal of the book resembles some sort of scientific experiment, and the revelations of Cager becoming completely irrelevant and detached in relation to the Tennessee present us with nothing but an image of dehumanisation.

What let this book down was a number of loose ends and unnecessary elements that took away from the novel. In the middle of it they are visited by aliens who claimed to have installed the fault in the cogs. Whilst this was an interesting idea, in that it created quite a terrifying image of an ‘us v them’ hierarchy, Smith is better at showing how humans ultimately plot their own downfall.

Grasshopper Jungle, for example, is his apocalyptic novel about humanity’s neglect of nature and toxic use of science. The same really worked for this novel until the arrival of some aliens for about 30 pages, and I don’t think that really fit well into the story. Smith also really needs to work on his female characters, because they are flat and barely exist outside of the male gaze.

So I have very mixed things to say about Rabbit & Robot, but as with all of Smith’s works it can take a lot of time for the messages to really jump out. Whilst these messages are definitely there in the undercurrent, the surface story of Rabbit & Robot wasn’t completely my cup of tea. Andrew Smith is at his best when he doesn’t try so hard to shock, but to scare, and does it by showing us a taste of our own world in destruction rather than too-removed sci-fi we can’t recognise.

– Rachel Louise Atkin

The Old Gods and the New

Katherine Arden – The Bear and the Nightingale (Del Rey, 2017).

Writers, especially experimental ones, complain of the professionalism bestsellers. Like Hollywood movies, we associate them with plots that are too standardised, writing that is too accessible, and an approach that doesn’t take risks.

Yet the biggest bestsellers aren’t like this at all. Dan Brown’s sentences are horrible. Philip Pullman’s plots are desperately overcomplicated. E.L. James somehow turned low-grade pornography into a multimillion dollar empire. None of them could be charged with being cynically over-professional.

Happily, there is no predicting a hit.

The reason I say this, is so that you don’t misunderstand my praise for Katherine Arden’s debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale. The terms on which I love this book are the stuff of pure bestsellers. It is pacey, exciting, crystal clear in its prose, and filled with short sentences and concise paragraphs. It features archetypical characters in traditional storylines and just the right level of history and fantasy for the reader to indulge in escapism.

It is the story of Vasya, daughter of Pyotr, a rural boyar and cousin of the Russian Prince. Vasya is blessed with the sight; an ability associated with witches that allows her to see the world of spirits and demons resident within the forest. Living on the outskirts of society, she grows up as a friend to the spirits and rejects both marriage and the convent.

Morozko, Spirit of Winter, lays claim to Vasya as his future bride. The charismatic priest, Konstantin, arrives at the farmstead at the very same time, with a plan to exorcise the woods of their spirits. And so begins the fairy tale.

Arden perfectly balances the duelling narratives. Konstantin the Christian versus Vasya of the Old Gods. Vasya’s friendly spirits against the malicious agents of the Great Bear.

Every scene moves us forward, carrying us effortlessly into a complex world without ever pausing for exposition. The final scenes of the novel may take place in a fantasy setting, but so subtle is Arden’s unravelling of this story that it is only in retrospect that I realised I was reading a full-blown fantasy novel.

Reviewers have so far drawn the obligatory parallel to Carter, particularly Nights at the Circus, but for the first half of the novel I felt it closer in style to the historical novels of Nick Brown or Bernard Cornwall. Arden places you directly into the Prince’s court in the era of the Golden Horde, and convincingly conveys life in the deep northern woods.

When the fantasy elements do enter, they come in the guise of folktales and the ancient religion of the Rus. Arden explains in her afterword that she has taken considerable liberties in her translation of Russian nomenclature. The translation is entirely on the side of readability over authenticity, and it works perfectly.

The final result is an adventure that I found totally enthralling, and I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to recommend it to a friend. It is a quick read, and uncomplicated, but smuggles some potent ideas in beneath its fast-paced surface. Questions of modernity and tradition, the Old Gods and the new.

Arden’s book is by no means obscure, but it is not a blockbuster. Perhaps she will achieve this rare and ambiguous credit with a future work, but for now her debut is finding success on its own terms.

If you’re looking for a break from Booker Prize-longlisted difficulty, but can’t face the usual fare that cycles through the top 10 bestsellers lists, I can’t recommend The Bear and the Nightingale enough. You will have fun, but it might stay with you too.

– Joe Darlington 

Everyone’s price?

Bryony Bates and Joey Frances – Cash/sex: a verse essay for voices, alto, contralto (Generic Greeting/intimate pussy, 2018) 

Where, today, does the worry that we’re not where we want to be come from? Or else the worry that we don’t even know where we want to be? Why, by such and such an age, are we expected to have worked this stuff out? All questions which have been on my mind prompted by a reading of the newly published pamphlet from Joey Frances and Bryony Bates: Cash/sex: a verse essay for voices, alto, contralto. A work written, a note at the back explains, over the course of 12 months, some 3 ½ years ago when both the authors were 23.

It’s a work which shows the two authors wrestling with the problem of how to live ethically under capitalism, hyper-aware of their own, as they put it, ‘semi-privilege’ and the accompanying expectations others will have for them and about them based upon that semi-privilege and trying to, instead, figure out for themselves what they want. As the introductory piece indicates, what this wrestling could be said to amount to is a ‘Quarter Life Crisis’ – something which, in itself, need not necessarily be a bad thing, framed positively as a kind of ‘constant personal revolution’.

Following the first half of the book’s focus on cash, centring upon questions of earning a living, the second half turns towards sex, in both domestic settings and the world of pornography. And immediately we are stopped dead with the lines ‘(I (this Romantic I) stopped worrying about walking / down dark streets/ once I knew I would be raped in my bed.) / In a perfect world, yeah, this would be a horrendous/ statement . . . ’ and we’re forced into an urgent questioning and interrogation of the condition and power structures of any world – along with our own position in that world – which doesn’t immediately recognise that statement as the horrendous one that it so clearly is.

And, indeed, this is a book that insists upon asking a lot of questions again and again, which seeks to break through lazy, unexamined ways of thinking. And as such there is the sense that, here, in this text, their declared youth might very much be working in favour of Frances and Bates: that their age perhaps enables them to see and point out to their readership things which their readers may have become blind to either due to their own advanced years or routine, or some combination of both.

The placing together of ‘cash’ and ‘sex’ in both the pamphlet’s title and within the book itself in its two sections is intriguing: what is it that’s being suggested? How do the two authors see the two subjects as being connected? Questions which seem to be answered towards the end of the book when appears: ‘this horrible impossible force over everyone how/clear or incidental or forceful or whatever it’s a rape/ metaphor, it’s basically at the centre of it, as I expect/ you’ve already noticed except in this case the rapes/ are also not metaphorical…’ Lines which add up to a provocative declaration of the position of the two authors, and one that succeeds in – again – compelling the reader to clarify where they, too, stand with regards to capitalism.

Why, though, didn’t Frances and Bates opt to publish this text as soon as it was finished? Why withhold it? That decision strikes me as an important one somehow. Of course there could be any number of mundane reasons explaining the delay in publication, and probably there are, however I choose to interpret the delay as a deliberate strategy to place a block of ‘time’ within the pages of this book, the 3 ½ years between completion and publication dates, thereby to force the reader’s attention upon that time as a perfect conceptual accompaniment to the words of the text: words as analysis of life under capitalism, chunk of time as actual piece of life under capitalism.

The sub-title of this book… a verse essay for voices, alto, contralto: the putting together of the words ‘verse’ and ‘essay’ suggests questions similar to those raised by the putting together of the first two terms of the title. How, then, might the authors see the relationship between the verse aspects and the essay aspects of this book? Questions which are then additionally complicated by the information that the book is ‘for voices’. Why have Frances and Bates settled on the form they have? Is this book poetry? Is it an essay? Is this piece meant, preferably, to be heard or does it work just as well in the quiet of your own head? All questions which, of course, really, matter not at all… Still, though, as I’ve asked them I may as well say what I think…

The text seems, to me at least, quite heavily edited and crafted, work which has resulted in the finished piece possessing a strange kind of rhythm and musicality, not the musicality of a pop song I’m sure no one will be surprised to learn, rather, that of noise or free-jazz… and it’s that musicality which I think takes the form of Cash/sex somewhere interesting, somewhere new, somewhere which is neither just poem or essay. Seek it out.

– Richard Barrett 


Words in White

James Harpur – The White Silhouette (Carcanet, 2018)

In the beginning was the Word; presumably a totality, and indivisible. Somewhere along the way it grew plural, and there’s been trouble ever since.

To the poets we have left the job of guiding us back to the One Big Word, although they have only its shattered remnants, the plural mess of verbiage, to work with. These little wordy things that point at objects and ideas can, if properly arranged, also point us beyond the material. It’s the job of all poetry, but spiritual poetry in particular.

James Harpur’s new collection, The White Silhouette, is a triumph of spiritual word-wielding. It is a mix of shorter, stand-alone pieces and two longer thematically-grouped suites: one about iconoclasm, one responding to the Book of Kells. All of them feature a delicacy of expression suited to the description of sensations ineffable;

Each poem is a coloured flare

A distress signal, an outflowing

Of myself, a camouflaged prayer

Dispatched towards the Cloud of Unknowing

The reference to the classic work of Middle English mysticism is particularly suitable. Just as the author of the Cloud was deeply skeptical of the blabrying fleshly tonge and its ability to talk of God, so Harpur seems to doubt humanity’s capacity for expressing things divine.

His narrative poem in response to the Book of Kells is obsessed with interpretation. The speaker travels to the place of its writing, to museums and finally to the British Library, all in hope of a divine encounter. Instead he finds the “bifurcated Kells / exhibited like musty lung / beneath glass – for glazed eyes”. A thing lacking immediacy. An object he must seek out, even as it sits before him.

We see the monks who first illuminated the Kells; their “vision opened by prayer”, expressing God in “each circle, arc and interlace”. The monks seem capable of clearer vision, of a simpler, perhaps more direct relationship to language. “Imagination is nothing but the recollection of the holy,” we are told. The aphorism puncturing ambiguous imagery like a sharp shock.

The same can be said of place names. Monaco, its “apartment blocks surg[ing] seaward / in a permanent standing ovation,” is a solid place to which the speaker of the Kells cycle can return. The masterpiece that opens the collection, “The Journey East”, is a pilgrimage through such solid place names. The landscape transformed by metaphor as the towns within are fixed in place.

The rhythm of Harpur’s lines are so masterfully controlled, one is borne along on his voice; calm, careful, and always drifting. Within this voice are variations. The Kells poems are suitably ornate. The poems about iconoclasm are suitably austere. The whole is tied together by a grace and humility that invites the reader to contemplate the space between words. Holy or not, these are poems for the spirit.

– Joe Darlington

Sally Barrett’s 2018 Roundup

I have recently gained some reading glasses which are enabling me to see to read. This is something that has been lacking in my life for a few months and making it very off-putting to try and read anything with small print.

One of the first books I picked up after my new acquisition was The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. To date, I have only read the first story in the book, which shares the title. I was enthralled like a child, terrified like a child and disturbed, leading me to feel uneasy discomfort. I loved this story and the multiple layers and ambiguities. I loved the writing style. I loved the imagery and the resolution.

This year I saw a poet named Amy McCauley perform work, twice. The first was her piece ‘Oedipa’ and the occasion was at the first event of No Matter, a reading /performance series held at The Castle on Oldham Street.

McCauley’s poetry is not just reading work from a typed piece of A4, it is not just memorising a poem. She creates a poetry experience using music and props to create powerful emotional reactions in her audience.

I bought a copy of her book Oedipa which I believe has now sold out, but this piece really needs to be seen as performed by McCauley to experience maximum unsettling impact. The themes of incest and abuse, confusion and fragmentation are brought very close to the audience’s face. It feels as though one is looking through glasses with a prescription that sharpens and sharpens to stark reality that makes one shudder.

More recently, I saw McCauley perform a piece at the Poetry Emergency event. This piece threw the audience into confusion initially. I felt despair with hope and fear intermingling and a dreadful premonition that the whole event would disintegrate into chaos.

As the cathartic experience resolved I found myself experiencing relief with a laugh inside me. This laugh was mixed with angry energy with nowhere to put a punch, except to gush at the writer my feelings about her piece.

McCauley comments on a darkness of childhood, in which I too am interested. My childhood stereotypical world is exemplified by the fairy stories in the Ladybird Books. I recently re-read many of these for a project I am working on. The fear in fairy tales is watered down in these re-tellings: all of them seem to end with a marriage and offer little of the horror of Carter’s imagination which presents us (sadly) with still unusual female roles.

Ladybird in the 1960’s brought a cleansed version of life to my childhood self, with girls from humble beginnings facing peril, being rescued by a rich handsome prince. Something to aspire to, obviously, and no wonder I have spent twenty odd years searching for ‘the one’. Luckily I found him and we rescued each other.

I have been interested in the differences between men and women since school. I remember putting my hand up in ‘Personal and Social Education’ once, to explain there was no intrinsic difference (between men and women), and got laughed at. I think even in the Eighties the situation was more complex than my statement.

However, my brother sent me a link today of an article in The Guardian dated 14/12/18 by Jim Waterson entitled ‘UK advertising watchdog to crack down on sexist stereotypes’ which explains that adverts are no longer going to be able to contain classic gender stereotypical roles. This is a wonderful thing, but will create advertisers with a challenge of sociology to work out what is and what is not gender stereotypical in promoting goods.

I look forward to a hopeful future where we can all promote a celebration of difference and where I may be laughed at for saying there is no difference, but for potentially more radical reasons.

– Sally Barrett 

Yin Minus Yang

Haruki Murakami – Men Without Women (Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen trans., Vintage, 2018)

I’m not exactly sure when I became one of the Men Without Women. I don’t recall a specific transformation. One arrives at it slowly. Barely notices it until, suddenly, it’s there. You’re one of them.

Murakami’s latest short story collection (published in Japan in 2014, the US in 2017, and now in the UK) concerns this strange breed in all of its many shapes. From Kafuku the solitary thespian, to Dr Tokai the bachelor with many fleeting partners, to the lovelorn, recently divorced Kino; all are men defined in some way by their lack of an other half. They are single, if not in terms of their relationships, at least in terms of their identity, their self-contained natures.

It is tempting to draw some easy moral from Murakami’s choice of subject matter. Urban living, as the great paradox dictates, isolates us from others. The internet too seems to have made love valueless through sheer overabundance. In oft-quoted statistics and polls, Japan leads the world in producing a “sexless” generation of young people who find dating a bore.

As the diversity of these stories shows, however, the idea that Men Without Women can be reduced to an anonymous mass of incel losers does an injustice to the variety of lives that are to be lived by unattached men. True, each story contains an undertone of sadness, but there is also hope and conviction.

Murakami’s writing is narrative-driven. This excuses the sometimes static language of the translations, as it is action and observation that bring his characters to life, not language itself. The eccentric Kitaru whose presence lies at the heart of the story “Yesterday”, for example, speaks, we are told, in a rough Kansai dialect; a dialect he has adopted after long study as he finds it more interesting than the popular Tokyo dialect in which he was raised. No attempt is made to provide an English language equivalent – it is the mere fact of his attempt that marks him out as an eccentric, pushing against the grain of linguistic standardization.

Kitaru has a girlfriend, but he feels too close to her emotionally to be interested in her physically. He sets her up with the protagonist of the story, Aki, whose more stereotypical and ritualized dating habits are the inspiration that Erika, the girlfriend, needs to finally leave Kitaru. Kitaru, as a Man Without Women, has his own life organized to best fit his personality. For Erika, a normal girl with conventional aspirations, the process of maturing depends upon her casting off the guy with the strong personality in favour of the flexible man who is willing to abide by social convention.

Social conventions lie at the core of each story. The Men Without Women are largely defined by a core stubbornness that keeps them from regular dating, or a happy marriage. The same stubbornness is seen at a distance in the corresponding world of Women Without Men. Kafuku’s chainsmoking driver who would rather sit in silence than make idle conversation. Scheherazade, the woman for whom sex is only foreplay compared to the thrill of telling stories about her former lovers. These women too are self-contained. Their universes too are solitary.

A notable thing about the collection is that, despite its focus, there are no men within it who are entirely without women as companions and lovers. The phenomenon Murukami is addressing is more complex. The Men Without Women and the Women Without Men are creatures defined by their intrinsic separateness even during moments of intimacy.

In some ways the people who Murukami is writing about are ideal adults. They have grown habitually independent, or non-dependent, free of reliance upon others. Dependency, by contrast, is a trait associated with emotional immaturity, with cloying sentimentality and with childishness. Yet, such is the paradox, the very independence of these characters also inevitably seems sad, lonely, and perhaps itself immature; indicative of an unwillingness to compromise and bend.

The final message is ultimately ambiguous. Murukami’s stories wander around a lot. Their structure is loose as if to accommodate his character’s obstinacy and unwillingness to follow a pre-ordained path. With the exception of “Samsa in Love” (a retelling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis that, although intriguing, is a poor fit with the rest of the stories), each tale is a slow unfolding of one or two characters. One is left with a sense of overall unity. Not just stories brought together, but a whole picture constructed of seven fragments.

This is my first time reading Murukami and I can understand why he is such a global phenomenon. The balance between the literary and the popular in his writing guarantees that you will read quickly and forget slowly. Much like the relationships of our solitary protagonists it will pass all too quickly, but the memories stick will with you long after.

– Joe Darlington

Flapping Gums

Rachel Cusk – Kudos (Faber and Faber, 2018)

There is a hypnotic appeal to direct speech. Those quotation marks lean out and grab you by the collars, shaking you to attention. When a character speaks directly, it is like they speak directly to us.

Rachel Cusk’s gambit in her latest trilogy is that direct speech is all you need. Having read only the third book, Kudos, I find the results to be arresting, if not entirely conclusive. By constructing an entire novel out of direct speech, Cusk seems to have superseded the novel form altogether.

There is no narrative to Kudos as such, at least not in terms of plot. A writer flies to a writer’s conference and is spoken to by an assortment of characters. The businessman she sits next to on the plane tells a dramatic story about putting down his dog. A journalist tells a gossipy story about her sister. One writer praises another for preferring real life to extravagant plots.

The stories are held together only by the central protagonist who remains almost silent throughout; if she speaks conveyed to the reader indirectly rather than produced verbatim. As a result, Kudos reads more like a disguised short story collection than a novel, or perhaps like an RPG where a silent protagonist runs between NPCs, clicking on them to activate more dialogue.

It can be frustrating. Boring even. A reminder that life is mostly inane chatter.

But it is in the totality of Cusk’s vision that Kudos offers its hidden charms. Each of the voices presents a subtle variation of the world. Cusk’s neat, clipped prose rarely slides into the literary, remaining convincingly real throughout. Her presentation of character’s speech is like reportage, while the content of that speech is familiar, intimate, and occasionally stirring.

Whether it’s the athletic writer who looks down on his shabby, unfit peers with disgust, or the preachy Remainer bemoaning the poor, deluded, terraced-housed-dwelling Leave voters; each speaker passes judgement, each has their ingroups and outgroups. The act of telling stories marks out social place. Each speaker seeks to bring the protagonist over to their standpoint. Their stories place her in their shoes and, in return, they expect her to confirm them in their point of view.

Cusk’s mosaic of voices, inspired by reality or not, appeal to the sociological gaze of the modern literary reader. The search for power structures, social markers and authentic voices finds succour here. The first-person narrator achieves such a level of self-erasure as to become a walking recorder. How life really is is reduced to a contest of stories, a panoply of competing voices.

Which raises again the question of whether Kudos is, in fact, a novel or – perhaps a better question – whether its rejection of certain fictional elements (plot, structure, action, description, objectives, motivation, arcs) results in an advancement of the medium?

Having read only Kudos, I am not convinced. Perhaps a reading of the entire trilogy will change my mind. Cusk has mastered the art of reproducing natural speech on the page; something which is exceptionally difficult and performed beautifully here. Particular stories also verge on the symbolic, adding depth to these one-sided conversations.

Nevertheless, I find myself longing for action and allegory; for a character who makes decisions and passes the judgement that Cusk’s protagonist refuses to. The struggle of the individual to exist meaningfully in the world is the essence of great literature and is notably absent here.

I thoroughly enjoyed Cusk’s daring experiment. I highly recommend it to writers looking to enhance their dialogue, or readers who enjoy close observation. I, for one, will definitely be purchasing Cusk’s next work, although I will be hoping for more story, and fewer stories, next time around.

Joe Darlington

The Burgess Reviews Reviews No.3

Anthony Burgess – The Ink Trade, Selected Journalism 1961-1993 (Carcanet, edited by Will Carr, 2018)

Burgess has been deemed a monstre sacré (by someone unimportant), which, of course, he is. Has been said to write with “a badness at once so surprisingly defiant and so exceedingly obvious” (by someone else ridiculous). It is this defiance and this haughtiness that make his reviews so bloody enjoyable.

Burgess cared greatly about language, and, with it, language’s herculean guardians; it’s male mothers: Nabokov, Hemingway, and Wilde. He wrote consistently on brothers Vladimir and Ernest, and, though Oscar was not so prolific within Burgess’ work, consideration of this third review of a great literary man makes a nice collection.

They are all men, of course. As a friend of mine quipped recently (and accurately), “the only woman Burgess ever writes about is his first wife”. He often focuses on masculinity. He discusses Hemingway’s manly stature, his sportsmanship, hairy chest, and cojones. He notes Wilde’s similarly manly stature, his manly drinking ability, and, of course, his manly love. He once even cited Hemingway’s plain style as “emasculated” in fact as “the medium preferred by the most vauntedly masculine of writers” (appreciation of the word vauntedly well due).

Burgess speaks of each man in complimentary terms, though one may definitely sense some self-defensive reluctance. Years earlier in an interview with John Cullinan he denounced Nabokov as “unworthy to unlatch Joyce’s shoe” however it seems that over time Burgess grew a profound admiration of him. Perhaps longing for the bygone dandy. Needless to say, he produced innumerable writings on Nabokov, even stretching to say that he was “one of the few living writers I honestly admire and would, had I the equipment, like to emulate”. But it wouldn’t be a Burgess review without jabs such as this one: “He’s not afraid of being snobbish, which is a good thing because now he can afford it.”

We can easily deduce that Burgess had a soft spot for Hemingway, writing even more prolifically on the American writer than the aforementioned Russian. In the same Cullinan interview, he states that Hemmingway had a “curious freshness of vision”. In this article, previously unpublished, he repeats a lot of sentiments from other commentaries, but we get a more personal look in. He speaks of Hemingway as of an old friend.

The Wilde review (well, the Ellmann review, I guess) feels much more detached than the previous two, but we still experience a charming, while rational, air of respect. Burgess’ language is lovely and flowery in this one as though emulating Wilde’s own style. Words like “refulgent” knock into their partners, “imperial” in this case, prompting conscious, homonymic investigation in the reader – or at least, in me. His playfulness extends to the title of the piece: “Wilde with all Regrets”, which subverts the title of Wilfred Owen’s poem “Wild with all Regrets”. Owen’s title in turn lends its words from the Tennyson Poem “The Princess”. The line reads “Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;” Considering Owen’s address of the poem to Siegfried Sassoon, together with Wilde’s homosexuality, we can assume that Burgess has enjoyed an educated little laugh. Oh, Mr Wilson, how clever you are. He calls Wilde “a great subject”.

But as he speaks of these men, I cannot help but perceive empathy fuelled by self-preoccupation. This is how I read too, so I don’t mind. When he speaks of Nabokov’s dandyism, the great struggle of originality that bequeathed itself upon Hemingway, the glitteriness of Wilde – it just sounds as though he is speaking of himself. Ever the aesthete, he defends not Nabokov’s dandyism but his own. Discussing Hemingway he says, “but life is life, and fiction is fiction, and it is sometimes dangerous for them to touch”. Really, John?! Was it dangerous for you? Burgess is known for “effortlessly reinventing” his past “or at least giving some of it a more satisfactory shape” in the same way that he accuses Hemingway. I think that he felt a kind of connection with these guys through language. In Urgent Copy he writes that self understanding requires “a concern with language” and that “only through the exploration of language can the personality be coaxed into yielding a few more of its secrets”. And perhaps he is revealing his own secrets by engaging with these writers.

Language is definitely of top concern in these three articles. He believed that language and wordplay should be of top concern to anyone. In the Hemingway piece, he quite greatly questions, “How can you explain to the great public that one of the most important things in the world is to invent a new way of saying things?” We really hear Burgess shouting not for Hemingway’s but his own, and, in fact, all writing. He defends Wilde as “unforgettable”, Nabokov as a transformer of language. So these men, these towering manly men, are also pillars of language – or it may be that they break those pillars with their huge manly fists. Yes. And Burgess wants them broken too. Some of the most poignant points made in these pieces are more of a hammer to the roots of literature than a comment on the writers themselves. Take this for example, “nobody cares about style, language, the power of the word.” I want to say that Burgess recognized lost brothers in his fellow writing men, and expressed a communal sigh on their behalves. He talks mainly about their lives outside of Literature, as he so condemns others for doing, and yet manages to say so much about the state of Literature as a whole.

Burgess identifies one main obstruction for his three boys: Scandal. The sodomy, the censorship, the suicide. The sin! And I think that he felt that a kindred scandal had been attached to him. Burgess says that this focus on the scandal of a writer’s life “continues to get in the way of sober appraisal of his literary achievement”. He certainly distanced himself from his own scandal, dare I speak the words, A Clockwork Orange. He wants Wilde “cleansed of scandal” and perhaps he sees himself as similarly dirty with notoriety. Perhaps we should engage with writing on its own terms. He may be arrogant and chauvinistic, and he may have a habit of mixing his dates up, but it seems that Burgess tried to adopt the role of valiant, though uncompromising, protector and defender of great literature.

– Blair James

Reviews covered

Last of the Literary Dandies

A Very Blasphemous Fallacy (Previously Unpublished)

Wilde With All Regret