The Parisian

Review of The Parisian by Isabella Hammad. The Irish Times, 27 April 2019, p. 21.

There is a charming scene of tender transgression in The Parisian, where Midhat Kamal, a young Palestinian, is encouraged by his grandmother to preview the unveiled features of a prospective spouse through a keyhole. Shadowing the protagonist’s perspective, the omniscient narrator likens this act of low-key voyeurism to “peering down a microscope at the secret structure of a cell”. Try as he may, Midhat cannot but perceive the ancestral customs of his homeland through the prism of the “rational mind” he acquired in France. This collision between western modernity and oriental traditionalism — literary realism and age-old storytelling — lies at the heart of Isabella Hammad’s often breathtaking debut.

Running to more than 550 pages, its sheer heft seems endowed with a performative quality, as though enacting the totalising worldview of religion and its surrogate secular version, the all-encompassing 19th-century novel. Recurring anxieties over the atomisation of knowledge — mirroring the dislocation of the Ottoman empire — indicate that the book’s epic sweep may be, in part, a compensatory mechanism.

The novel opens, symbolically, with Midhat aboard a ship, en route from Alexandria to Marseille. His ultimate destination is Montpellier, where his family are sending him to study medicine. Frédéric Molineu, his genial host, is an anthropologist, whose wife — living up to her aptronym, Ariane Passan — committed suicide. Midhat and Jeannette, Frédéric’s daughter, fall in love, delighting “in the agony of resisted desire, which being resisted was sustained, and in this mutual abnegation they colluded like thieves”.

Their chaste idyll is cut short when Midhat discovers that Frédéric has been secretly using him as the subject of a Pygmalion-style experiment. The academic was seeking to determine whether the Arabs’ (alleged) deviation from the “line of progress” might be corrected. As a result, the humiliated lovesick hero repairs to Paris, where he studies history and women. After a brief, debauched stopover in Cairo, his sentimental education is rudely interrupted, back in Nablus, when his father enjoins him to choose a career and wife on threat of disinheritance. Midhat complies, entering the family textile business and marrying Fatima, the young woman glimpsed at through a keyhole.

At this juncture The Parisian ceases to be a Bildungsroman, as though the lone individual — whom Walter Benjamin identified as the birthplace of the novel — were being subsumed back into a collective world of tradition, superstition and patriarchal authority. After a five-year absence, Midhat is struck by how difficult it is to reinvent oneself in such a close-knit community. People are “pinned down” by childhood traits that soon ossify into stock characters flat enough to “be picked out from a rooftop and fitted into stories”. Stories akin to the traditional tales — “saturated with time and retelling” — that bind the community together, but cannot be rewritten, as a rawi, playing fast and loose with chronology, discovers to his cost.

Midhat’s switch from medicine — the career path of choice in many 19th-century novels — to history signals a gradual foregrounding of geopolitics. If the first part of the book unfolds against the distant backdrop of the first World War, the second and third focus on the coming of age of Arab nationalism in the wake of the Balfour Declaration. Yet, even here, the two main plot devices — the unexpected contents of a will and discovery of an old, unread letter — come straight out of Victorian fiction. The “line of progress” becomes increasingly blurred, like the overlapping of Arab and Frankish time in the twilight years of the Ottoman empire or Midhat’s various versions of himself, which are compared to “conflicting maps of the same place”. A telling parallel is drawn between religious fanatics and western scholars, obsessing over a “speck of dust” in the vague hope that their single-minded pursuit might eventually “contribute to some entirety”.

Still in her 20s, London-born Isabella Hammad establishes herself here as a literary force to be reckoned with. The Parisian is, in many ways, an extraordinary achievement, but is it really “realism in the tradition of Flaubert”, as Zadie Smith claims in her blurb, or rather a beautifully executed pastiche? (Has Smith forgotten her own Two Paths for the Novel?) At times Hammad gestures towards realism’s imperialist ambitions — its colonisation of as-yet-unnamed realms of experience — but her own work retains little, if anything, of that spirit of experimentation. For all its brilliance, The Parisian belongs to a genre that was already outdated when the events it describes were set.

 

Berg

Review of Berg by Ann Quin. The Irish Times, 9 March 2019, p. 32.

Berg, Ann Quin’s gloriously twisted debut, is the kind of novel Patrick Hamilton or Graham Greene might have composed had they been French existentialists — on acid.

Though couched in a style more reminiscent of Joyce than Sillitoe — one that alchemises the demotic into the poetic — the squalid setting would have been instantly recognisable to contemporary readers. An angry young man pacing the “narrow strip of carpet between wardrobe and bed” in dingy dodgy lodgings had, by 1964, become a shorthand for kitchen-sink drama. The author, who turned to writing after being struck dumb during her Rada audition, never lost her passion for theatricality. Here, she adds Oedipus, Faust, and King Hamlet’s ghost to her repertoire, placing the performance of language centre-stage.

At times — the party where the potted plants seem to come to life, or the Bonfire Night bacchanalia — her prose enters a fugue state that simply takes your breath away. The evocation of what appears to be a near-drowning episode, in the antepenultimate chapter, has at once the hyperreal clarity and baffling opacity of a dream. Such flights of fancy often coincide with the protagonist’s hallucinations, visited by all manner of mythical monsters and even a giant eyeless face that gobbles everything up, including himself: “The sun exploded between his eyes”. The extent to which these apocalyptic visions were connected to Quin’s own bouts of mental illness — prompting her to take her own life by swimming out to sea at the age of 37 — is anyone’s guess.

Setting off a chain reaction of inversions, culminating in the closing coup de théâtre, Alistair Berg changes his name to Greb and moves to Brighton for the sole purpose of killing his absentee father (Nathaniel), who currently resides — with his latest mistress (Judith) — in the adjacent room. The flimsy partition separating them seems almost sentient, swaying and shuddering under the effect of his father’s vigorous lovemaking. It becomes an instantiation of the “shadow screen” (one of two allusions to Plato’s cave) behind which the anti-hero feels trapped, preventing him from bringing anything to fruition.

Berg, who is literally sterile, can never accomplish what he calls the “complete formation,” only “shadows of shapes, half tones thrown on a cinnamon wall”. This sense of alienation is reinforced by the one-sided dialogue: the other characters address him in the first person, but his reactions are always relayed in the third. Berg’s plan to bring down the Matrix through parricide ends in farce as the corpse he thought he had concealed in a rug turns out to be Nathaniel’s ventriloquist’s dummy. (The absence of inverted commas and constant abrupt shifts in point of view give the impression that the novel itself is ventriloquising the different voices — which of course it is.) Breaking the fourth wall will thus only occur in parodic mode, when the protagonist eventually tears down the partition to escape an angry mob at his door.

“If I could only make things bow before the majesty of complete omnipotence”: Berg is the archetypal nerd longing to be an Übermensch. As a child he was a “silly cissy” with masochistic tendencies and castration fantasies, who was sexually abused by his uncle. As an adult he is an inveterate onanist, who swings both ways, and remains a mummy’s boy. He even entertains the idea of offering his father’s corpse to his mother as “the trophy of his triumphant love for her”. “In a Greek play,” he deadpans, “they’d have thought nothing of it.”

He also exacts revenge on Nathaniel by becoming Judith’s lover. This Freudian nightmare climaxes when Berg, wearing Judith’s clothes, is almost raped by his drunken progenitor, who mistakes him for their mistress.

The anti-hero’s delusions of grandeur are symbolised by the hair tonic he sells, which supposedly transforms the user into a “new man”. Berg is a “Pirandello hero” in search of a “play of his own making” in which he would be the “central character” and no longer a mere “understudy”.

“If I wish to create then I must first annihilate,” he argues, sounding every inch like Dostoevsky’s Kirilov. Fancying himself as a “white-robed” alter deus, Berg must “eradicate the past,” and hence his father, in order to forge a new self and universe out of his solipsism.

For Berg, pain “over-rules everything” until it becomes an “inanimate object” to be contemplated. I wonder if that object, for Quin, was this book — a triumph of post-war literature. A classic of social surrealism.

Another Planet

Review of Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia by Tracey Thorn. The Irish Times, 9 February 2019, p. 154.

Tracey Thorn: comes to recognise, in her 50s, that the suburb in which she was born and bred is part of her DNA. Photograph: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

The title of Tracey Thorn’s new memoir, Another Planet, takes on added resonance when, in the closing pages, the author reflects upon how mysterious we remain to our nearest and dearest. Even when she had become a middle-aged, middle-class, married mother of three, living in affluent north London, her father continued to think of her as hailing “from another planet”. The feeling, to be fair, was mutual, and in this book which, she claims, could never have been written while her parents were still alive, Thorn endeavours to understand the world they inhabited. We remain opaque to ourselves too, of course, and it is above all for this reason — in the great essayistic tradition — that she put pen to paper.

Behind this title one also hears feedback carried on the wind of time: echoes of The Only Ones’ 1978 punk pop classic, Another Girl, Another Planet, its ghostly former half shining through like a watermark. Having long considered that she had made a “clean break” with her suburban past, Thorn comes to recognise, in her 50s, that this milieu in which she was born and bred is part of her DNA; that she has “suburban bones”, as she puts it on two occasions. In a bid to “reconnect with the self [she] left behind,” she takes a short train ride “back to [her] childhood, as though it still exists, as tangible and revisitable” as the place she once fled to go to university — a move that transformed her into someone her parents, sadly, could no longer relate to. She would soon find fame and fortune as one half of Everything But the Girl and as a solo singer-songwriter.

Back in Brookmans Park — a garden village in Hertfordshire — Thorn feels haunted by this earlier iteration of herself. She observes four teenage girls, sitting on the bench in the village green, who “might have been there for 40 years. They seem like ghosts.” About a schoolgirl, glimpsed at on the platform as she awaits the train that will take her back to London, she writes: “I look up and the girl has vanished, perhaps I imagined her? Was she some ghost version of me?”

Thorn’s belief that there is “something inherently respectful about properly looking at a place” provides the moral and aesthetic underpinning of her project. The uncanniness of suburbia is revealed by attending to its sheer ordinariness, frequently overlooked through familiarity or contempt: “Brookmans Park was so picture perfect, it was unreal, like a Truman Show stage set.” Nothing is stranger than precision, as Alain Robbe-Grillet discovered while reading Kafka. Thorn’s razor-sharp descriptions have the dreamy quality of hyperreality: the bluebells of yesteryear that seemed “to pull the sky down into the woods”, the patch of garden she tended as a little girl “marked out with pebbles and sea shells, filled with marigolds and snapdragons”, or the Christmases past with the timely “arrival of Grandad in a three-piece suit, penknife poised and ready to take the peel off an apple in one single strip”.

For all the meticulousness with which she brings her childhood home back to life — the “low, crenellated brick wall, that little hint of the Englishman’s castle” in the front garden; the “whirligig clothes drier on a crazy-paving patio” in the back — the author finds that suburbia remains eerily elusive; semi-detached. Its very liminality demands that it be limned in an “equivocal way,” often “by subtraction”.

This ambivalence is reflected in the structure of the book, which alternates between chapters devoted to Thorn’s day trip to Brookmans Park in 2016 and a running commentary on extracts from her teenage diaries spanning the years 1976 (when she was 13 ) to 1981. The entries, punctuated by typical tut tuts and sob sobs, express a mounting sense of boredom, increasingly alleviated by drinking, punk gigs and “getting off” with boys at the local disco. The present travels back into the past and vice-versa, leading to all sorts of striking contrasts and revaluations.

At the heart of this beautiful book — which acts like a corrective to her previous memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen — lies a blank page in one of the diaries, which Thorn mentions, teasingly, several times, without ever disclosing what she was concealing from prying eyes. It is weaponised as an alienation effect to prevent the reader from being taken in by the confessional tenor of the diary format. Writing, the author reminds us — and no doubt herself too — is “always about knowing who’s in charge”.

At journey’s end, Tracey Thorn understands why her parents relocated to the suburbs. She also remembers how “very little happened” there “over and over again” — like Reginald Perrin rewritten by Samuel Beckett. I suspect she will not be going back in a hurry.

Hazards of Time travel

“We Could Have Had a Haiku Instead of this Doorstop.” Review of Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates. The Irish Times, 22 December 2018, p. 136:

Joyce Carol Oates. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images

Can a character develop some degree of awareness — however dim — of the book it inhabits? This preposterous question wormed its way into my mind midway through Hazards of Time Travel, haunting me until the final page.

Joyce Carol Oates’s compendious new novel is set 20 years hence in a derivative dystopian world, replete with the habitual initialisms. The RNAS (Reconstituted North American States) is a one-party regime characterised by a rigid caste system based on 10 ST (Skin Tone) categories, permanent warfare conducted by proxy through “robot-missiles” and, of course, ubiquitous high-tech surveillance of the population. At school, where education is limited to the rote learning of undisputed facts — for example, the inferiority of the average female IQ — students “hold back” so as not to stand out by appearing too clever: “In a True Democracy all individuals are equal — no one is better than anyone else”.

Adriane Strohl, the 17-year-old narrator-protagonist, proves more equal than others and is made to suffer the consequences. Given that her scientist father was already an MI (Marked Individual) due to his association with an SI (Subversive Individual), his own brother, who was “deleted” by DDS (Domestic Drone Strike) — although it later transpires, for no obvious reason, that the execution did not take place — she should perhaps have known better. This, however, is the whole point. We are made to understand, by the third sentence, and then relentlessly throughout the rest of the book, that free will is both her tragic flaw and the mark of her humanity. To think that Oates could have produced a haiku instead of a doorstop!

For having the audacity to enquire what came “before the beginning of Time”, which in the RNAS refers to the “Great Terrorist Attacks of 9/11”, Adriane is charged with “Treason-Spech” and exiled in the past — a sentence that strangely provides an answer to the question for which she is punished. Her molecules are dissolved, teleported, and reconstituted in 1959, before her parents were even born. She is now Mary Ellen Enright, a freshman at Wainscotia University in Wisconsin. As an EI (Exiled Individual) she is not allowed to stray beyond a 10-mile radius from her “epicentre”, or reveal her status to anyone, on threat of instant deletion. Worse still, she is exiled from exile: a microchip planted in her head blocks out memories of her past life, which appear like “shadowy shapes” viewed through a “frosted glass window”. This raises one of the central questions in the novel — “What is a human being except the sum of her memories?” — and triggers an extended metaphor (the Nabokovian glass flowers; the “glassy eyes” of the stuffed animals in the Gothic museum scene) that expresses the totalitarian quality of transparency.

Located in Zone 9, an area which does not appear on any map back in the RNAS, Wainscotia — aka the “Happy Place” — provides ample opportunity for Life on Mars-style culture shocks. Scratch the idyllic surface, and you discover a more sinister world of rampant anti-Semitism and misogyny. Pacifists are hounded out of campus, female students aspire to be Stepford Wives and the university is a “hotbed of mediocrity”. The author, revisiting her own youth, evidently wants to show that the seeds of totalitarianism were sown in the 1950s, but Wainscotia seems so wholesome compared with NAS-23 that the strategy all but backfires.

The moral (human beings are not machines and it is always now) is sophomoric. The narrator’s cloying diary style and intemperate deployment of exclamation marks becomes grating after a while. Soliloquies masquerade as dialogue. The fussy descriptions of minor characters seem to come straight out of a middlebrow potboiler circa 1959. Embarrassing repetitions should have been edited out.

For all its flaws, Oates’s 46th novel is a page-turner, with cliffhanger chapter endings that may well have been written with Netflix in mind. Once Adriane and Ira Wolfman — the dashing assistant psychology professor with a fittingly Freudian name — have failed to flee, following a trail that loops back on itself (as in TV drama The Returned), the novelist loses her (Ariadne’s) thread and the plot begins to unravel.

When the heroine laments her inability to suspend disbelief at the cinema — “The actors were so obviously acting. The film was so obviously a film” — or dismisses the unconvincing “realistic” paintings hanging in the Fine Arts Building, she almost seems to sense that her exile in Wainscotia is but a metaphor for being trapped in this novel.

A Bird’s Eye View On Destroying the World to Save It

My review of The End of the End of the Earth by C.D. Rose. The Irish Times, 8 December 2018, p. 28.

A Bird’s Eye View On Destroting the World to Save It

Jonathan Franzen’s description of himself as “someone who cares more about birds than the next man” sounds innocent enough. Endearing, even. It is rather more controversial, however, when construed as a rabbit-duck illusion. Is the “Great American Novelist” — to quote a famous Time cover headline — simply a passionate, albeit obsessive, ornithologist? Or does he actually prefer birds to fellow human beings? This question lies at the heart of The End of the End of the Earth, his third non-fiction collection, in which he sets out to use the essay as a vehicle for “honest self-examination and sustained engagement with ideas”.

If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, the “test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”, then Franzen has passed with flying colours. Alongside longer birdwatching travelogues, there are pieces on photography, technology, short-termism, Manhattan in the early Eighties, and of course literature (his “Ten Rules for the Novelist” have already earned him a great deal of online ribbing).

Franzen is “miserably conflicted” about climate change. On the one hand, he is convinced that it is the greatest challenge facing humanity, but on the other, he feels “bullied by its dominance” in environmental circles, where it has become a dogma that precludes any nuanced discussion.

In particular, he takes the National Audubon Society to task for jumping on the bandwagon, by claiming that global warming today is the “number-one threat” to birds in North America. In fact, he explains, not a single bird death can be “definitively” ascribed to this phenomenon right now unlike, say, wind farms. This leads him to wonder if we are not “destroying the natural world in order to save it”. It also prompts a great deal of soul-searching, as he grapples with feelings of guilt over “caring more about birds in the present” than people in the future. This notion that he is somehow deficient in “brotherly love” recurs throughout the book, although it is amply disproved by the warmth and tenderness with which he evokes his friend, the writer Bill Vollmann, or his gregarious late uncle Walt.

The simplistic message of global warming can be conveniently conveyed “in fewer than a hundred and forty characters” as opposed to the more complex — “novelistic” — narrative of wildlife conservation favoured by the author. Climate change has the added advantage of being a problem “with a human face”, one that is everybody’s fault and therefore nobody’s, hence its appeal to our narcissism both as a species and as individuals. More crucially still, it provides us with a ready-made belief system, New England Puritanism 2.0: “Unless we repent and mend our ways, we’ll all be sinners in the hands of an angry Earth”. At the latest reckoning, we have ten years left before Judgement Day, but in a decade — when we fail to meet our latest carbon-emission targets — the goalposts will be moved again. The end is never nigh enough.

Eschewing eschatology, Franzen outlines an alternative approach to environmentalism based on “loving what’s concrete and vulnerable and right in front of us”. He calls it “Franciscan” — after Saint Fancis of Assisi, that other bird lover — but Emersonian would do just as well. Instead of focusing on a hypothetical future, he seeks to reconnect, here and now, with a past in which nature was still untainted by human intervention. Being the “most vivid and widespread representatives of the Earth as it was before people arrived on it”, birds allow us to take flight momentarily from the Anthropocene. That house finch outside our window is, he reminds us, “a tiny and beautifully adapted living dinosaur”. Birds’ flight paths “bind the planet together”, offering a tantalising glimpse of a totalising worldview. “If you could see every bird in the world, you’d see the whole world,” writes Franzen, fully aware that bird-watching (or “birding” in American parlance) is predicated on its own failure (which does not prevent him from being a compulsive “lister”).

The author’s avian passion remains unrequited, and this is as it should be. Birds’ indifference to us serves as “a chastening reminder that we’re not the measure of all things”. Though they defecate on us from a great height, birds could not give a shit about human beings, and this is also how it should be. After all, it is “we, not they, who need life to have a meaning”.

The Cost of Living

This review of Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living appeared in the Irish Times on 7 April 2018, p. 34:

The Price a Woman Has to Pay For Unmaking a Home

The Cost of Living is the second instalment, and future centrepiece, in Deborah Levy’s autobiographical trilogy. Its pivotal nature becomes apparent when the narrator is loaned a shed of her own, where three books — “including the one you are reading now” — will be conceived. Such foregrounding of the work’s primal scene is no metafictional gimmick, however. It is consonant with Levy’s commitment to looking life in the eye, rather than reflected in the shield of allegory.

“It was there,” she explains, “I would begin to write in the first person, using an I that is close to myself and yet is not myself”. Gazing back at her textual avatar – becoming the reader, as well as the author, of herself – Levy opens up this gap through which she journeys towards the “vague destination” of a “freer life”.

There is a deeply moving, albeit somewhat disquieting, passage, where the nine-year-old Deborah, fresh off the boat from her native South Africa, comes knocking on the door of her middle-aged self in London, and ends up watching Bake Off with the two daughters she will later give birth to. This is a variation on the “flashback in the present” technique that the author frequently deploys to great effect in her fiction, but spectacularly fails to get across to a boardroom full of film executives, in one of the book’s many comic scenes.

Describing this ongoing project as a “living biography” is particularly apposite, not only because the author is alive, kicking and evidently at the height of her creative powers, but also because she eschews nostalgia, firmly convinced that the past is never written in stone. Towards the end of the book, she speaks to her mother for the first time since her passing: “She is listening. I am listening. That makes a change”. She goes on to recount a heart-rending anecdote about a pair of earrings she almost buys her as a gift in a department store, before the unspeakable enormity of death suddenly sinks in at the till.

If Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013) was a response to Orwell’s Why I Write, the emphasis here is on how to write in the wake of two traumatic events which occurred within a year of each other: the break-up of the author’s marriage and her mother’s demise. In the Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home (2011), one of the characters claims to only enjoy biographies once the subjects have escaped “from their family and spend the rest of their life getting over them”. Finding herself in a similar situation, the author now seems to be putting into practice all the themes she has been rehearsing in her works since the 1980s, as though the fiction were a prelude to her vita nova.

As Levy downsizes, her life grows bigger and she feels emboldened and energised by the adventure she has embarked upon despite all the hardship. She has no regrets about swapping her book-lined study for a “starry winter night sky”, now that she writes on a tiny balcony, where she falls asleep fully dressed “like a cowgirl”, in her north London “apartment on the hill”. Other people – including the family from down the road that she borrows for Sunday lunches, the Turkish newsagents and the Welsh octogenarian firebrand who kindly lends her the shed – are a constant source of fascination, but so too are the bees, moths, squirrels and birds she shares the world with: “everything,” she observes, “is connected in the ecology of language and living”. She delights in the practicalities of daily life, even proving a dab hand with a Master Plunger, and when she zips along the road on her electric bicycle, her party dress “flying in the wind”, she finds it difficult not to whoop.

The Cost of Living refers to the price a woman has to pay for unmaking the home she no longer feels at home in. In Levy’s case, this radical act of erasure inaugurates a quest for a new life that is inseparable from the writing of a new narrative. No longer willing to take part in the masquerade of femininity – that “societal hallucination” – she fumbles for a different kind of role to play. At this juncture, all she knows is that it will be a “major [as yet] unwritten female character”. The process of transitioning “from one life to another” also prompts her to reinterpret some of her fondest memories and past attitudes: “Did I mock the dreamer in my mother and then insult her for having no dreams?”

Deborah Levy describes women’s often thankless homemaking enterprise as “an act of immense generosity”. It is also a perfect description of this truly joyous book.


Punk’s Formative Prelapsarian Moment

Coulter, Colin. Review of Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night, edited by Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix. The Irish Times, 6 January 2018

[…] Among the books that have emerged to mark the moment is Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night, an anthology of no fewer than 28 essays and interviews collated by the author and musician Richard Cabut and the academic and founder of 3:AM Magazine Andrew Gallix. Despite its funereal title, the editors of the collection make it clear that they are here not to bury punk but rather to praise it. In their bifurcated introduction, Cabut and Gallix retrace their own steps to a time in which they evidently remain heavily invested personally. The specific purpose of the book is to celebrate that original evanescent wellspring of creativity when punk emerged as a “stylish boho response to the modern world of inertia and consumption” and retained the “innocence characteristic of childhood” of a movement yet to be frozen by being named or sullied by exposure to popular vitriol and acclaim alike.

In their framing of this uneven but valuable collection of paeans to punk’s formative prelapsarian moment, the editors claim that there exists at present a widespread prohibition against nostalgia. Cabut and Gallix cast their book as an attempt to break this embargo, specifically to make the case that “punk’s cultural importance should . . . be officially recognised in museums and galleries.” . . .