Expertly Seeking Susan

Review of Sontag: Her Life by Benjamin Moser. The Irish Times, 5 October 2019, p. 22.

In 1965, Susan Sontag — fresh from publishing her landmark essay, “Notes on ‘Camp’” — was whisked away in a limousine to a hip nightclub notorious for its strict door policy. A member of her party whispered something in the bouncer’s ear, whereupon they were ushered in ahead of the lengthy queue. “I said, ‘We’re with Susan Sontag,’” her friend later confided, when she asked how he had worked his magic.

The young woman, still only in her early 30s, was astonished to discover that her name had become an “open sesame” to high society. Despite being filmed by Andy Warhol and dining out with Jacqueline Kennedy, the budding intellectual superstar felt like a figment of her own imagination. This discrepancy between the “real me” and the “self-for-others” lies at the heart of Benjamin Moser’s fittingly monumental authorised biography. Running to more than 700 pages (excluding notes and index) and drawing on a wealth of hitherto inaccessible material, as well as scores of interviews, Sontag: Her Life has a strong claim to definitive status.

Sontag herself may well be the ideal candidate for a literary biography. She once observed that an author’s journal allows us to “read the writer in the first person” and “encounter the ego behind the masks of ego”, but what her own diaries reveal is essentially a lack of ego, or at best one so amorphous as to be a blank slate.

To say that Sontag was a divided self is not the half of it. “I have always liked to pretend my body isn’t there,” she confessed, despite coming across, in the 1960s, as the love child of Alcibiades and Socrates, or Monroe and Einstein. This accounts, inter alia, for her lifelong hygiene issues (she had to remind herself — in longhand — to take baths and clean her teeth), her punishing, speed-fuelled nocturnal writing routine (WH Auden was one of her dealers) and her failure to even mention she had cancer in Illness as Metaphor.

Moser chronicles Sontag’s regular attempts to resolve what she called the “agonised dichotomy between the body and the mind”, which she identified early on as the source of her “greatest unhappiness”. These could take a predictably theoretical shape, as in her work on Antonin Artaud, who had sought, she wrote, “to heal the split between language and flesh”, or her concomitant interest in Gnosticism, which held out the promise of reconciling “all dualisms”. At other times she would make a concerted effort to “emerge from her head into her body”, perhaps most successfully during her passionate affair with playwright María Irene Fornés, who introduced her to sexual pleasure. She described (in comically abstract terms) “[t]he coming of the orgasm” as “the birth of [her] ego”, going as far as to claim that she “didn’t exist in the sense that others and everything else did” prior to this most seminal of events.

Her busy, tempestuous, sentimental life failed, however, to provide any semblance of plenitude. Sontag always conceived of relationships as a struggle between master and slave (usually playing the former role with men and the latter with women, although her bullying of long-term partner Annie Leibovitz takes some beating). This power dynamic was even internalised, with “Miss Librarian” — as she called her geeky, gawky self — constantly berated and spurred on to better things by “that person who has been watching me as long as I can remember”.

At the tender age of 11, Sontag made the (as she put it) “conscious decision” to become popular, thus embarking on a lifelong “project of self-transformation” underpinned by a pressing need “to see more, to hear more, to feel more”. As a schoolgirl, she could be found studying Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, concealed behind a copy of the Reader’s Digest she was really meant to be focusing on. By the age of 16 she was studying at Chicago — then the US’s most intellectually rigorous university — having already spent a year at Berkley. And that was only the beginning.

As Moser points out, she often tried to find herself in works of art in which she could lose herself. Her quest for a heightened sense of reality doubtless culminated when she directed Waiting for Godot in a besieged Sarajevo: “This is not ‘symbolic’,” she declared, as though she had just brought down the Matrix, “This is real”.

Writing, for her, was not so much a means of self-expression — having little self to express in the first place — but one of self-creation. Convinced that all good writers are “roaring egotists”, she coveted the persona of the great author which would counteract her inclination “to hide, to be invisible”, itself compounded by her homosexuality: “I need the identity as a weapon,” she stated in 1959, “to match the weapon that society has against me”.

The imperious diva of later years — with her trademark Cruella de Vil hairdo — may have lorded it over Manhattan’s intelligentsia, but still felt, whenever she was alone, like the little girl she had tried so hard to outgrow. The part of herself she had spent a lifetime attempting to leave behind was, paradoxically enough, the only one that felt truly authentic, no doubt because it was born of deep trauma (a dead father and an alcoholic mother). Moser shows how fame inevitably widened this gap “between the simulacrum, the metaphor, the mask, the persona and the self found in silence”.

Sontag’s adoption of the larger-than-life persona of the Great American Novelist was also at odds with the negative capability that informs some her best works, which may well have reinforced her feeling of inauthenticity.

Sontag’s greatest creation was, ultimately, Susan Sontag herself, and the two were “neither completely distinct nor completely identical”, just like an image and the object it represents. As her biographer puts it, twice — but it is worth repeating — she “created the mould, then broke it”.

Who Would Have These Bookshelves?

Review of Tunnel Vision by Kevin Breathnach. The Stinging Fly, 27 May 2019.

Lines, and more generally the notion of linearity, play an important part in Kevin Breathnach’s Tunnel Vision, which is hardly surprising given the title of this singular masterpiece. In one chapter the railway lines in a movie run parallel to lines of mephedrone snorted off the cover of a Susan Sontag, themselves echoed, in a later piece, set in Paris, by lines of coke on a carefully selected Henry Miller paperback. There are also the blurred lines between the two Goncourt brothers, whose voices merged in their journal to the point of being indistinguishable (until Jules started dying, that is). The most striking example is provided by the closing essay — the only one not to be primly justified — where the text erodes away, as though gradually swallowed up by negative space. Eventually a thin vertical line is all that remains in the middle of the last pages, mimicking the skyscraper the narrator has been observing and finally enacting the eponymous tunnel vision.

This bravura piece owes its name — ‘Cracking Up’ — not only to the breakdown of sorts Breathnach was experiencing, but also to a Mondrian that caught his attention, at the time, in Madrid’s Reina Sofia. What he focuses on in this painting is the ‘off-whiteness’ of the white, ‘shot through with cracks’ — the kind of palimpsestic blankness exemplified (although it would be too obvious to point out) by Erased de Kooning Drawing. Elsewhere in the book, an overexposed window in a photograph by Stephen Shore is described in terms reminiscent of a Rauschenberg monochrome: ‘Whatever went on outside in Idaho that day has been effaced by that white abstract panel of light with a claim on the spiritual’. ‘Closer Still’ features four reproductions of Elizabeth and I, a picture that André Kertész cropped in radically different ways. Or rather it does not: the actual portrait never appears owing to copyright issues. Instead, the four versions are illustrated by black squares of varying sizes, highlighting the cropping process, but also, inevitably, conjuring up Malevich. As Breathnach puts it in ‘Death Cycles’ (quoting without naming, thus simultaneously invoking and erasing, another writer) ‘erasure is never anything more than a particularly profound form of preservation’. This oscillation between inscription and effacement — permanence and flux, figuration and abstraction, totality and fragment, long take and montage, not to mention pedantry and profundity — lies at the heart of Tunnel Vision.

Horizontality and verticality too, with the text a battleground between the two. The lines I found most puzzling, causing me to retrace my steps on several occasions to check if they had not changed position, appear (conspicuously enough) at the beginning of the first essay. Breathnach is describing Berenice Abbott’s Self-portrait with a Large-format Camera (1926) in beautifully granular detail: ‘The geometry of her cardigan is echoed in the ridges of the open door behind her, while the busy horizontal lines of her skirt rhyme with the camera’s bellows, that accordion-like box between the lens and viewfinder, which enables the lens to be moved with respect to the focal plane — for focusing’. The emphasis on the latter word is ironic, however, as the busy horizontal pleats on Abbott’s skirt are very much vertical. The reader (and indeed author) need only refer back to the picture reproduced two pages prior (or any other pleated skirt for that matter) to see that this is patently so. I find it difficult to countenance that such a meticulous writer — who, of his own admission, was once given to underlining in red ink the ‘errors of grammar, judgement and tone’ perpetrated by ‘a particular Irish Times literary critic’ — could have overlooked this error, however insignificant it may be. Whether deliberate or not, Breathnach’s misreading of the skirt is a synecdoche of Man Ray’s misprision of Abbott herself (as a mere assistant and ‘fetish object’ despite her obvious talent and subversion of gender stereotypes). It also acts as a nice little estrangement effect, which I like to think was planted there quite on purpose.

*

Tunnel Vision never coincides with itself: it is always somewhat distanced through reflexivity or dispersal (just as the narrative voice undermines itself through self-deprecation). Chapter titles, for instance, appear in fancy square brackets. The rationale behind this idiosyncratic presentation becomes clear in an essay called ‘[Square Brackets]’ (literally, a mise-en-abyme squared) where we learn that David Rieff used these symbols to embed his editorial notes within the text of Susan Sontag’s journal. Their presence, here, signals that Tunnel Vision comes ready equipped with editorial notes: it is a book and its own exegesis rolled into one. This is exemplified by the ‘editorialising effect’ Joan — one of several girlfriends — has on Breathnach, prompting him to redact from recurring anecdotes whatever elements did not meet with her approval on first airing: ‘I was never conscious of what I would not say until I heard myself not say it’. The entire work retains a similar air of provisionality due, in part, to its confessional tenor — its Augustinian quality. Assumptions are made, often as a result of cultural pretensions, which later turn out to be totally erroneous (the Telefonicà skyscraper bears no relation to art nouveau; the foundations of the Ehrentempel were never demolished; Shakespeare and Company’s well-furnished essay section contains no glaring omissions). All manner of sins are depicted in these pages, but they are redeemed by virtue of being confessed, so that two realities end up coexisting duckrabbit-fashion. Breathnach both is and is not a compulsive liar and pedant addicted to drugs and pornography, in the same way that Proust’s work can only be narrated by a reformed snob. The Breathnachian narrator is, crucially, an accomplished writer, whereas his younger iteration lies about being hard at work on a novel (‘I didn’t even have an idea for one’) and struggles to complete a simple email.

Self-dispersal often takes the shape of duplication. In Madrid, which is described as another Paris, the author is constantly mistaken for a British or American citizen when in fact he is, of course, Irish. The Spanish capital becomes the stage for a re-enactment of the most famous passage in Leaving the Atocha Station. At the beginning of Ben Lerner’s celebrated debut, the protagonist (whose mythomania and cultural posturing mark him out as a forerunner of Breathnach’s textual avatar) fails to experience the anticipated rapture in front of a painting in the Prado. Something very similar happens — or fails to happen — here in the selfsame museum, where Breathnach seeks out the work of Ribera precisely because it ‘seemed charged with the kind of dramatic intensity [he] usually had trouble identifying in Old Masters without first being directed to it’.

In ‘Death Cycles’, where he pays homage to his great-uncle — Liam Whelan, one of the eight Manchester United players who perished in the 1958 Munich air disaster — everything seems to be a simulacrum of something else. The German city is a ‘reproduction’ of its antebellum incarnation. There are two accidents, two memorials and even two footballers. Breathnach — who, I hasten to add, has the good taste to be a City supporter — was once groomed to follow in his late relative’s footsteps: ‘I was very much aware even then that I was taking part in the reconstruction of Liam Whelan’. It is almost as though the author were exploring the road not taken; visiting an alternative version of himself in some parallel universe.

There are many other instances where I is another. When reading out loud a message he has painstakingly drafted, Breathnach realises all of a sudden that he is channelling his ‘father’s reading voice’. At the cinema, he observes himself as though he were ‘some hypercritical version’ of Eleanor, who is sitting right next to him. In the last pages of ‘Veronica’, ‘you’ seems to refer to Colette and ‘I’ to the narrator until ‘I’ reminisces about ‘you’ being caught short on a coach trip, ending up ‘with the bottle-neck wrapped so tightly around your dick’ that ‘the piss just wouldn’t flow’. Either some hitherto undisclosed information about Colette has just been revealed in passing (and indeed pissing) or pronouns and identities have shifted along the way to the point of undecidability.

The author’s observation that the ‘first-person speaker grows increasingly unstable and fragmented’ is made apropos of Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, but he could just as well be talking about his own work — which, no doubt, he is. The subjectivity on display in Tunnel Vision is so tentative and malleable that it always requires an audience. In Madrid, for instance, he wanders through sundry ‘major cultural institutions’ in a manner ‘somehow faintly suggestive of sex having already taken place’. He spends a great deal of time in Café Commercial ‘trying discreetly to be observed, reading books, large ones, held at such an angle as to place the title in clear view’. In church, he smiles ‘a private smile, intended to be seen’ before performing — for the sole benefit of a student of his he has spotted and is feigning to ignore — a hilarious ‘looped montage of strange facial tics and expressions’.

Roland Barthes’s theory, Breathnach reminds us, is that the writer’s journal fell out of fashion at the time of the nouveau roman ‘because the “I” no longer recognised itself as a stable and singular entity’. Paradoxically enough, it is probably for the very same reason that autofiction and essayism are flourishing today. As Rachel Cusk put it, ‘autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts’ — a process that Barthes was actually instrumental in initiating. With its blend of memoir and criticism, Tunnel Vision is an attempt at producing a self-portrait through the study of self-portraiture, so that what we end up with is the portrait of a self-portrait. From this perspective it is reminiscent of the aforementioned Berenice Abbott picture, which turns out to be a portrait masquerading as a self-portrait. What it resembles most, however, is the glass skyscraper, described at the beginning of the book, which is ‘camouflaged by the surroundings reflected on its mirrored façade’. Part of Breathnach’s self-portrait is indeed hiding in plain sight; concealed by all the quotations that are an integral part of the work rather than mere adornments. This is particularly the case throughout ‘But I Did That to Myself’, where a lengthy excerpt from Malina on the verso is mirrored by the author’s own presentation of Bachmann’s novel on the recto. By curating this personal canon — which also includes the likes of Walter Benjamin, Djuna Barnes, Clarice Lispector, Stéphane Mallarmé, Robert Bresson, Claudia Rankine and Thomas Mann — Breathnach is placing himself within a lineage; constructing a ‘cultural identity’ for himself. Although he claims to be someone ‘whose sense of identity and self-worth has for years been grounded in the conspicuous and frequently unfelt enjoyment of high culture’, he is in fact rewriting these authors’ works within the text of his own life. What he is showing off is not so much that he has read all these books, but rather how they have read him.

*

Perhaps what Tunnel Vision really aspires to be is a self-portrait without a self. The second essay — ‘Tunnel Vision’ justement — hints at this latent desire for unselfing. It revolves around Train Ride Bergen to Oslo, a Norwegian movie consisting of ‘a single shot filmed on a camera inside the driver’s cabin of the no. 602 to Oslo, inhabiting a train’s-eye view for all seven hours, fourteen minutes and thirteen seconds of its running time’. Through this ‘train’s-eye view’ the spectator ‘is given to identify with a subjectless gaze’. Similarly, in a quote which closes the ‘Shape of Silence’ chapter, Lynne Tillman casts Peter Shore’s Uncommon Places as a visual memoir that dispenses with all traces of interiority: ‘That kind of journal is similar to displaying the contents of a refrigerator. The question occurs: who would have this refrigerator?’ Which, in turn, begs the question: who would have these bookshelves?

Colette, we learn, keeps an old Libertines poster on her bedroom door as a ‘token of nostalgia’ — which goes to show how much of a young person’s book Tunnel Vision is, with its sex, drugs, travelling and millennial nostalgia for the early noughties. Significantly, it is a young person’s book that refuses to come of age; a book that wants to begin and only begin, ‘like a painter’s eternally fresh canvas’ (a Robert Bresson quote used as an epigraph). When the narrator turbocharges his sex life with mephedrone, he confesses: ‘It was not an orgasm I was seeking, but the continued build-up to one’. Under the influence of this stimulant, he pleasures himself ‘in fragments’ — Colette having become largely surplus to requirements — watching, in succession, a virtually identical ‘titfucking’ scene from up to ten different films all opened in different tabs on his computer. The revelation that the beginning of one of the essays was deliberately misleading is followed by the following flippant remark: ‘So chalk up my introduction as a false start if you like’. Tunnel Vision — which is divided into three parts, each containing three chapters — is introduced by three prefaces entitled, somewhat provocatively, ‘Not I’, ‘Not II’ and ‘Not III’. These ‘false starts’ are akin to a musical overture containing themes that will be developed later. They are also reminiscent of Berenice Abbott’s ‘false exposures’: in order to put people at ease, the photographer would begin sessions by taking a few pictures without any plates in her camera. A self without a portrait; a portrait without a self: Breathnach’s work hesitates between the two.

Like Eleanor’s smile, Tunnel Vision always strives to look as though it means something else. It is a book without qualities that comes in flat-pack form, refuses to settle into a definite shape and shuns univocal meaning. It begins with the evocation of a gigantic bust of Karl Marx that was disassembled into ninety-five pieces, in 1971, and transported from the Soviet Union to East Germany, where it was put back together again. ‘Considered alone,’ the author muses, ‘how many of these parts were recognisable as Marx?’ This is precisely the question that hovers over his own text, in the making of which he unmakes himself, resurfacing in disseminated form (to paraphrase Barthes). This is what the author admires in the Mondrian and what the reader will admire in the author: ‘I liked the strict division of parts and the way these parts seemed to balance, without me knowing how or why’.

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”.