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.

Male Order

“Male Order.” Review of What We’re Teaching Our Children by Owen Booth. Literary Review, December 2018, pp. 72-73:

To misquote Simone de Beauvoir, one is not born but rather becomes a man. This is the premise of What We’re Teaching Our Sons, a satire, alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, of all those earnest treatises on fatherhood.

Although very accessible, Owen Booth’s debut is as difficult to pin down as the notion of masculinity in an age of female empowerment and gender fluidity. It is a novel with an emotional arc, but one you may also dip into, each chapter being a story unto itself. In fact, it is essentially the same story — sixty-seven variations on dadsplaining — springing from the same template.

The opening sentence of each chapter is invariably ‘We’re teaching our sons about’, followed by the chapter title, which immediately introduces an element of comic repetition. Then comes a précis staking out the territory to be explored. A chapter titled ‘Crime’ begins, ‘We’re teaching our sons about crime. We’re teaching them that crime doesn’t pay, or that mostly it doesn’t pay, or that, in fact, it can sometimes pay quite handsomely’. ‘Drugs’ gets off to a similar start: ‘We’re teaching our sons about drugs. What they do, why people take them, where to find them’.

The dads’ mission to raise ‘a generation of better men’ is undermined by their own confusion and inconsistencies — their compulsion to idealise women, for instance, despite knowing that this raises feminist issues. Much humour is derived from the sons regularly reverting to type (boys will be boys) and puncturing their dads’ politically correct pieties, as well as from their endearing refusal to countenance second best: ‘They’re convinced they’re going to be film stars and astronauts and famous comic book artists. They’re not interested in all the ways we managed to screw up our stupid lives.’

The sins-of-the-fathers trope is introduced early on, when the sons are taken to meet the ‘heartbroken men’. These sad relics from the past, with their beer guts, firearm fetishes and ’embarrassing’ penchants for military or superhero outfits, are prisoners of the patriarchal system they uphold: ‘The fathers of the heartbroken men loom large. Their hard-drinking, angry fathers. And their fathers and their fathers and their fathers before them.’ The grandfathers (to whom a later chapter is devoted) embody a less toxic masculinity, yet their stiff upper lips conceal a sense of loss so deep that it can only be assuaged by railway modelling on a Joycean scale. Having ‘survived wars and fifty-year marriages’, they are now holed up in their attics, where memories are stored away, obsessively reconstructing a childhood scene, right down to the diminutive figures of themselves as little boys, ‘searching desperately through the streets for their own silent, unknowable fathers’. The same formulation recurs in a chapter where, having failed to teach their sons about emotional literacy, the dads end up extolling the virtues of hobbies as a time-honoured means of keeping feelings bottled up. It was ever thus, they explain. This scene takes place on a miniature steam railway operated by middle-aged enthusiasts — ‘all men’ — whose reluctance to share their toy with the public (children in particular) inevitably leads to a confrontation and display of cockmanship.

As this comic tour de force testifies, Booth is a miniaturist. His meticulous craft bears more than a passing resemblance to that of his hobbyists, all those haunted men who seem to pour an excess of emotion into elaborate displacement activities. The novel’s repetitive format and collective narrative voice provide a safety net of impersonality, allowing the tenderest of moments to bloom in the nooks and crannies of its vignettes. In the changing rooms at the swimming pool, for instance, the dads — feeling ‘the terrible responsibility of lost socks, and impending colds’ — try not to contemplate ‘all the upcoming catastrophes’ they will never be able to shield their sons from. In another tale of innocence and experience, the dads tell their lads about the nights they were born, before evoking what was deliberately left unsaid: ‘These are not things we talk about, not even to each other. Especially not to each other. We’re terrified that if we started we wouldn’t know how to stop.’

Sixty-Seven Variations on Dadsplaining

My review of Owen Booth‘s wonderful debut novel, What We’re Teaching Our Sons, appears in the December issue of Literary Review.

To misquote Simone de Beauvoir, one is not born but rather becomes a man. This is the premise of What We’re Teaching Our Sons, a satire, alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, of all those earnest treatises on fatherhood.

Although very accessible, Owen Booth’s debut is as difficult to pin down as the notion of masculinity in an age of female empowerment and gender fluidity. It is a novel with an emotional arc, but one you may also dip into, each chapter being a story unto itself. In fact, it is essentially the same story — sixty-seven variations on dadsplaining — springing from the same template. …

The Doodles of Yesteryear

This appeared in the June 2017 issue of Literary Review, pp. 9-10.

Read All About It

At first blush, the author of ‘The Death of the Author’ may seem a somewhat paradoxical choice of subject for a biographer. Au contraire, argues Tiphaine Samoyault in Barthes: A Biography, originally published in France in 2015. Just shy of five hundred pages long, excluding notes and index, it is, to date, the most comprehensive portrait of Barthes’s life and times. Calling it definitive — which in many respects it is — would be to miss the point, however. Memories being open to constant recomposition, Barthes felt that lives should not be written in stone. He hoped his own might be limited to a few ‘biographemes’ – ‘a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections’ – which, ‘like Epicurean atoms’, would perhaps touch ‘some future body, destined to the same dispersion’. The ideal biography would thus come in the form of a book in a box, like something by Marc Saporta or B S Johnson, the unbound pages of which could be shuffled around like the index cards Barthes wrote on. The stand-alone paragraphs of his own memoir, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975), were arranged in alphabetical order so as to obviate narrative continuity and its attendant teleological bias. While cleaving to a traditional, broadly chronological format, Samoyault goes to great lengths to ensure that Barthes does not end up pickled in aspic. In a prologue, she retraces his last steps on the day in 1980 when he was knocked over by a van, an accident that led to his demise (from pulmonary complications) one month later. ‘The Death of Barthes’ is, in effect, cordoned off, lest his life be reduced, retrospectively, to a fixed, univocal reading, akin to the ‘“message” of the Author-God’ he had once lambasted.

Barthes regarded death as the only event that truly eludes language. All the rest is discourse, as he argued in Mythologies (1957), a book in which he took reading out of the library and into the world. Rather than drawing up a laundry list of the different hats he wore, we should probably regard Barthes, above all else, as a reader. In bringing literature to life (‘every text is eternally written here and now’), the act of reading rewrites ‘the text of the work within the text of our lives’. Textual pleasure climaxes, he contends, when a book ‘succeeds in writing fragments of our own daily lives’ — when, in other words, it reads us. He even confessed to deriving more enjoyment from the ‘abrasions’ his distracted perusal imprinted upon ‘the fine surface’ of a text than from the narrative itself. It is through the prism of these abrasions — the interface between life and art — that Samoyault succeeds in getting a purchase on Barthes’s eclectic oeuvre.

Having famously described literature as the space ‘where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes’, Barthes increasingly sought out the inscription of this physical presence, ‘the hand as it writes’. Samoyault traces his penchant for self-portraiture back to the time he spent in sanatoria and the repeated diets he went on, turning his body ‘into an object for analysis’, which he read ‘like a text’. She avers that ‘going back to the body’ implied ‘viewing writing as a material production of signs that placed it on the same level as any other artistic practice’. Between 1971 and 1975, Barthes painted every day, inspired by the ‘absolute corporeal gesture’ of calligraphy he had discovered in Japan, a partly fantasised land that seemed to herald ‘a civilisation of the signifier’. Samoyault insists that this activity was ‘inseparable from his thoughts about writing’. In several essays and reviews, Barthes reflects upon the tradition of ‘illegible writing’ in the works of artists such as Henri Michaux, Cy Twombly or Bernard Réquichot, going as far as to claim that André Masson’s semiography achieved the ‘utopia of the Text’. His own graphic productions — he was reluctant to speak of artworks, preferring to see them as a form of handicraft — were, according to Samoyault, neither words nor paintings, but the ‘union of the two’. Describing them (there are 380 paintings and drawings by Barthes in the Bibliothèque Nationale’s archive), she observes that they ‘can be very close to writing when it forgets to make sense, when it turns into a trace, remembers the productions of childhood, the scribbling’. If they are indeed reminiscent of the doodles of yesteryear, they are also — perhaps more importantly — post-verbal. She explains that they allow us to enter a world free from ‘any formed language, any preconstructed thought’ – a world ‘exempt from meaning’, to use Barthes’s recurring phrase. In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1977, he described language as ‘fascist’ because it compels us to think and talk in a given manner. The world is therefore always already written; the ultimate purpose of literature, in his eyes, is ‘to unexpress the expressible’, to take the intransitivity of writing to its logical conclusion: ‘For writing to be manifest in its truth (and not in its instrumentality) it must be illegible’.

Samoyault suggests that Barthes’s life can be partly explained by what it lacked. Together with his homosexuality and Protestant roots, tuberculosis (‘incontestably the major event of his life’) led to missed opportunities, contributing to a lifelong sense of marginalisation. Barthes spoke about the ‘great Oedipal frustration’ of having no father figure to slay. His mother’s death, in 1977, accelerated the autobiographical — and indeed literary — turn that began with the publication of Empire of Signs in 1970. ‘It is the intimate which seeks utterance in me,’ Barthes declared, though whether this urge would have taken the shape of a novel remains a moot point. Although Barthes left only an eight-page outline for his projected ‘Vita Nova’, Samoyault believes that much of the material that has been published posthumously, as well as large chunks of the unpublished writings in archives she was given access to, would eventually have found their way into some magnum opus.

Barring a few approximations — inevitable given the Herculean task — Andrew Brown’s translation is excellent. Chris Turner has also done a sterling job with Seagull Books’ beautifully presented five-volume series of essays by Barthes and interviews with him (£14.50 each), which is the perfect companion piece to the biography. Organised thematically, these occasional articles, reviews and texts are all briefly but expertly introduced, and in the process are made available to an anglophone audience for the first time. Some, like those where Barthes agonises over the definition of left-wing literature, are very much of their time, but they provide snapshots of his mind at work and confirm Samoyault’s premise that the unity of his life and oeuvre is to be found in the ‘desire to write’.


Wrapped Around Kebabs

Alexander Oliver, Review of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, by C.D. Rose, The Literary Review 5 March 2015:

As Andrew Gallix writes in his introduction, “Manuscripts and books remain blank to us through being censored, lost, drowned, shredded, pulped, burned, used as cigarette paper or wrapped around kebabs, fed to pigs or even ingested by their own authors… Marta Kupka produces a blank memoir, not of her own volition, but due to a potent combination of failing eyesight and dried-up typewriter ribbon”.

The Making of Meursault

This appeared in Literary Review November 2016: 30-31.
camus

The Making of Meursault

In July 1944 Albert Camus produced a counterfeit manuscript of his debut novel, The Outsider, published two years earlier. Josette Clotis, André Malraux’s partner, read the text aloud while Camus took it down in longhand, introducing the odd crossed-out variant to lend it the air of an early draft. In Looking for ‘The Outsider’, Alice Kaplan outlines this ingenious scam, born of wartime austerity, but does not say whether it proved successful or not. All the same, it speaks volumes about the book it sought to cash in on. The Outsider had already outgrown its title, acquiring the aura of a canonical work. Camus was now in a position to turn Bouvard and Pécuchet’s lowly profession — that of the copy clerk — into gold. All he had to do was replicate his near-indecipherable microscript, originally developed in response to an acute paper shortage.

Looking for ‘The Outsider’ is the biography of a book rather than of its author. Kaplan chronicles the story of The Outsider from the germ of an idea in Camus’s notebooks to the novel’s re-evaluation in the light of gender and postcolonial studies, taking in, chemin faisant, its wider impact on popular culture. She even identifies the individual who inspired the anonymous Arab. Her research really comes into its own when she pieces together the strange circumstances in which the novel saw the light of day. Retracing the various manuscripts’ convoluted journey between Algiers and occupied Paris — charted on four different maps — is likened to ‘chasing several Minotaurs in a maze’. Even Raymond Queneau, at publishers Gallimard, was baffled, ending up with two different versions before going to press.

In 1937, with two collections of essays under his belt, Camus set about writing fiction. The provisional title of his work-in-progress, ‘A Happy Death’, clearly anticipated The Outsider (published as The Stranger in the United States), as did the protagonist’s name, Patrice Mersault. However, if Kaplan’s precis of this first attempt — ‘the story of a tubercular young man who commits murder for freedom’ — is anything to go by, it sounds more like an autobiographical take on André Gide’s Lafcadio’s Adventures than a new departure. When he peered into his manuscript, Camus increasingly caught glimpses of a ‘completely different book’ within it. By the autumn of the following year, a ‘second novel’, which he went on to describe as ‘already completely traced within me’, stared back at him. Kaplan explains that the ‘ambitious writer who wanted to control every aspect of his craft found himself confronted with the unexpected’. Just as Meursault would realise, in extremis, that he had been ‘a stranger to his life’, Camus had to draw the conclusion that he was a stranger to his work. Having abandoned ‘A Happy Death’, he was ready to yield to something he did not fully comprehend: ‘Sometimes I need to write things that escape me in part, but which are proof of precisely what within me is stronger than I am.’

Eschewing belletristic ‘chit-chat’, he developed his trademark laconic style that gestures discreetly towards that which eludes language. ‘To write,’ he realised, ‘one must fall slightly short of the expression’, for the ‘true work of art … is the one that says the least’. Sartre greatly admired the way Camus deployed words ‘almost miraculously to produce a sensation of silence’, unaware that he had been brought up by a deaf mother and uncle. Estrangement was not only rooted in experience, however; it was also a literary device. Under the influence of James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (translated into French in 1936), Camus switched his narrative from the third to the first person, a style that, as Kaplan remarks, ‘usually lets the reader inside the narrator’s head — but he did it so that there was no getting inside, no way to feel close to Meursault’. The novelist described this technical breakthrough, somewhat self-deprecatingly, as a mere ‘trick’: ‘once I discovered the trick, all I had to do was write.’

If Camus discovered The Outsider ‘within himself’, he breathed life into the novel as a genre. His protagonist’s ‘lack of connection to people’, writes Kaplan, is offset by his ‘sensual connection to the world’. ‘He exists,’ Camus declared, ‘like a stone or the wind or the sea, under the sun.’ So far, so nouveau roman. Yet when Kaplan quotes the climactic passage in which Meursault opens himself to the ‘gentle indifference of the world’, finding it ‘so much like myself — so like a brother’, she fails to point out how much the world is anthropomorphised and recast in his image, and how even its indifference becomes benevolent. Is this really what Camus meant by living ‘without appeal’; cut adrift from religion or ideology? And, while we are on the subject, is a godless universe ipso facto absurd? As Alain Robbe-Grillet objected, the world is neither meaningful nor meaningless: ‘It is, that’s all’. A major flaw throughout this study is Kaplan’s promptness to take Camus’s ideas as read although, in all fairness, analysis does not fall within her remit.

Meursault fails to feel the gravitational pull of Paris, which, as Kaplan shrewdly observes, is a measure of his strangeness in a highly centralised country like France. Camus, however, had far more in common with Rastignac, Balzac’s arch-arriviste, than with Meursault. Despite going on to become the editor of an underground newspaper during the war, he ‘never questioned the idea of publishing his novel in occupied Paris’ and had no qualms about excising an essay on Kafka from The Myth of Sisyphus lest it attract the attention of the Germans. Within months of the appearance of The Outsider in bookshops, he was already ‘at the heart of things’, dining out with Sartre and de Beauvoir at the Café de Flore, an outsider no more.

At the outset, Alice Kaplan describes reading The Outsider as a ‘rite of passage’ that people throughout the world connect to ‘their coming of age’. Perhaps it is in the nature of such works to be outgrown, as The Outsider was, almost immediately, by Camus himself. Contrarily, our compulsion to reinterpret the book — in the light of the French Resistance, Algerian independence, the banlieues or the Arab Spring — may testify to its irreducible otherness and our inability to simply let it be, like a stone or the wind or the sea.
camus
literaryreview

Albert Camus’ Counterfeit Manuscript

My review of Alice Kaplan‘s Looking for ‘The Outsider’: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic appears in the November 2016 issue of the Literary Review.

literaryreview

In July 1944 Albert Camus produced a counterfeit manuscript of his debut novel, The Outsider, published two years earlier. Josette Clotis, André Malraux’s partner, read the text aloud while Camus took it down in longhand, introducing the odd crossed-out variant to lend it the air of an early draft. In Looking for ‘The Outsider’, Alice Kaplan outlines this ingenious scam, born of wartime austerity, but does not say whether it proved successful or not. All the same, it speaks volumes about the book it sought to cash in on. The Outsider had already outgrown its title, acquiring the aura of a canonical work. Camus was now in a position to turn Bouvard and Pécuchet’s lowly profession — that of the copy clerk — into gold. All he had to do was replicate his near-indecipherable microscript, originally developed in response to an acute paper shortage. …