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.

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.’

Phantom Plot

My review of Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language will appear in the FT tomorrow. It was posted on their website today. Here is an extract:

In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, Barthes contends that lang­uage, ceasing to be merely instrument­al, “loses its origin” when it enters the fictive realm. A thinly veiled reference to this theory recurs throughout Binet’s novel. The reader’s quest for the narrator’s identity gradually forms a phantom plot that shadows (and even overshadows) the overt whodunnit, sending us on a wild-goose chase. A description of Bayard sitting in a café is interrupted by a parenthetical aside: “Which café? The little details are important for reconstructing the atmosphere, don’t you think?” Pleading ignorance, he (or indeed she) enjoins us, à la Tristram Shandy, to picture the superintendent wherever we so please.

Here, Binet reprises a theme tackled in HHhH, where the author’s stand-in frets over the minutiae of historical reconstitution: the colour of the Nazi security chief’s Mercedes, for instance. Such “little details” are important in fiction as well as history books: they produce what Barthes called the “reality effect”. Highlighting their contingency — why this Latin Quarter café rather than another? — is a ruse by which the narrative voice enhances the reality effect while seemingly undermining it. After all, a fallible storyteller is far more credible than an omniscient one (with the added convenience of allowing Binet to paper over a few gaps in his research).

The strands of the plot are skilfully interwoven through a dual process of fictionalisation of the real and realisation of the fictional. At one stage the narrator observes that it is difficult “to imagine what Julia Kristeva is thinking in 1980”, as though this were not the case with any real-life person at any given moment. A similar statement is later made about one of the fictitious protagonists, about whom anything could be imagined: “We have no way of knowing what Simon dreams about because we are not inside his head, are we?”

Or are we? As the plot thickens, Simon feels increasingly “trapped in a novel”: “How do you know you are not living inside a work of fiction? How do you know that you’re real?” This growing ontological crisis — doubtless stemming from Barthes having read the world like a text — sends us back to the opening sentences: “Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so”.

All the Latest

I’ve written a piece about custard-pie activism for the Guardian‘s Comment is Free section. You can read it here. An expanded version of my review of Marc-Edouard Nabe‘s latest novel appeared in 3:AM Magazine. Also in 3:AM, I talk about my summer reading list.

C By Tom McCarthy

This appeared in the September 2010 issue of Dazed & Confused (vol. 2, issue 89, p. 196):

C by Tom McCarthy

Incest, spies and coke-fuelled adventures

Let’s not beat about the bush: Tom McCarthy’s third novel, C, is a masterpiece: a sprawling associative web that keeps generating new meanings as though of its own volition. “That’s the beautiful thing about what literature does to language,” says McCarthy. “You stick these slippery terms in and they start cross-fertilising in ways you never anticipated — incestuous ways.” C takes us from a fairytale English silk farm to spy-ridden Egypt by way of a central European spa town, aerial warfare and a coke-fuelled London filled with bright young Amazons. It is a comedy of errors, a gothic mystery, a boy’s own story; a traditional 19th-century novel seemingly rewritten by Burroughs or Ballard. You’ll find geometry, technology and trauma. Loops, repetitions and mutations. Incest, insects and radio bugs. And phantom words emanating from subterranean worlds half-glimpsed “at the dial’s far end”. Tune in…

DAZED & CONFUSED: C could be seen as a futurist novel. Serge, the protagonist, even seems to be partly modelled on Marinetti himself…
TOM MCCARTHY: I love Marinetti, and, yes, he’s part of Serge’s make-up, particularly in the war section. But Serge is equally a mixture of Freud’s Wolf Man, the beautifully fucked-up melancholic eternally grieving for his dead sister; and Alexander Bell, inventor of the phone (who also lost two siblings); and Howard Carter, the Egyptologist who disinterred the ur-family tomb; and a bunch of other people. I’m interested in the places where technology and mourning intersect.

There’s also a strong retro-futurist — even steampunk — element to C. Did you feel the need to revisit the early 20th century in order to reinvent the future of the novel?
Yes. Walter Benjamin says that the angel of history faces backwards. I think it’s the same for literature: you’ve got to look back in order to move forwards. It’s not just the foundations of contemporary technology that are being laid in the early 20th century (the code radio bugs used exactly anticipated text speak, just as lots of their output anticipated Twitter), but also literature’s period of high modernism that’s coming to a head. Not for nothing does the novel end in 1922: it’s the year that Ulysses and The Waste Land came out. The task for the contemporary writer (sadly, one which many writers of today are shirking) is to work through that period’s legacy — dynamically and radically, but attentively too.

All the major themes in C — from wireless technology to the discovery of Tutankhamun — come from your early experiments with the International Necronautical Society (INS), don’t they?
I had the idea for C while I was working on the INS project at the ICA. There, we had a radio station modelled on the illicit one in Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée (where the person transmitting is already dead), sending out all these coded poetic messages. I was looking at writing around encryption, and the concept of the ‘crypt’ that you get in psychoanalysis and philosophy.

Incest lies at the heart of C: this, for you, is the source code of western literature, right?
Yes. You go back from Nabokov through Faulkner through Racine right back to Sophocles, and incest is the central theme that keeps recurring. For Freud, the incest prohibition is what makes us civilised, socialised, even human, so that’s the taboo all tragic heroes, who are fundamentally doomed rebels, are most drawn towards transgressing.

Why do you think that all new means of telecommunication are linked to death, mourning and melancholia?
I don’t know if I can explain it. It’s just a pattern that keeps recurring. For every comm-tech invention, there seems to be a dead sibling somewhere. Bell even made a pact with his brother that, if one of them died like their other brother had, the surviving one would invent a device capable of receiving messages from the dead. Then the second brother dies, and Bell invents the telephone. He remained a rationalist, a sceptic — basically because his brothers never called. But the desire, the fantasy, is there in the technology: a ghost in the machine. It’s the same with radio. Seances in the 20s weren’t about spirit and ectoplasm any more: they were about “tuning in” to voices resonating on high frequencies, like radio waves. With the internet, it seems to be more about a presence than an absence: everything’s there, every click and keystroke ever made eternally retrievable, a giant archive. That’s a kind of haunting too, though.

Text and Photography
ANDREW GALLIX