Thursday, April 26, 2012

Homer and Langley by EL Doctorow

Working with a group of learners recently, I remarked how each of them, to differing degrees, had a tendency to distance the reader in their writing. What they were doing was telling the story at one remove – not literally in the pluperfect tense, but more or less, in the sense of much of the principal action having been completed at an earlier time than that of the main narrative. The effect of such writing is that much of the story is told almost in summary form and the reader feels excluded from it. It is a surprisingly common fault in beginner writers.

I was reminded of this when reading E.L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley, because Doctorow uses precisely the same technique. He is doing it intentionally, of course, and his distancing is quite deliberate. Because distance, remoteness from the world, an abstract sense of unbelonging, is precisely what Homer and Langley is about. So, for example, early in the novel the protagonists’s maid receives a war letter informing her that her son is missing in action, presumed dead. Instead of relating this through dialogue, allowing the reader entry into the scene at that profound moment, it is told in narrative summary and loses, as a result, some of its emotional intensity. But where, with my learners, that would be a fault, with Doctorow he is turning it into a major strength of the writing, because it is underlining the character of the novel’s narrator, Homer Collyer. We can’t enter an empathetic scene when the tragedy unfolds, because Homer himself is unable to comprehend such concepts. He lives at a remove from the world and cannot truly be a part of it.

This sense of disconnection from the daily travails of ordinary living runs through the novel to a remarkable degree. It is based – albeit very loosely – on the true story of the Collyer brothers in Manhattan in the early to mid part of the last century. Recluses and eccentrics, they lived in isolated squalor in their apartment in Fifth Avenue (moved in the novel closer to Central Park), gradually accumulating a houseful of junk and detritus. Literally so: every room was piled to the ceiling with newspapers, books, boxes, human organs pickled in formaldehyde, a Model T Ford chassis, chandeliers, banjos, bicycles, everything, an extraordinary panoply of junk. Over the years it became a "labyrinth of hazardous pathways, full of obstructions and many dead ends". After their deaths in 1947, the authorities removed 100 tonnes of junk from the house and, because it was in such a state of ill-repair, the building itself was demolished.

In the novel and in real life, the brothers set themselves against society. Homer is blind and Langley is badly scarred by his experiences in the First World War, both mentally and physically, with a terrible cough brought on by exposure to mustard gas. They withdraw from a society which they increasingly regarded with mistrust. They refuse to pay taxes, or their mortgage, or phone or electric or gas bills. Gradually, these amenities are cut off but the brothers remain undeterred. The Model T provides a generator for electricity. Langley scavenges across the city for food and water. The reality was a desperately sad story, but Doctorow has taken this rough material and made something quite beautiful with it. He has turned these brothers, strange, probably mad, into men of honour and reason.

And in so doing he has, of course, cast a light on our own society and our blighted modern world. Because Doctorow extends the metaphorical reach of the brothers’ story by taking liberties with their history, allowing them, for example, to live on into the 1960s, when they are adopted by the young hippies as heroes of the counter-culture and into the 1970s, when they are finally abandoned to their fate. Thus, he allows them to be detached, almost chimerical chroniclers of the twentieth century from its elysian pre-First World War Days to the beginnings of the modern technological and computer age.

The fact that our narrator is blind, of course, presents us with yet another level of dissociation from the materiality of this modern world in which they are reluctant participants. And, again, this is a brave and highly impressive piece of writing by Doctorow: how does one tell a tale through the eyes of a man who cannot see? Doctorow sets himself this challenge and conquers it superbly. Homer Langley cannot see the world, nor can he understand those who inhabit it, and yet, through this lonely, despairing man we are given a vision of the world which is starkly perceptive. Near the end, when he is deaf as well as blind, he writes, “I am grateful to have this [braille] typewriter, and the reams of paper beside my chair, as the world has shuttered slowly closed, intending to leave me only my consciousness.” In this way, the reader is simultaneously drawn inwards with Homer, to that dark and sad state, and outwards, to a world we take for granted but which he has reflected back at us with all its imperfections and peril. It is precisely because we are forced to view it through the lost eyes of an outsider that we can see beyond the veneer of the world into the austerity we all too often gloss over: Homer Collyer allows us, for once, to see ourselves as others see us, and it is an uncomfortable experience.

Only occasionally does reality intrude on the brothers’ cloistered life. In the early days they run weekly dances until they are shut down by the authorities; twice, they come into contact with an underworld gangster – the first time beguilingly, the second more troublingly; during the Second World War they provide refuge to a Japanse couple until they are arrested and interned; latterly, they are adopted by hippies and their house becomes an alternative hang-out. But mostly the shutters are drawn and the world is repelled. Inside, Homer and Langley live their own, lonely yet determined existences. Langley is on a mission to classify every event and happening in the world and produce, from his labours, a comprehensive “eternally current dateless newspaper” of humanity which covers anything that could ever happen. Events like Watergate prove troublesome in terms of classification as generic types, but Langley remains devoted to his task. Homer, meanwhile, works on his music, playing his beloved pianos, and writes his life story. In keeping with the passive reporting style I mentioned in the opening of this review, nothing that happens to them feels direct, or organised, or redolent of ordinary living. It is typical of the oblique nature of the novel, for example, that their first encounter with computerisation is not a computer per se, but a computerised digital organ. Nothing in this novel is straightforward or commonplace. Everything is at a remove from our understanding of life.

Robert Epstein, writing in The Independent, concludes an otherwise highly favourable review with the somewhat ambivalent observation that Homer and Langley succeeds if one can accept that “a historical novel need not do more than paint a picture of its protagonists”. I disagree that this is all Homer and Langley achieves. Despite the remarkable sense of inwardness, there is still, here, an analysis of the First War, the Great Depression, the gangster era, the Second World War, Vietnam, hippies, Watergate, the assassinations of JFK, MLK and Bobby Kennedy, New York’s blackouts and so on. The twentieth century history of America is here in full, only it is presented in negative, in the human spaces beneath the history. It is an extraordinary, but hugely effective way, to analyse our human story. History is written by the victors, they say. Well perhaps, here, we have history written by the losers.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Theft: a Love Story by Peter Carey

One of Peter Carey’s biggest faults is that he is so good you can easily lose sight of just how good he really is. He draws you into the fictive dream so readily and so completely that you are lulled into complacency. You finish a Carey and think “I enjoyed that”. You probably ought to be thinking: “that was outstanding”. Like William Boyd, he is such a good storyteller it is easy to be swept away by the rollicking nature of the narrative. And among contemporary writers, Carey’s control of voice is possibly unmatchable. From his earliest short stories – and an extraordinarily varied read they provide, highly recommended – he has always relished playing with voice. In Theft: A Love Story this can be seen to great effect.

Theft is the story of the “Bones” boys, Michael “Butcher Bones” Boone and Hugh “Slow Bones” Boone, his younger brother with learning difficulties – "doughy, six foot four, filthy, dangerous-looking" – of whom Michael acts as guardian. The story is told by each brother in turn, in alternate first person chapters, thus giving free rein to Carey’s experiments with voice.

The novel begins with Butcher – an artist newly released from a prison sentence for stealing his paintings from his ex-wife – taking up residence with Hugh in his patron’s house in rural New South Wales and trying to resurrect his stalled career. Enter Marlene, an art dealer and femme fatale whose background is as murky as the art world she introduces Butcher to. For hers is not the art world he knows, full of artists painting great artworks and committed to their craft, but the financially-manipulated shadow-world behind it, replete with fraud and intrigue and criminal exploitation.

Marlene is married to Olivier Liebovitz, son of the world-famous Cubist painter Jacques Liebowitz. Olivier has inherited the droit moral, the right to authenticate paintings by his late father. It is Marlene, however, a woman with a superb eye for artistic genius, who truly exercises the function of droit moral. This is the reason for her arrival in the story, to authenticate a Liebowitz in the possession of one of Butcher’s neighbours. She duly declares it authentic and two things happen: the painting’s value soars, and it is stolen.

Butcher, of course, is immediately suspected, on account of being practically the only person within a radius of, say, five hundred miles who would understand the importance of the painting’s authentication. Having previously made himself highly unpopular with the locals anyway, he now decides it is time for him and Hugh to leave and they decamp to Sydney, where they come into contact, once more, with the mysterious Marlene. Now, her artistic eye is turned on Butcher, and she is impressed enough by his newest work to arrange an exhibition of it in Tokyo. If all that sounds improbable, you’re absolutely right. Marlene is not what she seems, and the exhibition is not what it seems. Increasingly, we come to realise that nothing in Marlene’s art world is what it seems.

Gradually it is revealed that Marlene is involved in a major scam. Liebowitz’s paintings can be divided into two phases: paintings from the earlier phase, up to the First World War, are immensely valuable; those from the later period are signficantly less so. Therefore, any painting that can be authenticated as belonging to the early period becomes massively more valuable. Paintings can, of course, be doctored, re-dated, made into something they are not, given the appearance of a genuine Leibowitz. And who better than the holder of Liebowitz’s droit moral to do such a thing? And to ensure that, once done, those judgements cannot be questioned? The story continues in Tokyo and New York as Butcher, by now totally in love with Marlene, is drawn deeer and deeper into her intrigue.

On this level alone, as a thriller set in the art world, Theft would be a fine novel. But it is much more than this. The Bones boys are wonderful creations. Butcher is irascible, a hard-drinking, argumentative, self-absorbed art obsessive. He is consumed by anger that he is no longer a great Australian artist and that his legacy is being lost. He simultaneously know his worth and rails against the world’s inability to grant him more. And Hugh, Slow Bones, our second narrator, is in a different category altogether.

Hugh presents us with an alternative view of what is happening, from the perspective of a mentally damaged individual, although as the novel proceeds we come to realise that his understanding of events, naïve and kind-hearted, is actually not that much more limited than that of his angry and cyncical brother. There is a wonderful rhythm to his speech patterns, emphasised by the FREQUENT USE OF CAPITAL LETTERS to draw his thoughts to their blunt conclusion. The challenge of maintaining a consistent, credible, but above all interesting voice for a character like Hugh would be beyond most ordinary writers. They would turn him into a caricature of what we imagine people with learning difficulties to be, with bizarre or disjointed language and convoluted thought patterns and crazy non-sequiteurs. Increasingly, they would play it for laughs. Carey avoids this pitfall and, as a result, we laugh with not at Hugh, being given privileged access to his, in its own way, highly logical, world. When talking to Butcher about his releationship with Marlene, for example, he tells us: "when I asked him whether she permitted him to put it up her bottom he smacked me across the lughole. I WAS ONLY ASKING."

The most important sentence in this novel is so important it is stated twice: “How do you know how much to pay if you don’t know what it’s worth?” This, in effect, is the theme of the novel, and it beautifully links the corrupt art milieu in which it is set with the human relationships which reverberate within it. Butcher initially asks the question about a work of art, but by its second airing the question has taken on wider resonance: the first iteration, then, is about the theft; but the second, more importantly, refers to the titular love story. But whose love story are we talking about? The most obvious one, naturally, is that between Butcher and Marlene but, in the end, that is shown to exist only in Marlene’s shadow-world of fraud and make-believe. So no, the real love story in Theft is that between the two Boone brothers, and it is this relationship which is the most fascinating aspect of the novel, the element which makes it a great piece of writing.

In this, it is Hugh who is the foremost character. He adds a humanity and warmth which Butcher, in his anger and single-mindedness, has completely repressed. Without Hugh, those aspects of humanity and decency which genuinely reside in his brother would necessarily remain hidden: necessarily because Butcher himself is largely unaware of them. It is only through the prism of Hugh’s honest, open-hearted descriptions of events that we see the true strength of the bond between the brothers. This is truly a love story and it is a wonderful thing to behold.

Barney McKenna

Barney McKenna, the last surviving member of the original line-up of The Dubliners, has died. What a wonderful band they were, truly mould Barney's banjo playing was always a delight.

Wrap me up in my oilskins and jumpers
No more on the docks I'll be seen
Just tell me old shipmates
I'm taking a trip mates
And I'll see you some day on Fiddler's Green

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

Surfacing is Margaret Atwood’s second novel, dating from 1972. All of the facts in that sentence are significant in defining the strengths and considerable weaknesses of a most curious novel. It reads very much as an apprenticeship novel – good, but not quite right – and it struggles to transcend the social politics of both its author and the time in which it was written. Nineteen-seventies feminism would have been all but mute without the didactic. And, despite the author’s attempts to the contrary, the didactic is the underlying tone of this novel. Overall, to be honest, the novel is a bit of a mess. But it’s an intriguing mess. The fine line between genius and nonsense is seldom more evident than in this novel. Thematically, it has tremendous power but in terms of writing craft it is all over the place.

An unnamed narrator, a young Canadian woman, returns to her childhood home on an island in Quebec following the unexplained disappearance of her father, a naturalist. Accompanying her are her boyfriend, Joe, and a married couple, David and Anna. The return to one’s roots is a familiar trope in fiction, of course, allowing protagonists to review the tracks of their lives that have brought them to the mature characters they are. Flaws can be traced, decisions or actions or events uncovered which help to explain their personalities. Ron Rash did much the same thing recently with Saints at the River, a novel which bears similar flaws to those in Surfacing. It is, one suspects, a structural fault with this type of psychological character study. It is too simplistic, perhaps, to reduce the complexity of human character into a historical recreation of past events or traumas and a concomitant extrapolation of cause and effect. We’re not that straightforward. In fairness to Atwood, there is more than that going in Surfacing, but nonetheless it is a significant structural component of the novel.

However, you certainly can’t fault Atwood’s ambition. The novel is short – fewer than 200 pages – and yet she manages to pack in a thematic power which comes uncomfortably close to overload. There is gender, of course, as depicted by the cavalier, at times brutal ways the two women are treated by their menfolk. And there is a strong element of nationalism in the novel, particularly an aggressive anti-Americanism. All of this is quite acceptable, but when the thematic tableau extends to include specific linkages to the Holocaust, through the narrator’s Germanic origins, one feels the author is allowing herself to get carried away. Less is more.

Allied to her treatment of nationalism, there is a strong message about dispossession, the manner in which traditional Canadian ways and customs are being obliterated by incoming American culture. This is a very worthwhile thing to consider: the culture of a society is a powerful but fragile commodity and I’m certainly aware, as a Scot 250 years after the event, of the legacy of the Highland Clearances in my own country.

Therefore, this element of the novel could be intriguing, but it doesn’t work. This is because of the ridiculously cartoonish way in which the “Americans” in the novel are described. They are Beavis and Butthead on manoeuvres and as two-dimensionally obvious as it’s possible to be. It doesn’t matter in the slightest that Atwood inverts this by – shock, horror, who'd have thought it? – revealing that they are, in fact, indigenous Canadians and not Americans at all. The narrator's preconceptions about them may have been proved to be wrong, but the characterisation which brings about this revelation remains two-dimensional and over-the-top. It is, to be honest, simply a cheap trick on the author’s part, allowing her to make a thematic point that isn't warranted by the strength of the narrative.

From the start of the novel there is a sense of disconnection. The narrator cannot reconcile being back in the surroundings of her childhood while in the company of friends from her adult life: “either the three of them are in the wrong place or I am.” The reason for her return is to seek traces of her father, who has inexplicably gone missing and may be dead or may still be alive. Back in the family cabin once more, the sound of road traffic to which she has become so accustomed is replaced by the birdsong she remembers from childhood. Past and present, nature and civilisation, ambition and fear, certainty and doubt, they begin to jostle in her mind. As is customary for this sort of “back to one’s youth” novel, the device is used to unravel the protagonist’s personality. Memories surface: family rancour, death, violence. And, in turn, more recent memories, buried deeply in her psyche, are revealed: an abortion, an affair, relationships and breakdowns.

All of this is revealed to us through the narrator – and how irritatingly postmodern is it that the central character doesn’t even have a name so she has to be referred to as “the narrator”? She is, of course, unreliable. By the end of the novel she has completely lost her senses. Or has she? Has she, in fact, regained them? Has she recovered the animal spirit that lurks within us, the gnostic spark of knowledge which modernity and its brutalising ways have extinguished? Because now the novel begins to take an ecopastoral turn. The rational world of science and machinery that we have created is in conflict with the animalism around us: this has been the Jungian rallying cry of fiction from Modernism onwards. Although it is well handled, in honesty others have done it better: Pincher Martin, The Orchard Keeper, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Housekeeping, The Glass Bead Game, Bartleby the Scrivener, The Life and Times of Michael K., the poetry of Ted Hughes. Even Last of the Mohicans. All of them explore similar territory to this, and, until the remarkable conclusion of Surfacing, all of them are better.

Why? There are two reasons, one thematic and one craft. Thematically, there is just too much going on. There is nothing wrong, in a novel-length work, with thematic complexity, with a deep interlinking of themes and ideas. But here they don’t so much interlink as batter into one another. It’s a dodgem car of a novel, its ideas forever careering into the buffers and crashing into one another. One minute it’s ecopastoralism, then it’s gender politics, then nationalism, then the Holocaust. And the underlying fault is that the only thing linking these strands together is the flawed and unreliable narration of the main character. At times she is clearly not sane and: while it is possible to fashion a novel around the machinations of an insane protagonist, here it cannot work because the thematic targets are too varied. Crime and Punishment works because Raskolnikov’s obessions slide, in the course of the novel, from a greedy desire for both money and knowledge (specifically the knowledge of murder) into a gnawing desire for redemption. Although Raskolnikov’s sanity could be doubted, the linearity of the novel’s thematic exploration is entirely consistent. In Surfacing, that thematic exploration flails about like a woman beating off midges in the gloaming.

In terms of writing craft, the principal issue is characterisation. What do we have here? Firstly, men are shits – that old staple of feminist literature. Therefore, we have David who forces his wife to strip while he photographs her, while Joe comes close to raping the narrator. No. There needs to be a balance somewhere, a male character who is not a sexual predator. Secondly, American men are even bigger shits – that staple of leftist, anti-American writing. Thirdly, anyone embraced by modern culture is basically uncivilised, while anyone in touch with the natural wilderness has a primeval connection with some deeper spiritual knowledge. There is a ham-fistedness to much of this that is infuriating, because it damages what otherwise would be a very fine piece of writing.

Supporters will argue that I’m simplifying what is in the text to make a point, and they may be right. The ending definitely suggests a far greater control of theme than I’m allowing. And certainly, the narrator is a remarkably complex character and it would not do to take anything she says at face value. Truth shifts and warps as the story progresses. Nothing is clearly understood. Therefore, it could be argued, some of the caricatures I complain of could, in fact, be representations of that very unreliability, and therefore inverted in meaning? Well, perhaps so, but it’s possible to make this sort of argument about virtually any novel of ideas that has ever been written. I agree there doesn’t have to be a moment when an author presents “this is what I believe” – reading Blood Meridian cured me of that critical foible – but somewhere along the line one needs to get a sense of what is being addressed. That only really emerges in the novel’s terrible and wonderful conclusion.

In this, the narrator breaks free from all shackles and reverts, briefly, to a Rousseauian state of natural savagery. The ending is far and away the most interesting part of the novel. This is where you see Atwood the novelist really beginning to emerge. All before is preliminary and, it might be argued, extraneous. William Golding would have started this novel here. It is surreal and terrifying. The narrator becomes something other – freed from rational instinct but somehow different from the wilderness dweller we might have expected. She doesn’t become some vessel for an ancient spirituality, nor does she find an animalistic core. She doesn’t become a visionary. And yet she does manage to channel some of those impulses and forces. It is a peculiar thing, and this is writing of impressive depth and complexity. It echoes Suttree’s sojourn in the mountains but, here, the narrator finds some sense of inner truth that Suttree would not attain until his typhus attack: “I have to recant, give up the old belief that I am powerless and because of it nothing I can do will ever hurt anyone.”

As a theme, that’s about as interesting as it gets. No man is an island. No victim can be despatched without a trace. No act, however guileless, is without consequence. No human can exist without exerting an influence – for good but also for ill – on other human beings. And for all its faults, it’s definitely worth reading Surfacing in order to come to this moment of departure.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Echo of My Brother's Radio by Murdo McManacall

Perthshire born Murdo McManacall is possibly the most famous member of the loose confederacy called the Scottish Prenaissance, that odd philosophical-literary grouping from the 1940s which believed that consciousness and memory pre-dated birth. While Gregor McSamsa and Darius Dashvell have sunk into relative obscurity, McManacall’s novels have never gone out of print. His philosophy – at once problematic and engaging, is most fully developed in his final novel, the sublime Echo of My Brother’s Radio.

In it, he imagines a world without sound, only the echo of a noise that isn’t being made. It’s a difficult concept to grasp, and it usually takes readers about 148 pages before it begins to make sense. But then it does, usually in a moment of blinding (or should that be defeaning?) realisation, and from there one is taken on a kaleidoscopic aural backdraft of sheer brilliance. The most important aspect of this is the novel’s setting, the imaginary town of Shoosh, based loosely on the author’s own home town of Crieff, in rural Perthshire. Shoosh is a town tormented by stone. Hewn from the local mountains, where it had lain unfettered for millenia, and cut and dressed and forced into labour as domestic houses, the stones rebel, their silent screams gradually coalescing and infiltrating the minds of every one of the town’s residents. There, they flood the locals’ brains with millenia of accumulated knowledge and history, until not a single event that has ever happened anywhere in the world is unknown to them. Naturally, with this unbearable weight of knowledge, the poor people disintegrate and the novel ends with a horrifying, if necessarily quiet, climax in which they melt and drip silently into the River Earn and flow out towards the Tay and the North Sea, where their knowledge expands and infects the whole world, reducing it to a state of silent torment.

There is little hope in any of this. McManacall’s world is a grim and lonely place. But at least there’s no mobile phones or noisy neighbours, so it's not all bad. John Byrne described Echo of my Brother's Radio is "the loudest silence in history", and that sums it up perfectly.