The following reviews appeared in The Independent:

Glow, Ned Beauman

Ned Beauman's worlds are recognisable: they are unhinged, over-whelming and brilliant. In his first novel, a swastika-blazoned beetle led aristocrats, eugenicists and a five-foot, nine-toed boxer on a caper through thirties Britain; his second followed struggling artist Egon Loeser in his pursuit of the bewitching Adele Hitler, unfolding a trail of mayhem that stretched from pre-war Berlin, 17th century then 1930s Paris, and 1930s L.A., to an indeterminate point in the future.

In Glow, Beauman's first novel to be located solely in the present day, Raf, a twenty-something Londoner afflicted with a sleep disorder alights upon a series of intriguing occurrences: a drug called "glow" which enhances your brain's reaction to light, a mysterious girl called Cherish, Burmese strangers loitering around his local radio station, and a number of white vans that are kidnapping people. It all boils down to a Burmese mining corporation's attempts to monopolize control of glow by liquidizing the Burmese community producing it in south London.

Beauman has taste: his antennae are acutely tuned to the stylish and resonant. And having assembled his cortege of ideas he has an ingenious way of effecting their interpenetration. In Glow these ideas are: light, sound, frequencies, neurochemistry, pattern, synchronization, disruption, real and fake. Like Tom McCarthy's C, Glow is concerned with communication in all its minute and multitudinous forms, its equations and correspondences.

This attention to detail is evident in the surface of the novel: metaphors are dazzlingly original – a bus's windows so bright they are "like a goods vehicle hauling not flowers to market but bulk photons", a broken windscreen "diamonds of safety glass which with this morning's rain has mingled an alluvium of damp white blossom and a few fronds of synthetic wig hair caught on a chicken bone, like the shattered remains of a tribal fetish" – though it may not be to everyone's taste. Beauman gets off on words the way others get off on porn: words like "cloacal", "entactogenic", "ouroboros", "capsaicin" and "cognatic", as well as discussions about vector algebra, open-source bio-rhythm generators, suprachiasmatic nuclei, vectors of influence and input-agnostic flow mathematics.

Raf, the anti-hero, is lovelorn and socially disadvantaged. Beauman's protagonists seem to be versions of one person but it doesn't matter; he is not interested in character, only in constructing a vehicle for the exploration of his ideas – and why shouldn't he when the ideas are so ingenious? There are some instances in Glow however, where the general implausibility interferes with our enjoyment: the successful attempt of former PR man Fourpetal to milk a former colleague for information at a climbing gym, for instance, or the fact that the production of glow depends upon foxes eating a weed and their excreta being purified – or that the foxes themselves are becoming more human as a result of this.

The plot too, while impressive, is littered with connections that seem too felicitous. This did not matter so much in Beauman's previous novels, perhaps because they were not set in the present; here the Burmese sections dragged, the jargon was sometimes tedious, I didn't care about the characters. I didn't care about the characters in Beauman's other novels either but it didn't matter because I was enjoying myself.

Is Glow's message that the "material interests" mentioned in Conrad's epigraph cannot help but be inherently corrupt (Cherish's dreams of a "benign narco-state" can only be accomplished by jettisoning innocent lives)? Is it of modern-day paranoia, "a fear in a brain in a head in a hood in a call in a warehouse in a city"? Or that we are creators of our own reality, nothing but "a drowsy and gullible consciousness floating through its own depthless improvisation"? But in a book that foregrounds hijacked communication, has a radio station called "Myth FM", and states: "we live in those distortions", perhaps the very idea of a message at all is a foolish one.

If Glow lacks anything it is weight, the sense that behind the glittering display there is something enduring. But few novels have weight; weight would hinder Beauman's fantastical machine in its glorious flight. Glow does not glow – it dazzles; but I was unsure about what remained after the mind-bending effects of the trip had worn off.

The 'My Brilliant Friend' tetralogy, Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan saga, including its final and latest instalment, The Story of the Lost Child, dramatises an extraordinarily complex relationship between Elena, the protagonist, and Lila, her “brilliant friend”.

Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo are born in impoverished 1950s Naples. They are '”opposite [yet] united”. Lila is bold, mercurial, by turns deeply malicious and utterly selfless. Elena is a follower, a striver, chronically insecure. The relationship is symbiotic, and destructive to Elena, whose achievements are sooner or later eclipsed by Lila's. Lila possesses an 'irresistible force of attraction' that makes her the focus of the 'neighborhood' and Elena herself. The greatest obstacle Elena the motivated student, young woman, gifted academic, ardent feminist, successful novelist, wife, lover, mother and daughter faces in achieving autonomy and fulfilment is not the poverty of her origins, religious and cultural institutions, fellow literati, political opposition, or the men in her life, but her lifelong friend - a friend she would surely die for, yet more than once wishes was dead.

It is ironic then, that Elena (and 'Elena' the author)'s entire artistic endeavor is initiated by a wish to preserve Lila, if only though writing. The first Neapolitan novel opens with Elena receiving a phone call from Lila's son: his mother is missing. '[Lila] wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six,' Elena writes, 'but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind. I was really angry. We'll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write – all the details of our story...' An unselfish and selfish undertaking then; one that intends to rescue and give to the elusive Lila 'a form whose margins won't dissolve', and at the same time 'capture', transcribe and translate her, best her by demonstrating Elena's own artistry; render lifeless by forcing to appear in a text she who we learn at the conclusion of Lost Child is also writing a saga; she who showed such prodigious talent as a child that her teacher stole her story The Blue Fairy and only relinquished it after death.

Writing about Lila is actually a way for Elena to explore herself: 'the very nature of our relationship', she writes early in Lost Child: 'dictates that I can reach her only by passing through myself', and indeed at times it seems the women are interchangeable. Ferrante has said the most difficult thing for a writer is to see, name and imagine oneself. If she can do this only by means of 'Elena-Lila', Elena the character relies on her alter ego just as much. The two women are symbolized by Tina and Nu, dolls thrown into a cellar when they are children, 'mine by Lila, Lila's by me'. When they cannot find the dolls the girls climb to the ogre-like Don Achille's apartment thinking he has stolen them. He denies this and gives them money to buy new dolls but they instead buy Little Women, 'the novel that had led Lila to write The Blue Fairy and me to become what I am today', Elena writes. Literature and learning are viewed by Lila intermittently and Elena continuously as a means to escape and construct new selves, like the new dolls they had opportunity to purchase. 'Tina' is also the name of Lila's daughter (ostensibly the lost child of the title) whose disappearance heralds her psychic disintegration, a disappearance Elena hypothesizes Lila fabricated because she could not bear to see herself 'reproduced, in all her antipathy'.

Elena needs Lila: 'using her to give truth to my story [is] indispensable'. But Lila's explicit wish is to leave 'not a trace'. '[M]y favorite key is the one that deletes', she says. Lila's goal of complete erasure is linked to her terror of 'dissolving boundaries' when objects 'pour into one another'. Lila - she who 'moved things, who made and unmade' - wants to erase herself so that she can be protected from disintegration and chaos. This sits oddly with her ability to 'take…disorder from you…and give it back…well organized' but has a powerful counterpart in the political instability and shifting identities the novel dramatizes, and it is in the passages when Ferrante explores the liminal states of Lila's consciousness that the writing transcends itself.

These strengths not much improve the novel, however. Lost Child does not stand independently and despite the summaries in the Index the uninitiated reader will struggle to understand the story, which begins in medias res, as if Elena were beginning a new sentence rather than a book. Elena herself is not an engaging narrator. She has a habit of needlessly explaining ('In other words I felt reassured…' 'Problems, in other words') and stating the obvious ('Those were difficult hours', 'I was proud', 'I was displeased', 'I suffered'). Ferrante has said that writing, above all, is a battle to avoid lying. While Elena's honesty is liberating for author and character, and for the reader to some extent, it does raise the question of just how autobiographical Ferrante's works are (a question Ferrante seems to invite: Elena's work - a novel entitled A Friendship - deals with almost identical issues to Ferrante's own quartet, both Elena and Ferrante share names, are writers, both approximately the same age, both were born in Naples…) While this is not a problem in terms of subject matter, Ferrante seems to make little effort to conjure a pleasing aesthetic structure: Lost Child (and the previous novels) reads like a diary, a stream of events that bleed into one another. Nothing is excluded (Elena is 'luminous' with happiness because of critical acclaim despite learning her baby daughter has just been admitted to hospital with pneumonia; on holiday she has sex with her husband standing up in the kitchen so as not to wake the children) though scenery, smells, sounds and atmosphere are rarely described.

Even taking into account translation, the prose is awkward, pedestrian: 'eyelids' 'cancel' a gaze, tempests 'explode', 'My heart was going crazy in my chest', and strangely archaic, with much usage of the euphemism 'sex': 'the large sex taut between his thighs', 'thrusting his taut sex inside the sex of a mature woman'. It is also melodramatic: words such as 'torture', 'destroy', 'passion', 'slave', 'heart', 'consume', 'desire', 'struggle' and 'horror' abound. '[I]ntolerable anguish' seizes the heroine, she is 'freed from chains', hearts are about to burst, heads 'in the clouds', 'characters battle 'irresistible force[s] of attraction', are 'annihilated by wonder', 'break out in cold sweats'. Elena herself is ruthless and self-serving. She has a 'craving to grab everything' and constantly checks she is receiving 'each thing that was mine by right', from critical acclaim to sufficient orgasms. Because we are never released from the torrent of intense, un-modulated, and almost unhinged ranting, reading can become humorous: 'Nino had f**ked the servant and then gone to his appointment, not giving a shit about me or even about his daughter. Ah, what a piece of shit, all I did was make mistakes. Was he like his father? No, too simple…his propensity for f**king did not come from a crude, naïve display of virility, based on half-fascistic, half-southern clichés….Philistine, philistine…son of a bitch…Rage had opened up a pathway in the horror…' Despite all of this, however, there is a strange impetus to read on.

Elena rereads her text at the conclusion to 'find out if there are even a few lines where it is possible to trace the evidence that Lila entered [it]', but has 'to acknowledge that all these pages are mine alone'. She has won the autonomy so long desired at the cost of forfeiting her subject and friend. But then she recants a little: 'Only [Lila] can say if…she has managed to insert herself into this…text.' In that case we should reserve judgment on The Lost Child, and the mighty saga that preceded it, for the enigmatic, protean and seemingly eternal Lila herself.

The Snow Queen, Michael Cunningham

The Snow Queen begins with the promise of greatness and the exciting prospect, in our current climate, of spiritual phenomena being explored seriously: “A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central Park, four days after Barrett had been mauled, once again, by love.” It is modern-day Brooklyn. Barrett is gay and unfortunate in love. His brother Tyler, with whom he has an unusually close relationship, is trying to write a song to save his dying girlfriend Beth. Beth recovers from cancer – the Snow Queen's kingdom – miraculously, only to succumb three months later and die.

It is unusual for a contemporary novel to align itself so overtly with a fairytale but Cunningham's novel does, the references to frozen lakes, sleepers, underworlds, journeys, captivity, 'cinder's caught in people's eyes, and snow (characters dream, write songs about, walk in, liken drugs and memories to snow) intruding obsessively. The overall parallel to Andersen's fable is muddy however, single elements endowed with both malevolent and benevolent significance, characters taking the role of child rescuer, child captive and Snow Queen simultaneously. Initially the main disappointment was that I wanted the book to be about Barrett, who is introduced to us at the opening, but soon takes a back seat to Tyler. Then I found the characterization, though possibly sophisticated, too convoluted: both Barrett, Tyler and Beth, at various times, wish Beth was well, ill, dead and alive. Then there were just too many interchanges that didn't ring true: Tyler's rage that Barrett did not tell him about the light, Barrett's desire to keep it secret, the just plain weird childhood interactions with their mother. Characters exist in some rarefied, high-Modernist atmosphere, sit in bathtubs while an all-important Woolfian window stands open (to glacial weather), discussing their dreams “as if they [are] scientists, taking notes”, spend all night taking drugs then emerge onto rooftops in snowstorms to ponder moments when they “were able to hold [their] very being in…outstretched hands and say, here I am…”, supposedly have money worries but sit around writing songs,”'stand for a moment in…doorway['s] rectangle[s] of snowy light…appear[ing] to wonder, briefly, at the fact that [they're] there at all”. The description of Beth's illness is repellant: cancer is not about “white do-rag[s] wrapped with exquisite carelessness around…hairless heads” and descents into beautiful though ghostly kingdoms, but very real suffering.

Cunningham's prose, though stylish, begins to feel as stuck as Tyler's song. When you have read enough sentences such as: “Barrett, bluff-chested, naked in greying water, is in particular possession of his pink-white, grandly mortified glow” you begin to long for the directness, simplicity and power of a Coetzee. “I'm not trying to be profound, or anything,” Barrett remarks at one point, and found myself wishing his creator had taken a leaf out of his book. The whole thing begins to seem unnecessary – as does Barrett's initial vision, which intrudes into unrelated conversations with all the weirdness, pointlessness and implausibility of a U.F.O.

Perhaps Cunningham does manage to dramatise the way hope leads to devastation and devastation hope (one of the possible themes, the two words described as “the same thing”'), perhaps he does manage to dramatise recognition and apprehension, but if he does it was lost on me. There are too many meanings, centres, gleaming nubs. Towards the end of the novel the character Barrett confided his sighting of the light to tells him he too has seen it then asks Barrett for money. By this point, if Barrett feels cheated, so does the reader. “What, then…was the annunciation?” Barrett wonders at one point; readers of The Snow Queen – if they make it that far - will do no less.

I Put A Spell On You, John Burnside

One of the pitfalls of memoir writing is failure to transcend the personal, the author succumbing to solipsistic catharsis. There is no way anyone could level this charge against John Burnside's recent work however, because it is not just a memoir but also a collection of (sometimes apparently random) "digressions" into subjects such as "glamour", narcissism and freakishness.

While you may be tempted to skim some, most deserve to be read carefully; those subjects that the author does not reimagine he discusses with freshness and urgency – his tiny yet astonishing essay on the old Scots word "thrawn", which everyone should read, as they should his sixth digression on aloneness and community, is a case in point, and an antidote to our culture of fear and conformity.

Some passages had me cheering, passages that contain lines such as: "the beglamoured exist as the antithesis of that world… and their visions… give the lie to the Authorised Version of existence", "There is real virtue… in being of no use…" and "For the not-thrawn, all belonging has to do with possession… [which] is the very antithesis of belonging – is nothing more, in fact, than a routine enactment of being present in which attentiveness is sacrificed for an illusion of ownership."

Even the conventional autobiographical passages are elevated by Burnside's desire to penetrate the essence of things. Here he dissects a single note from a Nina Simone song sung by a "desperate", fly-away girl he knew in his youth, a note which echoes along a Proustian trail of association that ends with the word "glamourie": "I imagine that somewhere… she had discovered the power of the sustained note, and she had obviously sung like this before, for herself more than anyone – to deflect criticism, no doubt, but at the same time, to reassert some vague hope she had, a hope that, as the songs all begged to know, and in spite of much evidence to the contrary, love is real… I see now that that was what I was responding to: that hope." It is "that hope", the pursuit of and flight from the various states known as "love", that is at the heart of Burnside's treatise – and Spell is a treatise as much as it is a memoir, having much in common with works by Montaigne, Pessoa, and Sebald.

For all its impersonal enquiry, there were occasions when the personal intruded all too uncomfortably, however. I was embarrassed on behalf of Burnside's wife and children because he never mentions them; in fact, he does not contemplate anyone very much but himself (his mother being an exception). Burnside is married, but Spell reads like the memoir of a single man: a man who considers going home with a woman he meets in a bar, getting in touch with the "real love" of his youth, who lists every woman he has ever been attracted to but his wife, and asserts that his rejection of his youthful love was justified – even complimentary – because "the options offered by the outside world were all of them beneath us". What this says about Burnside's wife isn't hard to infer.

Setting the real person, whoever that may be, and his relation to this "memoir" aside, though, as well as retaining reservations about some of the statements, when Burnside hones in on something, there are real rewards. I recommend this treasury, notebook, journal, repository, treatise and meditation, because at times it constitutes not just brilliant, but essential reading.

Confessions of a Lioness, Mia Couto

'Confessions of the Lioness' is inspired by fact. Hunters were called in response to lion attacks that coincided with the visit of environmental field officers during a program of prospecting in Mozambique. "Gradually", Mia Couto writes in his author's note, "the hunters realised that the mysteries they were having to confront were merely symptoms of social conflicts". The problem with the ensuing novel is that this realisation is not gradual. The second problem is that though this could be remedied by dramatisation, it isn't.

Archangel, the hunter, speaks like a prophet, is likened to Christ, yet feels insubstantial. Mariamar, the village girl, is so many different things it is no surprise to learn at the conclusiong she "was never born" at all. Characters are lost amidst a hoard of metaphors, discover blood gushing from them, beasts making love to them, lose the power of speech, lose fingers, legs, become emotions, lions, hens, vultures, snakes, fish, oceans, sky, stars, trees, rivers, souls, gods, the village.

Motifs of drowning, burial, exhumation, rebirth and dying proliferate. Life becomes death, the hunter hunted, the captor captive, the devourer the devoured. It is understandable in such delirium that characters wish to empty themselves and take the form of nothing at all.

Couto's prose is high-flown and – even allowing for the inadequacies of translation – awkward. Words "reverberate through [a] mysterious setting", "desperate urges" "cause" characters to do things, another's "tone adjust[s] to her status", "an anguished sigh escapes [a] breast", a woman "impress[es] upon [him] her bodily curves". Gnomic utterances such as – "silence is an egg in reverse: the shell is someone else's, but it's we who get broken"; "[s]adness isn't crying… sadness is having no one to cry for" – occur on every page.

Moreover, Couto does not engage, he states. Meaning is hammered out. And things often become ludicrous: "I want to be devoured. But I want to be devoured in the sexual sense. I want a lion to make me pregnant". We are told things too late: "I had just challenged the sacred precepts that forbade me from uttering the names of the dead", Mariamar explains. There is no discovery: "Those hunters are no longer humans. They are lions. Those men are the very animals they seek to hunt".

"Then I understand", says one character after another, the words invariably followed by something the reader understood much earlier. The effect of these multiple revelations is profoundly underwhelming. The subject of female divinity and creation (the Other) disrupted, abused, and snuffed out by 'lions' – paranoia, jealousy and hate – though as old as women themselves, has never been more current. It is unfortunate, then, that rather than speaking to the heart, this novel reads like a bad undergraduate essay. Compare it to Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country or Waiting for the Barbarians, novels dealing with similar subject matter in an effective way. In each case the writing speaks for itself.

The following review appeared in The Guardian:

Dirt Road, James Kelman

Dirt Road, the Booker prizewinner James Kelman's ninth novel, in keeping with much of his previous work, takes the form of a lengthy stream of consciousness in a Scottish dialect, narrated by a young, working-class man engulfed by a sense of frustration and entrapment. The desire for independence and self-reliance is one Kelman has addressed consistently; in the past, he has identified himself as one who spoke from within an occupied country. He has also stated his desire to write and remain a member of his own community. Dirt Road may well be his most optimistic dramatisation to date of the possibilities of political and personal enfranchisement.

It opens with 16-year-old Murdo and his father, Tom, leaving Scotland to visit family in Alabama, following the deaths of Murdo's mother and sister from cancer. The trip is clearly a huge undertaking for Tom, whose anxiety reveals itself in his concern that they will not manage to contact Murdo's uncle, his fear they will miss buses, and in his chastisement of Murdo for forgetting his phone, assuming their relatives will provide towels, popping out to the shop… even for looking inside sandwiches. We do not know whether Tom has always been so critical, or if it is a result of his recent bereavement, but it makes for saddening reading; Murdo is a well-intentioned, warm-hearted young man, dealing with his own burden of grief and apparently not getting much support.

Kelman shows rather than tells par excellence, narrating the entire novel through Murdo's consciousness, replete with dialect such as “didnay” and “jeesoh”. The reader is privy to everything, from Murdo's concern not to spread zits when shaving to his sexual fantasies and meditations, sometimes quite profound, on the nature of consciousness.

Murdo is innocent, old fashioned and shy; the hour or so he spends with a girl he meets early on in his visit to America is enough to tempt him to journey across the country to join her at a Cajun music festival, in defiance of his father. His decision is brave, desperate, reckless and understandable, given the extremely short leash Tom has kept him on, and given Murdo's overriding passion for music – he feels physically weak when he has not played for a while, and often laments the fact that his father did not allow him to bring his accordion. His journey to the Lafayette festival, a possibly doomed undertaking, signals the beginning of a healthier relationship with Tom and serves as a metaphor for Murdo's emerging selfhood. We cannot imagine he would have dreamed of running away prior to this holiday, but within the briefest of time spans Kelman allows us to see Murdo become a new version of himself.

Kelman's prose requires proper listening. Listening is what Murdo does effortlessly, highly attuned, as he is, to sound and music. He believes music can free you; take you anywhere at all. While Murdo acts out his desire for self-fulfilment, Tom lives in as constrained a way as possible. It is fortunate, then, that his son's rebellion forces him to take action and bring the more generous aspects of his underlying love to the fore. Tom forgives Murdo for running away, enjoys himself at the music festival, gets up to dance and even, after some persuading, allows Murdo to remain on tour with his new friends, something he would have been unlikely to concede to at the outset. The picture looks distinctly brighter for Tom as well as Murdo at the novel's close.

Dirt Road is a life-affirming novel, in which Kelman paints a convincing and at times moving portrait of two likable characters on the road to fulfilment and recovery.

The following reviews appeared in blog posts:

Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies tells the story of Lotto, a playwright, and his marriage, first through his own eyes, then his wife Mathilde's. Mathilde is one candidate for the role of Fate/Fury, weaving the tapestry of her husband's life unbeknownst to him and meting out justice upon those who betray her. Lotto's mother, who withholds his inheritance, is another. The Fates/Furies appear to be disembodied entities, however, and though there are classical references, there are no direct parallels except a subplot in which Telegonus mirrors Lotto's son, Odysseus Lotto, and Mathilde Penelope.

Groff's language can be brilliantly inventive (trees are 'sparked neurons', the body of one recently deceased 'a word repeated until it has lost all meaning', funeral well-wishers 'carp…mouthing the air,' 'Pelicans thumb-tack… in the wind'). She has a predilection for the 'non-sentence' currently in vogue but the stilted, notational style does cover swathes of narrative economically. The Fates/Furies' utterances are odd, however. Interlacing a rendition of jingle bells with a dive into the past, they lend a filmic, multi-sensorial quality to the narrative while commenting wittily on the present, but mostly their bracketed pronouncements are jarring, faux lyrical. The sagacity feels thin ('[The noble feel the same strong feelings as the rest of us; the difference is in how they choose to act]; '[Tragedy, comedy. It's all a matter of vision]') or simply nonsensical ('[Let me be the wave…if I cannot be the wave, let me be the rupture…]').

The main weakness is that so much feels unreal, from the depictions of artists 'in deep', composing eyes closed, arms outstretched, walking into snow barefoot, without jackets, writing masterpieces while drunk, having never written a word before, to the sex on every other page, within moments of characters meeting one another (not even casts and slings deter them). Faces press to hands, mouths to throats, tongues lick crumbs from another's lips - and for dialogue: ''You're a genius,' she said…'So do me,' he said. 'Gladly,' she said'; ''I just grinned,' he said, 'and bore it.'…'I just bared it,' she said. 'Not boring,' he said. 'Darling, bore me,' she said. 'As in drill.' 'Like a wild boar,' he said.'

Everything strains desperately to be stylish. Groff seems to be in love with the idea of the artist, love, marriage, sex, but unable or uninterested in depicting these things realistically. When, holed up one winter, Lotto realises he has ingested 498 percent of his daily fiber in granola bars the moment is so uncharacteristically humorous it is a relief. Other authentic moments include the depictions of Mathilde's childhood and the way her mother tongue bobs beneath her English. On the whole, however, the novel feels hollow. 'There was something just, I don't know, unconvincing,' one character remarks; '[t]he audience leaves after three hours with an overwhelming question: Why?' After considerably longer, so did I.

The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner is one of our subtlest, most erudite and original writers so it was with great anticipation I opened his latest publication: a short essay in the form of a simple yet beautifully bound paperback published by Fitzcarraldo, whose impeccable taste, evident in both who they choose to publish as well as how they present their offerings, seems to be unrivalled (they recently produced the equally brilliant Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, bound in a similarly chic jacket). Lerner's language may alienate some readers: we plunge straight into iambic pentameter, parallelisms and conjunctive adverbs. Words such as: 'innominate', 'lubricity', 'fungible', phrases like 'vector of implication', and sentences such as: 'The virgule is the irreducible mark of poetic virtuality' are to be found on nearly every other page. While some elements of this essay smack just a bit of affectation and faux literariness (the overly-aestheticized large print, for instance, and the italicised topic headings in the margin that summarize key points in the text: 'unfolding of the word', 'E pluribus unum', 'I, too') and may grate a little, on the whole the essay is so accomplished that I am sure Ben Lerner will garner many more fans than detractors.

He begins by tracing poetry's history, from the first 'poet' Caedmon, through Plato's Republic and Sydney's Defense to the present day, analysing society's conscious and subconscious assumptions about poets and poetry along the way; Lerner, being a published poet as well as novelist, has had his fair share of exposure to these, which involve, he says, 'both embarrassment and accusation'. His central thesis is that poetry is 'an art…hated from without and within', and such duality is the hinge upon which he levers much of his discussion, unearthing contradiction and dichotomy wherever he turns his gaze. Reading 'bad' poetry, he says, simultaneously alerts us to what good poetry might do and be. '[T]he closest we can come to hearing the 'planet-like music of poetry' is to hear the ugliest earthly music'. Awful and dazzling poets, by virtue of their awfulness and brilliance respectively, both show us heavenly poetry, though it is easier to agree on a very bad example of something than a very good one. The central impulse, even within poetry itself, Lerner suggests, is to stop writing in favour of silence and linguistic (if not literal) death (he cites Rimbaud and Oppen as cases in point). The avant-garde, he argues, for all their posited hatred of conventional poetry and attempts to explode the form, still create poems; and poems remain poems however transgressive and subversive they are. And this almost magnetic attraction towards void, empty space and erasure, towards nothing rather than something, or if not nothing then something one remove from itself; something encased and re-contextualised, possessing, as Keats would say, 'negative capability', Lerner deeply relates to: 'I tend to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose…' he writes, 'where the line breaks were replaced by slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.' He even sees contradiction in the disappointment in poetry's lack of political power in the present, which unites, he says, the futurist and the nostalgist.

Lerner's fascination with the poetic impulse towards both creation and destruction yields particularly rich results when he devotes himself to what he does best: detailed critique and appreciation of individual lines of poetry. His analysis of Emily Dickinson's 'I dwell in Possibility' is itself a thing of beauty, his identification of Shelley's belief in the usefulness of poetry with its very uselessness, and his unpicking of the paradox at the heart of Whitman's verse (who 'sing[s] difference but cannot differentiate himself without compromising his labour – which is part [in turn] of why his labour has to be a kind of leisure') are masterly. His mini essay on the virgule is even more dazzling, if possible, for being as diminutive as the mark it discusses, than it would be if it had been drawn out. Despite his brilliance, however, Lerner is also likably human, freely admitting he has never been put into a trance by Keats' odes and doubting any critic has either, while his diamantine dissection of William McGonagall's awful 'The Tay Bridge Disaster' affords the reader a giggle or two. He is also humble, continually referencing his erstwhile and 'brilliant' teacher Alan Grossman, writing: 'I come to realise with greater and greater clarity how central Grossman's thinking is for me'.

What we are left with after this exploration is what Lerner describes as the common tendency to 'virtualize' poetry – evident in everyone from Keats, to Whitman, to Dickinson – a sort of universal recognition that poetry cannot and never will be enough, so must be negated even as it is created; and thus, possibly, we may approach if not the Ideal itself then at least knowledge of it. Even Claudia Rankine, Lerner writes, deploys the lyric (two collections of her poetry have as their subtitle: 'An American Lyric') subversively in order to highlight the 'felt unavailability of traditional lyric categories', in which, once more,  ''Poetry' becomes a word for that possibility whose absence we sense in these poems'.

Lerner's conclusion? That all of the impossible demands and criticisms levelled at poetry throughout history are actually an 'unwitting way of expressing the Utopian ideal of Poetry', which he himself believes he came closest to experiencing in the liberating, mercurial and magical changeability words possess in early childhood, when 'any usage signified'. Even in adulthood, however, poetry is 'a vocation no less essential for being impossible'. And hatred can be a part of its appreciation – even it's nurturing, for – in a concluding sentence that in its effortless style, originality and contradictory brilliance can be taken as a token of the whole that precedes it – Lerner exhorts readers to perfect their contempt of poetry, to deepen rather than dispel it, so that, in 'creating a place for possibility and present absences (like unheard melodies), it might come to resemble love.'

The Wind in theWillows, Kenneth Grahame

Kenneth Grahame's 1908 children's classic The Wind in the Willows was republished last year in a beautiful hardback edition by Egmont 'Classics', complete with an appendix of activities for children, a well-conceived glossary (as some of Grahame's words are challenging) and E. H. Shepherd's original and unforgettable pen illustrations. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The recommended reading age is 9 – 11 years but a confident reader of seven or eight could be enthralled either reading it themselves or having it read to them and indeed anyone from a five or six year-old to ninety or more could fall in love with this book and remain in love for life.

The unusual and wonderful thing about The Wind in the Willows is that it has references adults will appreciate (to Ulysses for instance, the politics of Grahame's day, and other literary allusions), some moments of genuine profundity (the haunting chapter 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn' is a case in point) – and abundant humour, warmth and excitement that will entertain children as well. Indeed every aspect of this novel is exceptional. The prose is exquisite, the atmosphere palpable, the descriptions of the natural world amongst some of the best in children's literature and not a page goes by without some gentle humour. The characterisation deserves special notice and is unusually sophisticated for a children's book; Mole, in particular, is a peculiar, humorous and endearing little creature but all of Grahame's cast are marvellously realised.

Children's classics of this period excel in their delicacy, beauty and strangeness. They seem to possess a quality difficult to describe but feels 'strange' to our 21st century ears. This quality might also be called 'magic'. There is an 'otherness' to The Wind in the Willows (and several other bygone treasures such as Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, The Secret Garden, Charlotte's Web…) that it is virtually non-existent in modern children's literature and so enchanting that it is impossible not to feel that Grahame has written something resonant and timeless, and that while we are reading we are doing something very worthwhile.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte

Ashamed of not having read anything by Anne Bronte but only her sisters I recently began reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and was astonished (though perhaps should not have been) firstly by how psychologically convincing the characters are, and secondly by the strangely addictive quality the writing possesses; considering its length (it is nearly 600 pages in the recent, extremely beautiful Vintage editions illustrated by the gifted Sarah Gillespie) I was amazed at how quickly I was half, then three-quarters, then all of the way through it, and wishing it was not over and that I could read more.

The main reason to recommend The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, however, is that Anne Bronte has created a strongly – even radically – feminist heroine in Helen Huntingdon; one who shuns the institution of marriage when circumstances call for it (an act most nineteenth century novelists – especially early nineteenth century novelists like Anne – shied away from; as they shied away from depictions of male depravity that Anne is utterly fearless in recounting) despite paying a price that at some points seems impossibly high, refusing to be swayed from following a path her own integrity marks out for her. This strength of character is common to all the Bronte's work, of course, but Anne's portrayals of women are by far the most revolutionary and only recently beginning to attract the recognition they deserve. It is also worth noting that her male characters possess a far more convincing inner terrain than either Emily or Charlotte's; Heathcliff may be iconic and overwhelming, but iconic and overwhelming characters are not usually noted for their plausibility, relatability or tendency to inspire empathy. All these aspects make it both extremely sad and surprising that Charlotte Bronte herself dismissed her younger sister's literary efforts and had so little insight into just how progressive they were.

For all these reasons, I would encourage anyone whose interest in the Brontes has been sparked by the recent TV program or who is simply wishing to embark upon a worthy, provoking and highly enjoyable Victorian novel, to invest their time in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; high-quality literature and effortlessly involving, it is the perfect marriage on many fronts.

Lila, Marilynne Robinson

The third novel in Robinson's Gilead trilogy, Lila is the eponymous story of the Reverend John Ames' much younger wife, whose poverty-stricken and itinerant childhood in Dust Bowl America has shaped her into a deeply insecure, yet compassionate and courageous human being. The narrative is a mixture of omniscient third person narration and Lila's own internal reflections, the impetus to move forward mainly derived from the vacillations of the fledgling and highly unusual relationship between herself and the aged Reverend, so that even after they are married the reader worries about the durability of the union, their very affection for one another part and parcel of their fear: 'The more she might seem like a wife to him,' Robinson writes, 'the more he would fear the loss of her.' It means that in a novel which meanders chapter-less through a plethora of apparently random details and decades, we never come to rest – or wish to – right up to the last page, so entwined do we become with Lila's own fear-laden consciousness.

Though Robinson's project is essentially spiritual, it is her deft characterisation (in this case, of Lila's quietly burgeoning love for her husband, who has himself known great personal loss) along with her exquisite prose that make for an affecting and transcendent reading experience, rather than any overt dogma. The reason the spiritual dimension of Robinson's world is so palatable is that it is ensconced in the everyday: a field, a little valley, a flock of pelicans, a day of snow and silence. What is more, her characters' redemptive trajectories are couched in the gentlest, driest humor, so distinctively Robinsonian: Lila's childhood friend's experimentation with a member of the opposite sex, for example, is described as her getting 'very curious' and 'finding out whatever it was she wanted to know'; once this curiosity has been sated she moves on to other things; 'it had taken Lila', Robinson tells us, 'a little longer.'

At its' heart Lila is concerned with reconciling a God of love with a world of suffering but because Robinson never alights on an explanation and places the debate in such halting and beautiful terms – in the mouths of characters whose search for meaning for the most part ends in uncertainty – the novel is far from a sermon. Take the concluding words of a letter written by the Reverend to Lila before they are married and little more than strangers, for instance: 'I have struggled with this my whole life' [Ames writes]…'I still have not answered your question, I know, but thank you for asking it, I may be learning something from the attempt'. And this attempt by Lila to understand a biblical verse that has captured her imagination:

'And there was a voice above the firmament that was over their heads; when they stood, they let down their wings. She didn't want to know what the verse meant, what the creatures were. She knew there were words so terrible you heard them with your whole body. Guilt. And there were voices to say them. She knew there were people you might almost trust who would hear them too, and be amazed, and still not really hear them because they knew they were not the ones the words were spoken to.'

It is in such a spirit of gracious humility that Robinson makes her offering, and it is hard not to be moved and awed by the result.

Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett

It's rare to discover a truly original book these days but Pond is just that. A series of short 'stories', sometimes no more than a few paragraphs, this highly eccentric and experimental work revolves around an unnamed woman whose rural isolation is the occasion of her meandering meditations upon everything from bananas, control knobs, a conglomeration of stones in a wall and modern dating etiquette.

Bennett withholds the conventions of fiction (namely plot and characterization) to the point of infuriating some readers I would imagine, though perhaps this is her intention. One 'chapter', for instance, consists solely of this ditty which is just two very short paragraphs:

'Oh, Tomato Puree! When at last you occur to me it is as something profuse, fresh, erupting…

Oh Tomato Puree – let me lay you out and pummel those rigid furrows and creases!…'

It continues in a similar fashion.

While such strangeness can weary at times (when the reader is enmeshed in some particularly diaphanous, trance-like passage, for instance), the effort on the reader's part to forge some sort of meaning is worth it. Bennett refuses to let anything figure – to let anything stand for pretty much anything at all; metaphor, we sense, is anathema to her; but there is a reason for this. In a brilliant passage that implicitly comments upon her own artistry and is simultaneously a cameo manifesto for the entire novel, she writes of her self/protagonist:

'…she went off to place a cautionary notice next to the pond – which, by the way, has absolutely no depth whatsoever. If it were left up to me I wouldn't put a sign next to a pond saying pond, either I'd write something else, such as Pig Swill, or I wouldn't bother at all….'

She goes on to state that she knows the sign is to prevent children coming upon the water too quickly but says she herself, if 'brought to a purportedly magical place one afternoon…only to discover the word pond scrawled on a poxy piece of damp plywood right there beside it…[would] be hopping.'

At the end of this chapter she removes the sign altogether, her reasoning being, as mystics and philosophers have pointed out before her (and there is definitely something of the mystic about Bennett's protagonist), that words erect an artificial interface between us and the world, preventing us 'moving about in deep and direct accordance with things.' And it is true, as you read Pond, you feel all the strangeness of a heightened reality, much more a decipherer than simply a reader, as you do with most books. Despite the impression that Bennett's writing is steeped in philosophers – Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gaston Bachelard and Derrida among them – there is such lightness, such whimsy, that reading Pond is not like reading a philosophical work at all, however resonant it may feel; for ironically, despite Bennett's protestations to the contrary, her implicit suggestion that there is no 'depth' to her work only serves to make it all the more esoteric and enigmatic.

The experiments of post-modernism have left little room for literature to move forwards, but Bennett, in subtle yet inimitable fashion, has been able to suggest how it might. Pond is sign-posted. There are no poxy pieces of plywood, just plenty of magic.

Rebecca Stott’s account of life in a fundamentalist sect known as the Exclusive Brethren opens with the weeks she spent caring for her terminally ill father. Following his death, to fulfil her promise to him, Stott sets out to trace four generations of her Exclusive Brethren family, from prestigious Australian forebears on her mother’s side, to an apprentice Scottish sail-maker on her father’s, whose move south to find Brethren wives for his sons results in the marriage of Stott’s parents. Both Rebecca and her father (whose memories she relays) endure harsh discipline as children of Brethren parents, hours of boredom in congregation meetings and are periodically haunted by their inability to feel sure of things they think they should be: have I managed to ‘take the Lord into my heart’? the young Rebecca wonders; ‘Sometimes I’d be sure….then a day or two later He’d be gone again.’ Both she and her father are deeply suspicious of unbelievers, live in a world of feverish make believe, and have literary leanings. Her father is one of the last Brethren permitted to attend university, where he experiences what could be argued is his true conversion courtesy of reading C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, following which he assumes a leading role within the Brethren.

All is reasonably well until the succession of J. T. Junior as head of the Brethren in the 1960’s results in a separation rule that means Brethren are no longer permitted to live in communal buildings unless they use a separate entrance or to eat with unbelievers, including fellow-workers and family members. A ‘ruthless gestapo’ is set up to enforce these ideals; Stott’s father one of them. These ‘priests’ visit homes, forcing confessions of deeply humiliating ‘sins’, usually of a sexual nature. Solitary confinement or expulsion from the organisation frequently ensues, even if the wrongdoer is repentant; nor are the interrogators immune, fearing exposure even more than their victims. This paralyzing environment of fear continues until 1970, when an alcoholic, demented J. T. Junior is found in bed with another man’s wife. When Stott’s father stands up in the midst of the assembly demanding ‘a simple relation of the facts’ he is ‘withdrawn from’. The upshot of this is that half the Brighton meeting walk out with him and globally, eight thousand more Brethren, who, in time, splinter into new factions. Stott’s family leave the Brethren, an experience she describes as like ‘being lost in a town where all the signs had been changed into a language I didn’t know.’ The aftermath of extreme devotion for her father includes materialism, adultery, divorce, addiction, bankruptcy and prison; for herself the ‘beauty’ of Darwinism, musicians, poets, shoplifting and teenage pregnancy.

Stott deploys her skills to good effect: as historian she delves into newspaper clippings, tape recordings, archive materials, a host of memoirs and books on doctrine, theology and the Exclusive Brethren. As novelist she dramatizes admirably to life: the scene where her father is expelled from the Brethren, or that in which hundreds of Brethren from around the world gather in Alexandra Palace in 1962 are cases in point. As essayist Stott weaves ideas together seemingly effortlessly: pattern, foresight, chance, Tribulation, Yeats’ gyres, Zeus ‘seduction’ of Leda, and Gabriel’s visit to Mary are yoked almost magically within the space of a single conversation the teenage Stott has with her father while driving to a production of Macbeth. Yet neither novelist, historian, essayist or biographer are finally able to account for the destruction wreaked: ‘[T]here was no…explanation I could offer my father or my younger self’, Stott writes; ‘there was no culprit to be caught, no handcuffs to be placed on the wrists of a single murderer or thief’. The result is a state of radical unknowing.

I, like Stott, grew up in a religion which was not something that entered one’s life only on Sundays or at certain times of year but made up the anatomy of my existence; a religion in which there were weekly meetings, a body of elders, women wore headscarves, sex before marriage and association with unbelievers was forbidden, further education viewed as dangerous and excommunication practised. At one point, when Stott mentions the Brethren’s use of the term ‘worldly’, I thought I was reading about the same denomination. I was not, and there are differences in our experiences: Stott left the Brethren when she was seven, I remained until my mid-twenties; however challenging it was being part of such an organisation or creating a life afterwards, I do not share the unequivocal view Stott takes of her erstwhile faith as something entirely destructive. But there was something that resonated deeply with me as I read In the Days of Rain: the sense of being tortured by an inability to feel sufficiently sure of things one’s very life depends upon. When a friend’s mother tells the young Stott ‘It was alright not to know’ shortly after her family leave the Brethren, the idea astonishes her; not long after she experiences something like a conversion in a Catholic church, moved by the music and spectacle, where ‘[f]or a moment [she]…stopped striving to understand’. The relief is seismic.

When every feeling, thought and impulse is given over to an infallible and omniscient Being a person cannot develop an inner compass, natural instincts or uncensored emotions; a state of being that besides being agonising can also be fatal. In fact, getting to a place where ‘it [is] OK not to know’ subsequent to such an immersion, then allowing oneself to be open to whatever emerges next, Stott hints, is the undertaking worthy of real devotion.

In the Days of Rain, Rebecca Stott

The following review appeared in The Guardian:

A selection of essays, articles and reviews, most recent first.

little people

selected illustrations

readings from the novels



  the book of safe-keeping

The article below appeared in the onilne magazine 'Boundless'. It explores identity and rejection in literature. Clicking the image below takes you to the page.

This article below appeared in the online magazine 'Boundless'.

Clicking the image below takes you to the page.

To read the essay Things Greater in Less Contain'd: The Miniature in Literature click here. It is about miniaturisation in literature.

I have mixed feelings about this novel; or rather, no feelings, only thoughts. Two passages resonated. One in which the narrator of the second part of the novel, Amar Ala Jaafari, a young Iraqi-American economist, remarks: 'the more time a foreign journalist spends in the Middle East the more difficult it becomes…to write about it'. He says that while this initially sounded like 'an alibi for failing to do the hard work of writing well…the more time I'd spent…in the Middle East – the more sympathetic to [this view] I'd become.' It made me think that here was the reason people couldn't understand or sort out their own lives; because they were so embroiled in them. It made me also muse that it is worth remembering that no one truly knows another person; knowledge that is helpful in countless situations. The second passage that I liked was actually a quotation from The Red and the Black in which Stendhal likens writing about politics to writing a 'page full of dots'. This was similar to how I felt when trying to write about my erstwhile religion. It seemed impossible, unspeakable, like the Tetragrammaton itself; 'cursed' subject matter, almost.

This perceived or real difficulty in speaking about another is the ideological and structural axis upon which Asymmetry revolves. An impressive debut, the novel is split into two narratives, with a short concluding section that takes the form of a radio interview. The essentially binary structure allows Halliday to obliquely explore her theme of 'asymmetry'. Twenty-something Alice, a seemingly rather vacuous editorial assistant and aspiring writer, who has an affair with a revered, much older novelist, a New Yorker called Ezra Blazer. The asymmetry of their ages, wealth and achievements is established, then set aside, and the second narrative begins in which the secure (the novel takes place pre 9/11), wealthy, Western contrasts by sheer juxtaposition with war-torn, poverty-stricken Iraq, narrated this time by Amar Ala Jaafari, a young Iraqi-American economist, and hinted (very faintly) to in fact be aspiring writer Alice's own handiwork. There are a few brilliant dramatizations of the asymmetry motif, near misses whose slight dissimilarity serves to highlight essential disjunction more effectively than stark contrast: an Iraqi fast food restaurant called MaDonal, a game of charades played by Amar and fellow students in a wealthy American collegiate party where the subject is 'ransom'; a scene followed moments later by the killing of a member of his family in Iraq who had in fact been kidnaped; and a particularly dazzling image of cars in West Hollywood approaching their own reflections in a restaurant window, appearing 'to drive into themselves…their hoods and wheels and windshields to disappear into antimatter, the [American] flag [trailed by a fire truck] to devour itself', enabling Halliday to suggest, in one neat image, that the two sides of the globe, two nations, cultures, and halves of this binaural novel do not so much merge as eclipse one another by means of their reflections.

The meanings of the novel have been described as 'musical' rather than 'architectural'; 'what we receive is less a series of thesis statements than a shimmering web of associations', Parul Sehgal wrote in The New York Times. I felt if anything, the asymmetries could have been heightened, but that is just personal taste. I was baffled by was the often remarked brilliance of Asymmetry and turned to reviews to see what I was missing. Justine Jordan spoke of Halliday's 'sharp examination of the unequal power dynamic between men and women, innocence and experience, fame and aspiration'. While the relationship between Alice and the aging Ezra is immaculately, and wittily, documented – largely through dialogue – and the power imbalance real, both to an extent take advantage of the other, so there is mutual exploitation going on. Ezra continually asks Alice if she has considered the long-term, if the affair is really what she wants, while Alice accepts his gifts of furs, holidays at his country residence, and his payment of her student loan. Sometimes, it seems, the power falls squarely in her court. Like her literary namesake, Jordan says, Alice 'is also struggling to progress through a confusing, surreal world'. But we see precious little of this 'struggle'. She has a comfortable, though boring, job in publishing, wears skirts costing hundreds of pounds, has no shortage of sexual conquests and a fair amount of leisure time. Yes, Ezra sings “The party's over …” when he wants her to leave' and refers to her as his assistant when others are around, but he is also paternal, thinking of her future if she does not. Alice does not seem all that 'innocent', either (she's familiar with the pill, abortion and sleeps around). What's more, we are made privy to virtually none of her ambition to write or attempts to. In fact, because we know so little of Alice's internal world and her surface is so unattractive (she resents interruptions from her elderly and clearly very vulnerable neighbour, gets up to change the TV channel when the subject moves to American seniors and Medicare, telling the announcer to 'shut up', 'before resuming cutting the tags off her new clothing from Searle'), when she blurts a confession of love at the end of the narrative it didn't ring true.

That Alice as a character is 'absent' is presumably intentional, but I don't know whether it works effectively in the way, say, Rachel Cusk makes elision work in her recent trilogy, which is all the more important so because it is upon Alice that Halliday pins her main artistic enterprise: that an apparently self-absorbed person is capable of imagining creating another's existence; in this case, in the form of Amar's narrative. In an interesting series of regressive reflections, and no doubt part of the reason (aside from the fact that Halliday had worked in the publishing world for years before writing her novel) that the novel sparked an auction between eight publishing houses, Halliday herself was a lover of Philip Roth when she was a young assistant at the Wylie agency and apparently based the character of Ezra Blazer on him. She herself then, arguably accomplishes the imaginative feat that the characters in Asymmetry contemplate, and in doing so she adheres to Roth/Ezra's advice to Alice to write only what she knows. But Alice (and Halliday) then eschews this counsel; many pages into Amar's story, the reader finally begins to suspect she is being asked to believe that this in-depth psychological study of a young Iraqi-American charting his own and his family's complex personal, cultural and political history and their homeland's current plight is actually Alice's creation, her conjuring the “consciousness of a Muslim man”. It is true that this supposedly happens some time (how long isn't clear) after we knew her as the young, self-centered lover of Ezra Blazer, but it is still, to put it mildly, a shock. If this is Halliday's 'point': that the most seemingly unlikely candidate can transcend their own blinkered world view and occupy or imagine other consciousness (“penetrate the looking-glass” of their own personality to see another, as Amar muses) then she has emphatically made it; there would be few who we could imagine being more blinkered than the Alice we were introduced to at the beginning of the novel. In fact, if the reader is sceptical that such a thing is possible, it is their own imagination that is now revealed to be wanting. But should it be? Can we be blamed for 'correctly' responding to Halliday's dramatization of Alice as she first appeared? We have been taken in by Halliday's own fiction. But does this ploy really succeed? Isn't that disingenuous – or ineffective, lacking in skill on Halliday's part? A bit like introducing the fabled Chekhovian gun that Ezra counsels Alice about in the first half of the novel, only to do nothing with it? Or not introducing it, and having it go off anyway? I am not sure if the surprise is a failing or a virtue. And whether the failing, if one is was, lies with me or the author. The shock we receive when we finally discern Amar's narrative is in fact Alice's creation should be balanced by our feeling, upon reflection, that there was sufficient, if subliminal, groundwork laid to support such a revelation.

If we decide that Halliday intended such a jarring and disorientation it is then up to each reader to judge whether the 'experiment' works. I had already failed to engage with any of the characters. I found Alice vapid, selfish and irritating, Amar credible but was not close to him and wondered, from the outset and then more or less continually, why I was being told his narrative at all. I liked Ezra best because at least he was entertaining, though his treatment of Alice left something to be desired at times. I grew tired of the un-integrated 'slabs' (the term is Justine Jordan's) of Mark Twain, Jean Genet, Henry Miller, Primo Levi, Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, whose presence remained a mystery, apart, I presumed, from evidencing the meta-textuality that Halliday seems determined to foreground (there are stylistic influences, gestures and structural allusions to various literary authors and characters – whose significance, apart from them being 'literary' are never explained, and an 'Acknowledgements' where a quiet joke is made of referencing each quote very 'specifically') and serving to remind us that the first narrative is about two writers. When extracts concerning histories of Auschwitz appeared I thought: 'ah, we're finally getting there: this is the point of the novel' – but no; this 'slab', too, like those before, went nowhere. Other 'texts' and discourses are quoted: medicine packets, abortion clinic leaflets, TV reportage. Jordan, in line with the generous tack taken by the rest of her review, feels they 'add to a sense of the overwhelming variousness of historical and literary experience'; by this token one could include segments of the telephone directory, an aircraft safety card and free recipe booklet from Waitrose in a novel and be congratulated. In fact I spent most of Asymmetry feeling like the reader of Thomas Nashe's Lentern Stuffe, which deploys the trope of the red herring as a diversionary tactic, reading on in hope of consuming the elusive offering, only to find that the whole is an elaborate charade. Which is Nashe's point, but it isn't Halliday's; her novel is not a joke but a demonstration that we are asked to witness and at least entertain the possibility of. The Alice in Wonderland motif is a prime example: we start off the novel with a version of the opening of Alice in Wonderland. Ok, we think, so this young (blonde), (gratingly) 'childlike' heroine, falls down a rabbit-hole - and through a looking-glass - by getting involved with the older Blazer, who through his sheer presence and overt literary guidance, opens another world to her and contributes to her growing self-awareness and artistry, by which she ultimately – if we are to believe she really has written the second part of the book – successfully manages to conjure another (Amar). But the Alice in Wonderland device does little more than provide a springboard for Halliday to create a cute opening; there are a few vague and scattered references towards the beginning of the novel that could be interpreted as relevant, but the originating concept – which held so much promise - is not fully integrated.

The looking glass metaphor does appear late in the novel, when Amar looks at himself in a mirror and the language suddenly shifts from the pronoun he to she: “…even someone who imagines for a living is forever bound by the ultimate constraint: she can hold her mirror up to whatever subject she chooses, at whatever angle she likes–she can even hold it such that she herself remains outside its frame, the better to de-narcissize the view–but there's no getting around the fact that she's always the one holding the mirror.” 'It's a novel,' Ezra says, implicitly, about Alice's creation, 'that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with its author, but in fact is a kind of veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her provenance, her privilege, her naiveté.' Whether Ezra's judgement on Alice's art can be trusted, and whether Amar's narrative can in fact be said to probe Alice's own character and situation is up to each reader to decide. That approval comes from Ezra, who has, admittedly, finally won his Nobel Prize, yet initially gave Alice such different advice - namely to write about her own father - makes the authorial stance hard to pinpoint; should we see Alice's father (who is paranoid and obsessed with guns) as symbolic of America, and the fact that Alice chooses to write not about her 'father-land' but an alien nation the fatherland has plundered as significant? Halliday has performed an authorial sleight of hand that not all readers may pick up on. If they do, then, arguably, she has demonstrated that a person can imaginatively eliminate themselves in order to bring another being to life. But Halliday's triumph is both triumph and downfall, for in creating characters that in turn create others, she defeats her own argument: that people can transcend themselves. Maybe they can – but we are reminded, firstly by the parallels with Hallidays' own life, by Alice the character's literary heritage, and by the strange, inescapable one-dimensionality of her character that we are dealing not with flesh and blood, but, as her name continually reminds us, a literary creation; first of Carroll, then Halliday. A fictional creation has succeeded in creating another fictional creation; where do we draw the line? Where do we say 'this character is real and this one not'? Where is the fourth wall in this instance? Halliday has not even succeeded in eliminating herself from the frame, for while there are only so many author/mirror-holders a reader can keep track of, the autobiographical foundations of the novel and the overt likeness of Ezra to Roth, ensure we cannot help but see real-life counterparts also reflected in the mirror. The cleverness of Asymmetry succeeds and fails and one more level too: for what all-important empathy (surely the main objective of Alice/Halliday's artistic project of transcending the self) remains for identification with Alice, Amar, and at a still further remove, the characters in Amar's narrative, when they are viewed as they really are: fictional constructs? There are no real people being kidnapped or murdered, minding curfews or living without a steady supply of water and access to all the things we can take for granted in the West; they are a construction of Amar/Alice/Halliday.

Perhaps the fact the novel provokes these very questions is a merit. For me, the cumulative affect of these recognitions was that I felt further removed from all of them and hence less identified and invested. Asymmetry felt like a bravura experiment, an equation that looks like it works but whose final position is undone by its very virtuosity. This loss of emotional investment on the reader's part is often a of condition of experimental fiction; that we don't care about the characters as much as are dazzled by the invention seems to be an accepted state of affairs (there are exceptions: Eimear McBride, Rachel Cusk). But seeing as Halliday's whole artistic endeavour is to show that empathising and identifying with others is possible for even the most ignorant and self-concerned, it seems too great a sacrifice. 'This is a debut asking a dizzying number of questions, many to thrilling effect,' Jordan writes in the Guardian. 'That it leaves the reader wondering is a mark of its success.' It is certainly the mark of a novel worth talking about. But anyone can pose questions. Some can pose questions worth asking. A few can answer them, and fewer still can make both question and answer seem like necessary parts of a single whole.

Halliday cannot have it both ways: she cannot dramatize a person making an imaginative leap out of their own skin into another's and laud such a human, moral and artistic achievement, while simultaneously pointing to that same character's unreality; nor should she be surprised if her readers fail to maintain their own vicarious participation in the process. Or maybe she can. Maybe there are no rules. Alice is, after all, in 'wonderland'.

Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday

The article below appeared in the online magazine 'Boundless'. It explores the recent trend of autofiction in literature. Clicking the image below takes you to the page.

'Capsule' reviews appearing on instagram, direcly below:

I was mystified by this debut. Taddeo certainly deserves credit for research; it took her eight years to compile this novelistic but apparently entirely factual account of three American women's experiences of desire. Should she be praised as a creator, in the sense of 'novelist'? Yes, because organisation and filtering requires skill; in fact there is much more filtering in #threewomen than another recent and much-talked about volume: the #nobelprize winning #chernobylprayer . But while the latter feels necessary and, in places, genuinely revelatory (most particularly in the author's - #svetlanaalexievich - own brief but dazzling 'interview' of herself), #threewomen felt, at least to me, peculiarly dated and UN-necessary: do we need to wallow in accounts of abuse and disempowerment of women when nothing seems to be learnt from it? Ironically, I even found the 'characterisation' jarring in places. Taddeo chose these particular accounts, she says, because she finds the 'most magnificence' there. But should disempowerment, should self-destruction be glorified? Isn't it awful enough that we all know someone who, or have ourselves, experienced these things to some degree? Suffering - and sometimes self-inflicted suffering - is not something exceptional, profound, novel or study-worthy, as Taddeo seems to think it is. She says in her author's note: 'I am confident these stories convey vital truths about women and desire'; more, that these three women's experiences 'came to stand for the whole of what longing in America looks like' – the longing of EVERYONE, male and female, straight and gay, child and octogenarian? The vagueness of the claims are backed up by an equally vague debut: there is trauma, there is sensation and there are lashings of sex. But, at least for this reader, there was nothing substantial. There was nothing radical - or even particularly distinctive - about the content or the writing. If the book had been written thirty, twenty, or at a push, even ten years ago, perhaps it would be more relevant. But in this age of auto fiction, intimate journalism and the multiple online means for personal confession, the whole enterprise feels strangely redundant and passé.

I don't understand the furore. Except that I do: #threewomen is very readable; it details salacious and intimate parts of other's and doles out more sex than an erotic novel. What I did admire, however, were the odd moments of crystalline description that seem oddly out of place in the surrounding prose: 'the high scent of urine', 'the toothache of dawn', the 'smiling bone' of a woman's hip; 'mousetrap pain'; and Taddeo's intention, as she writes in the prologue, to 'register the heat and sting of female want so that men and other women might more easily comprehend before they condemn'. Necessary or unnecessary, redundant or not, #threewomen has more to say more about its readers than its subjects, and about the state of publishing right now than the state of American 'desire'.

Three Women, Lisa Taddeo

Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich

Reading #svetlanaalexievich's biblical mosaic of voices that comprises #chernobylprayer is the literary equivalent to being floored by a blow. The scale is both quantum and monumental: as I read, I felt my attention was continually drawn from the atomically small and inescapably present to the impossibly large and dizzyingly distant, and that this dialectic was observable in terms of time, in terms of the disaster's effects and in terms of the myriad individual voices that ultimately join in one deafening testimony. The resulting legacy of dislocation, stupefaction, incomprehension and mutism (Alexievich admits in the dazzling 'interview' she conducts upon herself at the beginning of the book that though previously used to poring over the suffering of others she did not know how to write about this) is navigated by means of testimony - humans' only, yet most powerful, resource when all else fails: a conscious conversion of suffering to knowledge.

The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck masterfully explores differentiation, historical repetition, intergenerational trauma, parallel lives which hang upon minute happenstances, the means by which one might measure life and death, words' varying reality, and the way that everyday life is revealed at times, to be 'nothing more than a garment'. Erpenbeck demonstrates that alternative narratives, though initially as different from one another as life is from death, often turn out to be pretty much equal. Everything is a pendulum, she suggests, and reality Janus-faced. Apparently ineluctable elements come, in time, to resemble or change places with one another. In this novel beginnings and endings, parts and whole, in the end, balance out.

Mostly, I learnt things I wished I hadn’t about treasured children's books from Clare Pollard's recent Fierce Bad Rabbits: the Babar books were ‘propoaganda for the powerful’. Christopher Robin was ‘bullied remorselessly at school' because of the role he played in his father’s fiction; one child, amongst others, ‘sacrificed' to the very books supposedly written for them by their parents (Enid Blyton’s children, Kenneth Grahame's son Alistair, and John Uttley, whose mother wrote the Little Grey Rabbit books are further examples of this, the last two committing suicide). Dr Seuss had an ongoing affair despite the fact that his wife, Helen, was desperately ill; when she eventually killed herself the note she left simply read: ‘Dear Ted, what has happened to us?’

     But I also learnt some heartening things: my love for Shirley Hughes (yes, in my case this is not an over-statement: I’ve modelled lots of miniature versions of the characters that appear in her stories and have drawn up plans for a house based on that of Alfie and Annie Rose that I intend to build one day, so utterly and irrationally entranced have I been with her worlds since I discovered them, late, at about the age of sixteen) only grew when I read her brave and honest description of her own experience of young motherhood as a time of ‘crushing responsibility’, and that, career-wise, she felt (I love the aptness of the phrase) in the ‘pram lane’. Beatrix Potter’s first book for children, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was rejected by six publishers before Potter self-published it, and in so doing, as Pollard says, ‘moved the picture book into the twentieth century’, because her books, unlike the heavy, expensive nursery books of the time, fitted into a child’s pocket and cost only a shilling. I also took comfort from the fact that despite Potter’s, like my own, love of nature, she spent most of her life 'a tamed thing, kept in dull, expensive [you can scrap the last in my case] isolation’ in London, the city’s buildings shutting her in like ‘great frowning hills’. And it was ‘Dr Suess’ – whose stories seem positively lawless, fizzing with a powerful current of anarchy (his Green Eggs and Ham was banned in the People’s Republic of China for its portrayal of ‘early Marxism’) had their genesis in constraint: he was briefed to write educational and mnemonic learning aids for children, deploying a tightly restricted vocabulary - all of which proved fertile soil for his ingenious use of alliteration, meter and rhyme, which Pollard compares to certain French avant-garde poets writing a decade later who deployed self-imposed constraints to similar ends.

     I also learnt publishers don't always know a good thing when they see it. Limitation can be facilitative. And however magical fiction can be (I'm a massive fan of Pooh, Wind in the Willows is one of my favourite books, and I was an avid devourer of Enid Blyton), real life is a different thing altogether. So I shouldn't be sad if that same real life, at times, seems bleak. It's how the world works.

The best example of historical fiction, I think, you could ever encounter - even taking into account the masterful novels of Hilary Mantel - is Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower. I've never known a writer to convey multitudes by such economical means. There is a great, rapt, comoact beauty in the phrasing. I feel this is Fitzgerald's greatest feat. She states peerlessly, without explaining, almost always, carrying the reader away in the current of engrossing - and seemingly present - existence.

     The Blue Flower tells of the early life of Novalis, an early practitioner of German Romanticism. It is told in a manner that is strangely calm, sedate and subtly humorous, its' characters evincing a kind of animal ease and acknowledgement of the nature of life itself.

Fierce Bad Rabbits, Clare Pollard

The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald

Sight, Jessie Greengrass

A fruitful way to view Jessie Greengrass's recent novel Sight might be as an exploration of the various discourses of 'explanation' humans have deployed through the centuries, from science and medicine to psychoanalysis and film (though the last is barely touched upon). The volume feels part novel, part essay, part memoir, part medical/academic paper; there is an appendix, an index, suggestions for further reading. It grew out of hours spent reading at the Wellcome library, we are told in 'Further Reading', a place which itself, for those who have visited it will know, seems to fuse various disciplines, discourses and spaces. As such, Greengrass's debut is on trend for the direction literary fiction is currently still moving in and which seems to have been set in motion by the likes of W. G. Sebald about thirty years ago. In fact, Sight's ornateness, its essayistic texture, its discursive, meditative, elegiac nature and its preoccupation with the past, loss and understanding would have seemed startlingly original to me – almost revelatory to me - if I had not already read Sebald (which Greengass thankfully credits as an influence); one particularly Sebaldian image, which appears in various versions, is that of a figure lost in 'space', a 'luminous bubble…cast adrift within…night'. As it is, I feel the novel is a glittering accomplishment but one rendered slightly redundant, in both formal and stylistic terms, by its near identicality to the monolithic presence that preceded it; I felt as I felt reading Will Self's  Umbrella (2012): this is amazing, but what's the point? James Joyce did it ninety-four years earlier?

     This reservation aside, Sight is undoubtedly the most accomplished and frequently breath-taking book I've read in recent years. It establishes Greengrass as a writer of exceptional subtlety, taste and sophistication. Her brilliance is evident on nearly every page. In the opening section, the narrator, newly pregnant, describes watching her young daughter, who has recently begun to lose 'the tumbling immediacy of toddlerhood', 'inflect…her actions with intent'; her once 'readable plasticity is gone…,' Greengrass writes, 'complexity has brought concealment'. the child's progress toward adulthood 'is a kind of disappearing…' and elicits in the narrator a wish to 'to keep her always in my sight'. (Not a word is wasted in this novel while words such as 'look', 'sight', 'insight' frequently acquire a deeper resonance, referring both to scientific leaps forwards as well as personal moments of revelation or lack). Here, the main preoccupations of the novel are set out, beautifully encapsulated in relation to one another: transparency versus opacity/concealment, sight/knowing/ understanding, versus ignorance/blindness/disappearance, all encompassed in the existential fear attendant (whether mentally articulated or not) upon motherhood. Sebald's main metaphor was transience versus permanence; Greengrass's is surface versus depth, the known versus the unknown, conveyed beautifully in images such as the infant in the womb to a photograph of the surface of Titan, largest of Saturn's moons, comprising the 'ill-formed communications of ghosts'. In a key passage that describes the protagonist's wish for her unborn daughter, Greengrass writes: if 'I thought there was a way that I could make her life better than the ordinary…less fraught with the sudden…revelation that hidden motivation brings, or with the half-rotted- through desire for what will come to haunt or hurt her – if I could give her clarity, self-knowledge, sight - …then I would'. In another such foray: 'It strikes me as extraordinary, now, that we should be so hidden from ourselves, our bodies and our minds so inaccessible…but there is a thrill to it, too;…[as,] underneath the sea…unnamed creatures float…in those vast and empty tracts of space…but the price of sight is wonder's diminishment.'

     So perfectly melded are form and content in Sight that one finds it impossible to talk about one without talking about the other - a mark of what I consider to be the most brilliant works of literature and many of my favourites. Ostensibly, Sight is about a young woman's anxiety that she will not be a good mother to a second child that she cannot decide whether or not to fall pregnant with. This present narrative slips back to a period in which she nursed her own dying mother, shortly after she had finished university, and then to her childhood when she was sent to stay with her Freudian analyst grandmother. Within this present-day framework, and by means of her narrator's interests in the history of the x-ray, photographic film, anatomy, medicine and psychology Greengrass skilfully interlaces past and present human attempts to plumb their physical and mental condition. She ties the historical deviations into her narrative gracefully; in the narrator's excruciatingly difficult decision whether to have a second child (about which her seemingly endlessly patient partner is fine either way: 'Whatever you decide will be alright' he says; later he seems to take the lion's share of the care of the new baby) she finds herself watching the Lumière brothers' film instead of working, this first foray into history coming on the second page of the novel and feeling significant, appearing as it does out of nowhere and compared to the discovery of the x-ray, the second historical incident and related immediately afterwards, both representing different aspect of the same theme: 'all that had been solid grow towards transparency ….the image of a substrate world spread out across a photographic plate…to set against cinema's preservation of surface'. The 1895 screening of the cinematographic film La Pêche aux poisons rouges, in which Auguste Lumière holds his baby daughter as she fishes in a bowl for a goldfish, plausibly snags the about-to-be mother's attention, loaded as the images are with notions of parental responsibility and care. She scrutinises the father and baby daughter, thinking if she just looks hard enough she 'might understand what it would be like to be either one of them; just as, in a similarly difficult period years before, in a sentence that is deceptively light of hand, we are told that: 'To fill the space that even grief refused to occupy I had read, at first indiscriminately…and then, as I began at last to reconstruct myself, building piecemeal on the foundations of all that had been demolished by my mother's death, on Wilhelm Röntgen and the history of the x-ray.' Because these two discoveries apparently happened on the same afternoon the narrator now feels if she can only see how they fit together then perhaps she could see in her own life 'an underlying principle, or how it was that I should find myself considering motherhood when it seemed that I had barely altered from unhappy adolescence'. This is the justification for the historical forays, at least into Röntgen's (the German physicist who discovered the x-ray) life, though the Lumière narrative, which feels like it will be as central to the project as that of Röntgen, is not mentioned again.

     The binary the two incidents introduce continue to be dramatized in a host of opposites, as Greengrass's surface/depth theme is laced subtly throughout: the world seems to the narrator, in the light of her mother's death as a young woman, to be merely 'a hard surface in a cold light'; whether to have another child is the 'surtext' of the protagonist's ensuing conversations with her partner in the present; phrases such as 'the hidden made manifest', 'the underlying, animating shape of things' and 'many ways to see inside ourselves' appear almost constantly. 'For months,' the narrator tells us early on, 'my purpose had been imposed by circumstance, the structures of my life externally defined so that I had been like a creature inside an exoskeleton'. In the narrator's encounter while pregnant with Clemente Susini's Anatomical Venus, whose layers of stripped back flesh and muscle are likened to the narrator's feelings of love for her partner and child 'which anchors as much as it irks so that, tight inside its lacings, I know my shape…where my edges are'; to the way she feels during her pregnancy as a result of the constant examinations and 'indignities'; to artist Jan van Rymsdyk whose eighteenth century anatomical drawings are 'the reproduction of nothing more than what was seen', the 'reproduction of the surface of things', giving sight to the new frontier of inner bodies; to the practices of Sigmund Freud, who is introduced into the narrative courtesy of the narrator's grandmother, who is a psychoanalyst and engages in a daily and metaphorical excavation of consciousness, a 'going through of attics and drawers', so that what was unconscious may be made visible - 'a thing of glass' - a way of life that the narrator portrays negatively, viewing Freud's patients with sympathy, 'opened like a nut, split to see what mechanism it was that made' them.      

     As I read I found that the historical forays in general, far from detracting from the personal story, actually elevated it. The parallels between the historical narratives, and between the narrator's past and present, are implicit rather than overt: the narrator's grandmother's grief at the loss of her daughter, for example, 'into a complicated life' she cannot help her with and her wonder 'what the alternative might be, and if, in fact, it might be worse', is closely juxtaposed with Freud's unhealthily close and lifelong relationship with his daughter Anna. Elsewhere the narrator describes 'becoming, in word-long increments, disconnected from the moment I inhabited' while caring for her dying mother as a young woman, being 'at the same time both of us, my mother and myself', leading to her reflection while attending to her own infant daughter years later, that she sees 'the outline of my mother's hands beneath the skin of mine'. The larger, sentence-long connective passages and metaphors linking Greengrass's historical material to her present-day protagonist are frequently ingenious in their dextrous sleight of hand: after recounting the period the narrator suffered intense headaches during which time she felt 'lost', she continues her history of Röntgen with these words: 'Bertha Röntgen was used to lost hours, to her husband's absorption in his work'. The experience of revelation Röntgen feels in the early days of his discovery is isolating, just as the experience of migraine can be; just as migraine is a revelation; just as stripping for the MRI the protagonist is about to receive in order to investigate her headaches, she feels that perhaps what is approaching is not a 'routine medical examination but…a proof at last of all that constituted me' - as the x-ray was in the early days. The narrator's grandmother, who is a Freudian psychoanalyst, has a gaze which penetrates her skin, as if to see inside her. Analysis, her grandmother tells her, affords the possibility that a person might 'become transparent to themselves', to 'live a life…directed not by the hidden motivations of a covered mind but by an elucidated self'. 'E-lucidus': 'out' and 'shine', from 'luc': light. It's all connected.

     Except that the very felicity with which Greengrass draws these connections did make me wonder occasionally whether there was any real relevance between two things and this author could connect anything with anything. I also wondered what came first in this novel's genesis: the ruminating mother or Greengrass's interest in Röntgen or Lumière. It seems in places as though Greengrass is eking out her material and the long swathes of little more than past history occasionally feel like 'fillers', bulking out an otherwise meagre main story. When I read later that Greengrass researched how many words were in the shortest 'novel' (50,000 apparently) then broke that number down into a daily target of 162, the feeling I'd had made more sense. In any case, just occasionally, the connections to the x-ray (the only concrete metaphor of the book) feel weak and overlaid rather than emerging naturally from the material: of her reading (like her creator) in the Wellcome Collection, the narrator confides her hope that somewhere in those pages she peruses she might find something that makes sense of her unhappiness, 'allowing me to peel back the obscurant layers of myself and lay bare at last the solid structure underneath'. But when, on page 163, Greengrass embarks on the description of yet another historical character (John Hunter, this time, an eighteenth century anatomist), I thought: 'not another life!' - this last finally feeling like a drag, unable to summon enough interest, while the connections Greengrass draws between Hunter's life and the period in her narrator's life just after she has given birth felt superfluous and laboured.

     This is a small price to pay, however, for a work that so frequently dazzles. Of course, Sight isn't for everyone. Greengrass's vocabulary (the novel is peppered with words such as: 'reliquary', 'feint', 'arcana', 'nap', 'espaliered') is that of the poet and the complexity of her sentences (such as 'sibilant invitations to returning sleep…the epigenetics of comfort', for instance) often seem to come from another time altogether. We are no longer used to such eloquence; set beside it most other writing of today seems clumsy and oafish indeed. Greengrass writes of 'having failed amongst grief's greater broil to be reapportioned'; of 'Revelation…by definition isolate, it can neither be communicated nor transferred, and trying to comprehend it we feel only the chill of our exclusion.' It's the kind of high-flown, sweeping language (it's no surprise Greengrass read philosophy at Cambridge) we don't really come across in novels anymore and while it may alienate some in its genuine grandeur, others will feel as though they have discovered a long-lost friend. It is in fact easy to overlook her skill as a novelist and get lost in the surface of the language, but Greengrass is a master not only of language but the rendering of fictional worlds and human psyches, the description of her university-age protagonist caring for her dying mother is a case in point, describing 'the anxious, empty tedium of the ends of lives' which returns the young woman to the helplessness of childhood, 'forcing into reverse that inevitable process of separation', till '[i]t began to seem…the only solution to our physical closeness was an emotional distance') – all of which has such a ring of truth to it that if it feels like a memoir rather than imaginary; or how it feels to be a mother, for instance: 'having a piece of your heart outside of yourself', 'the extent of [my child's] separation from me…the extent to which I cannot bear to be apart from her'; immediately after birth the feeling that 'my own experience…remained not the thing itself but only a picture of it, so that I was not quite yet a mother' and 'I could not say for certain that I was happy but only that the thought of things being otherwise was unbearable…' She is equally adept at conveying the minutiae of daily living that tends to numb feelings of love in long-term relationships – all of which are superbly described (perhaps not dramatized very much, but this can't be expected in a work which is not really a novel in the traditional sense but more of a monologue or meditation).

     Her descriptions are sometimes almost miraculous; take the intense, knife-edge fragility in the wake of migraine, for instance: 'as though I had been reduced to almost nothing, my skin a fragile membrane parting light and liquid', or this evocation of a specific time in early autumn, encompassing a sensation of keening loss and simultaneous awakening I have felt most of my life at exactly the same time of year but never found articulated before: 'when the ground is warm but the air has a chill to it and when, in the late afternoons….everything is dusty, gold and….[we] are pierced…with a nostalgia for something that we have never seen but know, instinctively, that we have lost'. Sometimes it is as if Greengrass has penetrated to the psychology of objects themselves and the half-formed thoughts of our subconscious minds: sorting through the belongings of her dead mother, the narrator says, 'each one become through disuse little more than an imitation of itself'. There are such staggeringly compact immensities in her turns of phrase, sometimes obvious, sometimes not immediately apparent: 'the balance of power that there is in sacrifice'. Jessie Greengrass has the ability to stupefy, the perfection of her metaphors numb the mind momentarily. The narrator reads books aloud to her dying mother that her mother read to her as a child, and in doing do, the room in which she reads has 'the stillness of a pivot's turning place'. Sometimes the prose is momentous, transcendent in its ability to still the reader as only great things can, seeming to sum up the whole of human existence lived out in an apparently empty cosmos: 'this sense of yearning outwards into darkness, the prayer for understanding that is nothing but a silent thought in a vast and vaulted space'. Who cares about action, about dialogue, about 'plot' in the presence of this?

     Occasionally the language feels needlessly abstract (Greengrass not quite the master Sebald was, who could attenuate out a sentence, and his readers' attention, for page upon page); a description of the narrator's partner, for instance, who feels at this moment distant to her, 'not only unreachable but unfamiliar, a singular instance of the whole he made, both precious and strange, his likeness uncatchable by anything other than himself'. At other times Greengrass's ideas are so complex they require re-reading: after seeing the foetus in her stomach for the first time the narrator recounts 'it had been as though what we looked at existed not inside my body…but in the space between us; that…had been transmuted by the act of sight from subject to object'. Just sometimes the elegiac, philosophical hot air currents of thought seem (a very little) like waffling; universes away from the reality they seek to convey. If you don't feel like devoting considerable care and attention to reading, such passages will weigh heavily or be skimmed over altogether. And occasionally the surface/depth imagery becomes too repetitive, at least for this reader, as if it were being drummed into my brain, the opposite of the recurring image of the concealed 'skeleton on which the outer face is hung'; no 'glimpse' but reappearing on almost every other page. But it would be a rare work indeed that did not have the odd bit of dead wood in it.

     I find it hard to imagine the book that beat Sight to win the Women's Prize for fiction but then the prize has a history of occasionally choosing (at least to my mind) very unworthy winners. I feel that literary panels are often wrongly swayed and blindsided by length and dramatic subject matter (revolutions, rapes, murders, war-torn communities, and of course the dreaded political 'questions': the 'woman' question, the 'race' question, the 'gender' question) while quieter, less sensational voices are drowned out. Actually, I am amazed that Sight made it onto the Women's Prize-list at all. Why it didn't even make the Booker Prize I have no idea. Despite being dazzled however, I found the novel ultimately unmoving and that the second half lacked momentum, depth and energy. Sometimes, for all the language's brilliance, I felt I was beating my way through a thicket. Very occasionally, there was a passage (like that spanning pages 186 and 7, for instance) that I found so vague as to be near totally meaningless or that arrived at a meaning so vague as to be worthless. For all her search for understanding and revelation, the narrator ends by saying: 'There is nothing more horrible than this: a world elucidated and all that is seen, understood…[p]erhaps…it was only this: the understanding that we are objects…that there is no mystery…that we might look and see ourselves' yet still concludes 'afraid of all that which, unseen, remains unknown…', until watching the line a machine traces as it monitors her unborn baby's heart, she suddenly and for no particular reason notices that 'something which had long occluded fell away at last and certainty was left behind…I could read at last…the understanding that what was important was only the way we stood to one another, protected and protector'. This felt pretty underwhelming to me; I wrote in the margin: 'of all the vague realizations!' Understanding is sought intensely in this novel but the main shifts (the narrator's decision to have a baby, the way she moves on from her mother's death, her response to her new-born child) are achieved not through understanding; when the much debated, longed for and feared baby finally arrives the narrator searches for meaning everywhere in order to understand 'the way things are…that [she] might feel the fragility of things less; but there is nothing there.'

     And yet I am willing to forgive Jessie Greengrass almost anything because there are phrases in this novel that are startling in their piercing and beautiful truth; phrases that have the ring of a classic, as if Greengrass was born to write and words are simply flowing through her. '[G]rief's silent central eye', for example. In interviews Greengrass has stressed, unromantically, that writing is a job and should be treated as such and that she counted words per day. A phrase like that most probably comes as a flashing reward for hours of near-drudgery, a gift from the gods for their most fervent adherents.

Milkman, Anna Burns

Anna Burns' Booker Prize-winning novel Milkman is a convincing portrait of a young outsider in a geographically indeterminate community in the throes of sectarian conflict, a community infested with a miasma of fear, suspicion, shame and paranoia, a world in which everything is political and what is permitted is inferred from what is not. Characters are known by their relationships to one another (such as 'third brother's half-sister's wife', a weird obsession, suggesting both distance and proximity, which cumulatively – the novel is lengthy at @pages - becomes intentionally mind-boggling) but hear about the lives of their nearest and dearest from neighbours that are close-but-not-close, hear truth-but-not-truth, through muteness and blabber, the physical and obvious constantly at odds with the suggested and felt.  By means of a clever narrative, that opens from small into larger spans of time, we learn that Middle-sister, the protagonist, a person not particularly invested in the troubles around her and wishing she lived in a previous century, liking to keep herself to herself, has a habit of reading as she walks, a trait that, in a community where there is an extremely narrow bandwidth of acceptable existence and you have to go around being ' nothing', confounds her cookie-cutter neighbours and singles her out for their suspicion (this is, after all, a world in which Jane Eyre is more dangerous and subversive than Semtex and Martin Chuzzlewit is confiscated for 'state security purposes'). The foible also leaves her vulnerable to the notice of the eponymous 'Milkman', a sinister and exceedingly subtle stalker, who begins to intercept her walks, then her runs, insinuating himself into conversation and step beside her. Nominally, the narrative is about her efforts to evade him. At a deeper level the drama played out between Middle-sister and Milkman is a sexualised parallel of the tapestry of violence, war, killer and victim that comprises Burn's larger subject (at one point in the narrative, Middle-sister wants to bury a murdered cats' head she finds and both she and the persecuted cats that populate the narrative symbolise women's status as both brutalized and feared creatures within a community where men wage war). And at a deeper level still, I felt Burns' novel is about what happens to truth, symbols, signifiers and meaning in any sort of totalitarian, closed society existing in oppressive conditions which long-standing fear has warped beyond reason and almost beyond hope.

     Middle-sister, like everyone else in the novel, uses a particular and to our ears, unusual vocabulary. Nothing and no one is called by their actual name but is instead designated by a plethora of allusions: there is 'the rim', 'the list', 'beyond the pales', 'influences', 'forces', 'somebodies' and 'somebody Mc-somebodies'. There is a great deal of repetition of words, names, phrases, the circularity of Middle-sister's thinking, and the cacophony of voices come to grate; the fabric of the text becomes hypnotic, abrading consciousness in a way that mimics what living in such an environment of oppression, paranoia and control might actually feel like. On a larger scale, the Russian doll-effect narration - Burns entering larger and larger periods of action through small interstices - on occasion effects a loss in narrative momentum, so massive is the attenuation. The reader is made to wait long stretches before return to the immediate happening that gave rise to the mass of associations and background. The effect of all of this is to mire and enmesh the reader, both weigh them down and disorient them to some extent, which far from being a flaw, I see as a deliberate ploy by Burns to effect the circular, hopelessly enclosed world in which the characters live; and, of course, the very real way in which, in this community, events of great importance can be triggered by the smallest incident and the way in which every action, no matter how small, has a (possibly deadly) consequence.

     On paper the story is rather slight: we follow Middle-sister in her attempts to evade Milkman and witness her three meetings with him. After about midway there is a murder, a poisoning and the narrative spotlight moves to some extent onto Middle-sister's mother. I personally feel that the novel genuinely loses its way after about the midpoint and would have been stronger if Burns had spaced Middle-sister's three meetings with Milkman evenly throughout the novel, and I don't think I was simply succumbing to the feeling of entrapment and pointlessness I mention above. But Burns makes up for both the narrative turgidity by her evocation of both Middle-sister's inner world and Milkman's ingenious methods of intimidation: first her alarm at Milkman's attentions, the questioning of her on alarm, her attempts to avoid him, her mounting isolation as bit by bit her already small life contracts further in an attempt to escape his notice; her mounting paranoia, which at one moment seems to be confirmed and then made to appear ludicrous; her failure to maintain equilibrium in the face of Milkman's inexorable campaign – which she still cannot name, cannot define what is happening to her and so cannot approach anyone to ask for help, doubting she can convince them the threat she feels is real (a threat she herself doubts from time to time, so concentrated is her isolation and insidious Milkman's attack) – in order to retain a modicum of control and to further evade Milkman denies her body's reaction for so long, until finally emotional numbness sets in, and like her dead father, who, on his deathbed revealed to her and her sisters the sexual abuse he suffered as a child; the attendant feelings of hopelessness and despair; of 'what's the point?' – almost of the rightness of the abuser's entitlement to him, Middle-sister appears to accept the unavoidability of her fate; to psychically lay herself down upon the sacrificial stone of Milkman's will, convinced at last of the futility of evading him and simply wishing her destruction would already be over (she awaits their first 'date' as a fait accompli). All of this without Milkman laying a finger upon her, forcing her to do anything, or uttering a threatening syllable.

     Before we know it we, along with Middle-sister, have spiralled into a nightmarish world in which a young woman is accused of having an affair with her stalker and instead of being offered help and protection threatened with reprisals and castigated for reading while walking. One of the most ingenious thing about Burn's narrative is that, during the course of it, as Middle-sister is accused of not remembering and refusing to admit to the obvious, the reader themselves begin to doubt not only her version of events but their significance. And this is where the crux of the matter lies, because everything threatening in Milkman is threatening only because of the meaning it is given; apparently innocent actions and remarks (possessing parts of a certain car engine, for instance; someone mentioning they know your family) can instantly attain the deadliest undertones. Burns dramatizes the confusion and trepidation rife in such a world by deploying mirroring and doubles: 'fake' stalker 'Milkman' has a real counterpart: 'real Milkman', a philanthropic, locally mythologized, almost Christ-like figure who has done much to help the community 'from a wider perspective, a higher state of consciousness', whom renouncers want to kill but cannot because of his followers, the women of the community (the parallel with Jesus and the Pharisees continues), who pray for him; Middle-sister's mother is one of them, and in love with real Milkman. It's no surprise that Middle-sister at one point pleads with real milkman, please 'don't pretend'; the most terrifying thing in a world where nothing may be what it seems is to be deceived.

     In a note she leaves to the world a tragic character called 'tablet girl' that we encounter mid-way through the novel writes: 'everything we see is a reflection of our inner landscape'. The problem in Milkman is that inner landscapes are not allowed to remain 'inner' but are prodded and to varying degrees invaded by the collective, who determine the meaning and significance of everything, so that people no longer even see alternatives or shades of meaning; they are brainwashed – blinded – by one master brain into seeing one thing only. In such a community meaning cannot be let alone, undesignated, to the point where a sky can only be blue and no other colour because skies are traditionally blue. Because they are safe when they are blue. Because everyone knows skies are blue. In what I feel is the most brilliant and the most tragic scene of the book, an English teacher tries to get Middle-sister's evening class to acknowledge that a sky can, in fact, be many colours. Pointing to the sunset beyond the window, she takes them to a different classroom to get a better view, and while they watch, the same sky, as if to defy them, changes colours before their eyes - all the colours of the heavens and earth. Initially the sunset makes 'no sense' to Middle-sister; she can see only blue. But then 'something out there – or something in me - …changed,' she says, '…the truth hurt... It became clear as I gazed that there was no blue out there at all. For the first time I saw colours…two sunsets in one week… - that must mean something. Question was, was it a safe something or a threatening something? What was it, really, I was responding to here?' She feels panic during both sunsets but manages to be more accepting of this sensation during the second one. Her fear means she is resisting life itself. She watches 'layers…mixing and blending, forming and transforming, which is exactly what had happened during that sunset a week earlier'. What she is really witnessing is the opening of her senses to the possibility of multiple meanings, multiple consciousnesses and multiple worlds. But just as, in the world she inhabits, people 'long attuned to living in the dark' cannot cope with being liked; 'with innocence, frankness [or] openness...'; in which 'shiny' people, just like points of light, are terrifying, because the possible loss of that light is perceived as worse than never having had it at all', the initial hint of freedom is immediately closed down: this new 'non-conforming, unfamiliar, restful consciousness' is so uncomfortable that 'to get respite', Middle-sister glances down to the street – and sees the white van that her stalker drives, who she thought she had given the slip. A few moments later she checks again and the van is gone. But it/he will be back; we, like Middle-sister, know now. We have acclimatised to this world of shadows, intimations, veiled threats - and occasional explosions.

     During the second half of the novel the narrative loses momentum, in a way that seems unintentional. It moves from fake Milkman (who disappears altogether) to an unhinged character called 'tablet girl', to the discovery of Middle-sister's 'Maybe boyfriend's gay relationship with 'Chef', to Middle-sister's mother acting like a teenager and going slightly batty worrying about her middle-aged body while in love with real Milkman. The fact that each of these developments feels like a new departure, an aberration, that makes the work now jar and wear at the reader. It no longer feels like a work fated to travel in a certain direction (fake Milkman being that direction); a cohesive work in which each part is proportional to the whole, directing the reader inwards like spokes to a hub, as the best novels, classical works and many of Shakespeare's plays do. This perhaps subjective feeling that the novel had lost its way actually added to the sense of exhaustion, claustrophobia and circularity the community dwells in, but I wasn't sure it was intentional on Burns' part. I began to involuntarily zone out for stretches of time, only to re-enter the narrative to find I could still decipher what was happening and did not seem to have missed all that much. Despite this, Milkman is a worthy novel, which raises important questions, such as: should humans individually and collectively 'wait for the sorrys' (to quote 'mad tablet girl') before they let go of their grievances? And: to what extent do we permit collectively ordained meaning to determine our personal one? It is also a novel blessedly free from the literary pretentions afflicting so many others these days; Anna Burns isn't interested in being clever. She is interested only in letting her character speak and in bringing a community riven by conflict fully to life.

Daddy Issues, Katherine Angel

How To Write An Autobiographical Novel: Essays, Alexander Chee

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Unfollow, Megan Phelps-Roper’s account of growing up in the Westboro Baptist Church and her decision to leave seven years ago when she was twenty-six is an exceptional document: a loving portrait of a fanatical organisation, though ‘family’ may be a better word in this case, the W.B.C. being founded by Megan’s grandfather, Fred Phelps, in Kansas, in 1955, and besides being famous for picketing everything from abortion to national disasters with signs that scream: ‘FAG GOD = RECTUM’, ‘TOPEKA – CITY OF WHORES’, ‘PRAY FOR MORE DEAD SOLDIERS’ and ‘GOD HATES JEWS’ is also renowned for consisting primarily of members of Phelps's extended family. The church apparently now has 70 members though it has lost a substantial number over the years.

          No amount of compassionate reflection, however, can change the fact that Phelps-Roper and her siblings grew up in an abusive environment. Besides the obvious imposition of destructive beliefs there was literal violence: on the church’s infamous gay pickets townspeople threw bottles of urine and physically attacked the adults who formed a shield around the children; there were beatings resulting in hospitalization, arson attempts and vandalization of homes. There are beatings behind doors too; her mother’s ferocious chastisements ‘over the slightest thing’ result in Roper frequently feeling a hair’s breadth from ‘being pitched headlong into the waste howling wilderness of the world’. This ‘howling wilderness’, which can seem rather enticing, is heavily curtailed, the sisters having to find reasons for the smallest thing: once, they are permitted to have their hair curled because they convince their mother it is an opportunity to preach. Their powerlessness (and more worryingly, implied mental vacancy) is powerfully dramatized when Megan’s mother likens her daughters to Barbie dolls while attempting to explain predestination. The doctrine sparks ‘abject fear’ in Megan as well as desire and admiration for its ‘beauty’.      

     It is this characteristic ability to experience simultaneous states of terror and wonder that shapes Roper’s eventual defection, which, in her own words, is a ‘roller coaster of trepidation and wonder, guilt and exuberance, despair at our loss and delight in the smallest of freedoms.’ ‘[M]icromanaged’ for so long, she and her younger sister Grace take childlike glee in getting their ears pierced, wearing bright nail polish and embracing new hobbies, even as they feel ‘paralyzed’, unable to make decisions, Megan waking each morning in dread, ‘a boulder sitting on my chest’. She feels like a ‘monster’ upon realising the years of pain she has caused to non-believers but ‘will never know grief worse than seeing the pain [she is] causing’ to her family. She is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t and when she finally does she feels ‘hunted. Forced to publicly reckon with a past I was still trying to understand, a present I was wholly unprepared to navigate, and a future that remained a terrifying abyss’.

          The kindness of strangers helps the girls find a new footing; a Jehovah’s Witness couple, a Jewish family, a school-teacher – as well as countless others. But there was kindness in the W.B.C. too, Roper wants us to know. She tells ‘how tight-knit they were, [of] their love and willingness to sacrifice for one another, their dedication to complete fidelity to the Scriptures’. Her father was ‘gentle, intelligent, hard-working, so respectful of my mother’s thoughts, and…undeniably in love with her’; her parents’ ‘mutual respect…an example for all’. The Phelps-Roper children dance to Fleetwood Mac while cleaning, their mother sings of her love for them, their father twirls them around. There are milkshake parties with Gran and (the infamous) Gramps, family trips to museums, movie nights and a steady stream of hugs, massages and laughter. As a child Megan looks forward to the pickets to ‘chomp noisily’ on bubble gum and share song lyrics (astonishingly, ‘Baby Got Back’ and ‘Santeria’) with her cousins and on December evenings sing: ‘Five golden showers! Preparation H, three bloody rectums, two shaven gerbils, and a vat of K-Y jelly!’ outside the marquee announcing The Nutcracker at the Topeka Performing Arts Center. ‘I knew…that this was transgressive,’ she writes, ‘but there was something so delightful about it, so appealing…’ In her teenage years there are demonstrations at The Super Bowl, Grammys, Oscars, Sundance Film Festival, media conventions and TV shows. ‘I’m just so content…’ Megan sobs to her mother at one point: ‘So happy and so grateful and so content’.

          It starts to go wrong in her twenties, when following stimulating exchanges with unbelievers in her role as God-appointed defender of the faith on Twitter, Megan begins to doubt initially minor points of doctrine as well as develop feelings for one of her interlocuters (now her husband). Unable to quieten her conscience she confides in her younger sister, Grace. Both eventually decide to leave. The trauma that ensues is considerable but while their family denounce them unreservedly the girls are astonished to find understanding, compassion and forgiveness from unbelievers - often the very people they rejoiced in pillorying and damning to hell. Ultimately, it is Roper’s enduring love for her family coupled with the growing urge to separate herself from their beliefs that makes her disaffection not only agonizing but possible: when she leaves in 2012, despite being savaged and disavowed, she reflects that just a couple of years previously she behaved the same way when her brother left the organisation and understands her family’s rage and disgust are defences against more unmanageable fear, grief and - worst of all for a fervent believer - doubt. Roper now has a new raison d’être, she writes: ‘the essence of epistemological humility – not a lack of belief or principle or faith, not the refusal to take a position or the abdication of responsibility to stand against injustice, but a constant examination of one’s worldview, a commitment to honestly grappling with criticisms of it.’

          The last sign of the book is one that Megan and Grace erect a few streets from where they grew up to reach out to family members who are still believers and still send threatening and abusive messages from time to time. Instead of defensive reply or stinging riposte, the sign reads simply: ‘Goldbugs forever’, a reference to a mistaken iPhone autocorrect for ‘good night’ that became a saying amongst Roper’s siblings. ‘What was the most important thing to tell them?’ the girls wonder. It turns out to be: ‘A sweet way of saying Goodnight. I love you’. Love, it seems, for Megan Phelps-Roper, is not only the answer but the one thing she knows for sure.

unfollow, Megan Phelps-Roper

This review appeared in The Times

The Greater in Lesser Contain'd

An unpubished essay on miniaturisation in literature

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