Tuesday 28 August 2012

NW - Zadie Smith

'never neutral'

After a seven year wait we have another novel from Zadie Smith. Well, you might have been waiting for it but this is the first book of hers that I've read so if you want to know if it's as good as that other one of hers that you liked then you'll need to check with someone else. That time gap though, and the title of the novel (and the fact that reviews have been strictly embargoed until publication) always meant that this was going to be something of an event publication, a shoo-in perhaps for another Booker nomination (the judges did not agree I'm afraid), and what appeared to be another state of the nation novel (or state of the city) to follow on from John Lanchester's Capital. The first thing to say is that it doesn't read like that kind of book at all. Smith does capture an area of London and a small sample of its people but I'm not sure she has much interest in trying to incorporate a grand message about living in London near the beginning of the 21st century (or if there is I'm not sure what it is), it all feels far more personal than that. By focussing on four main characters who all share a starting point in life, the fictional housing estate of Caldwell, but whose trajectories since have been very different, and then allowing their paths to cross naturally she does make sociological points, political and racial ones too, but it is in personal relationships and the characters of the two women in particular that she finds most success.

NW is of course North West London and we are around and about Willesden and the Kilburn High Road. The novel opens (and you can read it yourself here) with a section entitled Visitation. First we have a literary tracking shot to establish the locale and then a face to face confrontation as Leah opens the door to a hysterical woman begging for help. This is Shar, who still lives on the Caldwell estate, visible across the way from where Leah now lives ('From there to here, a journey longer than it looks'). Shar needs help, or rather money, and it is only after this sometimes frantic exchange, which manages to incorporate some reminiscences about their shared schooling at Brayton, and Shar's departure that Leah begins to suspect that she has been victim to some rather elaborate begging or a well-scripted mugging with no violence. This section is written with fragmented sentences, thoughts jagging about, snatches of music, typographical experiments (see below), memories inserted in special chapters numbered 37 (a number given mystical significance by a friend of Leah's); it is a stylistic tour de force which will probably attract as many readers as it repels.

Then comes a section called Guest in which we meet Felix. This was the least memorable section for me, Felix never really engaged me as a character, and it made little impression on me beyond the brutality and inherent danger in the engaging with other people in London. This will become an important theme of the book however, and I'll come back to communication later, so I'm wary of discounting this section entirely but, as I say, it didn't really contribute much for me apart from a neat way of viewing the way different London boroughs segregate themselves -

He considered the tube map. It did not express his reality. The centre was not 'Oxford Circus' but the bright lights of Kilburn High Road. 'Wimbledon' was the countryside, 'Pimlico' pure science fiction.

Next comes Host which makes up over a third of the novel, consisting of 185 short, numbered and named chapters, and is the most successful part of the book. Maybe I've just got the taste for these short chapters but it is such an effective way of capturing character, covering time and including a whole life in a short number of pages. Here the focus is Leah's childhood friend Natalie, although when they were growing up she was Keisha (just as Zadie herself used to be Sadie). Natalie is the most interesting character in the novel, the most developed (do I dare make any connection between her and the author?) and also the most obvious to follow in terms of someone making an escape from humble beginnings on the Caldwell estate.
She is probably as surprised to have come out of Brayton as it is surprised to have spawned her. Nat, the girl done good from their thousand-kid madhouse; done too good, maybe, to recall where she came from. To live like this you would have to forget everything that came before. How else could you manage?

Natalie's story is one of re-invention, perhaps that is the only way a woman from a council estate can make a career in law, a woman of colour. At one stage she receives some advice from another woman like her, a QC.

'The first lesson is: turn yourself down. One notch. Two. Because this is not neutral.' She passed a hand over her neat fram from her head to her lap, like a scanner. 'This is never neutral.'

The collection of short chapters take in her childhood, her friendship with Leah, her upward trajectory, her success and its burdens, marriage, children, and always this lurking sense that none of it feels as good as it should do, the girl done good doesn't feel nearly as good as she should.

Walking down the Kilburn High Road Natalie Blake had a strong desire to slip into the lives of other people. It was hard to see how this desire could be practicably satisfied or what, if anything, it really meant. 'Slip into' was an imprecise thought...Listening was not enough. Natalie Blake wanted to know people. To be intimately involved with them.

Another form of reinvention will allow her to transgress, to go against everything that her life appears to amount to and in a novel about (mis)communication it is just one example of how a flawed attempt can have dire consequences.

The observant amongst you will have noticed that so far I have only mentioned three of the four main characters. The final member of the cast is Nathan Bogle, spoken of in disapproving tones in the early parts of the book before making his main appearance in a section entitled Crossing. Bogle is a shadowy figure, a supposed failure, exactly what we might expect to come forth from a housing estate and yet he actually seems most at ease in the terrain of the novel, a man content with his lot, his status. This is one of the more alarming conclusions to draw from the book, that the environment is so hostile and set, that it is those who attempt to lift themselves above it who will inevitably fail or even fall victim to it.

London has long been characterised as city in which so many people live and yet so few of whom actually connect. I have experienced that first hand and know also the fear of engaging the wrong person in conversation or debate. In one memorable scene in a children's playground a group of women confront a young lad who is smoking. It very quickly escalates with talk of disrespect and where people come from before calming down again but it is a perfect example of the simple engagement that can quickly become aggressive and even fatal. Smith captures these exchanges brilliantly and in fact the dialogue throughout the book is diverse, idiomatic and convincing. With such variety in the writing style for each section of this novel it isn't a surprise that my first experience of reading her fiction wasn't a complete success (and I have heard others say that she might be a better essayist) but those sections that I did like, I really liked. Smith has been quoted as saying that she finds all aspects of writing a novel tough apart from the dialogue. This I find fascinating because part of me wonders what she might produce if she turned her hand to writing a play. I doubt it will ever happen but if you're reading Zadie (!) then give it a little thought. And think about a nice part for a man approaching his late thirties with laughter lines and maybe the odd grey hair whilst you're at it.


Tuesday 21 August 2012

Shrapnel - William Wharton

'tales I never told'

William Wharton is best known as the author of the novel Birdy, winner of a National Book Award and later turned into a film by Alan Parker starring Nicholas Cage (back when he used to do proper acting) and Matthew Modine (two other novels of his were subsequently filmed - Dad and A Midnight Clear - both starring Jack Lemmon). It is hard to get much biographical information about the man himself, I have only just learned for instance that his real name is Albert William Du Aime, but it has often been assumed that his novels are partly autobiographical. One quirk of his writing career was an unusual popularity in Poland which lead to many books being published only in that language (including a sequel to Birdy). One of those was this memoir which has now been published in English thanks to The Friday Project. Many of those who served in the Second World War (and indeed in any conflict) came home with experiences and memories that they had little wish to share despite the frequent enquiries of their families and loved ones. Wharton was no different. Having volunteered to fight in that war and eventually come home injured after the Battle of the Bulge he kept many of his experiences a secret until he finally felt compelled to put them down on paper. What he produced was one of the most refreshingly honest accounts of war I have read, written with a deceptively light touch that still manages to make an impact. There is a feeling throughout of a man who can't quite believe that he is being asked to do what he does, or that he continues to find himself in a position to be asked.

One evening in New York I had dinner with Kurt Vonnegut. He asked me, 'How was your war?" I flippantly responded by recounting the number of court martials in which I had been involved. It was not a good answer. War for me, though brief, had been a soul-shaking trauma. I was scared, miserable and I lost confidence in human beings, especially myself. It was a very unhappy experience.
It was not a pleasant experience writing this book either. When dug up, the buried guilts of youth smell of dirty rags and old blood. There are many things that happened to me, and because of me, of which I am not proud, events impossible to defend now: callousness, cowardice, cupidity, deception. I did not tell these stories to my children. My ego wasn't strong enough to handle it then, perhaps it isn't even now, when I'm over seventy years old. We shall see.

That extract comes near the beginning of the book, a confession of sorts, and a neat precis of what is to come. In short chapters Wharton takes us from basic training through to his homecoming after victory and his almost anecdotal form makes the book engaging and compelling from first page to last. It is shot through with that humour that comes from those that survive by the narrowest of margins and are then able to look back on the absurdities of war. We meet an early draftee who uses his college education to get out of the army, not by avoiding the draft but by repeatedly and methodically urinating on his mattress (with the aid of an alarm clock) to gain a diagnosis of enuresis and an honourable discharge. We see how Wharton and many of his colleagues look for any opportunity to make their lives easier and, the ultimate goal, to get out of fighting altogether. Trench foot provides one of those avenues, the prospect of a few toes being lopped off 'a small price to pay if we get to snuggle into a warm cosy hospital bed, miles away from this insane scene, and more importantly, have a chance to live.'

This war to me is something like whooping cough or measles you try to get through, or maybe more like chicken pox where you aren't supposed to scratch or you'll have big craters all over your face and body. I'm trying my damnedest not to scratch.

Wharton by his own admission is a bit of a coward ("the difference between being scared and being a coward is having other people find out.") but he also acts with remarkable relaxation in some of the most extreme circumstances. In one of his first actions of the war he is selected for a mission that sees him parachuted behind enemy lines on his own to deliver a radio to the French resistance, a suicidal mission that he somehow survives, setting the tone for several close escapes in the future, and one of many examples of ways in which those in command are happy to send soldiers on patrols and missions that will almost certainly end in their deaths.

Death of course makes many an appearance, as much in those instances when soldiers narrowly escape it as when they finally succumb. Wharton finds an entirely fresh perspective on it when he is reunited briefly with the man who had been the school bully responsible for flushing his head down the toilet.

It's a terrible shock to see someone who's been such a menace in your childhood... who took so much joy from your life, lying there empty, bloody, spattered with dirt particles and shrapnel pitted into his skin... Some things are hard to live past.

Wharton's honesty is particularly powerful when he opens out from his own personal failings to those of the liberating forces as a whole. He and we become witnesses to the terrible behaviour of military force, to the things you might expect from conquests of the past like rape and pillage. The Russians may have been cast as the villains by the American top brass but Wharton is clear that the behaviour of American troops was just as bad. He himself stole gemstones from jewellery, gradually building up a substantial nest-egg which he hides in a German gas mask ready for the time when victory sends them home. His plan is only foiled by an extraordinary attack on their camp from a group of Hitler Youth. But what the book is always building towards is an incident in which he reports a massacre by their own troops - '...a really bad way to end a war. If there's a good way to end a war I don't know what it is, but this was a bad way to end one.' It is an episode that forces Wharton to examine his personal morality and despite having described himself as 'sort of an incipient psychopath, or at least, a misanthrope' it yet again places him in opposition to those in authority.

That opposition is probably what saved his ego when writing this memoir. Always the first to point out his own weaknesses and failings he is also careful to portray those in command as either weak, misguided or ultimately cruel, with a total disregard for the lives of the men underneath them. Wharton's occasional connections with those around him belie his casting as misanthrope, he may be ashamed of his conduct in war but there are moments of atonement. At the end of it all however it is his frankness and ability to hold up his hands that not only saves his telling but makes it such an interesting story.


Tuesday 14 August 2012

Mrs Bridge - Evan S Connell

'exquisite idleness'

You may remember my enthusiastic review for Chris Bachelder's Abbott Awaits back in March, but if you don't then one of the joys of that book was its structure. Short chapters, often of only a page or so,  revealed little nuggets of insight. One of that novel's own images was of a window segmented into many panes so that the view outside was separated into many distinct pictures - 'There is not one pane that is not beautiful'. Whether Bachelder had read this novel from 1959 before writing his own I have no idea but it shares that same structure: short chapters with their own titles, snapshots of a life lived (and here it is much more of a life, Abbott was only granted three months but we get to see the entire marriage of Mrs Bridge), which come together to create a 'pointillist portrait' of a woman and an era that is very much in the past and yet so easy for us to connect to thanks to Connell's sensitive handling of his creation.

All I can do in writing this post is to say quite simply that the book deserves its title of modern classic, tell you that it's an immensely enjoyable read and then give you extract after extract to demonstrate my point; so if you want to skip all that and just go and order yourself a copy then I won't be offended at all. It is a brilliant book, you won't regret it, but if you're still unconvinced then please read on. Mrs Bridge was Connell's first novel, originally published in 1959, and provides an acutely observed portrait of a suburban wife in the inter-war years. Her husband works long hours that provide a comfortable life for her and her three children, she is connected to her community (by which I mean those parts of it that are mirror-images of her own background and class) and it would be quite simple for her to sleep-walk through life with the small joys that it brings but Connell slowly allows her to question how happy an existence that might be and to let her keep asking questions about what her purpose might be. In fact it is her friend Grace Barron who articulates early on the questions that will come to dominate her life too.

'India, I've never been anywhere or done anything or seen anything. I don't know how other people live, or think, or even how they believe. Are we right? Do we believe the right things?'

These nagging doubts keep nipping away throughout a book in which life nevertheless ticks away. A novel made up of fleeting moments even includes a section in which Mrs Bridge reads a book containing a passage that observes that some people skim through life without ever seeing 'all it may contain.' She is interrupted in her reading, places the book on the mantel and whilst meaning to return to it, never does. As her life passes by she cannot 'get over the feeling that something was drawing steadily away from her.' She resolves to ask her husband whether he feels the same way at all when he returns from work one evening whilst also recalling the dreams they used to share, her not caring so much what his ambitions were but caring only for him. Then comes the realisation that his busy work life, which she had always thought of as a 'temporary condition', will in fact mean that she never sees very much of her husband.

They had started off together to explore something that promised to be wonderful, and, of course, there had been wonderful times. And yet, thought Mrs Bridge, why is it that we haven't - that nothing has - that whatever we - ?

The relationship between husband and wife is brilliantly observed despite the fact that their interactions are limited by his busy working life. On her 48th birthday her husband takes her to the club for dinner and announces that they will be going on a trip to Europe. Whilst he talks excitedly about all the places they will visit she remembers a similar conversation when he had promised that they would undertake this very trip, a conversation that seemed to have taken place 'eight or ten years ago, but it was more than twenty, and on this day she was forty-eight years old.' Growing sad at this thought she gazes out of the window at a gathering storm 'and the distant thunder seemed to be warning her that one day this world she knew and loved would be annihilated.' What then follows is the approach of a tornado which sends other diners down to the basement for safety but Mr Bridge refuses to be moved from his steak and continues eating. Despite her anxieties Mrs Bridge remains at his side. 'For nearly a quarter of a century she had done as he told her, and what he had said would happen had indeed come to pass, and what he had said would not occur had not occurred. Why, then, should she not believe him now?' They both remain and the tornado does indeed pass, 'whether impressed by his intransigence or touched by her devotion.'

Connell knows that the smallest things can set a mind racing and it is whilst on that trip to Paris that she spots her husband dwelling by a shop window and sees that what held his attention was a black lace bra 'with the tips cut off.' Why had he stood there looking so serious? She then remembers the time he revealed that as a child he had wanted to be a great composer, what other secrets might there be? 'Who was he really?' This territory is familiar from reading K Arnold Price's The New Perspective (recently enjoyed and reviewed by Trevor over here) and that questioning of the very basis of all that seems solid is what makes this novel grow in power and interest as it develops. Mrs Bridge becomes more and more fascinating as the short chapters progress, she is simply a more interesting person than we might have given her credit for at the outset. There is also something perversely gratifying about watching a privileged character struggling with the very aspects of their life that others might term comfortable, and I'll confess to a sort of morbid curiosity as to whether she could ever 'explain how the leisure of her life - that exquisite idleness he had created by giving her everything - was driving her insane?'

Sitting at her dressing table applying cold cream she suddenly asks who she is, how she got here, who the man undressing in the same room might be. She is gratified as she applies her white mask of 'sweetly scented anonymity' but when she looks in the mirror she realises that the smile she feels is nowhere to be seen. 'All the same, being committed, there was nothing to do but proceed.'

At the same time as her relationship with her husband has had distance added to it, the relationship with her children, one of the factors that altered her married life of course, slowly alters as they grow up and another form of distance comes into play. In one brilliant section her son builds a tower out of rubbish on a vacant lot. As it gets bigger and more solid, and the need to tackle him about taking it down more urgent she recognises that her reticence in doing so is because she realises the time has come for her to talk with him like an adult and she is not sure sure she is equal to it.

There are wonderful flashes of humour of course, quite often from puncturing outdated notions or unfashionable or prejudiced opinions. Looking at the varying Christmas decorations in the neighbourhood for example they stumble upon a bungalow with 'a life-size cut-out of Santa Claus on the roof, six reindeer in the front yard, candles in every window, and by the front door an enormous cardboard birthday cake with one candle. '

On the cake was this message:
'My word, how extreme,' said Mrs Bridge thoughtfully. 'Some Italians must live there.'

Little giggles like that combine with stunning observations of our closest relationships, the gestures that we make in order to show love (including the ones that fail like an out-of-practice Mrs Bridge's attempt to make a loaf of pineapple bread whose failure is met at first with a stoical 'Never mind' from her husband who then buys her a dozen roses the next day), to produce a novel that delights with its humanity, its sympathy, and its belief that even with all our flaws there is a part of us that wants to be better. It also has one of the best endings to a novel that I can remember. Unlike this review. Like I said: just go read the damn thing. You can thank me later.


Tuesday 7 August 2012

The Tale of Brin and Bent and Minno Marylebone - Ravi Thornton and Andy Hixon

'dreadful desires'

I am, as you will know if you read this blog with any regularity, a fan of the graphic novel. This is partly to do with the form and its possibilities when compared to prose but I would have to be honest and say that a lot of the time it has to do with aesthetics. I like pictures, I like artwork, I am often drawn to graphic novels whose artwork does something for me. But for all their innovation with storytelling techniques the vast majority of comics and graphic novels that I see remain very traditional in their execution. They are drawn, sketched, occasionally painted but more often than not firmly rooted in the artistic techniques that have existed for many, many years. Where then are the graphic works that utilise the tools of the modern era?

Well, one look at the front cover of this new work from writer Ravi Thornton and illustrator Andy Hixon tells you that this is a book that has little to do with pen and ink. That said, it would be wrong of me to say that this is imagery created solely in a computer processor, far from it, as Andy Hixon's work is all sculpted from clay of one sort or another, decorated with a dab of paint before being photographed and then 'taken into Photoshop for arranging, colouring and texturing.' This combination of traditional sculpture and computer manipulation gives the images a look that I have never seen before in graphic novels, looking both real and impossible, hyper-real or dream-like, unsettling throughout. This book is also a riposte to those who think comics are only for kids. This is a very adult and disturbing tale that manages to be both terrifying and almost romantic by its final pages. On a first read it is almost too upsetting but each subsequent experience shows the beauty of the work that has gone into it.

Before they met Brin and Brent were considered dysfunctional, 'Disordered, destructive, sexually shambolic. She is rattled. He is loose.' When they meet and come together 'they are truly insane' and yet they manage to present themselves at The House of Care for the Grossly Infirm where they are employed together. Set within spare grounds the house holds Those Committed and another building called the Rehabilitation Pool. It is in the pool that Brin and Brent work, keeping the tiled floors clean with bleach that burns the soles of Those Committed and the water chlorinated above safe levels so that they flail and moan whilst Brin and Brent retire to their den to watch through holes drilled in the wall and to 'celebrate disgust' with sessions of 'hard beating, hard sex.'

Into this dark set up comes an innocent looking child called Minno Marylebone who lets herself through the back door into the pool each night and bathes in the waters there. This regular ritual of hers happens unbeknownst to the pool's guardians but we have a nagging sense that she will not be able to keep her visits a secret and a creeping unease about what might happen to her if she is discovered.

I won't spoil it any further by telling what happens in the third section of the book, only that we are told in that final chapter, 'That Brin and Bent catch Minno Marylebone is perhaps the most fortunate thing.' Italics are the writer's own. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the book is that it is prefaced by a comment from Thornton in which she confesses that the tale is a metaphorical rendering of 'something bad' that happened to her in the past. It is one of those things I am both keen to know and scared to even ask about. Both Thornton and Hixon have provided a director's commentary on the making of the book which is an interesting read, particularly the part about images being censored by the printers. The book is also much more than a simple book having already spawned a musical score and with a ballet app in the pipeline. A ballet app? I hear you ask. I have no idea, but everything about this partnership and this book has me yearning to know more. You too hopefully.


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