Holiday Reading

Monsters, fascists, slaughterers and liberal parents

I took what seemed a ridiculously ambitious six books away for the two weeks in Fiji. In the end, there was enough hammock, beach and early bed time to necessitate an additional seventh. Above you can see what constituted my holiday reading; hereafter, a few thoughts on those volumes.

First out of the hemp knapsack was John Wyndham‘s The Kraken Wakes (as an aside, the recent Penguin editions of Wyndham’s fiction are rather lovely). I’ve written about my admiration for Wyndham before, here – and some of you may have noticed that this blog is in fact named after one of his first stories.* Wyndham, for me, is a bona fide genius; a follower of H G Wells, certainly (though less of a Huxleyite than often presumed, I would suggest), he is the antecedent of J G Ballard, Allan Moore, Margaret Atwood, P D James – and China Miéville, of whom more shortly. Wyndham’s overarching project was the utterly plausible depiction of disruptions to parochial (even where nominally metropolitan) petit bourgeois daily life caused by exogenous shocks of a non-economic kind, expertly weaving in the Cold War context. Allied with an anachronous penchant for strong woman characters and a devilish eye for social satire, some of which is every bit as biting as Isherwood and even early Waugh, Wyndham’s major works are both time capsules and timeless stone tablets; they contain snapshots of his era but illustrate eternal human processes and interactions. The Kraken Wakes is exemplary in this regard: an alien threat manifests itself and nations are rendered inactive by mistrust and petty jealousies, while human-scale responses are undermined by entirely surmountable fractiousness and attitudinal inertia. Whereas other of his works progress steadily, TKW follows a more episodical path, with separate ‘phases’. This invites the reader to fill in the lacunae, which one may attempt neatly, logically and without colouring over the edges, or abstractly, ranging into the future as darkly or optimistically as a prevailing mood permits.

From dystopian fiction (of a sort) to the dystopian reality of Arundhati Roy‘s Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy. Roy’s retreat from fiction (or rather her preoccupation with factual reportage and advocacy) is well-documented and, in my view, deeply admirable. To be outspoken not only on regional disasters such as the Sri Lankan genocide but also specifically on the Indian tinderboxes of Kashmir and Naxalism (which she weaves together as part of a wider thesis on India’s crassly brutal ‘development model’) is brave beyond belief. Many of the essays contained in Listening to Grasshoppers concern the mishandling of the investigation into the attack on India’s parliament in 2001, though there are also detailed sections on genocide in Gujarat and some explorations of peasant resistance to state-sponsored barbarity in the rural northeast. The flagrant perversion of Indian democracy leads Roy to question the value of such a concept at all. It is an uncomfortable and courageous line of enquiry, and one which we should be brave enough to follow here in the UK too, where the real government so clearly extends to media moguls and police chiefs. The writing is at once characteristically elegant and abrasive: a call to arms without hectoring; clear, unanswered questions without the pretension of easy answers.

Moving back to fiction, I finally got around to one of the ‘buzz books’ (ugh) of the decade, Lionel Shriver‘s We Need to Talk About Kevin. I must say I found this unusually irritating. I thought it was pretentious, mind-numbingly middlebrow and mostly unconvincing. It was far too long to sustain interest, and while I was gripped by the last sixty or so pages – by that stage I wanted the details of the denouement, much of which was guessable early on – the preceding four hundred were annoying in the extreme (and I am too stubborn to abandon a book half read). None of the main three characters was vaguely sympathetic. The mother, and ‘author’ of the letters which make up the book, was a cold, vain, arrogant borderline sociopath; the father a wet, patronising, irresponsible, myopic – and in his own way equally arrogant – dupe. Kevin himself is a sadistic non-entity; I don’t feel that the author herself really ‘knew’ him. A bitch, a bore and a little bastard, to put it crudely. None of the relationships in this triangle (later square) were particularly realistic, or rather there were enough jarring disjunctures to make them seem phony. I am intrigued to see whether the film can breathe some life into them.

Interestingly, as the immigrant of the piece, the mother (of Armenian heritage) embodied much of America’s cold, robust, enterprising side. The father was homely, faux-warm and empty. Kevin was perhaps meant to embody some version of post-modernity. Absurd or surrealist violence as annotated by Baudrillard. The whole thing was depressing but more aesthetically than emotionally, as so little of it rang true at a gut level. The story was all-too plausible of course – the banality of the high-school massacre being one legacy of the last fifteen years – but the characters were constructs or ciphers. The writer seems as cold as her proxy, the mother, and it shows on each page. I would perhaps recommend it as a point of interest for discussion – after all the book has gained some cultural currency – but I’m not sure it’s a healthy intervention into the debate on contemporary child-rearing; more a sad commentary on one person’s interpretation thereof.

I was relieved to be able to tuck into Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Eating Animals – though I shouldn’t have been. I’ve teetered on the edge of some degree of meat rejection for a long while, and this book feels like the permission I needed to move properly to what the author terms ‘selective omnivorism’ – that is, the eating of meat only when its rearing and slaughtering meet ethical minimums (assuming one is comfortable with the ethics of eating meat in the abstract, which I think I still am). The book has so many fascinating and horrifying parts; too many to describe really, I would simply urge all to read it. There is an Emperor’s New Clothes element to it: I’m sure at heart most of us know how degraded and disgraceful the meat industry is, but we are very good at closing our eyes and ears to the facts. Really though, as Safran Foer expertly argues (and from an everyman position – this is not simply about middle-class guilt), the game is up. We are well on the way to creating Atwoodian ChickieNobs. Something has gone horribly wrong with our flesh consumption (not least the ridiculous underpricing of meat – where externalities are ignored and will only be costed later, in future antibiotic uselessness and dangerous genetic monopoly). And fish. Yes, fish is just as bad, if not worse. Even if you think his fiction to be too clever, too arch, too portentous, this is a different kettle of line-caught sustainable tuna.

After the travails of Kevin and the grimness of the meat industry, a book offering a snapshot of a transition to fascism might not seem like light relief, but every moment of Antonio Tabucchi‘s Pereira Maintains was a joy. This was given to me with high recommendation by friends of impeccable literary taste, and the anticipation was ramped up further by (what seemed) a rather gushing introduction by Mohsin Hamid. However, the superlatives were spot on. Rarely have I read a book with such economy of language; an efficient prose which loses no richness in its trimming. In just a couple of hundred double-spaced pages, the dawning of the fascist state in Portugal is unveiled, with excursions into the worlds of the Spanish Civil War, Portuguese literature (and wider culture),  and that great inter-war institution: the health retreat. Oh, the heat! Oh, the lemonade! Oh, the hidden communists! Pereira himself is both a fully-rounded character and a representative of a substantial section the population at large; not only in Portugal, but more broadly in a Europe descending into the grip of various fascisms. The literary device used to frame the entire narrative is risky but successful, leaving an element of doubt as to the story’s (in)conclusion. A wonderful book, and one I am very glad to have encountered.

Next stop: China Miéville‘s Perdido Street Station. At around eight hundred and fifty pages it was a bit of a doorstep – at one point so unwieldy that it ended up in the sea. Its enormous scope and effortless grappling with a myriad of metaphysical concepts belie the precocious author’s then twenty six years of age. The city of New Crobuzon is highly evocative of London, though on an alternative development path lacking digital technology and dependent upon steam-driven machinery (and pseudo-computers). Not precisely analogous to our world due to the existence of many non-human sentient races and something akin to magic, the city nonetheless has areas and communities which feel familiar. Isaac, the main protagonist, could easily be working in the Imperial or University College science labs as conducting his Universal Force Theory experiments in Brock Marsh; were it not for her insectoid head, his partner Lin might be at home exhibiting at the White Cube. Actually, the insectoid head might be fine there too.

The themes – loyalty, community, democracy, censorship, the criminal-state nexus – are universal, and the size of the book allows genuinely thoughtful exploration of each. There are brief moments which induce a wince, but in general the writing is playful, provocative and very smart. In some places it reminds me of a less self-satisfied Iain M Banks; in others, a humbler Will Self. The warts’n’all urbanophilia of Iain Sinclair is also coursing through Miéville’s veins like the rivers Tar and Canker (and, by extension, Thames). Perdido Street Station was compulsive and challenging; in fact, its page-turner nature worked against it somewhat as I occasionally felt as though I hadn’t enough time to process all the ideas. A great read; while I had followed Miéville as an activist and commentator it was my first engagement with his fiction and certainly won’t be my last.

Finally, on the plane home I hoovered up Bolaño‘s Last Evenings on Earth. A rich collection of haunting, wistful and melancholy short stories, often deploying the author’s semi-autobiographical alter-ego Arturo Belano (see also The Savage Detectives). As with other of Bolaño’s triumphs the ebb and flow of the text is captured beautifully in a sympathetic translation. While many of the stories are, prima facie, bathetic wanderings through the minor circles of literary purgatory – was a writer ever as playfully obsessed with the taxonomy and hierarchy of other writers as Bolaño? – there are the usual revelations of life in Spain, Mexico and Chile. As always, the interstices of political and cultural landscapes are the key scenes of Bolañoverse dramas, but it is easy to extrapolate broader human themes from these micro-level tales. Much like the Tabucchi, a wonderful and lasting reward for just a few hours of reading.

So, in sum: Wyndham continued to impress me with prescience and precision, ditto Bolaño with wist and wit; Roy was precisely as promised by a friend, ‘articulate and bracing’; people really need to talk less about Kevin, notwithstanding the fascinating wider subject matter; Safran Foer broke free of portent and pretension to offer something deeply affecting and painstakingly researched (which I realise is what fans think of his other books); Tabucchi dealt an absolute ace; and my first Miéville was entrancing: the course is set for Embassytown.

Two weeks off from the doctoral writing-up and a few months’ worth of pleasure reading caught up on. Now back to work.

The first entry here was a quotation from The Kraken Wakes and encapsulates much of my intellectual reaction (if not my emotional instinct; or is it vice versa?) when confronted with the likely collision of climate change, resource security and energy depletion.

Published in: on July 28, 2011 at 11:27 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. I’ve just arrived home to find ‘Pereira Maintains’ is Book at Bedtime on Radio Four (read by Derek Jacobi), so will be available on the iPlayer for audio-bibliophiles.

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