Thursday, 26 September 2013

a visit from the goon squad [jennifer egan]

Goon Squad is a dazzling novel, which flips around in time like a dolphin, with a similar degree of grace and look-at-me chutzpah. After having read it, I later discovered that its reputation is already well established. It won its author the Pulitzer Prize and HBO are in talks to turn it into a mini-series.

From Egan’s point of view that’s undoubtedly a good thing. All the same, I’m glad I discovered it without the hype. (Still not all that big in Montevideo, so far as I can tell.) When it came out it was compared directly with Franzen’s Freedom, a book she says, in an interview, she has yet to read; she’ll wait until the hype has died down. Hype compels the reader into taking a standpoint not merely with regard to the novel but also the novel’s reception. (Or the film’s or the song’s etc). For anyone wary of the literary establishment, its approval is a double edged sword. In that context it’s worth knowing that Egan claims to have yomped through years of rejection, that this is no overnight success.

You can see why the book has been struck a chord. It manages to capture an urban overview of the years 1980-2010. The novel is set in New York; San Francisco; a safari in Africa, Naples. But predominantly New York. The fractured narrative (natch) leaps backwards and forwards, riffing like a jazz tune, as it follows first one character then another as they dance through time. Part of the fun of the book is never knowing where you’re going next, whose journey you’re going to be dipping into. The presence or absence of the twin towers is dealt with more effectively and elliptically than in any other work of post-911 literature I’ve come across. These New Yorkers have a frame of reference which is not so very different to a Londoner’s. The music they listen to, the dreams they carry around with them, the disappointments and satisfactions of age. The characters reminded me of people I have known, feelings I have had, none more so than when a group of young New Yorkers find themselves out all night, pushing through to the tragic dawn.

As such, Goon Squad has the feeling of being a touchstone for a generation. It has hints of Pynchon in its sometimes euphoric prose and the name of one of the lead characters, but perhaps more than anything it is reminiscent of another New York novel, albeit one which is on some levels very different, James Baldwin’s Another Country. This comparison perhaps also suggests the book’s Achilles Heel. Where Baldwin’s novel was posited within a radical discourse, Egan’s feels thematically weightless. There is no ‘political’ anchor. (Small P). The final two chapters of the book, both situated in a future where climate change appears to have become an even more dominant issue than it is now, are the first where the novel’s episodic approach starts to feel hollow. These excursions into the what-might-be feel weak in comparison to Egan’s insight into the what-has-been. The resonances of objects; of personal effect and affect as we span the years; this is where the writing feels most vital. The decisions made in adolescence which will shape the span of one’s life for decades.

Monday, 23 September 2013

the briefcase/ strange weather in tokyo [hiromi kawakami]

So, I’m going to pitch you the latest. It’s about a woman who is in her late thirties. She likes a drink. She’s not an alcoholic, but she likes a drink. She’s lonely. We don’t know much about why. She hangs out in bars. Drinks beer on her own. One day she runs into her old teacher. He’s in his sixties. They have a drink together. His wife ran off and left him. He’s lonely too. They have this friendship. And she starts seeing another guy. But then she realises she’s falling for the professor. They have this “in-sync” relationship. I know you’re thinking it’s kind of creepy. He’s almost old enough to be her granddad. I know you’re thinking all that. But it’s not like that. It’s quirky. It’s irreverent. It’s engaging. They’re engaging characters. You’re just being politically correct. And anyway. Wait for it. They’re Japanese. That makes a difference. You’re already subtly altering your cultural framework, I can see that. You’re thinking, if I decide that this narrative, this story, this mise-en-scene, is a bit creepy, then am I being, even ever so mildly, am I being racist? Is my political correctness not so politically correct? And I’m going to give you something else. This book, Strange Weather in Tokyo – yeah, they changed the title, it’s written by a woman. Not just any woman. One of the major writers in contemporary Japanese culture. So now you’re doing a swift 180. I can see that. I can understand. The original title? The Briefcase. Yeah, that is creepy. I mean, that’s a creepy title. It’s all he leaves her. There’s nothing in it. He’s not a creep. No. No way. They like beer and saki and food and it’s healthy. You need to switch that mindset. That Hoboken, Harrods Food Hall, Hanif Kureshi mindset. Stranger things have happened. Yeah the cover photo is a bit of a soft-sell. Pretty girl floating in space. No. Really. It’s a very subtle piece of writing. About interiority. I don’t know. I made it up. I don’t know if it’s a real word. It probably is in Japanese. No I don’t speak the language. Change your mindset. Get with the program. 

Monday, 16 September 2013

the gentle art of tramping [stephen graham]

This 1927 tome is a softly spoken meditation on the joys of ‘tramping’. It comes from the epoch of Chaplin and Ragged Trousered Philanphropist, as well as having rural echoes of Benjamin’s urban flaneur. Other points of reference are the Wandering Jew, the hobo, On The Road, the shwami. The tramp is a man whose material possessions, though enumerated and valued, are few. What he has he carries with him. Graham outlines the significance of the book, the coffee pot, the blanket and the other accoutrements of the road. But none of these should impede which is the tramp’s most valuable possession, his liberty.

There’s something fascinating about the tone of Graham’s book. It has a knowing, urban air. There’s a conscious romanticism at work. His tramp is not some skin-and-bone figure desperate for his next meal. As much as this tramp might be said to hark back to a pre-industrial landscape, s/he might also be linked to the modern backpacker. Graham’s walking took him to the US, Russia, Mexico and large swathes of Europe. He was a bounty hunter searching for experience. There’s the assumption of a surplus wealth which allows the tramp to select his adventures, to dip in and out.

Graham’s book tallies with a new, contemporary interest in man’s relationship with the natural world, apparent in the writing of the likes of Macfarlane but also the ‘living-with-nature’ television of Mears or Grills. Modernity is clinging on to the very notion of nature, scared it will be swept away forever by our treasured ‘digital revolution’. We don’t seem to need nature much anymore. Yet we can’t help suspecting that we’re missing out on something through its gradual annihilation. Which could go hand in hand with a terrible revenge, caused by our neglect and disrespect. Graham’s tome prefigures this crisis, but does so in a jaunty way, at a time when melting icecaps and global warming were not even conceived. Nature is still bountiful, the fruits and berries there to be plucked. So this is a book which sings of another age, whilst hinting at our own.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

the golden scales [parker bilal]

Parker Bilal's novel is a detective story, set in contemporary Egypt. The book's Sudanese hero, Makana, has been thrown out of his own country and seeks to get by in Cairo as a private detective. His Chandleresque lineage is evident. Bilal depicts Cairo as a kind of LA of the East, a nexus which drags in not merely Egyptians and Sudanese, but also Brits, Russians, Italians. Egyptian society operates on a pivot between Islamic extremism and hedonistic European capitalism, both of which compete for position and influence. Perhaps this conflict is the one balanced in the scales of the book's title. A key event is the bombing of a Red Sea resort by Jihadists. Only, Bilal astutely locates this supposed act of geo-political war within the context of personal vendetta and misplaced egos. The implication is that of history as cock-up rather than conspiracy, something the world-weary Makana adroitly understands.

The detective novel is a fine surgical tool for getting under the skin of a society. The Golden Scales takes us into the Jihadi's den and the capitalist's penthouse. Along the way we are offered an insight into Egyptian society that the media, for all the coverage the country has received in the past few years, cannot hope to emulate. In addition, in the tradition of the best detective novels, it provides a riveting read as the reader roots for Makana in his quest to discover the whereabouts of the wonderfully monickered Adil Romario, a playboy footballer who has vanished without trace. 

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

a month in the country [j l carr]

Carr’s book deceived me. It’s a title that lurks in a somewhat unspecified fashion as a minor classic of c20th British literature. I came across a reference to it in an academic history of the British countryside in the 20th Century. The book deals with the immediate aftermath of the Great War, as its protagonist, Birkin, recovering from shellshock and a marriage broken by the war, heads to North Yorkshire to work on restoring a medieval fresco in a village church.

The story is slight, at a mere 100 pages or so, and atmospheric, rather than driven by plot. In the isolated village, under an August sun, Birkin gradually recuperates. He strikes up a friendship with an archaeologist, falls for the vicar’s wife, and discovers a centuries-old mystery snared in the images the church fresco reveals. All of this is told in an understated, nostalgic prose. The events which Birkin experiences are less significant than the way in which they contribute to his recovery. The book is an artful paean, which makes reference to Houseman and Elgar. There is a pleasantly multi-cultural surprise in the revelation of the fresco’s mystery. But above all it is a homage to a lost time and place, an England where villages still had the feel of a hobbit’s shire, where it was possible to feel oneself lost in its bounty.

Carr’s deceit, I learnt upon concluding the book, is that it is a text written in the latter half of the twentieth century, by a man who was born during the course of the 1st World War. A Month in the Country is unembroidered fiction. Any documentary pretensions are merely that. Nevertheless, it succeeds in convincing, perhaps because of its slightly ad hoc approach, that the author or narrator indeed lived during that time in that England, a time when the rupture of the future was on the cusp of being finalised, destroying a way of life which had subsisted for centuries, not quite ended yet, the past clinging on by its fingernails.

Monday, 2 September 2013

just between us (w&d rajko grlic, w ante tomic)

Just Between Us is a dry comedy which owes a lot to Schnitzler’s matchless La Ronde, as it follows the fortunes of a group of people all of whom are, according to their respective degrees of seperation, romantically involved with one another. At the script’s heart is the character of Nikola, played by the charismatic Predrag Manojlovic. He is a wealthy married man who leads a double life, with a long-term lover and child living in the same city. He visits her when he is supposed to be abroad on business trips, and their shared joke is that they are in Munich or Oslo or Dubai, or wherever it is he has claimed to be.

There’s something slightly tenuous about this and the narrative often has the feeling of having been fleshed out with the use of Venn Diagrams or an Excel Spreadsheet. Of greater interest, perhaps, is the way in which the film offers a sideways and warm-hearted look at life in the Croatian capital. The angst of the nineties is hinted at, when Nikola mentions how he had to flee to the States, but now these characters are thoroughly integrated into a modern (pre-crash) Europe. The apolitical nature of the film seems almost a declaration of intent: we too can make fuzzy romantic comedies, along the lines of Hollywood or Richard Curtis.

Manojlovic played the father in Kustirica’s When Father Was Away On Business, before the nation state of Croatia even existed. His doleful face seems to carry the wear and tear of history, but it’s all below the surface, hidden away in a locked drawer in his character’s designer apartment. Now that history is done and dusted, serious time can be dedicated to frolicking and romantic escapades; the eternal wheel of duplicitous shenanigans can resume its remorseless grind.