Monday, 30 November 2015

satin island [tom mccarthy]

McCarthy’s Satin Island is a puzzling novel but its also a return to form. Puzzling is what McCarthy does best and its a pleasure to see him back messing around with narrative expectations and throwing signifiers around like confetti. There’s a tendency, which I share, to use the word ‘signifiers’ as something of a catch-all, to denote a writer who appears to be aware of the semiotic weight of the themes (or memes, fuck knows) they introduce into their narratives. In the case of Satin Island, the novel’s protagonist is an anthropologist whose hero is Lévi-Strauss, so the term signifier is not merely apposite, its also necessary for a book where the semiotic significance of the material outweighs the narrative significance.

It might be worth trying to explain or justify that last phrase. McCarthy really doesn’t seem to be all that interested in narrative. Things do happen to the hero, but nothing worth writing home about. He travels a bit, he has a part-time girlfriend, with whom he sleeps, and he works for a mysterious organisation. But if we look at the classical Western narrative model, so beloved by the British, where the protagonist goes on a journey, in the process revealing or discovering things about him or herself, and by extension, the process of being human… forget it. That’s not McCarthy’s bag. Perhaps it’s a matter of minor frustration, because no matter what, narrative does matter in a novel, even in a post-Robbe Grillet anti-narrative novel, but at the same time, it’s not the only thing; and it might be that the British inhabit a literary culture where narrative tends to be prioritised above another key feature of the novel, which is that it is a space of discourse. 

I’d like to put those last three words in italics, but shall resist the impetus. What they suggest is that a novel is a place where a writer assembles various thoughts, and these thoughts are perhaps the thing that makes it distinctive, above and beyond the structure. These thoughts are arranged around themes, or memes, or perhaps, even, signifiers. This is where McCarthy comes into his own. He curates signifiers and arranges them throughout the novel. The fact that this is also, effectively, the job of the novel’s protagonist offers a Borgesian twist. The novel is also the anthropological paper which the protagonist is writing. Skydivers; Turin airport; the Gerona G8 summit; the way cancer cells function; all are part of the meaning and meaninglessness of modern life and all documented as such. At times we want to think this is all building towards something, that an underpinning narrative will reveal itself, but this says as much about our inherent need for an external order to be imposed as anything else. It’s a commentary on the act of reading. The novel’s denouement, where the protagonist doesn’t actually get to where he seems to be headed, would appear to reinforce this point. 

Perhaps it’s even more puzzling that this novel was short-listed for the Booker prize. The idea of the anti-novel, as practiced by the likes of Chejfec, Toussaint and others, infiltrating the British publishing mainstream is a delirious one. McCarthy may well be the only British novelist capable of being both slyly subversive and successful at the same time. 

Friday, 27 November 2015

the best of enemies (w&d. robert gordon & morgan neville)

The Best of Enemies is an intriguing if de rigeur documentary about the TV debates between two intellectuals at the time of the 1968 conventions in the USA, the first in Miami, the second, notoriously, in Chicago. The two men, Gore Vidal and William Buckley share a deep loathing for one another, something which gives the film its strongest suit. There’s no shortage of conflict. The narrative takes us through the sequence of the debates. The simmering antipathy finally boils over when Vidal calls Buckley a crypto-Nazi and he responds by calling Vidal a queer and threatening to smash his face in. It’s a moment of highly theatrical television which broke the civilised etiquette of the time and established the potency of the debate format which is still pervasive in media coverage of politics. 

However, having said all of this, and without denying that the film does what it sets out to do efficiently and at times amusingly, it feels as though The Best of Enemies fails to draw out some of the subtler aspects of its narrative. It briefly comments on the way in which the two men’s upbringing was very similar, but, watching them today, what strikes you is not the ideological divide that existed between them, but everything they had in common. Both patrician servants of a social and political structure which now seems incredibly outdated. This is another America, one which was already in the process of being reconstructed from within. The events of the Democrat Chicago convention could clearly have made a film in their own right. (The doc uses footage from Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, one of the great pioneering doc-dramas). Perhaps its unfair to chastise a film for suggesting another even more interesting film which lurks within its digital rushes, but in comparison to Hunter S Thompson’s incendiary journalism from this period of US history, for example, it can’t help but feel slightly prosaic, as though honing in on two people having an argument about what to have for supper, without realising the restaurant they’re sitting in is on the point of burning down. 

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

the appointment [herta müller]

A woman gets on a tram to fulfil an appointment with her interrogator, Albu. Albu is a henchman of the Ceausescu regime. He’s brutish, possessed of a savage subtlety, and at the same time both marginal and central to the woman’s life. The narrative is threaded around this tram journey, which will take as long as the novel lasts. In between times, the narrator ducks in and out of her story, explaining how she came to be where she is, taking a tram to visit her interrogator. The fact that this journey seems almost voluntary makes it all the more chilling, because of course, it is not. There’s no escaping Albu. The fact that he permits you to go home after the interrogation ends doesn’t mean to say that it will ever end, that you are ever off the hook. The interrogations will continue for as long as the regime continues. This late 20th century Eastern European world is still resolutely Kafkaesque, after all these years. During the (tram) journey of the novel, the narrator describes her life to the reader. Her alcoholic boyfriend, Paul, her stark upbringing, the neighbours who spy on her and Paul, for one of whom she buys a notebook to assist him in his task. This is a down-at-heel, desolate Morrissey tune of a novel, only one where instead of ennui, the subject is gripped by a necessary and unavoidable paranoia. The noose is slowly closing in and there’s no escaping it. The trick, the narrator tells us, is not go to mad. Her acerbic observations and semi-transgressive friendship with the enigmatic and doomed Lilli help us to understand that she is, so far, succeeding in this aim, of not going mad, but it’s always there, the madness of despair, lurking round the corner, waiting to be thrown out of the window with the bedclothes and the pillows. Müller’s text is not an easy read, but then again, the life her heroine leads is not an easy life. 

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

portrait of the artist as a young man [joyce]

A long long time ago, as a young man, I first read this curious, radical novel. I have no idea what I made of it then. There remains a shadow memory of a study, which looked onto a courtyard, built in the finest 80s red-brick tradition. Perhaps a mud-green bean-bag. Perhaps not. Another time, another world, Joyce’s text all but forgotten. For some reason a trigger activated in the last fortnight and I decided to return to the text of youth. The first thing that struck me, through the first two chapters, was how readable it was; how funny; how game. Still fresh, the ear for dialogue functioning like a butterfly net. It’s an arresting opening, it grabs you by the wrist and drags you into its world. The tone changes in the third chapter. God intervenes. Another note swims to the surface on the back of other Joycean preoccupations. The novel began to slip away from me. “The world for all its solid substance and complexity no longer existed for his soul save as a theorem of divine power and love and universality”. And indeed, this is the case with the book, which chooses to forego the clod, the earth the solid, resorting instead to the speculative and the ethereal. Here, Joyce and I struggled to stay in touch. Then he returned in the closing chapter, with its rambling searching conversations carved out of walks and wonderings with friends and foes. Politics, literature, art and most dangerously, love, return to fly their flags and it feels as though reader and writer have managed to overcome a theological crisis; ready to take on the world once more. Which is not unlike the sensation of being a young man, or woman, when the moment arrives where the question of why our existence might be worth celebrating becomes one that has none of the simplicity of childhood; when the wrestling must be done in earnest before the course is plotted and there is no turning back. “April 26. Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order. She prays now, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels. Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life, I go to encounter the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Monday, 9 November 2015

el clan (d. pablo trapero, w. trapero, julian loyola, esteban student)

El Clan is a pungent real-life story which has more than a hint of Goodfellas or Animal Kingdom, whilst also being steeped in the political corruption of the Argentinean dictatorship. Over the course of his last few films, it has seemed as though Trapero has been aspiring to a semi-Hollywood aesthetic, seeking to make big-budget thrillers set in his country, discarding his earlier Argentine new-wave aesthetic, in a way that someone like Lucretia Martel has not. In the process he has sacrificed subtlety for effect and his most recent films have tended towards a slightly bombastic, melodramatic tone. In El Clan, it feels like he’s starting to get the Latino-Hollywood blend right, pulling off the political thriller with some verve.

The film is set around the end of the Argentine dictatorship in the early 80s. Arquimedes, a retired naval officer, now owns a grocery store, but runs a tidy kidnapping business on the side. This is done with the tacit knowledge of the military authorities who have taken their skills in disappearing supposed revolutionaries and applied them to more commercial ends, targeting the rich for their money. Arquimedes runs this business from home, not only organising his operations there, but also keeping his victims chained up and blindfolded in the basement, whilst his teenage kids do their homework upstairs. His oldest son, Alejandro, is roped into the action. Alejandro has the perfect cover as a promising rugby player: no one is ever going to suspect he’s involved in kidnapping and ultimately murdering the acquaintances he’s made through his posh pursuit.

Trapero handles the storytelling with vigour. Early on, there’s a distinctive, Scorsese-esque use of The Kinks ‘Sunny Afternoon’, flagging up the director’s intentions to make a film which has a more global perspective. The filmmaker understands that the story depends on capturing the relationships within the family. Guillermo Francella’s inscrutable anti-hero, Arquimedes, is a chilling baddie, who nevertheless takes time to help his daughter with her homework and give his wife a massage. It’s the banality of evil which is captured in his performance, something that emerges from the military-political culture he’s a product of, one which has lost all touch with the notion of a moral order. In this world, to kidnap and to murder is fine; and if the family question this, then they too are flirting with the enemy. His sons, the next generation which is capable of recognising guilt, suffer his tyranny; their guilt in the end absorbs them in a way it never could their father. By tying his mafia-style story into its political context, Trapero succeeds in adding something into the mix Hollywood struggles to achieve: a recognition that a society’s moral codes are tied to its structures of governance. This helps to make El Clan a more profoundly affecting movie, above and beyond its bid to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Scorsese. There are still moments, such as the drawn-out denouement, which feel as though they might have benefitted from a less melodramatic approach of an earlier film like Born and Bred, but its good to see Trapero on form, and continuing to grow as a director.