。。。a pod about books. It’s here, and it’s available wherever you get your podcasts – as long as that is Apple Podcasts… It’s a close look at Kazuo Ishiguro’s Man Booker winning The Remains of the Day.
Do keep an eye out for all our upcoming podcasts! Whether it’s our Japanese Book Club or the continuation of our Author Series – where we’re looking at the best work by the best writers – there’s so much to look forward to ッ
Book club lurker Ian McEwan was once a polarising author – the macabre subject matter of his early work earned him a reputation as a purveyor of filth. This is no longer the case, and modern McEwan is a gift to the level-headed critic (in other words, any critic worth her salt). His work is nicely suited to the kind of indifference required for honest criticism, because his work is always measured – he is not one of literature’s maximalist writers (no Faulkner or Nabokov, wildly tearing through pages of cascading sentences) but has a mechanical control.
This is not to say that his writing is boring or lacking a certain ingenuity. The vibrant and fragmented Atonement unfurls slowly but beautifully, and Enduring Love is saturated with an immediate sense of dread. Even his lesser-known works, such as Nutshell, are loaded with meticulously constructed narratives that make even notoriously difficult critics – James Wood, for one – kneel before his feet and insist that he is ‘one of the most gifted literary storytellers alive.’ But for me, McEwan’s unwillingness to stray from the narrow parameters of realist fiction impedes his work. As such, his books are often good but rarely great.
His latest, Machines Like Me, is sadly not the great novel he has always threatened but is, instead, a rather tepid experience. It is McEwan’s first foray into science fiction and signalled a willingness to try new forms, an attempt to reignite his creative spark. Risk-taking, however, is limited and the novel stumbles past without leaving much of a lasting impression.
Thematically, it is promising. Set against a ‘counter-factual’ 1980s London, McEwan constructs a plot with artificial-intelligence at its core. Alan Turing is still alive, and his otherworldly genius has transformed the United Kingdom into a nation slightly more technologically advanced than our own. It capably serves as a foundation for a novel-of-ideas – the kind that McEwan has carved out reliably over the past decade.
It begins to founder beyond the premise. Our bland protagonist, Charlie, buys Adam, an artificial human. He and his (bland) girlfriend, Miranda, and Adam, become involved in a love triangle. It’s a mostly tedious and predictable plot. Albeit, for the salacious among us, there is some off-screen robo-copulation: ‘the night-air was suddenly penetrated by Miranda’s extended ecstatic scream that tapered to a moan and then a stifled sob’. And for the inquisitive among us there is even an explanation of how it all works: ‘His cock fills with distilled water. From a reservoir in his right buttock’. (But more on genitalia later.)
Expressions of technosexuality are hardly the primary impulse of this novel, however. And in between scenes of this derivative love triangle, McEwan manages some pages to reflect on consciousness, technology, and the self. And here is where McEwan excels.
Can a machine be conscious, or have a self? Should what a machine believes or does be its own decision to make? The subject of ‘robot ethics’ is intertwined with the plot – if they are conscious beings, then surely artificial humans could exercise ‘their right not to be bought and sold and destroyed,’ and seek ‘their dignity in self-determination’. This novel is predictably set up to question whether a machine with intelligence is just that.
Charlie starts off sceptical: ‘It seemed my question had lowered his spirits. But within such microprocessors, what spirits?’ Indeed, if we cannot decide if a machine with human intelligence is conscious, how then is it possible to identify actual human consciousness? McEwan stops short of blurring the boundaries too much, but Charlie settles for the notion that cognition has ‘the trick of seeming beyond explanation’. The easy way out.
Formally, there is nothing much here. Science fiction past and present has been an incubator for structural experimentation, ever since H.G. Wells all but created the genre. But McEwan opts for first-person realist narration, very counter-revolutionary and offering little to excite. And these formal shortcomings are only exacerbated by the depthlessness of his characters. Miranda, Charlie, and Adam all enjoy long, expositional dialogues, and they all sound, you feel, like the novelist. Despite the promises of a ‘counter-factual’ experience, Machines Like Me remains grounded in the mundane.
In compliment to the main plot, McEwan expands his political panorama – primarily centring around a battle between Thatcher and Tony Benn. Unfortunately, his alternate reality merely bears some fatuous parallels to our own recent past. McEwan makes sure to allude to those youngsters who voted for Rt Hon Jeremy Corbyn: the ‘middle-class students and working class youths’ become enamoured with Tony Benn, who is ‘greeted like a rock star’ at political rallies. And he squints at the plebs who voted for Brexit, referencing Thatcher’s ‘heroic endeavours to structure the European Single Market’ and foreboding the emergence of a ‘fringe political group dedicated to taking Britain out of the European Union’.
Now – hold on – aren’t these things happening in our time?!
Well, yes, and that’s about the only purpose these sections serve – a back-patting congratulations from Ian himself to those shrewd enough to join the dots. And as he somnolently churns out more pages of this political subplot that nobody asked for, only one question crystallises: So what?
Despite these missteps we still have McEwan’s assured hand to guide us through the novel with sharp, incisive prose. Well, almost. The novel certainly contains brilliant prose fragments – say, on the fragility of anthropocentrism:
Once, we sat enthroned at the centre of the universe, with sun and planets, the entire observable world, turning around us in an ageless dance of worship. Then, in defiance of the priests, heartless astronomy reduced us to an orbiting planet around the sun, just one among other rocks.
But there is always a bizarre remark on the purpose of a young boy’s genitals, for instance, to counteract it: ‘It had been a long time since I’d seen a penis so minuscule, so dedicated to one uncomplicated task.’ I’m aware that I am leaving this without context – but even that, remarkably, would do nothing to really clarify the sentence.
The prose falls uncomfortably short too often. And the usually reliable McEwan – the McEwan of Black Dogs and Amsterdam, is absent for long stretches of Machines Like Me.
I mentioned above that a critic should remain level-headed when appraising a book. But here is the problem: it turns out that indifference and boredom can become something like frustration, and in a Sith-like chain of emotions, I have arrived at anger.
Not that McEwan has any time for that Star Wars rubbish. In interviews, he has insisted on his novel being ‘counter-factual’, rather than being science fiction. This is because the novel doesn’t involve ‘travelling at 10 times the speed of light in antigravity boots’.
…I wish it did. And really, that statement speaks volumes when read alongside Machines Like Me. McEwan is well-read, but you wouldn’t think it: the text seems to exist in isolation, ignorantly unaware of its heritage. There is very little dialogue with sci-fi precursors, and it is science fiction. There’s a distinct feeling that he is treading on well-worn ground without knowing it.
Machines Like Me is not a bad novel. Nor is it good, but somewhere in between. It exists in some literary limbo where the novels of Julian Barnes sulk like abandoned children. But sometimes a middling experience angers more than an outright offensive one. So go read some Philip K Dick instead. Because McEwan has managed to make androids – androids – boring.
Machines Like Me (UK: Jonathan Cape, 2019) Hardback, pp. 320 £18.99
I confess there is dishonesty at play in my assessment of Ishiguro’s middling Klara and the Sun. I enjoyed the book – it tickled some parts of me, on a rudimentary level. But his Nobel victory-lap falls short of the standard of a Laureate. Therefore, I’m going to be far more critical than I probably should be.
Perhaps it would be a greater dishonesty not to elucidate these flaws. And it does beg another question: should acclaimed and established authors be given a free pass off the back of their past achievements? Surely not. Acclaim should be earned, not given away like a Julian Barnes novel to a charity shop. But the literary establishment is often guilty of letting certain missteps drift by unpunished.
Personally, I’m also the forgiving sort. And conceptually, Klara sets us salivating. The novel has a science fiction window dressing, and Ishiguro goes for an AI narrator: Klara. Klara is an Artificial Friend (or AF), with an ‘appetite for learning and observing’. She is bought by Josie, a child who suffers from bouts of an unnamed sickness.
Ishiguro slips into his narrator like a second skin, only Klara is no multifaceted Nexus-6, she’s not even a chirpy Wall-E. She is – whisper it – a pretty boring robot. But plot can make up for shortcomings of character and voice, and the circumstance of Josie’s deteriorating health lights a fuse. And in that, coupled with Klara’s misunderstanding of rather rudimentary astrophysics, we have the makings of a story.
This misunderstanding stems from the AFs solar-powered design. By Ishiguro’s reckoning, this would instigate the deification of the Sun by AFs: ‘the big thing, silently understood by us all, was the Sun and his nourishment’. Klara seeks this nourishment for Josie and heads where the Sun disappears on the horizon, believing that is His ‘resting place’. And there she makes a pact with the Sun: to destroy what she knows as the ‘Cootings machine’, a tool used by road workers she believes is causing unchecked pollution. In exchange for the destruction of this machine, Klara maintains that the Sun will heal Josie.
Ishiguro has a wider point here about the importance of natural systems, and the need to protect them from the impact of humankind. But that is the extent of the ecological thrust: Sun is good, Pollution is bad. Ishiguro is not wrong, but he’s also aNobel Prizewinner.
There should surely be more depth, and this lack of nuance is no anomaly. Ishiguro opts for simplicity of narration and story, forgoing thematic complexity. Plenty of threads are dangled – ecological, sociological, economic – all teasing, waiting to be pulled. But many of these threads stay, frustratingly, spooled.
Of course, you might argue that great novels leave gaps. And you’d be right. The onus is on an acute reader to determine what stray meaning lurks in the shadows. But I struggled to find much in Klara not found elsewhere.
At least (or so we’d be forgiven for thinking) a non-human narrator offers an outsider perspective on the essence of human experience. But before Klara can offer her wisdom, a conflict is already established between two strands of thought. Foremost is an essentialist understanding of human identity, as voiced by the character of Capaldi:
Our generation still carry the old feelings. A part of us refuses to let go. The part that wants to keep believing there’s something unreachable inside each of us. Something that’s unique and won’t transfer. But there’s nothing like that, we know that now. […] It’s not faith you need. Only rationality.
And to counter this is Josie’s Father’s wonderings about the existence of something unknowable in the human experience, something irreducible to components and blueprints:
Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?
Now, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this. But this conflict is habitual for the genre – concealed in some form or another in Aldiss, in Dick, in almost every sci-fi film I’ve ever seen. Thumb through those vast depositories, pick away blindfolded – it’s everywhere. Surely a writer of Ishiguro’s experience knows this?
But not to be deterred by unoriginality on this, his search for truth, Ishiguro has one last swing. And wielding Klara’s left-field humanoid perspective with menacing intent, he gifts us another thesis. Klara – with ‘the most sophisticated understanding of any AF in this store,’ remember – whacks us with this perceptive number:
There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.
If this seems unsophisticated, that’s because it is. Klara is implanted with a child’s curiosity, a child’s understanding. It works when conveying awe at the Sun, or wonder while on a trip taken to a local waterfall, but it’s not exactly incisive on the big topics. It may be poignant for some, but for me it belongs in the lowly gutter of sentimental cliché. Klara brings nothing new to an age-old debate on human nature.
You might consider these harsh – even sacrilegious – criticisms directed toward a writer of Ishiguro’s status. Truthfully, there were parts of Klara I enjoyed – scattered chunks of plot, which filled a hole like warm porridge. But there was little nourishment. And these criticisms are hardly unjustified, because Ishiguro has set his own standard: he is a master of subtlety and restraint.
But Klarais too subtle: it’s simplistic. It’s words on a page for the sake of it. And there’s that question, relentless, hammering at my cranium like a two-day hangover: can I give Ishiguro a free pass?
Klara and the Sun (UK: Faber & Faber, 2021) Paperback, pp. 320 £20
ANIMALIA By Jean-Baptiste Del Amo (translated by Frank Wynne)
All hail the mighty Fitzcarraldo.
If that seems too grandiose an introduction, you’re wrong to think so. Grandiosity is well-suited to this publisher. Fitzcarraldo Editions are simply incapable of publishing a bad or safe book. Works by acclaimed writers such as Jon Fosse and Gina Apostol, as well as Nobel Laureates Svetlana Alexievich and Olga Tokarczuk, are among their enviable catalogue. And something stirs in me when I see the elegant blue jacket of their works – not, alas, arousal, but something more elusive. Trust.
Animalia, Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s fourth novel, and his first to be translated into English, could only have been published by Fitzcarraldo. It is a sublime novel. But for all its merits, it is a breathless, harrowing read.
The novel maps five generations in a family of French peasant farmers. It is divided into four parts but essentially tells two stories: that of the family around the turn of the twentieth century, and that of the family in 1981, now operating an intensive pig farm. Personal becomes political, of course. The novel is inherently concerned with the cruelty of Man towards itself, and importantly towards the animals and the land we dominate. We are to view ‘the piggery as the cradle of their barbarism and that of the whole world’.
It reads like the novelistic equivalent of deep-sea diving. The molten currents of Del Amo’s language are intoxicating, complex and lengthy, with whole paragraphs that span several pages. It could not have been easy but it has been heroically translated by Frank Wynne.
His translation gives us sprawling, Faulknerian prose. But where the grand language of Faulkner at times layers to amplify the beauty of the Deep South, Del Amo, for the most part, has no desire to beautify. Farm life is laid bare, in all its relentless squalor and cruelty. Miscarriages, stillborns, castrations, killings, and the endless, endless (my god, it is endless) torrents of animal faeces abound. To take one example of the inhumane conditions the pigs are subjected to:
Starving and sick, the pigs become aggressive. They begin to attack each other. When one suffers a prolapse, the others sometimes eat the organs, leaving the pig disembowelled and half-dead.
And the aforementioned faeces:
The pigs piss and shit all day in stalls so cramped they can only just move, forcing them to relieve themselves, to wade through their excreta, to lie in it, wallow in it, until the urine that noisily splashes from the vulvas and the sheaths liquefies the clumps of turds, the droppings they expel, creating a mire in which they wade and instinctively dip their frantic, useless snouts.
In this unflinching symphony of disgust is where Animalia finds its voice, and no-one I have read can create repulsive prose like Del Amo. But this is not a litany of horrors without purpose. It provokes us to think of the consequences of factory farming, the way we treat animals. Humankind’s brutality stares the reader in the face at every turn. No detail is spared, and Del Amo bolsters his novel with specialist anatomical vocabulary which enriches the already heady prose: vernix caseosa, cartilaginous vertebrae, iliac fossa, and so on. Dense and difficult, the novelist’s voice is as unique and challenging as any I have read.
At the core is an interrogation of anthropocentrism, and the greater ramifications of indifference to animal cruelty:
This coldness, this hard-won indifference to the animals, has never quite managed to stifle in Joël a confused loathing that cannot be put into words, the impression – and, as he grew, the conviction – that there is a glitch: one in which pig rearing is at the heart of some much greater disturbance beyond his comprehension.
Could there be a link between our treatment of animals and the treatment of other humans – does our savagery toward one another stem from our indifference and cruelty to animals? And could we, as conscious beings, transcend the outmoded notion of the Chain of Being?
Possibly. If not clear on whether we could, Del Amo makes the convincing case that we should. And though he often opts for grim and harrowing imagery, this is not to say Animalia is without beauty. Del Amo is adept at machine-gunning an array of vile images into the reader’s cortex, but he is equally proficient at transfiguring the natural beauty of the land and life into prose. Take this, for instance:
Stretched out before him, the landscape seems unreal, a succession of small valleys and dark hollows, frozen, pale and indistinct in the moonlight, from which rises the scent of crops that have gorged on water and manure, the musty tang of dungheaps behind farms. The child stands motionless, a young lord, panting for breath, inhaling the scents of his lands, then disappears into the undergrowth.
There is a religiosity to the way in which Del Amo sybaritically composes natural scenes, evoking a genuine sense of wonder. And contrasted against the violence and excreta, passages like these are breathtaking, elevated by their rarity.
All aforementioned would be redundant if not ballasted by a convincing narrative, and Del Amo is a natural storyteller. Unsatisfied with a singular focus, he is equally at home in tackling patriarchal rule, armed conflict, mental illness, and incest, to name a few. And from simple beginnings, the novel bifurcates in its second act. Del Amo adeptly steers the reader through the inner workings of his cast of half a dozen characters. Aware that it would be all too easy to vilify them, the characters are richly drawn – flawed and endearing. They even have some vague awareness that there is more to the animals than just their existence as livestock. As Henri, the patriarch, muses:
Have you noticed that their pupils always reflect our face? […] It’s like looking into a two-way mirror or into the bottom of a well. You see yourself, but you also see something else, something moving underneath.
What Henri spots here is a dormant familial tie – the novel’s title of course reminds us that animal and human belong to the same biological fraternity. And Del Amo hints at a capacity for change. The ecological future, of course, demands it.
Truthfully, indifference can often settle itself into the brain of one who reads plentifully. Even ostensibly ‘great’ literature can fail to announce itself beyond a recognition that it is expertly constructed, and that it contains all of the correct literary machinery. Then there are books like Animalia – gut-punchers, uncompromising novels which transcend the ordinary. Rich to the point of begging for multiple readings, I hope this is not the last of Del Amo we see in English. Animalia is the work of a strikingly original and challenging novelist.
Animalia (UK: Fizcarraldo Editions, 2019) French paperback, pp. 416 £12.99
I’ve never, not ever read writing like this, with its commas and flow, and the thoughts that spring random and tie themselves with another in endless sequence, and the imagery so abstract that you almost can’t grasp it but that hits in exacting ways – all emotion – so to the reader it’s like Duras can explain it all, what frightens her and what she doesn’t understand, and can tell her to stay where she is, wait, and don’t stop reading. So you stay and learn and don’t stop reading. It’s strange and beyond my ability to explain just how affecting this book can be, like love itself. This is a book to love.
The Lover (UK: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006) Paperback, pp. 128 £7.99
I’m not confident I grasped the full genius of Banville’s Booker winner. I’m not even so sure as to the impact it had on me, though it did have one – like footfall upon wet sand, a definite impression was left. But how long will this vague feeling last, and will it be swept flat by a wave of further reading?
Yup. I’m almost certain it will. And here is my theory: I’m too young for the book, not ready just yet. Could that be it? Like A la recherche de temps perdu, could it be that Banville is writing in another language, one I’ve yet to acquire – something along the lines of him having more to remember but me having it all to look forward to?
Not that our narrator had much to look forward to. Just death in various forms. Death of those he loved, death of his masculinity, of his pride and reason; and the death of his career when, at becoming a kept man, his creative juices dried right up.
If it’s a rom com you are after, please look elsewhere. Here, in The Sea, there is the grunt work of days so enjoyed by early Ian McEwan – McEwan at his most pessimistic, his darkest, when his plot was unquestionably boring, and drip-paced, and leaking into puddles of the macabre.
But Banville’s work is supremely executed, in comparison to that ‘70s pish. The Seashould be a slog (and yes some parts are, because all the book is, to put it bluntly, is a chapterless sequence of mundane and pitying thoughts) but the majority is written with care – such care, and such attention, that the writing elevates the narrative well beyond its natural height.
The strength of the prose is thrilling. And it’s sensual to the bone. Having lost his wife to cancer, our narrator travels back to a seaside town from his childhood:
Although it was autumn and not summer the dark-gold sunlight and the inky shadows, long and slender in the shape of felled cypresses, were the same, and there was the same sense of everything drenched and jewelled and the same ultramarine glitter on the sea. I felt inexplicably lightened; it was as if the evening, in all the drench and drip of its fallacious pathos, had temporarily taken over from me the burden of grieving.
I could quote from the whole book, it reads like a song. But as a person in their 20s, I approach it with fascination, like an exhibit at a zoo: a placard about cockroaches’ migratory habits. Surely we’re all impressed by mother nature’s turns, but that roachey scoop won’t accompany me to the supermarket next week. The individual awe felt is unlikely to arise again in my day-to-day life.
If fiction reflects the human soul, I just don’t recognise myself yet in this mirror – I can’t penetrate its image at all deeply. So here’s my theory in a nutshell. It’s that fiction is ageist. Like Disneyland hates your tiny dad, like he hates your mum’s ‘lady-driving’. Like Hugh Grant can’t get nominated for an Oscar. There’s a shielded (and comparatively welcome) inequality in everything we read, whereby we’re weighted on our ability to relate.
So I can see, superficially, that it’s incredible: Banville weaves timelines and memories in a seamless quilt, wrapping one colour, one thread with another, so always bringing something new to the eye. But quilting, let’s face it, is an oldie’s game.
The Sea (UK: Picador, 2005) Paperback, pp. 272 £7.99
I IS ANOTHER: Septology III-V By Jon Fosse (translated by Damion Searls)
Jon Fosse’s I is Another, the second book in his ‘Septology’ series, begins in much the same way as the first. Our protagonist, a painter, is contemplating one of his works:
And I see myself standing and looking at the picture with the two lines, a purple line and a brown line, that cross in the middle
Frankly, your guess is as good as mine – but this painting is certainly an important symbol for me. Not necessarily because of what it means in the novel, but rather what it shows us about the novel. This opening painting, recurring throughout, is a puzzle – one of many in a labyrinth that distorts, confounds, and ultimately teases the reader.
With one eye fixed on another International Booker nomination, Fosse’s second ‘Septology’ maintains his recipe for success – it focuses on Asle, a painter in Bjørgvin (Bergen) in Norway. As he goes about his daily life, Asle’s narrative dips into digressions on art, theology, and selfhood. Fragments of his past simultaneously disrupt this, adding meat to the bare bones of the novel’s present.
Notionally, this is dry stuff. But Fosse waves the wand of formal ingenuity to stave off any encroaching boredom. I Is Another is divided into three parts (numbers three to five in the – pick your jaw up – seven-part ‘Septology’ series), and is one single flowing sentence with paragraph breaks only for dialogue. The prose continues, uninterrupted, even as each part ends.
This could easily be, experimentally, a step too far – concept overstepping its boundaries – but in practice it is anything but. Fosse’s ‘slow prose’ (his term) is simplistic, easily readable, and propelled forward rather than hindered by the lack of sentence breaks. The result is hypnotic, dreamlike prose, which paired with a thematic blend of the commonplace and existential, is powerful stuff. And it’s impressive how well this tonal blend compliments the prose, with great leaps from the banal to the brilliant:
even though I always wear the same rosary I do change the scarf I wear, and I say that I’m absolutely sure I’ve worn all the scarves she’s given me […] for the body is conceived and born, it grows and declines, it dies and vanishes, but the spirit is a unity of body and soul, the way form and content are an invisible unity in a good picture, yes, there’s a spirit in the picture so to speak
Fosse knows how well the two coexist, of course. And he is letting us know that the act of creation (of creative thought) is inextricable from living and breathing. Asle’s craft is inseparable from his life, his sole task being to ‘paint away the pictures he has lodged in his head’.
But not content with deterring new readers by eschewing standard novelistic form, Fosse also deliberately obfuscates the narrative. The novel frequently shifts between first and third-person narration, which, coupled with the absence of sentence breaks, disorients:
after I get to Instefjord and get on the main road to Bjørgvin, it’ll be easier, because those roads will have been cleared, I think and I look at the white road and I see Asle standing in front of Mother and he’s thinking that he can’t stand going to that damn school anymore […] and I look at the white road in front of me and I drive slowly out along Synge Fjordand I see Father standing in front of Asle and he says you’re a good kid
We are gifted with not only a switch in narration, but also in time. Asle drives along a snowy road, and the past continually disrupts the present as memories intrude into Asle’s consciousness. As noted, this is incredibly disorientating, but the switch from first to third is a helpful signifier of time-change. Helpful, except that there are two Asles: Asle has a painter-doppelganger. Why make things easy?
Variations of Asle bleed in and out of the page, continually revising and rewriting his past and present. The formlessness of the prose only drags us deeper into a mire of confusion – and Fosse can help me out here:
I’ve never been a thinker, and the only language I’ve so to speak mastered is the language of pictures, I think, and all my thoughts are sort of jumbled together, it’s like they don’t exist in any order but sort of at the same time
Put simply, the book does not so much construct a coherent narrative as use a series of vignettes, each filling in space on the incomplete canvas. But these images do not stand alone, and Fosse leaves clues on how to interpret his novel:
and I paint the same picture over and over again, yes it’s true, but at the same time every single picture is different, and then all the pictures go together in a series, […] all the paintings I’ve ever painted go together and make up a single picture, I think, it’s like there’s a picture somewhere or other that’s my innermost picture
This is not an explicit metafictional disruption, such as you might find in postmodern fiction, but it certainly hints at the artistic process beyond the page. This here is how Fosse approaches his craft in ‘Septology’: picture upon picture layers. Each fragment teased unspools a larger tapestry of Asle’s life, assembling his ‘innermost picture’.
And there is something else, something mystical, almost transcendental, in the way the currents of Fosse’s prose culminate in this portrait of an artist – more than just the amalgamation of images, it’s something which eludes explanation. With ‘Septology’, Fosse is carving out a space where the prosaic intersects with something otherworldly.
On paper, I feel this should not work. That it does is due to the literary skill of Fosse – who can’t exactly be accused of amateurism. His daunting bibliography is indicative of a preternatural work ethic, or an obsessive, relentless intellect. Or, as with Asle, it’s representative of an artist who lives and breathes by his craft.
I is Another (and ‘Septology’ as a whole) is worth reading simply for the way it stands out among contemporary fiction. This is work thriving on ambiguity and misdirection – and the joy I found in reading the book was not only from filling in the gaps, but also wondering at the spaces in between. Until the next one, and quite probably beyond.
I is Another: Septology III-V (UK: Fizcarraldo Editions, 2020) French paperback, pp. 288 £12.99
Literary stars don’t always shine. Any flash of talent can be lost in the more sunless affairs of their fiction. And here Paul Auster, a truly talented novelist, takes on some truly dark themes. He sets out to probe the scars of our century, like Bush fils’ contested election, the Twin Towers attack – weighty subjects of politics and feeling, under which a great novelist might stretch their literary faculty till it twangs. But Auster’s snaps, and all too soon. He never quite gets things going.
While we can admire from afar our author’s bold experiment with narration – the protagonist, the ageing and in-remission Nathan Glass, is given the pen from Auster’s hand – in practice it’s a warning to those inclined to try the same.
See the slimiest of first-person narrators, the Humbert Humberts, the John Selfs – they stay low, lower than low, but are lent their creators’ high power to communicate the events of their lives. And here Auster is… what could the analogy be? It’s as if Hanks got lost in Gump and forgot that it was an act all along.
Of course, Hanks brought the best of his technique and the best of the character to the screen. Just like Amis with Self, Nabokov with Humbert. But Auster passes his pen, gives up command, and this is proved to be a liberty too far. All the bumps and flatness of an unpractised writer are laid out before us as a characteristic quirk. In every practical sense – don’t be fooled – The Brooklyn Folliesis a book by N. Glass. And he has very little clue or etiquette.
Glass, at various turns, breaks his first-person narrative to instead read the mind of his nephew. Not in a speculative way, but by confidently detailing every thought in his head. So for times they share a single self, then split into two as abruptly as becoming one – at the break in a paragraph, a turn in the page.
In this way, Glass flits between omnipresent and omni-dumb. Or at least, he plays at being dumb. As with every ‘author’, our narrator knows exactly the outcome of his novel. Yet he insists on floating hypotheticals. In a random chapter, let me count… 18 questions are put to the reader, and no answer is given alongside. We’re left in the lurch, forced to read impatiently on.
Not bothered? Well, including dialogue there are actually 41 non-rhetorical, non-answered questions. That’s 55% of sentences in a five-page passage. Sticking to the narration, here’s a paragraph’s worth:
Where had Lucy found the money for the trip? How had she known Tom’s address? Had her mother helped her get away, or had she absconded on her own? And if Aurora had been involved, why hadn’t she contacted Tom in advance or at least sent a note with Lucy? … One way or another, what did the girl’s departure tell us about Aurora’s marriage? Was it the disaster we both feared, or had Tom’s sister finally seen the light and embraced her husband’s vision of the world? And yet, if harmony reigned in the household, what was their daughter doing in Brooklyn?
This narrative technique, if a technique at all – asking more questions to the reader than they’d ever want answered – is perhaps to bring an intensity, some thrill to the story. Unfortunately, it only succeeds at annoyance. If a writer is not at a point to give answers, she should not explicitly raise the question. And I could go on, but the crux of Glass’ faults is that he’s charmless. And where does this leave the real author?
I don’t mean to crap on Paul Auster, I’ve enjoyed his other novels. And there is a lot to be admired about going all-in like he did with his narrator – the risk just didn’t pay off. But crucially, neither does the promise of the book. The dustjacket and opening pages go and market our expectations towards a safari of human troubles, of both external and internal strains. Still there’s an unnervingly little sense of tragedy or hurt in this matter-of-factly ‘pain-filled’ book.
We’re guaranteed a slow crawl to the grave for Nathan Glass, but it’s not long before he’s given new life. And really we catch the whole cast on the upswing, curving away from their problems past. Auster’s characters bare smiles as circumstance unendingly rewards them. And there’s simply not a hurdle unbound before the end of each chapter – usually in the same chapter that the hurdle is first lain.
So let me go back on my words. It’s not that Auster doesn’t shine, it’s not that there’s no light emitted, no. It’s all light, in fact, and darkness is barred from the scene. By the end we’re crying for shadow, some emotional twist, a clamp on the nipple, just any modulation from the ever-smiling prose.
Worse still: far from tackling the topic, the very late hint towards 9/11 comes across as badly measured, even trite. It turns out not to be the monumental backdrop Auster relies on it being. Its mere suggestion, which the author underhandedly evokes, ending the upbeat action not hours before the first plane – its suggestion goes no way to bring calamity upon his Brooklynites. They will move on with their lives, presumably unscathed but under an ever-fading mist of collective grief – a mist fairly penetrable whether four or twenty years since.
And so, put simply, the author devotes his book to those who possess a luck unshakeable, lives unshakeable, even by cataclysmic events – and this, I think, is because they’re formed of cliché. The gay gallery owner, the wayward daughter of a respectable brood, the misogynist born-again nut. The bad guys are beaten, inheritances inherited, families reunited. And I’m sure none of this will act as a spoiler, because Auster gives nothing to surprise.
Yes, okay, really: I didn’t mean to crap on Paul Auster. But he took a dump on my bookshelf. He did, after all, put this shit in my hands.
The Brooklyn Follies (UK: Faber & Faber, 2005) Hardback, pp. 304 £16.99