Thursday, 27 September 2018

There are some superb books on the short list for the 
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The Long Take by Robin Robertson (Picador)         $28
{Review by STELLA}: A beautifully crafted novel, The Long Take is an epic narrative poem by renowned Scottish poet Robin Robertson. Kicking off in New York, 1946, it follows the life of Walker, a recently returned soldier. A survivor of D-Day, Walker is displaced by trauma, unable to return to his family, his life, his love in Nova Scotia. His life, like that of many others he encounters, has been turned inside out, and he carries a burden, a guilt he can not discharge. Unemployed, a friend suggests fronting up to a local newspaper, The Press, who are looking for reporters. Walker joins the city news desk, reporting on crime and street politics. Walker’s affinity with the streets, living on the edge, and contact with skid row leads to an assignment to document the lives of the poor and homeless: an investigative piece of work that takes him to LA and San Francisco. As we travel across America with Walker and along these cities’ streets over a decade, we are given an insight into the lives of the disenfranchised and into the impact of war trauma on a nation and an individual. Add to this the politics of the 40s and 50s - the era of cronyism, McCarthyism and mob rule, organised crime and state corruption - the novel is a cutting indictment of the ‘American Dream’, the rise of the automobile and the impact this had on communities (highways and parking lots that killed communities), the falsity of war as a democratic tool, and the injustice to those who fight for freedom yet become victims of power. It’s also a hymn to the film industry of this period - to film noir; the images and language of these films cleverly interweave with the tone of the streetscape and the atmosphere of the novel. Walker is a compelling man, a man who carries a history that he feels can only be understood by his comrades in arms, by those who have experienced similar trauma. He dulls his building emotional disintegration with liquor and by keeping his distance - never becoming entangled in relationships. His work colleagues find him unreadable, and those he has the most affinity live on skid row, particularly Billy Idaho - a well-read street philosopher who helps those he can survive the streets. Walker, like Idaho, is kind and has a compassion for his fellow humans: he is an anti-hero that we empathise with - an outsider who will get under your skin. Through the keenly observant Walker, we experience the city, its people and its neighbourhoods. We see desperation, violence and the strength of community. For Walker, burying his trauma is never going to be a solution. Violence simmers at his edges and guilt plays on his conscience, and as the decade progresses his past haunts him. Robertson’s writing is wonderful: evocative, enchanting, raw and affecting. From narrative verse -descriptions of the cityscape and dialogue between characters - to hard, almost unbearable, staccato-like images of war, to lyrical memories of Walker’s childhood and life in Nova Scotia, the poetry has clarity and visibility yet never removes the reader from the story. The Long Take is a novel about us now just as much as it is a filmic exposé of post-war America, exploring issues of poverty, racism, fascism and freedom. Powerful, inventive and uncompromising.

Kudos by Rachel Cusk (Faber & Faber)          $33 
{"Review" by THOMAS}: The man next to me on the plane was so tall he couldn’t fit in his seat. His elbows jutted out over the armrests and his knees were jammed against the seat in front, so that the person in it glanced around in irritation every time he moved. The man twisted, trying to get himself into a comfortable, or at least less uncomfortable, position in which he could hold his book at an acceptable distance from his eyes, a distance about which he was either uncommonly fussy or which was dictated by the possibly narrow focal range of his spectacles. “Sorry,” he said. He explained that he needed to write a review of the book by the end of the week, that he was a bookseller with a small bookshop in a provincial town, and that he and his partner, the joint owners of the bookshop, felt obliged to produce a review each every week for inclusion in their digital newsletter. Some weeks were short on reading time, he explained, what with the demands of the bookshop and of what he termed, somewhat vaguely, family life, so he needed to take every opportunity he could to finish reading his current book, in this case Kudos by Rachel Cusk, reading even in circumstances hardly conducive to reading well, such as in cramped seats aboard what he termed fictional aircraft, a context that not only tended to indelibly dominate whatever activity was performed in it, especially the memory of that activity, even more so than the actual performance in what he called the present tense, using a literary term hardly appropriate to what I would term living in real time, memory being, after all, surely, he remarked, the primary mode of a book review, but also left one vulnerable to conversation with whatever stranger one found oneself sitting next to, quite intimately, for an extended period of time, a period of time which neither party to the conversation has the capacity to shorten. I asked him whether he thought that perhaps the random, or at least seemingly random, encounters with members of what might be politely termed the public might not be in some way enriching, and he visibly recoiled at my choice of word, so I repeated it, to gauge its effect, and I immediately understood his reaction. Well, yes, he thought that such encounters might be a way of not so much generating narrative as of generating whatever might take the place of narrative in a work of fiction from which narrative, the possibility of narrative and even the principle of narrative has been expunged. This was very much, he said, what Rachel Cusk had achieved in Kudos, the taking-away from the novel of those principles, or as many of them as possible, that are generally considered to comprise a novel: plot, narrative, characters, development, interiority, but which are really just a set of conventions by which what we think of as novels expend or release their energy, so to call it, without that energy achieving the potentials of fiction, namely to transfer the experience of awareness between two minds, so to call them, in other words, what we think of as the essentials of a novel are the very things that may well reduce the potency of the novel, and, conversely, he thought, if a writer, such as Cusk, managed, as she has with Kudos, to excise from the novel as many as possible of these, what he termed novelistic antics, the novel could become potentised, “austere and astringent,” he called it, cleansing our faculties and getting them to work properly, not just for the reading of fiction but for the living of life, “whatever that might consist of”. When I suggested that perhaps not writing at all would be the apogee of fiction, he laughed briefly, or snorted, and replied that, yes, he was trying that experiment himself, with some success, even though the results suggested that fiction’s ultimate achievement in destroying itself closely resembled the complete absence of fiction. Cusk in the negativity of her fiction was austere, he said, but not as austere as him, who produced, if anything, less than nothing. “I would like the work to be a non-work,” he said, quoting Eva Hesse without attribution. Of course, he went on - and I realised, looking at my watch, partly in an attempt to estimate the proportion of our flight that remained, partly to implant in him some sort of subliminal message, that it would be hard to stop him talking now that I had succeeded in engaging him in conversation - of course it is thewall between the fictional and the actual, between the so-called subjective and the so-called objective aspects of experience, that it should be fiction’s prerogative to assail, to undermine, to cause to crumble, for it is this wall that is responsible for the maintenance of all manner of errors about identity and reality and, ultimately, responsibility, so to call them, errors that are either traps or crutches, he said, traps and crutches being largely indistinguishable from each other unless you know the nature of your affliction, which can only be ascertained by the removal, at least temporarily, of the crutch upon which one has been leaning. I seemed, I thought, to have triggered in him a kind of mania of exposition, which I was beginning to regret, though I had done little more than make what I thought of as small talk with a man whose enthusiasm for literature must surely be an embarrassment to himself. He did not appear to blame me for this, at least, rather, he had become by this stage oblivious to anything but his own train of thought. In many ways, he said, Kudos resembled the work of Thomas Bernhard, a writer for whom he evidently had a great deal of respect, especially in the layering or nesting of narrative within several levels of reportage. In fact, nothing actually happens in the novel until the very last, memorable paragraph, other than the minimum necessary for the interchange of the series of characters - a man who sat beside her on an aeroplane, various writers and interviewers she encounters at a literary festival, a guide, her editor and her translator, her sons who telephone her - whose conversations with her, or, rather narrations to her, the narrator narrates. For instance, at one stage Cusk, one step more invisible even than her invisible narrator, tells us of the narrator telling of a writer named Linda telling of the woman who sat beside Linda on the plane telling Linda of how she came to break her bones. In another passage, during a conversation with an interviewer, the narrator describes to the interviewer what the interviewer had described to the narrator during a previous conversation. The narrator reveals nothing of herself, he explained with a patience that seemed unpredicated on either my understanding of or my interest in what he was explaining, other than that which is revealed by her function as a conduit for the stories, and voices, of others. By reducing herself to so very little, to almost nothing, the narrator is able to enter and own the stories of others, he said, or, rather, Cusk is able to use the narrator as a device to enter and own stories, the layers of narrative, hearsay and reportage rendering the distinction between fiction and actuality entirely extraneous. Also, this authorial or narratorial intrusion frequently breaches the distinctions between the levels of narrative, he said, what he called the narrator’s first person reduced and sharpened to such a pinprick that it enters and appropriates details in quoted speech and reported speech, in second- and third-person narratives of secondary and tertiary narratives in the second person - I must say I couldn’t follow quite what he was telling me, but, I must also say, I wasn’t trying very hard - sometimes ultimately reporting information that the narrator could in fact have no access to through those conversations, information that could not be at less than a step or two's remove. Although I was by this stage hardly encouraging him, the bookseller was unstoppable. “All fiction is inherently a transgression of the sovereignty of persons, although this transgression is by no means limited to fiction but can also be observed in all attempts at the so-called understanding of, or, rather, representation of, actual others.” The trappings of fiction and the conventions of social interaction try their hardest to mask this unconscionable intrusion and appropriation, but this intrusion and appropriation is at the nub of things, fictional and otherwise, he said, and ultimately destabilise any notions we might have of identityreality and, ultimately, responsibility. I suggested that he might have gone over this ground before, or so it seemed to me, but he continued. “Who owns whose narrative?” he demanded, not, I think, of me. He was quiet a moment, but not longer. “Listen to this,” he said, and proceeded to quote a passage he had marked in the book: “‘I said that while her story suggested that human lives could be governed by the laws of narrative, and all the notions of retribution and justice that narrative lays claim to, it was in fact merely her interpretation of events that created that illusion. … The narrative impulse might spring from the desire to avoid guilt, rather than from the need - as was generally assumed - to connect things together in a meaningful way; that it was a strategy calculated, in other words, to disburden ourselves from responsibility.’ What do you think?” he asked. I hadn’t quite caught it all, he had been reading too fast and we were sitting near the engines, so I hesitated before he went on, seemingly unaware that I had not replied. Cusk’s work was a work of great clarity, which, he said, as well as being very pleasurable to read, was a work of liberating negativity, a reformulation of the purpose and capacities of fiction, no less. The purpose of art is to turn upon and destroy itself, he said, or words to that effect, and at the same time and by this process to change the nature of our relationship with the actual. He turned to another marked passage, in which Cusk’s narrator, Faye, relates to an interviewer what had been said to her by her son during a telephone call, something about “‘passing through the mirror into the state of painful self-awareness where human fictions lose their credibility,’” a process he appeared to ascribe to the fiction, such as Kudos, that he valued most. I told them that I was sorry, but he had actually managed, by his overcomplicated enthusiasm for it, to put me off buying a book I would no doubt otherwise have enjoyed, having enjoyed Cusk’s two previous books, Outline and Transit, and he obliged me by keeping quiet for what remained of the flight.   
Murmur by Will Eaves (CB Editions)          $32
{Review by THOMAS}: No algorithm can entertain a proposition as being both true and not true at the same time. This necessary computational allergy to contradiction enabled Alan Turing during his time at Bletchley Park in World War 2 to significantly decrease the time it took to break the German codes (“from a contradiction you can deduce everything,” he wrote), thus saving many lives. It would also provide a good test for ‘thought’ as opposed to ‘computation’ in artificial intelligence, and have implications for the eventual ‘personhood’ or otherwise of machines. “Machines do nothing by halves,” writes Will Eaves in Murmur, a beautifully written, sad and thoughtful novel based on Turing. Machines cannot but incline towards explication, whereas it is our inability to access the mind of another that verifies its existence as a mind.* “It isn’t knowing what another person thinks or feels that makes us who we are. It’s the respect for not knowing,” writes Eaves. In 1952 an English court found Alan Turing guilty of ‘Gross Indecency’ for admitted homosexual activity (then a crime in Britain), and he submitted to a year-long regime of chemical castration via weekly injections of Stilboestrol rather than imprisonment. Turing’s chemical reprogramming, speculates Eaves, struck at the core of his identity, his mind at first barricading itself within the changing body and then seemingly inhabiting it once more, but resourceless and compliant. Is personhood always thus imposed from without, or does personhood lie in the resistance to such an imposition? What conformity to expectations must be achieved or eschewed to accomplish personhood? The murmur in Murmur is an insistent voice that rises from Alec Prior’s (i.e. Alan Turing’s) sub-computational mind as it reacts to, and reconfigures itself on the basis of, its chemical reorientation. A narrator in the third person, waiting in ambush in mirrors and other reflective surfaces, Prior’s reflection, assails and supplants Prior’s first-person narrative, breaches the functional boundaries of his identity, describes Prior as “a man in distress, a prisoner of some description?”, unpicking his autonomy, and acting as a catalyst for the emergence of material (memories, voices, impulses) from the deep strata of Prior’s mind, much of it foundational (such as Prior’s formative relationship with a fellow student at high school), atemporal or, increasingly, counterfactual (a series of imagined letters between Prior and his friend and colleague June, with whom he was briefly engaged (parallelling Turing’s relationship with Joan Clarke, June was unconcerned by Prior’s homosexuality but he decided not to go through with the marriage) veers towards a confused and non-existent future in which a child of theirs remarks to Prior, “You’re changing. You’re lots of different people, lots of things, and all at once.”). What is the relationship between memory and fantasy, and what is the pivot or fulcrum between the two? When the first-person narration restabilises it is a new first person, one constructed from without (“There was another me, speaking for me.”). Consciousness is detached from what it contains, but made of it. “I am the body in the bed. I’m what sees him. I am the room.” But it is consciousness’s detachment from its object, its resistance to connection (a machine cannot help but connect), its yearning for what it is not and what is not (“yearning is a sort of proof of liberty”), its inaccessibility, its ability to see itself from the couch of its exclusion (“a shared mind has no self-knowledge,” writes Eaves-as-Prior-as-Turing), its cognisance of the limitations of narrative, its capacity to suspend disbelief in fictions, its ability to use a contradiction as a stimulant to thought rather than a nullification, its fragility and tentativeness that distinguishes thinking from computation. Artificial intelligence will not achieve personhood through mimesis, learning or algorithmic excellence, but only, if ever, through qualities that eschew such virtues: “We won’t know what machines are thinking once they start to think.”
In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne (Tinder Press)      $38
{Review by STELLA}: Girls, football and music are the distractions and saving graces in three young men’s lives in the gritty, violent and tension-filled shadows of the towers of Stones Estate in North London. Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf just want to get together to play football and find a way out. Selvon trains -runs, boxes, presses the bench in a bid to make a university on the sports team. Arden has a secret dream to make his beats a musical career, and Yusuf wants to be invisible to the eyes of his Muslim community. In Guy Gunaratne’s debut novel, long-listed for the Man Booker, short-listed for the Goldsmith’s Prize, three voices meld, declaring their friendship against the growing tensions of race riots, poverty, extremism and raw edges. “Our friendships we called our bloods and our homes our Ends….Our combs cut lines in our hair and we scarred our eyebrows with blades….Close without touch…. In our caustic speech we threw out platitudes, in our guts our feisty wit. It was like we lived upon jagged teeth in the dark, in this bone-cold London city.” The language, with its slang and dialect which draws on grime (music) and sassy vibes, hums along, spits and hollers with the voices of the three young men, giving the text authenticity as well as an edgy structure, building to a crescendo over the two days of the book. Alongside the voices of these three compelling young men are two from the generation of their parents: Nelson, father to Selvon, from Montserrat, and Caroline, single alcoholic mother of Ardan, from Belfast. Each has their own story of oppression and resistance - of violence and pain - creating layers of history that parallel contemporary issues as well as digging deep into constructs of prejudice that have never resolved. In this post-9/11 world where the economy bites and prejudice is rife, the melting pot of London is under pressure. When white supremacists fuel race hatred, and the radicalisation of the local Mosque forces out moderate voices, tensions mount and the three friends find themselves in the middle of a dangerous world - a world that was a safe haven, that was their home. This is a provocative novel that doesn’t shy away from the attitudes of young men, their desperate desires and self-absorption, and shows their world as it is - tough and vicious. Yet there is hope in this seemingly dangerous situation: each of the friends care, and care deeply, about each other and about their families. They are determined to survive and be true to themselves, to remain untouched by rhetoric even in the face of extreme pressure and confusion. Gunaratne explores these complex themes with agility and sensitivity. The strength of the novel lies not so much in its telling but in the way in which this author writes - his words riff off the page, with the rhythm of the dialogue and the lively, and at times beautiful, descriptions of a place that represents oppression, fear and desperation, to let us open a window into a world which may be foreign to us - to enable us to understand the choices people make and the repercussions that follow them. 
pressionist chessboard of a council estate.”- 2018 Man Booker Prize judges' citation
The Cemetery at Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici (Carcanet)       $28
{Review by THOMAS}: Meaning, in literature as in life, is to be found in its form rather than in its content. This subtly disconcerting novella, told almost entirely in the habitual past tense (“he would”, “he used to”), portrays how memory works as an endlessly repeated palimpsest, constantly erasing and overwriting the impress of actual events, at the same time and by the same procedure both providing and preventing access to the past. The tension between what is erased and what cannot be erased intensifies through the novella, which assembles its layers of narration as if gleaned from conversation by a guest in the house in Wales of a translator and his wife, but somehow at the same time providing access to the private thoughts and self-narratives of the translator. Josipovici’s lightness and fluidity moving between speech, reported speech and thought, and his remarkable ability to encompass many versions of a story in one text, is alluded to by the translator as we learn of his fantasies of drowning himself in the Seine after he moved to Paris following the death of his first wife: “He knew such feelings were neurotic, dangerous even, but he was not unduly worried, sensing that it was better to indulge them than to try and eliminate them altogether. After all, everyone has fantasies. In the one life there are many lives. Alternative lives. Some are lived and others imagined. That is the absurdity of biographies, he would say, of novels. They never take account of the alternative lives casting their shadows over us as we move slowly, as though in a dream, from birth to maturity to death.” It is the death of the translator’s first wife that the text constantly attempts to avoid but toward which it is constantly pulled. The translator takes refuge in the stories of others to provide relief from his own. “It was only when the meaning of what he was translating began to seep through to him, he said, that he found it difficult.” After her death he moves from London to Paris, experiences detachment and detachment from detachment: “Sometimes, as he was walking through the Parisian streets, he would suddenly be seized with the feeling that he was not there, that all this was still in the future or else in the distant past. He would examine this feeling with detachment, as if it belonged to someone else, and then walk on.” Some experiences leave a wound, however, that is not easily erased, or to which one is too attached to erase, such as the wound on the thigh the narrator receives during an encounter with a young woman in a beret about whom little else has been retained. “We’ve all got something like that somewhere on our bodies. Maybe if we got rid of it we wouldn’t be ourselves any more.” Moments of the past sit with specific sharpness in the generalisation of the habitual past tense narration which seeks but fails to erase them, to keep the narrator functioning at the cost of the events makes him himself. “Listen to him, [his second wife] would say. He never sticks to the subject but always manages to generalise. It’s another way of avoiding life.” But the unspeakable pulls so hard upon the narrative that does not speak of it that that narrative becomes patterned entirely by that which it does not represent. “There are times when the order you have so carefully established seems suddenly unable to protect you from the darkness.” The unassimilable specifics of the circumstances of his first wife’s death start to show through, and our suspicions are both intensified and undermined by the means by which we form them. We are left, as is the translator, in the words of a poem by du Bellay that he translates, “at the mercy of the winds, / Sitting at the tiller in a ship full of holes.”
Crudo by Olivia Lang (Picador)            $35
{Review by THOMAS}: Olivia Laing wants to be Kathy Acker but she knows that she is not Kathy Acker even though wanting to be Kathy Acker does make you Kathy Acker to some extent. As ‘Kathy’, the protagonist in Laing’s ‘uncooked’ novelCrudo ('crudo' meaning 'raw' or 'uncooked' in Italian), relinquishes, just as did Laing, her solitary life in her fortieth year to marry a man rather older than her and assume a life of quotidian comfort in a world speeding towards climactic, humanitarian and political crises, the difficulties she has in sustaining confident positivity about a shared life isolates and invigorates (and assimilates) the nihilistic punk provocateur ‘Kathy Acker’ within her, the part of her most resistant to, or most anxious about, the changes in her life that are also of course changes in herself. Will she be able to live happily with this man? What will she need to relinquish? Can she face what she will learn about herself? “You think you know yourself inside out when you live alone, but you don’t.” Kathy is both Laing and Acker, Acker as a sort of archetype for Laing, Laing imagining what it might be like to be Acker if Acker were in a situation like Laing’s (the unlikelihood of which makes this a good interrogatory tool). “Writing, she can be anyone. On the page the I dissolves, becomes amorphous, proliferates wildly. Kathy takes on increasingly preposterous guises, slips the knot of her own contemptible identity.” It is the disparity between the two poles in herself that makes the narrator so interesting and so believable. If she does not speak with your voice she speaks with the voice of someone you know. The text is peppered with phrases ‘borrowed’ from texts by Acker (these are indexed at the end), and the disjunction between this punk posturing and accounts of buying socks and fossicking for antiques provides much of the humour and spaciousness of the novel: “What’s the novel about if not getting fucked. / That afternoon, she and her husband decided to go for a walk.” The novel is a roman-à-clef related in ‘real time’ over a period of a few weeks straddling Laing’s marriage in 2017, presented as seemingly spontaneous responses to real events on both a political and a personal level. “She wrote fiction, sure, but she populated it with the already extant, the pre-packaged and the ready-made. There was no need to invent, you could make anything from out of the overflowing midden of the already-done. It was economic but also stylish to help yourself to the grab bag of the actual.” The personal is often presented with deadpan irony; the political as an overarching threat: “We are walking backwards into disaster, braying all the way.” Is love possible or relevant in a disintegrating world? “It was happening to someone, it being unspeakable violence, how could she be happy: the real question of existence.” What degree of detachment or attachment is appropriate with regards not only to our collective issues but to our (often microscopic) personal ones as well? “It was all the same thing, it was the world talking. You couldn’t hate it, or you did but that was just more of the same, another opinionated little voice in an indecently augmented chorus.” Form is the only meaning. As the novel progresses the focus narrows, the temporal grain becomes finer, the observations more microscopic, we are told the time as well as the day, the novel, written in the past tense, pushes harder up against the present. “Kathy was writing everything down in her notebook, and had become abruptly anxious that she might exhaust the past and find herself out at the front, alone on the crest of time.” Sometimes Kathy’s ‘she’ almost becomes an ‘I’ and needs to be pushed back into ‘she’. The novel resolves, rather sweetly, perhaps more sweetly than Laing had originally intended, with Kathy’s unreserved declaration to herself of her love for the man who has become her husband, as she is about to board an aeroplane for a flight to America, as Kathy is about to resolve into Laing, as the past is about to resolve into the present: “She was in it now, she was boarding, there was nowhere to hide.”

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