Sunday, December 14, 2014

Anthony Trollope — ‘Framley Parsonage’

The Crawley Family
Amongst my excuses-to-self for sometimes not blogging about books are ‘it’s an ebook,’ and ‘it’s part of a serial’. Dr Thorne, the third of Trollope’s Barchester novels, fell foul of both, which is a shame, as it is probably my favourite so far. Its plot, involving murder, hidden provenance and uncertain expectations, was unusually dark and mysterious. Though the tone righted itself eventually, early on it could almost have been a Thomas Hardy novel, actuated by schaudenfrade and the playing out of old, hidden crimes (I’m thinking particularly of The Mayor of Casterbridge). The intricate plot was more characteristic: usually it’s the space between his characters which interests Trollope. The way things work together. It didn’t seem much connected with The Warden or Barchester Towers, its predecessors. Bishop and Mrs Proudie got walk-on parts, and the Thornes of Ullathorne were mentioned, but only to distinguish Dr Thorne from them. Framley Parsonage reverses the trend, and brings back the Proudies, the Grantlys, Miss Dunstable and Dr Thorne himself as major characters; we also discover something of the fate of the Greshams of Greshamsbury, the Arabins, Lady Scatchard and Mr Harding into the bargain. Dr Thorne could stand alone, but this book depends upon its place in the series.

Politics is back, too, and not just local or church politics. Framley Parsonage features a cabinet minister, Harold Smith, who after only a few weeks in the job finds himself a victim of Tom Towers, the most powerful man in the book. As editor of newspaper The Jupiter, Towers is more interested in causing events than reporting them. In The Warden he plagued Mr Harding into resigning the wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital, and in Framley Parsonage he causes even more of a stir when he appears, briefly, at Miss Dunstable’s party. Miss Dunstable, heiress of the Oil of Lebanon fortune and the richest woman in the country, is an interesting mix of worldliness and innocence. She genuinely frets about whether the two big stars she has invited will attend (one of them would add thirty percent to the value of the party, we are told), but she also mocks this deference in herself:
Angels and ministers of grace assist me! […] How on earth am I to behave myself? Mr Sowerby, do you think that I ought to kneel down? My dear, will he have a reporter at his back in the royal livery? (p. 303)
This is Towers’ only appearance, in person, but he makes good use of it:
‘By-the-by, Sowerby, what do you think of this threatened dissolution?’ said Tom Towers. (p. 304)
And so, by way of the rumour thus started, parliament is dissolved, and Harold Smith loses his cabinet post. But not before he has been buttonholed by Mr Sowerby (MP and rogue) and enjoined to recommend a preferment in favour of Mark Robarts, the incumbent of Framley Parsonage. The preferment in question is a prebend connected to Barchester Cathedral, previously held in absence by Dr Stanhope (now deceased), worth £600 a year. Sowerby is anxious to do this favour for Mark, as he has embroiled him in his money matters by getting him to sign a bill for £400, which, through renewals, increases to £900 and threatens to ruin Mark and his family. Sowerby is not wholly corrupt, and wants to do well by Mark; but the greater consideration is that any favour he accepts will bind him to Sowerby. Like payday lenders today, he wants to create a dependence: the last thing he wants is for the bill to be settled.

Lady Lufton and the Duke of Omnium
The other great star invited to Miss Dunstable’s party is the Duke of Omnium. Like Tom Towers, he is a background character, whose absence from the narrative is a characteristic of his great power. He has the misfortune, when greeting Miss Dunstable, to press against Lady Lufton:
The duke, as he begged her pardon, wore in his countenance that expression of modified sorrow which is common to any gentleman who is supposed by himself to have incommoded a lady. But over and above this, — or rather under it, — there was a slight smile of derision, as though it were impossible for him to look upon the bearing of Lady Lufton without some amount of ridicule. All this was legible to eyes so keen as those of Miss Dunstable and Mrs Harold Smith, and the duke was known to be a master of this silent inward sarcasm; but even by them […] it was admitted that Lady Lufton had conquered. (p. 294)
This meeting of factions is another important moment. The Duke of Omnium represents the new, racy, monied world (which includes the Proudies), who are busy gobbling up the old, staid, monied one (the Luftons, the Grantlys) across three spheres: land, church and state. Gatherum Castle is his home, viewed by Lady Lufton as a den of iniquity; and it pains her that her son, Lord Lufton, and her clergyman, Mark Robarts (a friend from childhood of Lord Lufton’s: the Framley living was his mother’s gift), have both visited. The trouble Robarts gets in as a result of this visit, and the obligations foisted upon him there by Sowerby, justify her view. Her son, too, is drawn in to the same situation, on a larger scale, and she has to sell some of the family estate to free him from the clutches of Tom Tozer, the debt collector (Tom Towers / Tom Tozer — there seems to be a deliberate echo in these names). Robarts’ smaller debt is the more important in terms of the story, and is the main fact about him: he is a good man, but a weak one. The same is true of Sowerby, and here Trollope shows the difference that circumstances can make, over and above character. Ever even handed, he also shows the opposite, via Miss Dunstable and Lady Scatchard, both ‘new money’ women, one who takes like a duck to water to her new milieu (though she is a long time finding a husband); the other who finds it profoundly awkward and lives a life of isolation.

Right at the other end of the social spectrum from Tom Towers and the Duke of Omnium, are the Crawleys. Mr Crawley is minister at the impoverished parish of Hogglestock, and he is fiercely, foolishly independent. An old friend of Mr Arabin, he feels unable to keep up the friendship since Arabin’s rise to dean of Barchester. He feels ashamed of his clothes, and of the fact that he has no horse. They are so poor, in fact, that it is even a struggle to feed the family. When his wife gets cholera, he refuses Arabin’s help, and it is only the strength of character shown by Mark Robarts’ sister Lucy, who essentially kidnaps his children to get them out of harm’s way, that is able to save the situation. She stays to nurse Mrs Crawley, and so is conveniently absent from Framley doing unquestionably virtuous things, at the period when Lord Lufton is trying to convince his mother that Lucy should be his wife. Lady Lufton had her heart set on his marrying the grand but vacuous Griselda Grantly, and takes some adjusting to the idea of his taking up with someone so ‘insignificant’ (p. 349). But she has misunderstood significance: it is not to be found in playing a pre-defined role (as Griselda is eventually able to do with Lord Dumbello), it comes through defining one’s own role, and hence through character. Always assuming the lubrication of money.

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Illustrations are by John Everett Millais, from this site.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Onion Club, Hospitalfield Arts, Arbroath, 6th December

A circular chord sequence, at the back of the room, played on an accordion. Nick Cave’s ‘The Ship Song’, I thought, as the woman with the Louise Brooks bob began a slow, meandering walk between the tables towards the stage. But it wasn’t, it was ‘Song to the Siren’. The lights were low, as they have to be, to hit the right mood; the cafe layout in the room is a prerequisite, too. This isn’t really an arts centre in an ornamental castle down a potholed track (though that setting would be special enough). This is Berlin in the ’20s. It’s Pandora’s Box, it’s Dr Mabuse the Gambler. Tim Buckley, Nina Simone, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, the singers whose catalogues have been appropriated in the cause of the show, have yet to be born. Billie Holiday is still a child. Kurt Weill walks its streets, inhabits its shadows, and usually a highlight of these… concerts? Let’s call them spells. Witching hours. They usually have ‘Alabama Song’ at their core. Not last night, but it was only thinking back that I noticed its absence. All the other songs, despite the breadth of the selection, and the variation in performance — they’re all ‘Alabama Song’ too. They’re all athirst. We must have whisky or you’ll know why.

Not me, actually. I was driving, so drank Coke and coffee — the latter, absurdly, sold by the full-size cafetière, so, as I write, it’s 4:30AM and I’m still wired. Pauline, she of the bob, did slug from a whisky bottle, but word has it that it contained apple juice. She had a cold — kept pulling paper hankies from somewhere about her person — so this was almost certainly for the best. Her singing was fractionally bluesier than a month ago, when we last saw The Onion Club, but not spoilt. Her patter was mostly the same, with cold-related ad libs thrown in. A string of twentieth century witticisms: ‘One more drink and I’ll be under the host’ (Mae West); ‘I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy’ (Tom Waits). It’s a good script, worth sticking to. Also courtesy of Tom Waits was ‘God’s Away on Business’, for which Pauline took the radio mic and went on the prowl, taking delight in throwing out an arm while half undressed and shouting ‘KILLERS, THIEVES AND LIARS!’ in whoever’s face was closest. This song, at the mid point of the first half of the set, upped the ante and cured the singer’s cold at a stroke. Lithe and livid, this is why it’s worth driving to a different town to see a covers band. There ain’t no other covers band like this one. Stephen, the pianist, whose playing always makes me think of ‘Time’ and ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ from Aladdin Sane, thumped the low notes with heat seeking precision, and God may be away, but this pair mean business.

Costume changes are always a feature of Onion Club shows. Their signature prop is a coat stand with a pair of angel’s wings hung on it (which no-one puts on), along with whatever else might be required. Last night there was a screen standing to the right of the stand, ostensibly for Pauline to change behind. ‘No peeking,’ she warned, disappearing behind it for about a second, which was quite enough down time from audience adulation, and she came out and half-changed into a black skirt with a leather belt (left unbuckled) in front of us instead, mid-song. I don’t know if there was a blouse to go with it, but she left it at the chemise, which made ‘God’s Away on Business’ seem fearless as well as fearsome. After the interval, and after the deep melancholy of Portishead’s ‘Roads’ and an interesting take on Kate Bush’s ‘The Red Shoes’ (possibly a slight mis-fire, because there’s not a lot to be done with that one-chord song), they did a great version of ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ from The Jungle Book, turned into a modern morality tale. Pauline almost fell over trying to sing into the mic and change into a suit at the same time. ‘I can learn to be a greedy bastard too’, went the amended lyric, as she fantasised about breaking through the glass ceiling from ‘75 grand PA’ to being the boss of her boss. Who must be a banker. For an instrumental / tap dancing break she put on a monkey mask, with a bowler hat on top of that.

In a way, The Onion Club are a very twenty first century proposition. Kenneth Goldsmith would probably approve of the emphasis on re-appropriation over creation. Would say that re-appropriation is the only form of creation left in this age of content overload. Praising Pauline’s singing and Stephen’s piano playing (which does need doing) is missing the point, because what you get at these shows is a powerful and entrancing aesthetic vision, stitched together from lust, joy and abandon as much as it is from the songs which give it shape, or the era which gives it much of its style. ‘My Funny Valentine’, augmented with trombone and muted trumpet, was so tender and beautiful; ‘Strange Fruit’, similarly paced, was its deathly flipside; ‘Mad About the Boy’ had the best posh twit accent and the amazing conversational gambit, tossed out in mock panic to an audience member: ‘Do you like fruit?!’; and at last Pauline put the accordion back on and played what appeared to be ‘Song to the Siren’ again, but this time it really was ‘The Ship Song’, and she meandered back through the audience, who all knew all the words, and sang them, way down low, in this lilac-lit stone room in the ornamental castle, down a potholed lane in Arbroath, where the car sat waiting patiently in the rain on a muddy verge. Wading the water. Sandman’s mud, sandman’s mud.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Throwing Muses and Tanya Donelly, Leeds Irish Centre, 18th September

The week before last, S. and I were on holiday in Cumbria. Not specifically to get away from referendum fever, but we weren’t tempted to reschedule when we realised that it was that week. To their credit, Throwing Muses went ahead with a gig in Glasgow in the midst of it all (if any art can transcend politics, it’s theirs, I suppose. Fuck Iraq, etc. On second thoughts, don’t fuck Iraq). We arranged postal votes, and wondered until the last minute how to use them. The choice: nationalism, or the Tories. The devil or the deep blue flag. I hate flags. And everyone hates the Tories, surely that goes without saying? The idea that nationalism could be about equality intrigued me; that it could be about breaking away from intolerance and the triumph of capital over ethics, art, and learning. Would it really have turned out that way? Probably not. Or, only if our new country could have afforded it. Still, it was sad to discover on Friday morning that Scotland didn’t even want to try. On Thursday, S. and I enjoyed some lovely English things: York’s Goji Café, and Leeds’ Roundhay Park, before going on to the gig. I wrote a review on Friday morning, published and then un-published it a few hours later, because it didn’t seem to chime with the day. But here it is again. And why not? The referendum was only one day; Throwing Muses are for life.

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Of course I loved Belly too. They never did what the Muses did, but that wasn’t the point. They swooned and soared and let that huge voice of Tanya’s off the leash of backing vocals and occasional songs. It was her transformative contribution which made The Real Ramona such a great pop LP (witness the leap to electrifying 3-piece rock with her gone, on Red Heaven), and she brought the momentum of this to Belly’s two albums. Neither was perfect: Star is slightly garish, and King — which isn’t — doesn’t quite have the songs. But, often enough, they had this melting quality, between sex and dreams. Tanya’s soft, soft guitar, drugged up on reverb, acting (on Ramona) as a narcotic to the rolling smash of David’s cymbal-free drums, and the harsh harpsichord tone of Kristin’s guitar. In Belly, I suppose, there wasn’t enough harshness to provide that contrast, and in the solo stuff I heard, even the fun had begun to ebb. I gave up with the song ‘Goat Girl’, which is just as kooky and ill-considered as the title makes it sound. Commercial pressures, I guess. So the million-selling rabbit died away, and the cult tortoise continued being brilliant and frustrating (Purgatory / Paradise does my head in, but Crooked and Paradoxical Undressing are up there with Kristin’s best work).

After all these years, then, there stands Tanya, in this out-of-town, anti-glamour venue, with a Gibson SG, in a really great shirt. Black and white patterns, and sleeves in imitation leather, and I think a red band at the bottom. She explains that it was given to her by a local designer, and that it is cruelty-free. Her cellist looks familiar, and it clicks at some point that he is in The Magnetic Fields. There’s no drummer, but the sitting-down acoustic guitarist is somehow operating a tambourine, and there is an electric reverb guitarist to the left, who noodles too much but is otherwise fine. There are a few unfamiliar songs to begin with, which are reassuringly simple, direct, un-kooky. Tanya’s voice is so rich, I’d happily have listened to a whole set like this. ‘Sliding and Diving’ is the first song I recognise, and then she just goes flat out and spoils us. ‘Low Red Moon’ segues into ‘Dusted’ and back again, a reminder that she can do spine-chilling (if not quite the soul-freezing that is Kristin’s speciality), and then — oh my god — ‘Honeychain’. The bass part beautifully played on cello. And all that is solid melts into air. She gets two women from the audience up for ‘Not Too Soon’ as she doesn’t want to do the ‘cat calls’ alone (the ‘neeow-na-now-n-now / la la la la’ bit). It’s great. Tanya’s set alone was worth the journey.

Kristin, too, mentions the designer who has given them clothes. ‘People give me clothes all the time — I wonder what that says? But it’s usually people I know.’ Then Throwing Muses plunge into ‘Sunray Venus’, and half my doubts about Purgatory / Paradise evaporate on the spot. I close my eyes, and the sound becomes an environment; the actual world stops dead. Kristin’s guitar is, as on Ramona, harpsichord-like, harsh, brittle. But loud, breaking up, like you’d never imagine doing with that sound. I think of other Muses shows, and other guitar sounds: painful fuzz guitar assault, 1992 (for Red Heaven); clean and efficient, 1995 (for University); 2003 rubble (for Throwing Muses). She doesn’t vary the sound much within a show, which is very un-pop, but it helps take you to a zone, free of distractions. Likewise the way that it’s usually (apart from 1995) too loud for any purpose other than saturation, obliteration. The run of Purgatory / Paradise material (plus ‘Mississippi Kite’, thrillingly) locks on to its groove, and wipes the audience out. Buddhism is probably like this. I will try again with the record.

‘You Cage’ marks the return of Tanya, for guitar and backing vocals. She takes centre stage, Kristin on her right, Bernard on her left. ‘Red Shoes’ allows her some of that deliciously lazy guitar, and it’s glorious to hear. No noodling. Red becomes you. I become you. It’s basically a nostalgia show from this point, but for those of us who never saw the full Muses line-up, it’s like seeing Orange Juice or The Velvet Underground put back together. And not all nostalgia is equal. Tanya may not be Kristin, but the Muses were never the same after she left. The run of records from Throwing Muses (1986 version) to The Real Ramona are the peak of human endeavour, if you ask me, and worth any amount of revisiting and celebrating. ‘Say Goodbye’ goes deeper still into the rock / pop collision, and edges closer to that Buddhist groove. Kristin stands back from the stage lights for ‘Green’, which I can barely believe I’m hearing. The stupidly high notes defeat Tanya, but for the rest she’s in strong voice, and even if the moment matters most for what it represents, it sounds brilliant too. David’s drums — always the heart of a Muses show — crisp and marching. They get to bounce and slither to a great encore of ‘Shark’, and to rage at full tilt for ‘Pearl’. Pockets of the crowd are going nuts, pleasingly. And then it’s over, and who knows when it will happen again?
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Some more fine photos of the gig, by Simon Godley.
Tanya Donelly’s Swan Song Series.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Gavin Extence — ‘The Universe versus Alex Woods’

In short, it turned out that I was a major beneficiary of the will — one of only two beneficiaries — and this gave me a ‘plausible motive’ for wanting Mr Peterson dead [...]. I tried to point out to the police that this motive was only plausible if I’d known about the will beforehand — otherwise it was not only implausible, but also violated causality in quite a major way — but I got the impression that they saw this as a weak defence. Luckily, my lawyer told me I didn’t have to prove that I didn’t know about the will; the police had to prove that I did.
          ‘How could they possibly prove that?’ I asked.
          My lawyer shrugged. ‘If you confess.’
          ‘I could confess to anything,’ I pointed out. ‘I could confess that my father’s the Pope. It wouldn’t make it true.’ (p. 403)
This is a sweet book which takes some hefty themes — epilepsy, euthanasia — and weaves them into a story of friendship against the odds. It starts with seventeen-year-old Alex arriving off the ferry at Dover, and being stopped by a passport official. He sits at the wheel of a car in a catatonic state, an urn containing Mr Peterson’s ashes on the passenger seat, and a big bag of weed in the glove compartment. The police, not unnaturally, detain him. The rest of the book is an explanation of how he got there. It’s not a literary novel: there’s no mucking around with chronology, sources or points of view, there is no ambiguity about what is supposed to have happened, and in times of stress characters tend to say ‘right now’ a bit too often, giving it — just occasionally — the register of an angst-y soap opera. It can be acute too, though. Alex is right, in the quotation above: confession doesn’t make something true. It’s not exactly unliterary either: he hosts a book group at Mr Peterson’s house called ‘The Secular Church of Kurt Vonnegut’ (at which only books by Vonnegut are discussed), and he’s a voracious reader, especially when his epilepsy confines him to the house for a year:
Reading […] never made me feel like an invalid. And I found that the quiet concentration required actually helped to reduce the number of daily seizures. It put me in a state of mind that was good for me. (p. 72)
Alex’s epilepsy began when he was ten, after a meteorite crashed through the ceiling of his bathroom at home and hit his head, leaving him in a coma for several weeks. He recounts proudly how he is only the second person in history to have been hit directly by a meteorite. The other one — Ann Hodges, in Alabama in 1954 (pictured) — also survived. It may or may not have affected his personality, but he comes across as borderline autistic. He feels things very deeply (feeling them too deeply can trigger seizures), but he is unusually interested in the mechanics of things. The meteorite hit triggers a fascination with astrophysics, and the epilepsy gets him into neurology, both of which he reads up on and discusses in depth with adult experts (his doctor, and the scientist who analysed the meteorite). At school, he’s unpopular, because he enjoys studying. At lunch break he walks the perimeter of the school playing fields, alone, twice. Not that it does him much good, but he is perceptive about the evils of target culture. This drips with irony:
Education didn’t have to be its own reward. Education brought rewards later in life. If we worked hard, passed our exams and never gave up, one day we too could be as rich as Robert Asquith. (p. 87)
Robert Asquith is the entrepreneur whose money founded the Robert Asquith Academy, the school with the best exam results in the area. Of course, it’s a horrible place, in which the only lesson learned is how to be two faced, and at which bullying is rife. Alex has a moment of clarity after a fight with one of his tormentors, Decker, and informs the teacher investigating the situation (who is perfectly indignant, supercilious, despotic) that he hit him because he is a cunt. The incident is quickly absorbed into school lore, and here Ellie, an emo / goth who is the second of Alex’s unlikely friends, asks him about it:
‘Okay then, Mr Polite [...]. So why did you say it?’
          I thought about this for a while, trying to figure out how best to phrase it, and eventually, this is what I came up with: ‘Because naming something takes away its power.’ (p. 170)
It is an earlier event involving Decker and two other cunts (Studwin and Asbo) which introduces him to Mr Peterson. They see him walking back from the shops with an astronomy magazine, taunt him for a while, then give chase. He breaks through a hedge in desperation and hides in a garden shed, securing the door with a large bag of compost. Because they can’t get at him, Decker, Studwin and Asbo smash the glass in the greenhouse next to the shed, then leave him to take the blame. Mr Peterson, widower, Kurt Vonnegut fan and Vietnam vet turned pacifist, is the owner of the shed and the greenhouse. Alex’s mother negotiates a settlement whereby he has to do odd jobs for Mr Peterson until the broken glass is paid for, but after a bit of typing (letters on behalf of Amnesty International), they forget about the punishment and Alex starts going through Mr Peterson’s Kurt Vonnegut collection. This leads to the book club, which lasts fifteen months and overlaps with Mr Peterson’s diagnosis with PSP, a degenerative disease similar to Parkinson’s. The last act of the drama is a suicide attempt followed by Alex’s promise to his friend that he will take him to a clinic in Switzerland to die, in order that he can enjoy whatever time he has left without worrying about what happens when his mobility has gone completely.

It’s a touching and immensely likeable story, that makes a good contrast to Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa, with all its darkness and trickery. Both are books about friendship and loss, but The Universe versus Alex Woods is as guileless as its protagonist, as open as the autobahn on which Alex drives Mr Peterson to visit CERN on his one last day before dying.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Benjamin Constable — ‘Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa’

My dad lent me this book, which is by the son of my godfather. A glance at the introduction suggested it might be my kind of thing:
          ‘It’s the story of two people who hang around and talk and stuff.’
          ‘Uh-huh, yes, good,’ said Tomomi Ishikawa. ‘And what’s the angle?’
          ‘There is no angle. There’s no romance, no adventure, no —’
          ‘Wait, wait, wait, you must be mistaken. That would be boring. A book like this should have at least a betrayal, a stolen painting and a talking dog, or a monkey.’ (pp. 1-2)
Talking to Tomomi Ishikawa, AKA Butterfly, is Ben Constable, a protagonist named after the author, and based on him to some extent (at least according to his website: lives in Paris, teaches English, likes early evening drinks). Great, I thought. A book with no silly distractions. Straight (and hopefully funny) talking. No melodrama. So I was disappointed to find the introduction followed immediately by Butterfly’s suicide note, and a plot which revolves around a treasure hunt. You have to be kidding, I thought. Puzzles? Butterfly has left behind a series of notebooks concealed in public places, and clues on her laptop (she leaves this to Ben) which allow him to find them. Worse still, the notebooks all contain accounts of murders committed by Butterfly. It’s hard to imagine a more thorough betrayal of Ben’s conception of the book he wants to write (so: it must be deliberate). The two people don’t hang around, because one of them is dead, and the smart carefree talk is limited to scenes that Ben remembers and writes down in the midst of his grieving.

It is never clear whether or not the murders are actually supposed to have happened, whether they are fiction by Butterfly, or (a late suggestion, not sure if it’s exactly a spoiler) fiction by Ben, written as a way of dealing with her death. These, I think, are the ‘Three Lives’ of Tomomi Ishikawa. The same events, viewed from three different fictional perspectives. The stories in the notebooks accumulate into a narrative, a back story that darkens and enriches the character of whomever you consider responsible (mostly of Butterfly’s, then). The puzzles fade quickly, which is a relief: most are simply instructions about where Ben can pick up the next notebook from. In the first story, Butterfly meets a stranger wandering aimlessly in her home city, New York, on September 11th 2001. She follows him, he follows her, and they end up in his apartment. He tells her that his ex-wife was in the World Trade Center when the plane hit. He was on his way to meet her. He and Butterfly have ‘vacuous’ (p. 61) sex, and then she smothers him with a pillow. He is complicit, to the extent that he doesn’t resist. The style of the account is intense, teenage creative writing (‘by the evening of the day of this story I had been dead a long time. My body was just an empty shell’ (p. 55)). You don’t really believe the language, but the events express the numbness that must have pervaded New York that day.

So far, so psycho (except that there is compassion in the deed), but the remaining deaths are closer to home. Central to them is that of Butterfly’s nanny, Komori. As her father explains to her shortly before his own spectacular demise, Komori was Chinese, and a servant of the Japanese Sasaki family in Japanese-occupied Manchuria during the Second World War. When the Russians invaded in 1945, there was an evacuation of Japanese women and children, and the Sasakis smuggled Komori back to Japan, pretending she was one of them. Butterfly’s father, Takeo, and Komori were childhood sweethearts, but unable to marry because of the social gulf between Chinese and Japanese. He followed her to America nonetheless, and… married someone else, someone Japanese. Meanwhile, Komori was diagnosed with cancer. So then — this is the really weird bit, the solid gold piece of plotting that Trollope or Hardy would have been proud of — he gave his daughter to Komori, so that she would not be childless, though the cancer treatment meant she couldn’t have children, and so that she would have someone who could kill her when she got too weak from the disease. Takeo is only ever a shadowy presence in the novel, but it is this act of his which allows the rest of the story to happen. He explains to Butterfly:
You were brought up to do something that I didn’t know how to. You were brought up to live with loss that none of the rest of us could accept. You would be harder, stronger than us. You would be able to survive where we could not. (p. 244)
He cares too much to bring his daughter up, or to look after the woman he loves in her terminal illess. Unsurprisingly, his displaced, ultra-targeted compassion doesn’t make it to the next generation. Butterfly:
I think we’re just animals, trying to save our asses or our species. We are big piles of self-obsessed meat with lust for physical pleasure and chemical impulses driving us to procreate. Hormones provoking emotions that incline us to protect our young. Jealous need of possession. That’s what I think love is. (p. 247)
Although, in retrospect, you can sense Takeo’s moral code in Butterfly’s smothering of the stranger.

In contrast to all this darkness is the decidedly un-suicidal narrator Ben Constable, who isn’t afraid to follow Butterfly’s lead, but is at heart a socialite. He is endearingly muddle-minded and credulous, ignoring any number of clues, flagged up by the sharper Beatrice (his accomplice when he follows the trail from Paris to New York), that… well, that would be a spoiler. He suffers from prosopagnosia, the inability to recognise familiar faces, which is ideal for a narrator who is thoughtful and sensitive, but doesn’t see the whole picture. His whimsical reflections, and his refusal ever to ask ‘why?’, are a kind of insulation, but also a kind of buoyancy.
I love to look at the collected objects around me, each with a story that will die on my parting, and the stopped clock on my wall saves me precious seconds. Its hands point to twenty past three, optimistically suggesting time for one last thing. (p. 11)
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P.S. Between writing the above and posting, S. zipped through the book at her customary speed, and was slightly unsure about it. She didn’t like the ambiguity as much as I did. Did this stuff happen, or didn’t it? Whose account are we reading? I argued that the murderous events are a reaction to emotional trauma: either that of Butterfly’s childhood (if they are supposed to have occurred), or of her suicide (if Ben has made them up). Leaving this open is a way of projecting the hollowness and the slipperiness of trauma on to the reader. It means you’re never sure of the ground beneath your feet, very much as if something or someone you rely on has been suddenly taken away. What appear to be techniques of distancing and displacement actually draw you in, and show you what it’s like to be lost.

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