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)

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.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Paul Scott — ‘The Jewel in the Crown’

And all the time wanting Hari. Seeing him in my imagination looking over the shoulder of every pink male face and seeing the strain of pretending that the world was this small. Hateful. Ingrown. About to explode like powder compressed ready for firing.
          I thought that the whole bloody affair of us in India had reached flash point. It was bound to because it was based on a violation. (p. 459)
August 1942. The eastern edge of the British empire is under threat from Japan, and the Indian National Congress passes the ‘Quit India’ Act, demanding that the British leave. Gandhi has called for ‘satyagraha’, or non-violent resistance. The British arrest the INC leadership, and riots ensue, so the leaders of these riots are arrested as well, and kept under lock and key until the end of the war. The Jewel in the Crown, as it sets out from the beginning, is the story of a rape, charged with symbolism, committed in the evening on the day of these arrests, in the (fictional) Bibighar Gardens at Mayapore. Hari Kumar, a rich kid fallen on hard times, falls in love with Daphne Manners, a young woman with ties to the British administration, doing volunteer work in a hospital. The first and only time they consummate their relationship is on 9th August, in a kind of open pavilion at Bibighar. Some thugs who have come to Mayapore to riot watch them, then attack, tying up Hari and forcing him to watch as they rape Daphne.
They assaulted me because they had watched an Indian making love to me. The taboo was broken for them. (p. 470)
It is striking how similar this set-up is to the premise of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, set in the 1920s, in which English Miss Quested is thought to have been sexually assaulted by Indian Dr Aziz in the Marabar Caves; Forster using the fallout to examine Anglo-Indian relations. The point that Daphne makes explicit, that the British presence in India is ‘based on a violation’, seems to have been irresistable for the two novelists. Scott’s story is twenty years on, and the slow progress towards independence has increased the tension between the two nations even further (to ‘flash point’) — which is perhaps why a suspected assault in the earlier novel is replaced by gang rape in the later one. The point at which the tension was finally released, 15th August 1947, and the resultant creation of babies with superpowers, for those lucky enough to have been born on the stroke of midnight, is covered in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Googling around this subject recently, I found Rushdie’s opinion of Scott’s India, with its harsh portraits of the British:
It will not do to argue that Scott was attempting only to portray the British in India, and that such was the nature of imperialist society that the Indians would only have had bit parts. It is no defence to say that a work adopts, in its structure, the very ethic which, in its content and tone, it pretends to dislike. It is, in fact, the case for the prosecution.
It is useless, I’m sure, to suggest that if a rape must be used as the metaphor of the Indo-British connection, then surely, in the interests of accuracy, it should be the rape of an Indian woman by one or more Englishmen of whatever class… not even Forster dared to write about such a crime. So much more evocative to conjure up white society’s fear of the darkie, of big brown cocks. (from his ‘Outside the Whale’ essay).
He’s right, of course. At least, he’s right that the west should not view the east only through the eyes of western correspondents. The east is more than capable of accounting for itself. Adelaide ebooks linked to an interesting blog recently which lists 100 books, split proportionally by countries’ populations: it’s dominated by India (17) and China (19); the US gets 4, and the UK 1 (Pride and Prejudice). That’s a list to explore the world. Expatriate literature can be a part of this, and can have interesting things to say about the clash of cultures, and dominion, but it has a tightrope to walk, and one end of the balancing pole is likely to be much heavier than the other. I don’t think you can dismiss it for that reason, though. Britian is a part of what India is, and India is a part of what Britain is, and that’s because of the Raj. I talk to people in India every day at work, and that situation is at least partially due to our shared language. It’s the reason, too, that Midnight’s Children was written in English.

The Jewel in the Crown is good on the blending of the English character with the Indian. Although the action of the story takes place in the 1940s, the documents and interviews through which it is told are gathered by a shadowy historian (a bit like in Citizen Kane) in the 1960s. Here the lawyer Srinivasen compares the two decades; compares the last years of the Raj, with their exaggerated class and race divisions, to independent India, in which there is still an English presence, but one of technical experts who are useful, and not upper class:
He [the new class of technical worker] laughs at what the Gymkhana used to represent — that old-fashioned upper-class English stuffiness and pretence — which is why I suppose he comes dressed in shorts and short-sleeved shirts and uses vulgar expressions. He knows almost nothing about British-Indian history, so writes off everything that seems to be connected with it as an example of the old type British snobbery. Which means also that in a way he writes us off too. (p. 213)
‘Us’ being the generation of Indians who have absorbed the 1940s English values. The most thoroughly Anglicised Indian of the lot is Hari Kumar (or Harry Coomer), who received an expensive education at an English public school before his father, after some bad business decisions, killed himself. Hari was left with nothing, and nowhere to go except to his aunt in India, a country with which he is utterly unfamiliar. In effect, he is a white upper class Englishman transplanted into an Indian’s body. I felt for him when, penniless, he went looking for a job, leaning on old school connections for all he was worth (but pretending not to), and came up against an early example of the lower middle class technical worker, who felt challenged and provoked him into a put-down, which ruined his chances. As long as Hari remains English, Scott can tug effectively at the (English) reader’s sympathy for his isolation; but as he becomes more Indian, he slips out of focus, and I think this is a mistake. Daphne says:
I was worried, worried for him, because he was a man who would find it awfully difficult to hide, and I believed that was what he wanted to do. To hide. To disappear into a sea of brown faces. (p. 457)
His tragedy is that he is wrongfully imprisoned, and treated barbarously by the policeman Ronald Merrick (also his rival for Daphne’s affections). Lumped together with the rioters, it doesn’t matter in the end that the rape can’t be pinned on him, which is what Merrick wants. This fading away coincides unfortunately with his growing identification with India, and the impression is left that an Indian character has to be Anglicised to hold Scott’s interest. But the reverse is almost true too: all the English characters are implicated in the Raj by their presence, and are defined by their attitude towards Indians. It is the clash which animates the book.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Thoughts on ‘God Help the Girl’

Typically, Chris S. is able to dispatch the whole God Help the Girl project with a look of righteous indignation and the proclamation that Stuart Murdoch has got the horn — which is much the funniest way of looking at it, but there is a bit more to say, I think. It’s affecting, is the first thing, which is a relief. It works, as a rite of passage movie, about a young Australian woman, Eve, who na├»vely follows where her true love leads, to Glasgow, and ends up a heartbroken anorexic. The film is the story of her recovery, through — friends and music? Through a band, certainly. She plays songs on her own on the hospital’s piano, then she magically improvises ‘The Psychiatrist is In’ in her flatmate James’ room, while he strums a guitar, dumbfounded. They add Cassie to their number because James already plays music with her. She marches on a machine in an exercise park (instant comedy) as the other two discuss how to make a great pop record. Eve is still fragile, and doesn’t want to involve any other people. James is clear: if you’re making a pop record, you need drums and bass. He is the motivator early on, taking Eve and Cassie out on canal expeditions in a canoe, and providing the learned pop narrative in which, in his vision, the band (I don’t think they’re actually called God Help the Girl in the film) need to exist. It takes Eve a while to notice the flaw with this vision, which is that it doesn’t include an audience, particularly. James wants to make the perfect record on his own terms; Eve comes to realise that the thing she wants is to sing to people, and connect with them.

These musical differences are paralleled romantically, when Eve, instead of taking up with the nice chap who has rescued her from despair, opts for a brooding, masterful Frenchman, who treats her bad and gives her the horn. James concentrates on making himself and his behaviour perfect in his own eyes, and unimpeachable in Eve’s; but unimpeachable is not sexy. Unimpeachable doesn’t grab the moment. So the film embodies the whole indier-than-thou / Pop! debate: it’s about ambition and integrity, and it seems to side with the notion that integrity without ambition is not worth the bedsit it’s concocted in. Just like Belle and Sebastian embraced their fame and became a proper pop band. But they didn’t leave Glasgow to do it, so it feels a little odd to see Eve get on a train to London at the end, to go to music college.

So maybe that’s not it: maybe James is the moral victor, setting off with Cassie and her tandem, back out of Central Station, knowing that, at nearly twenty five, his (quite local) wandering days are not over yet.


Further thoughts after a second viewing

  • The hunk (still can’t remember his name) is German Swiss, not French, don’t know where I got that from.
  • Throughout, Cassie wears a pendant saying ‘Deputy’, which is a cool thing to do.
  • Eve’s tape, which she hands in, via the hunk, to a local radio station, does actually say ‘God Help the Girl’ on it.
  • The local DJs, whom you never see, are played by Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie. This works very well, but it’s odd that the local Glasgow DJs aren’t Glaswegian.
  • It’s odd too that none of the leads are even Scottish. The most memorable locals in the film, arguably, are the neds who proposition Cassie from the bank as the three band members paddle past in a canoe.
  • As James and Cassie ride off on a tandem, and the credits roll, Belle and Sebastian’s ‘Dress Up In You’ plays, which supports the idea of James as the moral victor, with Eve selling out, or at least moving on to somewhere less special.
  • James makes much of the fact that he lived in Scotland for six months after he was born, before he moved to England. Everyone knows that you have to stay for two years for it to mean anything.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Morrissey — ‘Autobiography’

When there is no matching of lives, and we live on a strict diet of the self, the most intimate bond can be with the words we write:
Oh often have I washed and dressed
     And what’s to show for all my pain?
Let me lie abed and rest:
Ten thousand times I’ve done my best
     And all’s to do again.
I ask myself if there is an irresponsible aspect in relaying thoughts of pain as inspiration, and I wonder whether [A. E.] Housman actually infected the sensitives further, and pulled them back into additional darkness. (p.96)
Whenever I have gone off Morrissey, this has been the reason. I never wondered the same thing about Joy Division or Throwing Muses, whose music is darker than The Smiths’, and which I discovered, as a tortured (not literally) teenager at about the same time. There is a peculiar complacency to Morrissey’s outlook which is much more rare than the ability to turn a depressive teenage anthem. ‘You should not go to them / Let them come to you’ is part of it: the attempt at self-sufficiency by a man so obviously in need of company. That line is good advice, though: the best way for the socially awkward to reach out is not to plunge into society and alienate everyone by being socially awkward. Far better to record a string of urgent, wounded pop LPs, sit back and hold court at interview, now that everyone wants your opinion. It’s also dangerous advice, because you could sit forever in your room waiting for the knock from Johnny Marr that never comes.

Autobiography gives real insight into the state Morrissey had got himself into before that knock. This is brave:
I am cross-examined at Stretford Sorting Office as there are postman vacancies, and this is the most I consider possible. Yet it isn’t, because I am turned down — deemed physically and psychologically incapable of delivering letters. There is now no escape but death. (p. 121)
How many people would put that in their autobiography? Without passing it off as a joke, because he is perfectly serious. A specific account of this sort is not something which could be easily fitted into a song, though there are several lines which surely link back to the experience (‘I was looking for a job…’; ‘I tried living in the real world instead of a shell / But before I began / I was bored before I even began’). It’s sad to read about such isolation, but… I used to hate job interviews. Now I just avoid them completely, knowing that there is no point. As per usual, it is at once a comfort and a dangerous invitation to apathy to get self-validation on the subject from Morrissey. But look what he can do, simultaneously:
The Ramones are models of ill health, playing backwards, human remains washed ashore, so much condensed into a single presentation, and it is outstanding. Change! Change! Change! It doesn’t happen by being the same as everybody else. (p. 112)
The pre-Smiths section is more vital than the Smiths section (just as Strangeways, Here We Come is no Meat is Murder), which mostly consists of side swipes at Geoff Travis and the hippies at Rough Trade. The break-up has no explanation. Johnny sees him a few years later and realises that Morrissey doesn’t know why it happened, but fails to elaborate. The widely reported section on the Mike Joyce trial wasn’t quite as stodgy as I’d feared, and presents a convincing page-by-page rebuttal of judge John Weeks’ conclusions. He says that Joyce was after 25% of The Smiths’ total income, rather than the 10% of the profits that he signed up to. He never says what the 10% or the 25% would be in pounds, though: I felt that a real Penguin Classic would have offered footnotes here, putting the argument in context.

Fortunately, Autobiography manages a second tour-de-force section as it draws to a close, and as Morrissey tours the world to adoring audiences. He reflects on the phenomenon of himself, much as he did previously on the nonentity of himself:
The streets flood with Morrissey. I do not know what to do with all this happiness. Viva Hate emblems; art-hound T’s, tank tops and bags graffitied in Morrissey-code. Most of all, every arm, every neck, every hand mobbered with a Morrissey tatoo. Fresno! Fresno! Fresno! Here is the light! And never go out. (p. 413)
This is not simply self-congratulation, it is fandom of fandom, it is communication on the grandest scale to and from someone incapable of it on the smallest. It is fascinating to see him feed on the love and the roar and the surge of the crowd, which is undeniably something, even if ultimately it becomes part of his solipsism. His saving grace is that he does not take them for granted, and he is up for the fight — as once he was not — to stave off irrelevance:
I will border on silliness — anything at all to avoid self-indulgence replacing the old hunger, for that is the route they all go, and can’t help but go. (p. 408)

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