Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Julian Barnes – ‘Arthur & George’

The appeal of Arthur & George is obvious, to anyone who likes Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur acts the sleuth! Barmy Sir Arthur, an engaging fellow who believed in fairies but managed to keep them out of the Holmes books, thankfully. Because they wouldn’t have fitted? Don’t be so sure: one aside here tells of the brief disappearance of Agatha Christie, during which our hero was called in to work his magic. Instead of applying pure deductive reasoning as one would usually understand it, he obtained a glove of Christie’s, and took it to a psychic, using the latter as a spiritual bloodhound. Arthur himself would, a little stubbornly perhaps, have failed to see the distinction. His point about Spiritualism was that it is just another science: why have advances in every other area of understanding, but leave spiritual knowledge at the level which was set 2000 years ago? Let’s get to the bottom of it! The objective truth!

It’s a queer argument, but one which fits perfectly with his character as set down here and elsewhere. Arthur is deeply respectful of society’s rules (especially English society’s rules) as he understands them, but – ironically – he understands the letter better than the spirit. Because the age says ‘progress!’ and because it is unquestionable that there is something to this religion business, he draws the skewed conclusion that religion should be turned into a science. He has a blind spot where it comes to the Church’s own rules, because they don’t fit in with his pet theory. A less respectful man (or a more modern one) would look at these rules and, disliking them, would turn to atheism and that would be that. Why is it unquestionable that there is something to this religion business? Because it’s traditional, it’s the rules.

Arthur has a similar approach to marriage: when his first wife Touie becomes an invalid through her tuberculosis, he eventually falls in love with the woman who is to be his second, Jean. They go on country walks together, they go arm in arm to the cricket, they arrange secretive meetings. This Arthur deems consistent with his idea of honour because the relationship is never consummated until Touie dies and they do eventually marry. It is put to him that this is just as bad as adultery because people will assume that she is his mistress on account of their public behaviour, but he can’t see it. Once again, two forces have collided within him, and rather than let one win, he makes things immensely more difficult for himself and everyone involved by letting both have their way: religion and science, marriage and love, Touie and Jean. He is a big man, he can encompass all.

George Edalji is not a big man, but he is a sensible one, and one also in thrall to rules. He is after all a solicitor, and the author of Railway Law for the “Man in the Train”. He serves two purposes here: as a foil to the more expansive Arthur, and as someone to whom occurs a series of unfortunate but interesting events. You’ll know the plot: some vicious anonymous notes are received, some horses are slashed, George takes the rap for wholly circumstantial reasons, and, out of gaol but robbed of his livelihood, Arthur steps in to shake things up a bit. Based on a true story, and pretty damn closely. George’s spell in gaol is comparable to Arthur and Jean’s interminable wait for legitimacy (and, not to put too fine a point on it, sex), but his equanimity is far greater. George, too, hopes to be married ‘in general’, which Arthur laughs at, recommending ‘in particular’ as the preferable state. Of course, he never is, and therefore has a much longer wait than Arthur in this regard (though equally, it’s harder to pine for a generality). The prosecution at his trial make much of George’s undoubted virginity, claiming the horse maimings to be the result of unfulfilled sexual longing. Here’s George musing on a different kind of abstention:

Abstention could be taken as proof either of moderation or extremity. It might be a sign of a fellow able to control his human urges; or equally of someone who resisted vice in order to concentrate his mind on other, more essential things – someone a touch inhuman, even fanatical. (p. 417)

The word ‘fanatical’ made me sit up – could Arthur & George, for all its painstaking Victorian / Edwardian-ness, be an allegory for our times? In part. While never less than fond of its protagonists, it mocks their reliance on rules, and shows how ludicrous things can follow from them, how government judgements can be fallible and political. The Home Office Report of the Gladstone Committee which fudges George’s eventual pardon can’t fail to bring to mind the more recent Hutton Report, and the Edalji case reminded people at the time of Drayfus. Justice the province of the press when official procedures prove unsatisfactory, and a popular patron can be found. And that can’t be right.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Julie Myerson - ‘Something Might Happen’

The day after I finished reading Something Might Happen, I walked past a Daily Record newspaper board which included the phrase ‘Murdered student’s sister opens her heart.’ Having been involved for the previous week in a story which revolves around a woman who is murdered in a car park and has her heart removed, my immediate thought was ‘Oh, they must have got it back then.’ Why would you open a heart, especially one belonging to your own dead sister? Then I got it, and felt a bit stupid. But it says something for the chilly, anti-normal atmosphere of the book that I considered this alternative interpretation of the headline for even a few seconds.

On TV, Julie Myerson is great. She’s my second favourite Newsnight Review pundit after Tom Paulin, but where he’s contrary, she filters bullshit. Other panellists attempt varying degrees objectivity; Julie is proudly subjective. If a book / film / whatever doesn’t say something to her about her life, it’s out. ‘But I just wasn’t interested’ is how she’ll begin the tirades which pop pretension and masculine drum banging alike. For her, art should be small scale, closely observed. I was curious how this aesthetic would come across in her own novels.

The answer is, pretty well. Something Might Happen is set in a quiet seaside town, and looks at the greater and lesser dalliances of narrator Tess, from within the confines of what seems a happy family life. The happiness is only implied, because all the action takes place against the recent murder of Tess’ best friend Lennie. Within the time frame of the book there is almost no happiness at all. Husband Alex (an ex of Tess’, and he still has a bit of a thing for her) is distraught, can barely function. The action concentrates almost exclusively on people who loved the murdered woman (Alex, Tess, Tess’ husband Mick, the children of both couples), and is correspondingly bleak. The bereavement is so recent and so horrific none of them can think straight. Factor in Alex’s continued interest in Tess, and Tess’ obsession with one of the murder investigation team, and you have one dark sticky death sex mess. Myerson’s aim seems to be to heap as much shit as she can on to her characters, to see if they’ll break. Or perhaps her point is that people don’t break, under the most awful of circumstances. They can’t be relied on not to fuck things up further, but most can get through this stuff.

My problem was, I kept wanting the book to lighten up. Given the above constraints, this is the last thing it was ever going to do, but I felt let down that Myerson resorted to the ‘Oh my God! A body!’ opening gambit. The whole Tess / Alex / Lennie / Lacey (the policeman Tess likes) thing would have been plenty for, say, Woody Allen to work on, without killing anybody. It’s perfectly possible to fall in love whilst already married without being pushed into it by a horrific murder. Why bring grief into the mix? Because grief is messy, I suppose, and people don’t stop inappropriately fancying each other when they’re afflicted by it. Or at least that’s the message here. I would have thought that they do, but anyway. I have two objections to the grief. Firstly, it smacks of ITV police dramas. Yer joyless Crackers and Prime Suspects, so unaccountably popular. As, in less fraught ways, are Casualty and even East Enders. I hate all these programmes. The police dramas, disgustingly forensic, have a story arc which takes the viewer from a) as bad as things could possibly be, pictures, to b) a bit better, but still worse than before whatever caused a) happened. I prefer story arcs which come out of the red occasionally. Bit of light, bit of shade.

Secondly, I’d like to bring in another terrible TV show, Dawson’s Creek. It tried to mask its considerable shallowness by adding the words ‘right now’ to the end of every self pitying teenage sentence, to max out the moment, make the characters’ pain vital by dragging it into the ultra present tense. In Something Might Happen, the phrase of choice is ‘I mean it.’ Every bloody conversation, the whole book long, somebody means it, and says so. It doesn’t do any good, they all lie to each other anyway.

Apart from that, I liked it.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Graham Rawle - ‘Woman’s World’

As is so often the case with hardback books, it’s taken me until the paperback came out to get around to reading Woman’s World. It’s been sitting prettily on my bookshelf preening itself in the mirror on the opposite wall since last Christmas. As well it might: this is a beautiful book. Composed entirely of cut-out fragments from early ’60s women’s magazines, stuck to the page in a single central column width, sprawling outwards on occasion, it’s more like a comic then a novel in its attention the minutiae of presentation. A Chris Ware comic, perhaps (there are doubtless better comparisons to be made, but I don’t read enough comics). Larger words from headlines signal moments of drama, the word ‘colour’ rarely appears without cross-hatching filling each letter, denoting - in black and white - an array of colours. Entire sentences are lifted from advertising copy, or romance stories, with more often than not a word transplanted near the end which elevates the sentiment to ludicrousness. An example:

Some secrets | should be shared, while those that may be harmful to a loved one | are best kept wrapped in | airtight parcels, using either plastic bags or thick brown paper sealed with plastic tape, with | a handful of mothballs | sprinkled between the layers of | deceit. (p. 377)

Rawle takes advantage of the magazines’ two dominant tones: mawkish (the romance stories) and sprightly, practical (the ads and the tips on how to run a household). Put them together and you’re going to get jokes, but not only jokes: the violent swings from one voice to the other produce a sense of instability which is appropriate for the mixed up narrator Norma. She’s so steeped in the woman’s world they offer that she can’t think in any other terms, but her regurgitated version of their content is peculiar. She takes them too seriously, yet doesn’t get them quite right.

Why are the cuttings all from the early ’60s? It gives a consistency of tone, of course: this is when the novel is set, they practically guarantee that there will be no anachronisms. It is a very readable tone, the language firmly entrenched in ’50s family values but from a time when the give-’em-what-they-want approach to media had started to kick in. Later magazines, you’d imagine, would have contained references to rock ’n’ roll and sexual liberation. The rigidity of what it meant to be a woman would have started to crumble, and it’s the rigidity on which Norma relies. There is a nostalgia for this lost age of domesticity, as an aspiration if not as a reality, and, simultaneously, a demonstration of how dangerous this kind of boxing-in is for those who submit to it. Of the small set of characters in the book, only Roy’s girlfriend Eve comes close to living up to the version of womanhood set out in Norma’s beloved magazines. She is accordingly quite bland, but unusually her character isn’t weakened by this, as it gives Rawle carte blanche to plunder romance stories for sparkling eyes and tremulous hearts (nothing so crude as a heaving bosom). It’s also true that Norma is so loopy that there is room for a stock character elsewhere in the story, and so Eve fulfils the function more usually taken by the narrator, of standing by and watching whilst extraordinary things happen.

The triumph of Woman’s World (rather like a Jeeves novel) is in its use of narration by a character who is not so much unreliable as completely out of control. The excitement and glamour in Norma’s life come exclusively from the fashion pages of her magazines, and she lives largely as a recluse, changing outfits three times a day but rarely taking them beyond the confines of the house she shares with her mother. When the door bell rings she’ll dash off to her room in a panic whilst her mother answers it. Once there, she’ll change outfits again. I’m aware that this makes her sound about as 3D as a Little Britain character, but the reasons this isn’t so are so bound up in things you ought to find out from reading the book. There is history, tragedy, all sorts. But best not spilled in advance.

Weird coincidental similarities with other books I’ve written about recently: Norma is rather like KinuĂ© in The Decay of the Angel, in her self delusion relating to her own beauty. She also adds an uncertain ‘possibly’ to the occasional sentence, as unsure of her grip on reality as Alan Bennett’s lady in the van.

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