NW by Zadie Smith

January 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

I ordered my copy of NW to arrive on publication date. It was a day or two late. I couldn’t wait! But then I let it sit on the shelf until earlier this month, reluctant to become a person who could no longer be looking forward to reading something new from Zadie Smith. Reading it was nothing but pleasure, of the most exhilarating intellectual kind. I told myself I wouldn’t write about NW. The world was flooded with readers giving their opinions and certainly didn’t need mine. But then some things seem to need to work their way out while other, more pressing, commitments get neglected.

Is there a single action or thought in NW that is not affected and informed–consciously, self-consciously or unconsciously, depending on the character–by class (or socio-economic status, for any North Americans who believe that class only exists where there is aristocracy)? Zadie Smith has a sound understanding of social nuance, the kind of deep understanding that surely only someone who has themselves had to undergo an extreme process of acculturation can demonstrate.

Once you’ve climbed up the ladder, you cannot climb down it the same person. Leah’s section of the book is one long exploration of that sensation, the discomfort of having been prepared for a life that was not for her, whereas Natalie’s is more a Friedan-like cry of “Is this all?” with an inverted life trajectory (from domestic hopelessness, in a sense, to intellectually engaging career).

The thing about Leah and Natalie and Nathan and Felix is that any one of them could (almost) conceivably  have ended up with the life of one of the others. Born at a time when social mobility was probably more possible than it is for children today (free university tuition being part of that, along with the idea, even among Conservatives, that children deserved a chance), the four make very different lives for themselves. For both women, the dissatisfaction with their lives is not so much self-satisfied grumbling as a side-effect of trying to find where they belong. They’ve moved up (and then sort-of down, in Leah’s case) the ladder to varying degrees, but neither of them is comfortable on the rung they’ve settled on. Their misfiring friendship–how glad they are not to be each other! But hang on, what if she is happier than me?–allows them some measurement of how satisfied they should be. Are people who’ve lived on the same rung all their lives less conflicted? It’s impossible for Natalie and Leah to tell without rewriting their own history, and that’s the one thing they can’t do. Other novels try to get at this issue of socio-economic status, dislocation, the idea of having a foot in two worlds and a home in neither, but none do it with as much grace and warmth as NW.

The other great thing about NW is the writing. Zadie Smith’s sentences work so hard. How about this:

There was, however, a moment–a few minutes after the event, once the child had been washed of gunk and returned to her–that she almost thought she possibly felt it.

Or this:

Natalie Blake and Leah Hanwell were of the belief that people were willing them to reproduce. Relatives, strangers on the street, people on television, everyone.

Both of these slice right to the heart of female conflictedness, particularly strong for a decade or so as extended youth stumbles into approaching middle age, on the subject of childbearing, and the concomitant illusion that the rest of the world really thinks cares whether you decide one way or the other. And then there’s this little gem:

She was watching the poor with Marcia. A reality show set on a council estate. The council estate on the television was fractionally worse than the council estate in which she sat watching the show about a council estate.

It beautifully brings out both the distance Natalie has travelled and our bizarre ideas of what constitutes entertainment. What could be funnier than feeling superior to poor people? Why, poor people feeling superior to poor people, of course. We could even do without the second sentence in the quote above, but then I am a very big fan of the sideways allusions and the refusal to spell things out. And from Leah’s section, this:

Nathan Bogle: the very definition of desire for girls who had previously only felt that way about certain fragrant erasers.

Smith has an ear for dialogue but also for those sneaky little moments when our life changes, when an almost imperceptible but irrevocable shift takes place in our mental picture of the world.

There’s one thing I remain unconvinced by. I don’t think Smith can do endings. About two-thirds of the way through White Teeth it began to feel as though she’d girded herself in preparation for running full tilt at some kind of conclusion. NW is less contrived than that, but still frustrating. But really, after four hundred wonderful pages of frenemyship between emotionally recognisable realism and formal invention, who cares?

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.


The Heart Broke In by James Meek

January 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

2012 produced a few books by UK authors that seemed to me to approach the recent traditions of the Great American Novel, or at least my interpretation of that. John Lanchester wrote Capital, a good yet uneven assessment of the financial state of things. Zadie Smith poured a lifetime of wisdom into NW. And James Meek, regular essayist for the LRB on subjects as unpromising–and yet somehow fantastically, novelistically interesting–as electricity privatisation, debt and the NHS, produced The Heart Broke In, a sort of lavish, intellectual soap opera of a book. That might make you think of Downton Abbey, but the only things the characters in The Heart Broke In have in common with Lord and Lady Grantham and their three delightful daughters are pots of money and an absurdly large, yet apparently socially appropriate, sense of entitlement.

It is, though, something of a period piece. A reference to Dickens seems almost inevitable, but it’s also something bearing the marks of its own time, with all kinds of cultural references and assumptions that will be hard for people to understand in twenty or even ten years. It opens with former rock star Ritchie Shepherd mired in an illegal relationship with a teenager who appeared on the TV show he now produces. Meek shows Ritchie engaged in what the latter thinks passes for deep reflection. He behaves like a child star, riding his tricycle around his loft studio, and telling himself that he’s a good person despite cheating on his wife and liking his children more in theory than in person. He only lies, he realises in a moment of particular insight, because he doesn’t want to hurt his family. How noble, Ritchie!

heart broke in james meek

Ritchie’s sister Bec is a scientist working on malaria cures. She’s recently broken up with the vengeful editor of a tabloid newspaper she accidentally became engaged to: she kept meaning to say no, but there was never a good moment. Both Ritchie and Bec, then, are fairly pathetic at taking responsibility for their own behaviour. Bec at least is redeemed by her work, and by her ability to finally succumb to the charms of monogamy in the form of a relationship with Ritchie’s former band member. Ritchie, though, cannot help constantly telegraphing his own despicability. There’s nothing wrong with a dislikeable character, but when this unpleasantness is pointed up both narratorially and by Ritchie’s almost wilful narcissism, the effect is like that of an overpowering perfume that drives you from the room. Once we move away from Ritchie this settles down into Meek’s excellent observations and wonderful style. There are so many good sentences in this novel that I can’t even choose one to quote.

The plot fairly gallops along once everyone’s been introduced, with a complex and well put together tangle of betrayals and disappointments. Ritchie and Bec take turns riding what they think is the moral high horse until they’ve trampled everyone underfoot and knocked down all the fences. Can any be mended? We don’t have to wonder, because Meek has included, unexpectedly and a little disappointingly, an epilogue that reveals what happens next.

The Heart Broke In contains some great writing and makes for great reading, but overall it’s perhaps a little too loud for us to really hear the intellectual-emotional points Meek is making underneath the cacophony. A reflection on how keen we all are to evade responsibility for our own choices and actions is surely one of those points. Another is the depressing idea that whatever we seem to be to other people is more important than what we really are. These are crucial to the novel but get a little lost in the extravagance. Am I making too much of it? Isn’t a man allowed to use humour and hyperbole to convey something serious? Perhaps, but Meek’s wonderful essays persuade me that this is a writer with something really big to say about these times we live in, and I’d have liked a few more sober and somber moments to peep through the hilarious savagery of both the characters and their creator.

Really, though, these are small quibbles. The closer a book comes to being really good, the more there is to criticise.

Review copy.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

Getting my hands on the good stuff

January 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

There’s a lot coming out in 2013 that I want to read. Some of the books are receiving wall-to-wall plaudits already (Tenth of December by George Saunders). In no particular order, here’s a selection of books I’m looking forward to in the first half of this year:

France Daigle, For Sure

Nicholas Royle, First Novel

Lisa Moore, Caught

Rawi Hage, Carnival

Taiye Selasi, Ghana Must Go

Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings

Zachary Karabashliev, 18% Gray

Sam Byers, Idiopathy

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

DW Wilson, Ballistics

Sam Lipsyte, The Fun Parts

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers

The Flamethrowers: A Novel

Helen DeWitt, Your Name Here

Scott Esposito and Lauren Elkin, The End of Oulipo?

Pierre Michon, The Eleven

Owen King, Double Feature


The list could have been a lot, lot longer, but all that copying and pasting of links eats into good reading time…

Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman

January 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

I had the feeling I was going to like this debut short story collection long before I had it in my hands. For one thing, the cover is a delightful shade of green (or maybe blue), and for another, there’s a picture of an owl on the front, with a little classification label bearing the word “stories.”

Bergman is a writer who thinks a lot, and the entire collection moves around the same sorts of thought processes. On the macro side there is climate change, environmental degradation, more climate change. On the micro, we have family relationships,  frequently affected and even determined by the global concerns. There are stories about vets, animal rescuers, animal lovers, people with too many pets. There are dissections of the relationships between parents and their grown children, people about to become parents, couples drawn together or pushed apart by their attitudes towards the world around them. The story “Yesterday’s Whales,” perhaps the best—the funniest and the grimmest–in the collection, is about two population-control activists who make one crucial slip on the birth-control front. It opens like this:

I’ve been told self-righteous people always have it coming, that when you profess to understand the universe, the universe conspires against you. It gathers and strengthens and thunders down upon you like a biblical storm. It buries your face in humble pie and licks the cream from your nose because when the universe hates you, it really hates you.

Which is, I think, a wonderful first paragraph. The accidental pregnancy begins to drive a wedge between the couple, and the characters in the story are almost like two different sides of one person, someone caught between absolutism and real life. Like the two different sides of many of us, I would hazard, as we fall into those potholes of wondering how we can possibly carry on living, driving, buying, having children, reading books, going on holiday and all the rest of it instead of being driven demented by what the future holds, and then as we clamber out of the pothole to spend the rest of our time getting sucked along by the relentless forward motion of life, unable to ever quite grasp enough of the bigger picture to do anything about it.

Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman (pb)

Megan Mayhew Bergman and Lauren Groff are part of a newish movement of young American writers dealing with environmental issues in a literary rather than, say, apocalyptic way, and steering a straight course between melodrama and paralysed panic. At the end of the day, Bergman’s writing all comes down to the dilemma we face without even noticing it every second: in a contest between the needs of our families, our selves, our loved ones and the needs of the entire population, human and animal, which one wins?

Review copy.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

January 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

When the latest White Review arrived in the post, with a new story by Helen DeWitt, I decided it was finally time to post what I’d written about her fantastic, amazing novel Lightning Rods published by New Directions in the US and And Other Stories in the UK. This was the best book I read in 2012. It’s long (the blog post, that is). You have been warned. And the covers? The first one is the UK cover, second is the US version. You won’t be surprised that I prefer the first.

Joe’s door-to-door vacuum cleaners sales job is depressing. The last chap on the beat totally cleaned up, and Joe can’t shift a single unit. At night he retreats, defeated, to his trailer and his solitary masturbatory fantasies. He dreams of an elaborate game-show where female contestants, only their clothed upper halves visible, try to keep a poker face while being given “the full-service 24-hour Revco” by a hidden man.

In the instance that opens the novel, though, he’s distracted from the job at hand. First of all, there’s the horror of discovering that the show is fixed. He also misses his all-time favourite contestant, Suzie, but since “she earned her million fair and square[,] she didn’t have to play the game again and he never brought her into any new episodes.” When he discovers his imaginings have moved on to the back story of three of the male college-student participants, he abandons the fantasy. He’s sitting on the trailer steps as the sky darkens around him when he hits rock bottom: “the kind of guy who gets ahead in the world…is the kind of guy who deals with his sexual urges [instead of] obsessing about whether some completely imaginary game show is rigged. He is not the kind of guy who gets sidetracked […] into a non-masturbatory fantasy about three guys from college called Jeff, Shane, and Duane.”

DeWitt LIGHTNING RODS cover low res

The trajectory of Helen DeWitt’s latest novel, Lightning Rods, is recognisable from populist non-fiction: rags-to-riches tales, recovered-addict memoirs, self-made billionaire biographies. These books combine a voyeuristic pleasure in seeing other people’s failures with the inspiration that we too can become our best selves. The narrators start off unexceptional in their mediocrity, but all they have to do is make a few bad choices and before you know it they’re sitting around in greying underpants drinking beer from the can. Since we only read these confessional stories when they’ve been written by life’s winners, we know that Joe is about to dust himself off and reach for the stars.

Redemption begins when Joe spots a way of combining his own fantasy with a gap in the market. If only there was a way to shield companies from tiresome sexual harassment claims, at the same time protecting employees of the delicate sex who are bothered by unwanted aggressive advances. High fliers ought not to be penalised for their uncontrollable libido, realises Joe; it’s impossible to separate the drive to succeed in business from less socially acceptable urges. He starts to suspect this is a Really Big Idea, so he goes out and buys a thousand-dollar suit (DeWitt never aims for the easy target, so Joe is intelligent enough to appreciate how sleazy his cheap suit looks before he embarrasses himself). Then he sets out to sell the idea of upmarket gloryholes in retrofitted disabled toilets, complete anonymity guaranteed for the users, with services provided by women who, the rest of the time, fulfil normal office duties.

A computer program secretly and randomly matches up the men and the lightning rods. The woman gets into position on a contraption that transports her lower half into the disabled toilet where the man is waiting. Once the deed is done they both return to work, the man with a clear head and renewed focus, and the woman to straighten her clothing before catching up on a few secretarial tasks. Nobody need read those dull memos about appropriate behaviour any more; lightning rods conveniently zap away the urges that lead to harassment in the first place.

Lightning Rods

Joe has to work hard to get started, but it doesn’t take long until somebody bites, a company whose top guy is becoming a problem. Soon business is picking up and Joe’s getting rich. His best employee, Lucille, is also the embodiment of Joe’s fantasy woman, Suzie. The irony, of course, is that although he’s attracted to her, he’s not sure how he feels about someone who doesn’t turn a hair about that kind of work. Renée, the novel’s other tough-as-nails woman, tumbles into this marvellously absurd world when she answers a normal-seeming ad for employment. She is over-qualified and over-competent, and should be a shoo-in for the job. But Joe has to disappoint her. Awkwardly, he informs Renée that it’s not possible to hire an African-American for the position. Renée, alert to the rumblings of an equal opportunities breach, challenges his insistence that he’s merely trying to protect her by not hiring her.

Gradually the nature of the work comes out. A chat with Lucille slowly convinces Renée that Joe’s reason is true, that it would be impossible to preserve anonymity with just one black lightning rod. Sitting in the park, she moves from disgusted to intrigued. “Suppose someone offered you the chance to go to Harvard Law School, and all you had to do was pick up a turd a couple of times a day, wearing plastic gloves, on top of your regular job. […] You could argue that a deal that asks you to do something physically disgusting for a limited period, and gives you free use of your own mind in exchange, is actually not such a bad bargain.” Since Renée, like Lucille, has no other means of getting to Harvard Law School, she smashes the ball back into Joe’s court, threatening him with legal action if he doesn’t find a way to employ her.

This nearly credible volte-face demonstrates one of the central themes of DeWitt’s writing: in the common sense of Lightning Rods, sexualisation really does equate to empowerment. A woman who chooses to sell sex is simply putting in the time on the way to the big money. DeWitt pokes holes our pretence that the sex a woman is involved in is entirely her own business, irrelevant to her future prospects. If some women—hardened to the task, and appropriately remunerated—can protect all women from the worst effects of the men’s unstoppable sex drives, all the while developing their office skills and moving up the corporate ladder, why wouldn’t we embrace such a scheme?

The logic is preposterous but so appealing, laid out one step at a time in Joe’s dangerously innocent clichés, lifted from business manuals and wrapped up in the journalism-lite encouragement of self-help paperbacks. For such a ponderously banal character, Joe is disturbingly likeable. He’s amenable to suggestion, like one of those extremely kind-hearted, unthinkingly conservative people who can be easily persuaded of the rightness of an individual cause before reverting quickly to bigotry. He’s uncomfortable with the idea of people being hurt, either physically or emotionally, by their work, but he’s able to convince himself—and you, perhaps—that since they’re getting so much money for it, they ought really to be just a little more capable of dealing with it.  What makes him such a great character, and what makes Lightning Rods more layered than similar fiction, is Joe’s partially unacknowledged despair at never feeling as though he has a true home in the world, even in his success.

DeWitt LIGHTNING RODS cover low res

This world is the office writ large: people muddling through, doing what they can in the time available, tools and products more or less fit for purpose, all of it set up imperfectly by imperfect people. DeWitt’s genius is to make the lightning rods a solution to just a couple of these flaws, and to then build other flaws straight into the scheme from the outset. Lucille and Renée could help Joe do a much better job, but they’ve both got their eyes on bigger problems and bigger prizes.

Lightning Rods strikes so many targets. The media fantasy of the ice-cold career woman who succeeds at work because she can separate work life and personal life. The increasingly commercialised, even industrialised, nature of sex and how it can be sold to us. The constant exhortation to live life to the fullest. The old madonna-whore chestnut. Our cherished notion of meritocracy and social mobility. The pervasive moral condescension towards men (and this doesn’t come from feminists, but from people who focus on how women should avoid getting raped rather than how men should avoid raping them), some of whom occasionally even turn out to be decent human beings once freed from the burden of their sexual urges. The slick packaging and marketing of just about anything, and our willingness to over-ride our morals if there’s a prospect of profit. Some readers might avoid Lightning Rods because of its subject matter, but it’s not a book for the prurient: it’s hard to imagine how a book so based on sexual transactions could be less titillating (even most of the service’s users start to agree with that, after a couple of sessions with a lightning rod).

Satire and parody can fall flat sometimes. A comic novel that starts off well might suffer from premature ejaculation, with the biggest jokes being given away upfront and the rest of the book merely repeating the same tired metaphors. Or the narrative voice might keep tripping and stumbling over jokes that work as one-liners but aren’t nearly subtle enough for a novel of several hundred pages, until very soon it has to admit that it’s only shooting blanks now. Lightning Rods is much more than satire or parody or comedy, although it is hilarious. The novel works so well because DeWitt lets the characters set their own traps—for themselves, for one another, and for the reader, who must often try to resist being complicit in the logic of this world, not so far removed from one where rape might or might not be legitimate, and where women’s bodies have a handy way of shutting down pregnancies that come from undesirable circumstances. But ultimately, perhaps, Joe has the last word on what DeWitt is mocking: although his solutions might be more unusual than our own, he understands that you have to deal with people the way they are, not the way you’d like (or they’d like) them to be.

City of Women by David R. Gillham

January 8, 2013 § 3 Comments

I can never resist a book about World War Two, nor books set in my favourite cities. So David Gillham’s City of Women, set in Berlin in 1943, attacked me on two fronts. War literature might seem a strange choice for a pacifist, but it’s never the military detail that captures my attention. It’s the “how it really was” aspect I want to know about: how people (civilians and soldiers both) cope with being the experimental raw material for the big boys’ games.

Sigrid Schröder has lived, until now, a fairly unexceptional life. After her marriage she and her husband moved in with her bitter, hostile mother-in-law, and when Sigrid’s husband is called up (making her a Kriegsfrau) the two women continue to live together. Sigrid’s only relief from this constant, needling antagonism is her time spent at work in the typing pool at the patent office, and her frequent cinema visits. The cinema is the perfect place to be alone, but also the perfect place for a variety of unexpected assignations, as the novel demonstrates.

Before the novel opens, Sigrid began an affair with a stranger she met at the cinema. Her lover turned out to be Jewish, and the punishment for fornicating with a Jew was severe, but she cared more about him than he did about the law. Now, though, she doesn’t know where he is or even if he is alive. She yearns to see him again even though she knows he never felt as passionately about her as she did about him.

We’re at the cinema with Sigrid again when a young woman rushes up to the seat beside her and asks her to say that they’ve been there together since the beginning. When the officials demand papers, ticket stubs and truthful answers, Sigrid defends the young woman, who is in fact her neighbour’s duty-girl (a helper provided to women who bear many children for the fatherland). Although it is almost nothing in comparison to what Sigrid later becomes involved in, this is perhaps the weak spot of the novel. She has no way of knowing what kind of trouble the girl might be implicating her in. Recognising this, Gillham makes Sigrid think carefully about her decision after the fact, but it still seemed to me the hardest part to swallow.

After they are safe, Sigrid demands an explanation. Over time, Ericha gradually tells her more about what she’s involved in, and Sigrid becomes implicated purely on the basis of knowledge. However, once she is actively involved, the novel settles down and stops worrying about its own plausibility. Ericha has been hiding U-Boats—people, mostly Jews, who are in danger under the Nazis—and Sigrid is now part of the operation. When a woman with the same name as her lover’s wife turns up with two little girls, shortly before her lover himself tracks her down, she finds herself weighing up some shocking options.

I don’t want to give away the rest of the novel, which is exciting and pacy without being full of blockbluster, but I can say that Sigrid discovers that her lover is not quite what she had thought, is taken by surprise by her husband’s return, and above all experiences the happy thrill of being alive and necessary.

I often have difficulty believing in the extent to which German characters are portrayed as total converts to the Nazi regime. It suppose it must have happened, both under Nazism and Communism. I just expect a lot more ambivalence and ambiguity, people who mouthed what they had to in order to stay alive, but tried not to get involved beyond that. City of Women has only one monofaceted character who can see nothing beyond unthinking obedience and respect to the regime.

The pictures above are of the UK and North American editions, respectively. I would not even have looked twice at this book if mine had come with the North American cover. If it weren’t for the subject matter, this wouldn’t be my type of book, but Gillham’s nuanced novel deserves a more intellectual audience than the North American cover anticipates. We all know, of course, that no men are going to read a book with the word “women” in the title, even if it is written by a man, but did Penguin have to reinforce that so wholeheartedly?

There aren’t, I suppose, many highly literary novelists writing about war–World Wars I and II, I mean. Last year saw quite a few literary novels about recent wars. Pat Barker does it for WWI. Who is her equivalent for WWII?

Review copy.

Does this blog still work?

January 7, 2013 § 1 Comment

Since early November, life at my house has looked something like this:


Loosely translated, that means there’s been a lot of illness, each new plague breaching the defences before the last lurgy has been thrown off. The flu might be trying to look small and innocent in there, but it was a kicker. And “cold” does not mean what it did a decade or so ago. These days, “cold” means three days of aches and chills followed by a week of the usual, only worse. A high point of life right now is a night when I’m coughing enough to justify a spoonful from my lovely (tiny) Percodan stash. Friends were at first incredulously sympathetic but have now started signing off voicemails with phrases like “See you in the summer.”

I have been reading, though, albeit slowly, and reading some fantastic books that I’m itching to write about. December’s greats included:

Keith Ridgway, Hawthorn and Child (Granta)

Alison Moore, The Lighthouse (Salt)

Teju Cole, Open City (Random House)

James Meek, The Heart Broke In (FSG)

Megan Mayhew Bergman, Birds of a Lesser Paradise (Scribner)

I briefly considered doing a best of 2012 list, but then decided against it. I’ll just choose one favourite from the year, since there was one book that stood way out above all others: Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods (New Directions (US)/And Other Stories (UK)).

DeWitt LIGHTNING RODS cover low res

Right now I’m reading The Canvas by Benjamin Stein (Open Letter), and thinking it might just be the best-translated book I’ve ever read (and—for the editors among you–who’s to say it might not also be one of the best translated books I’ve ever read?). I can’t say that without mentioning the translator, so bravo, Brian Zumhagen. You’ve got my 2013 off to an excellent start.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

The Canvas

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