Thursday, 28 November 2013

Review: The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

South Downs, South England, snow; some sheep. (via

Robert Facfarlane doesn't live in the same world as the rest of us. His world is better, probably. He's the kind of guy whose life consists of looking out the window after a few hours of writing, noticing that it's just snowed, and pulling on his boots to walk across the crisp virgin whiteness  with a dram of whiskey and a few owls for company. This isn't me being poetic; this is the first chapter of the book. Last time it snowed I checked the bus schedule to see whether I would be late. The people he meets are all folklorists or poets as well as fishermen or sailors or farmers or just walkers. The people I meet mostly work 9-5 and don't like it very much. The places he goes are imbued with mystery and magic and soul; the places I go are now mostly dingy backroads near Kings Cross.

The delight of The Old Ways is that Macfarlane shares this world view with you, for a few hours at least. He is primarily a walker, of course, and not all of us have a lot of time for walks in the country or holidays with our academic friends in Gaza or our mountaineering friends in Tibet or our fisherman friends in Orkney. But we can enjoy them vicariously. Macfarlane, in places, writes a weird sort of travel writing.

Unlike most travel writers, however, Macfarlane is not really interested in describing locations or places per se. He is far more interested in analysing the journey itself, in the effect of a new place on the mind, in the palimpsests of history that leave their vague tracks across the land. This is travel writing located somewhere between love poetry and academia, closer to Nabokov's 'travel writing' of America in Lolita than Bill Bryson (disclaimer: I have never read a single word by Bill Bryson). In Macfarlane's eyes, the world is permanent but also weirdly inconstant. The walker has access to a whole range of levels of experience at once: aesthetic bliss in nature, the crunch of fresh snow beneath boots; the simple pleasures of greasy campstove bacon after a thirty mile day, a night spent with ghosts in a neolithic barrow; the slight resistance of the rudder as you learn how to steer a boat, tacking across the wind; company, the fact that hiking is about the only place where strangers acknowledge one another's presence rather than icily gliding past one another, eyes fixed ahead, like icebergs or ex-lovers; connection with the past, connection with a friend; profound alienation; and, perhaps most of all, the easy rhythm of an experienced walker's paces, free, unencumbered, tramp tramp tramp towards the horizon.

The amazing thing is that a Cambridge academic can write a non-polemic book about walking and folklore and Romantic poets and that it can be so rhetorically effective and convincing. Macfarlane gives the world a little bit of a glimmer, even as you tire of his almost precious interests and pursuit of obscure, long dead poets. There are other ghosts for us to follow.

As I sit here writing this, I am in the back of my parents' car, on the M4, just west of Swindon. Arguably the least romantic or exciting place in the world. But, post Macfarlane, or, with Macfarlane, I am starting to see a little bit of joy. It's a dark, cold November night, one of the first frosts of the winter, and we pass men in high-vis jackets spreading grit, slightly illuminated by our headlights, and pass into a world where vague fog gives a dreamy quality to the pricks of light that pass us by, and to the red dots than hang a half mile in front of us, leading the way, and to the cat's eyes that mark the road and keep us from going astray.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Review: Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

The X-Files believed in the truth. (source:

Paranoia is a trendy mental state. Paranoid delusions have been recorded throughout history, but the form that they take is a remarkable mirror to contemporaneous society. Feelings of persecution and conspiracy were, in the sixteenth century, likely to be blamed on demonic possession or witchcraft; in the twenty-first, they are more likely to be seen as some kind of government conspiracy, or to feature plot-lines lifted from The Truman Show or The Matrix. Reality dissolves into a complex, almost convincing facsimile; unending webs of clues offer continual and provocative hints that something is awry.

If the forms of paranoid delusions are based on the cultural tropes surrounding the sufferer, then it logically follows that by examining the delusions one could seek to understand the larger culture. Such a process has, for much of his career, been the goal of Thomas Pynchon. His works tend to follow confused, isolated figures who traverse landscapes fecund with hyper-signifying clues; often the realities of his worlds will fragment, for a moment – glitches in the Matrix, pauses where things don't quite make sense. Shadowy enemies pursue manic protagonists, maybe. The uncertain ontological state of Pynchon's world – is it reality or simulation, everyday 1999 or computer generated prison? - infects the fiction itself on a sort of meta level. We never know if the conspiracies actually exist; we never know if Pynchon's stories contain a shred of realism. “For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy of America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle unto some paranoia.” This is the situation for Oedipa Maas, the hero of The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), and, in Pynchon's eyes, it may well be the situation of the average American too.

Pynchon views American culture as fundamentally paranoid. This dates back to the hard-line Calvinism of the first Pilgrims (conspiracies have deep roots). Puritan theology views the world as another revelation, a coded message from God to man. Observation of natural phenomena can therefore offer access to deeper truths. The poet Edward Taylor, for example, observes a spider:

                                 Hell's Spider gets
                                 His intrails Spun to whip Cords thus
                                 And wove to nets
                                 and sets.
                                 To tangle Adams race
                                 In's stratagems
                                 To their destructions ('Upon a Spider Catching a Fly', 1680-2)

Or, more briefly: a spider catching a fly is like Satan tempting humanity into sin. Or, briefer still: the world is out to get you. Puritanism's fairly harsh stance on predetermination – that everyone, pretty much, will be damned, and even if you're not, you can't know it – and the doctrine of Original Sin – everyone carries the burden of an earlier fall from God's grace – foster a fairly negative attitude. Everything in the world is a symbol of man's fall and imminent damnation.

To gloss quickly over three-hundred or so years of history, not much has changed. National traumas (JFK's assassination, Pearl Harbour) spawn fairly mainstream conspiracy theories; there are theories about a bunch of really innocuous seeming stuff like the Federal Reserve and water fluoridation. Conspiracy theories have even gained mainstream political recognition: see the embarrassing débâcle about Barack Obama's birth certificate. The '90s saw the enormous popularity of The X-Files, a show where basically every known conspiracy was realised on screen, and where UFO-loving crackpot Agent Fox Mulder is proved correct at every turn, in small towns like yours all across America. Death in the woods? 'It's probably aliens,' speculates Mulder, and it is. Death in an office building? 'It's probably a rogue Central Operating System,' guesses Mulder, and he's right again. The show, however, is careful to prevent Mulder from ever finding the definitive proof he needs to go public. Instead, it 'proves' it to the viewer, by showing on-screen the paranormal elements, and then having hazy pseudo-bureaucrats cover it up. The genius of the show was in weaving the variably-crazy paranormal/UFO/evil computer/ghost/monster delusions into the larger tapestry of governmental conspiracy. After all, the idea that your own government might be against you is surely scarier and more plausible than the fear of rogue Neanderthals.

This is what life was like in the '90s: carefree fun, not even worrying about all the calories in those 'shakes. (source:

It is against this backdrop that Bleeding Edge, Pynchon's most recent novel, opens. Maxine Tornow, mother-of-two and fraud investigator, beings to poke around some dodgy start ups in New York. The year is 2001; the first dotcom bubble has just burst, and hasn't yet reinflated. Mark Zuckerburg is just about to start at Harvard, and will later go on to inspire a movie staring Jesse Eisenberg. Seinfeld has been off the air for three years, although Friends is still going strong. Predictably – inevitably, fatedly – Maxine starts to uncover hints of a large scale X-Files-style governmental conspiracy. There are dodgy payments and time-travelling assassins, glimpses of the full vast bureaucracy of the military-industrial complex in full swing. The whole thing is enjoyable, Pynchonian, fairly light-hearted, swathed in '90s nostalgia and exquisite references (name me one other major work of literature that features jokes about Pokémon).

And then, about two-thirds of the way through the novel, on the 9th of September 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 and American Airlines Flight 175 are hijacked and flown into the World Trade Centre. Bleeding Edge is so grounded in 2001, and 9/11 so seared onto our collective memory, that there's no way you don't see it coming. And yet, you never expect 9/11 to happen during the novel's narrative. Like the conspiracies of V. or The Crying of Lot 49 or Gravity's Rainbow, you didn't expect payoff, just paranoia.

This is the genius of Pynchon's new book then: that the paranoia finally gets made real. The shocking thing is that no one really expects it to happen; part of being paranoid, after all, relies on the conspiracy remaining shadowy, hidden, obscure. The moment Pynchon stages in Bleeding Edge feels like a recapitulation of classic Puritan lapsarian theology, made relevant for the computer age. Before 9/11 – before 'The Fall' – the novel is vibrant and exuberant, the conspiracies threatening, sure, but more interesting and quirky than terrifying. The internet is an anarchic playground, the tech sector filled with ideologues and hackers, open-sourcers who promote knowledge and experimentation. New York is still a city: Giuliani hasn't yet managed to gentrify and yuppify and sanitise the whole of Manhattan.

But all of these innocences are being eroded. Urban gentrification, the corporatisation and monetisation of the internet, the establishment of cyber-spying and intelligence gathering: all act to attack the Edenic idyll of 'Silicon Alley' – or, more broadly, of the '90s culture where The X-Files existed, where conspiracies were about alien cover ups and monsters who ate livers. The erosion had already started, but 9/11 is the singularity that marks the transition, the gunshot the marks the death-knell of an already terminal patient.

Soon after the attack, paranoia starts up again. There are whisperings about Jewish involvement, pan-Islamic involvement, military involvement. There are inconclusive evidences that the government staged, or knew about, or something, the attacks. Pynchon doesn't side with the 9/11 conspiracists, and refuses to validate any of the various theories in the novel. In a sense, 9/11 is, for New York, beyond conspiracy; the comfort provided intellectually or emotionally by the coherent, certain knowledge of the conspiracy world view is scant comfort if your home is under attack.

But in a more figurative sense, paranoia is the right response to the post-9/11 world. There is an episode of The Simpsons, also from the late '90s, where Bart is proscribed a drug called Focusyn. A side effect of this drug is that Bart becomes increasingly paranoid, and eventually convinced that he is being spied on by Major League Baseball. Obvious he seems crazy; when he steals a tank, he seems crazier. Then Bart shoots down the actually MLB spying satellite, and it turns out his paranoia was true. In 1999, the concept is pretty funny, and faintly absurd. In 2013, the idea of being spied on to this degree by corporations is commonplace; furthermore, the government are doing it too. It's the path from this absurd late '90s paranoia to its actualisation ten years later that Pynchon follows in Bleeding Edge; he tells a Fall narrative where humanity falls not because it gains more knowledge, but because it becomes more ignorant, more in the dark.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Some Thoughts on Zadie Smith

I've been reading quite a lot of Zadie Smith recently. I read her latest novel, NW. I read some short fiction that appeared in the New Yorker: one some kind of techno-dystopia, that, to be honest, was pretty bad; the other about an illegal immigrant in North London that was ok but not great. I read an interview she did with London's Evening Standard where she came across really well and it turned out she likes Game of Thrones. I read some of her essays and journalism: an interview with Jay Z (note: his name is now unhyphenated) and an essay on joy, both of which were excellent. I'm still not convinced that, as a fiction writer, she's one of the greats, although she definitely has a lot of talent. But there is something about her and her writing that I find very compelling, and I've been trying to assess what exactly it is.

1) She writes about Britain. I feel small and parochial saying this, but I think that, for me, her writing about stuff in Britain is actually appealing. There's a pleasurable squirm of recognition and familiarity from scenes set in places you know, or places that are really like places you know (just like I felt watching the London bits of Fast and Furious 6). There's an ease of access, culturally, a sensitivity to class and race barriers that I'm already pretty familiar with. So there's that. Also, I find it refreshing to be reading novelists who aren't writing brazenly and blandly about America. Don't get me wrong, I love America, I'm possibly the most Americaphilic person I know who isn't actually American. But a stream of modern (hyper-)realist novels about America can get tedious. It isn't the geography, it's the genre. They want to be the next Great American Novel, and, I think that genre's pretty desiccated nowadays like Owens Lake, sucked dry from years over overuse. (A brief aside on Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, that I'm currently nearing the end of a struggle through: this is a book so tediously in this Great American Novel tradition that, despite being only ten years old, it feels like it's seventy, to the point where all the references to contemporary technologies like cell phones or laptops or the internet feel weirdly anachronistic. It's a bit like my dad telling me that he owned a smart phone in the '70s. I wouldn't believe him, and I still wouldn't trust him to use it properly.) There's something fresh about Smith's attempts to produce modern, British novels.

A picture of the Great American Novel.

2) Zadie Smith is genuinely beautiful. As far as I can tell, never having met her. Again, I feel pretty bad saying this, because it seems like a fairly sexist remark, and potentially not something that I'd say about a male author, or should want to say about an author of any sex. But writers tend to be so relentless depressing looking, saggy and unfashionable and bespectacled, or nerdy and neurotic, or pasty from years of library-light. Her beauty gives Smith an edge; it makes her seem glamorous and cool in a way very few authors actually can. And it lets her do it effortlessly, without having to try hard to shock or brag like a failed punk band. Her coolness is important, because it elevates her cultural status beyond that of a literary author. ‘My sister tells me I’m in the Evening Standard every other week. My fame seems not to require my presence,’ she said to the Standard. It's sad that we live in a society where being beautiful makes you seem cooler, especially because, in so many other ways, Zadie Smith seems to be quite cool anyway. But it is an advantage she has that propels her out of the narrow literary-fiction niche into a more culturally relevant area, that she perhaps shares more with artists like Vampire Weekend or Kanye West (although, Smith is nowhere near Kanye West, who may be the best current pop-cultural expression of consumer capitalism both within his songs and sort of mimetically in his public life) rather than ugly old Will Self or similar.

Oh, Kanye, you devil. (From

3) Zadie Smith is cool. I know this is essentially the previous point, but it should be stressed that Zadie Smith seems actually cool. By which I mean, beyond the fact that she's likeable seeming and beautiful, that she is aware of current pop culture in a way that few other authors seem to be. She likes hip-hop and Game of Thrones; she references Friends and The Wire (in NW) in a been-there sort of a way. She's aware of the need to be pop-culturally sensitive, rather than literarily exclusive (I know this isn't a very fair binary, but, whatever). She says of Game of Thrones: 'Literary novelists would do well to learn to plot from these people.’ And she's totally right. If only more writers could plot. (Although, also, Game of Thrones, and George R.R. Martin in particular, could learn a lot from literary novelists, especially with regards to economy and actually finishing stories rather than rambling aimlessly for thousands of pages in a constant peripatetic digression that will only end with the death of the author and the disappointment of the fans. But this is a rant for another article.) Even more astute than this awareness is her awareness that she is, in fact, a little bit out of touch. That she is one generation behind of today's young people stuff. She writes 'Meanwhile, back in the rank and file, you still hear the old cry go up: Hip-hop is dead! Which really means that our version of it (the one we knew in our youth) has passed. But nothing could be duller than a ’90s hip-hop bore.' I think that middle sentence, that parenthesis, contains so much wisdom.

How Game of Thrones became zeitgeisty, I will never know.
Just to be clear, Joffrey is my favourite character. (from

4) Zadie Smith writes about women. As I was reading NW, my mum remarked to me 'I'm surprised you're reading that Zadie Smith.' 'Why?' I asked. 'Isn't she one of those women's writers?' In a way (not the one my mum intended), she was right. Smith does write about women, far better than most people I have read. But she isn't a 'women's writer' in the way my mum used the phrase, a soppy Mills & Boonish romance-spewer. Nor is she a women's writer in that her novelistic purpose seems to be exclusively to rectify patriarchal literature's lack of women, lack of address of women's issues, and mannish dominance. She's just a novelist who writes about women as part of what she writes about, because, obviously, women form a large and fascinating part of the social world about which people write. As soon as you start thinking about it, it's remarkable how many otherwise great authors fail at this simple hurdle.

Here's a picture of Zadie Smith I found on someone's Flickr (from:

5) Zadie Smith is a post-David Foster Wallace author without all that Harold-Bloomian anxiety-of-influence bullshit. By which I mean that she has read DFW and liked it and internalised it (all my editions of DFW have a great quote from her on the front: 'A visionary, a craftsman, a comedian...He's so modern he's in a different time-space continuum from the rest of us. Goddamn him.') but isn't in his thrall. To again compare her favourably to Jonathan Franzen (poor guy), she manages not to crib a bunch of Wallace's preferred poetics (especially medical, psychological, pharmaceutical jargon) or regurgitate his subjects. It's clear that she has other masters (most obviously E.M. Forster). She also seems, interestingly, to have avoided Wallace's PR problems. Indeed, this whole piece is essentially about how, in stark contrast to DFW, she seems really likeable and comfortably part of the world, rather than existing best as a series of spectacular verbal constructions. (Here are a bunch of videos featuring Smith and Wallace [and Franzen!] speaking together at some event. I like the one where Wallace talks about watching the 2006 World Cup.) Which I guess is sort of why she's sort of compelling to me.

Wallace, Franzen, Smith, others hanging out in Italy. (from

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Ghost of the Author Sings in the Wires

Coming to Terms w/ David Foster Wallace
<3 Federer (from

I first encountered David Foster Wallace (DFW) shortly after Roger Federer won his 17th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon on the 8th of July 2012. One of my Facebook acquaintance posted a link to an article DFW wrote on the subject of Roger Federer back in 2006 (or, in Federer's more sublime terms, 9 Grand Slams previously). I was, and am, an absolute sucker for Federer, a devoted follower, an acolyte, perhaps, in different circumstances, a groupie. He is, I think, inarguably, empirically, one of the very few genuine geniuses to have been alive during my own lifetime. Little did I know, when I clicked the link on that fateful July day, that I would discover not just a pleasant victory hymn once more lionising a well-acknowledged legend, but an absolutely astounding essay, the start of a thread that has lead me, belatedly, to the appreciation of one of the other very few genuine geniuses I have shared this earth with.

One of the nicer things I can say about DFW is that he's one of those people you read sometimes who you desperately want to imitate. I think of the part in The Incredibles when Mr Incredible is followed by a kid who wants to be his sidekick, even though he has no superpowers. Realistically, if I could be DFW's sidekick, I would be very happy. Because this seems unlikely, I've mostly ended up semi-consciously speaking, writing, thinking a little more like him. I've started to overuse w/r/t and w/ rather than with respect to and with respectively. I've started to adopt all kinds of extra equivocators in my prose, extra subclauses, extra information, extra self-effacement, self-diagnosis, self-assessment; extra mixing of high- and low- brow culture (although I think this interest/addiction came earlier; it was certainly fed significantly by The Simpsons); extra brackets.  This actually-quite-interesting-but-a-little-self-contradictory article points out DFW's “attempts to ward off criticism by embedding all possible criticisms within the writing itself.” I definitely now try to do this, reminding myself of a character in one of DFW's own stories who tries to bluff his psychiatrist by anticipating and self-diagnosing his own
Mr Incredible's less incredible sidekick 
neuroses. In the end, he (the character) outwits his psychiatrist, because he (the character again) is such a grotesquely shallow, manipulative shiny surface of a person that his facsimile self-exposition is all that can be analysed about his character; the psychiatrist, of course, doesn't realise that. Not just does he anticipate criticisms by explicitly stating them in his prose; the plot here seems to encapsulate the paradox within itself: the false mirage surface of the character resists analysis because it offers self-analysis which is in itself a shimmer on the horizon, precluding the very possibility of any
real analysis, but totally revealing that it is aware that said real analysis is not and never could be a real possibility. Fata morgana everywhere; it gets in your eyes while you read. (Obviously, I haven't quite reached this level of meta-static all-encompassing pseudo-self-revelation, but a boy can dream; obviously, I am enacting a rehearsal of the embedding of all possible criticisms within the writing itself right now; obviously, at the moment it is a little crude.)

Which all sounds horribly postmodern and complicated and unfun. Perhaps the greatest achievement of DFW's anticipation of future critcisms is that it makes allowance for the insidious but unavoidable problems associated with postmodernism – that if the world, or at least the work of art, is all surface, and surfaces are indistinguishable or shallow or terrifying, what's the point of anything? D.T. Max's essay on DFW's biography (later expanded into the well-titled book Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, released last year) takes this as the jumping point for its central argument w/r/t/ DFW: that he managed to escape from the postmodernist mire, with a new sort of meta-sincerity. Max puts it a lot better than I do.

The whole point doesn't seem very controversial, to be honest. All you have to do is read the aforementioned and mind-blowing essay on Roger Federer. The DFW classics are all present, but the tone is not of postmodern ironic jest, but of vast admiration and sincere fandom and appreciation, the very tone that I hope to be striking right now.


DFW, looking friendly (from
Unfortunately, I think, after a few months of gestation, that I didn't quite get the right Federer-essay-tone. Rather, what I have written seems gushing, adolescent, pseudo-academic. Somehow, DFW seems to inspire it. His flexible, loquacious, elongated, subtly modulating, colloquial, conversational, equivocal tone inspires loyalty. But, more than that, it inspires fondness, an almost personal appreciation for DFW. He seems like your friend. But he seems like so much more than that, so impossible to pin down. He seems like a really really smart guy, a kind of hyper-literate polymathic role-model. He seems, most of all, kinda nice. As far as I can tell from his biography, this isn't strictly true. At the very least, he was a difficult man to live with.

This was going to be an article about my puppyish DFW enthusiasm, but, after failing to finish it, it has transformed, several months later, into something a little different. I haven't been reading any of Dave's work in a while; what I have been doing, however, is watching videos of him on youtube. The experience is alarming, it's distancing, it's iconoclastic. Dave's aura may not be able to stand being filmed; his groovy-guidance-councillor shtick – ironically, best presented in his videoed commencement address shit, which is ripe for Facebook quotation – just doesn't stick when you can watch him actually speak. His nauseating anxiety, his greasy desire to be liked, his lofty distance, they all come across in interview. What if, in an age of internet access, people who write words – and who have a lot of control over the words they write and how they are presented – can't control their self-presentation? What if the special relationship between author and reader is violated? (What if you read about said author in gossip columns?) Since most everyone I've read for years has been dead for decades, this whole minefield is one I've only come to recently, and my relationships with any contemporary authors are being actively mediated by my now university-over-educated DFW-style hyper-self-conscious brain, and I'm starting to sort of actively repulse from them, even as I continue to be actively seduced by the Internet's promise of more and more information, and end up reading shitty interviews with Ned Beauman in the Oxford student newspaper by mistake at 2am on a weeknight.

Most professions in the public eye seem to have developed capable PR. If actorsmusicians, and presidents can seem funny and human and humble through online media, why do authors struggle? I should equivocate a little here: I don't follow all authors at all times to make this statement comprehensive: rather, some authors I have followed, or tried to follow, notably David Mitchell, Ned Beauman, Michael Chabon, Zadie Smith, Lila Azam Zanganeh, have very limited online presence. When they do appear, the medium is either hyper-controlled, like Smith's occasionally and often very good essays, or kinda lame. Never is there the sense of honesty, of glimpsing the real person behind the mask of publicity, that the best celebrities can offer. They want to make you believe that they're normal people just like the rest of us; sometimes they succeed, sometimes they seem to be trying too hard. For some reason today's literary authors don't seem that interested in that. They want to keep their distance. They only want to interact through their words, they only want to monologue at you.

I wonder if this is just a missed opportunity, an example of a fairly technophobic & PR-suspicious part of today's media landscape failing dismally to grasp new potential. Or if it reveals something a little deeper, some kind of compulsive solipsism – probably the case for Dave. Or, maybe a little more worryingly, if it's part of a kind of elitism. Intellectuals are above the Internet. The Internet, with its tweets and youtube self-parody videos and AMAs, is pop cultural; literary writers are high cultural. The place of the literary artefact is in the library, not on imgur, being mindlessly upvoted amidst dozens of gifs of cats.

Geoffrey Hill: less friendly
This thought first crossed my head a few days ago, when I went to see the poet Geoffrey Hill speak in the lofty environs the Oxford University's exam schools. Hill at his best is capable of imbuing his poetry with a vast and deeply affecting empathy. Hill as a public speaker is curiously old-school (to be fair to him, he is now in his 80s, and probably isn't all that online). He speaks with a booming, received-pronunciation voice, with occasionally Worcestershire slippages. He emphasises raspingly; he often repeats important phrases. He sounds a bit like a BBC radio announcer from the mid-30s crossed with a cultist prophet and a thespian. He has a Gandalf-beard. One thing he said has stuck in my head. Talking about Beckett writing about Joyce (a fairly high-brow legacy), he said (I paraphrase) 'there is a kind of arrogance to Beckett's essay that I find pleasing in comparison with the mewling populism of contemporary critics.' I found this strange. Should poets and critics and novelists and commentators be arrogant? Are today's critics populist? My own problem with them is that they aren't populist enough, for the most part. They are happy with a small intellectual/academic niche, and in-field respect. Anyone must be arrogant to some extent, I think, to assert their opinions on the public, but not in Beckett's way, with long untranslated passages of Italian citation (the feature Hill approved of).

All of which brings us back to Dave. DFW was certainly, in some ways, arrogant; he was also an insecure mess. He was, self-proclaimedly, a kind of snob, a grammar-nazi, unafraid of writing essays about modern critical theory, and applying the same theories to essays about pop culture; unafraid of writing long and difficult novels. At one level, he is a good model for a combination of intellectualism and populism, maybe one of the best the literary world has produced. And yet, at the same time, he's an awful example to follow, alienating and personally unpleasant, distanced from the positive interpersonality of modern popular culture. I came to Dave through the Internet, I researched him through the Internet, and I fell in love with him through the Internet; and yet this was all, inevitably, tragically, done without any of Dave's own involvement. He wrote the words; other people, fans and afficionados, spread them for him. There's potential there, someone just needs to figure out how to use it.

I fell out of love with Dave through the Internet too.


DFW apparently had a tattoo of his first love's name – Mary – on his arm, and when they broke up he had the name crossed out, and when he met his second love, he appended a footnote, further down his arm, and the footnote had the name of his second love.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Review: The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

I find it amusing that The Teleportation Accident nestled on this year's Booker longlist with Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies. Mantel, of course, eventually won the prize with an unashamedly Tudor novel, emphasising the importance of historical fictions in the current 'zeitgeist' – especially those which make a claim to fidelity and accuracy. I'm thinking here not just of Mantel, but everything from the ludicrous Downton Abbey to the glorious Mad Men, from Phillipa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl (historical romance endorsed by my own mother) to the Assassin's Creed video game series. And this is not even to mention the various retro-isms that periodically wash over pop music and high street fashion. History is in.

Beauman's second novel is itself a historical one, of a sort. The plot flits around interwar Berlin, Paris and Los Angeles, and demonstrates a dizzying amount of research and detail. But research and detail do not make a convincing history. The Teleportation Accident is not trying to recreate history: it is trying to demolish it.

The novel concerns itself with the impossibilities of historical fiction. Partly this decision is logical, epistemological even: stories are not really the best way to preserve, to archive, to recreate. A historical novel is just as much an accurate representation of the past as a theme park.

I suspect that Beauman also has an aesthetic agenda here, a disregard for the current vogue for historical realism, and for realism in general. And I tend to agree with him: I find something very kitsch, and very dissatisfying in the Downton-type of history. It's a stage dressing, not an insight. Characters in this kind of historical fiction still think like 21st century people, however they think.

Beauman's characters, of course, think like 21st century people, to they extent that they think at all. They are, to a great extent, surfaces, archetypes, bits from other novels. Beauman's recreation of history is far more reliant on novels from history than history itself. He produces the kind of historical novel you get if you try and conceive of history through literature: shifting, parodic, genre-aware, and, above all, fun as hell.

People in Downton Abbey doing their thing, whatever that is.
This use of other writers' works as props (in both sense of the word) has its downside, though. It's really the only major criticism I can offer of the novel, which is otherwise fantastic. Beauman is especially good at plotting, by which I mean not crafting rip-roaring adventures, but something rather more technical. He is great at reintroducing and recombining all of the plot elements (scenes, objects, minor characters, books; MacGuffins generally) in ingenious ways. It gives what could seem messy and overstuffed an air of economy and purpose. The tightness with which he writes is hugely admirable, joyously ecstatic, and completely self-aware, a remark about the falsity of narrative tightness.

But back to my criticism, which is, unfortunately, nagging and banal. Beauman's hyper-inter-textuality (sorry) leaves him a little stranded, a little identity-less. Reviewers seem to be incapable of writing about The Teleportation Accident without referring to who they think Beauman's influences are, coming up with a vast array of authors who have been studied, cribbed and alluded to. And Ned himself, author of The Teleportation Accident, is left, to use a grotesque cliché, without a voice of his own. I'm not really sure what this means; I think it's something to do with tone. I am convinced that great literature, the really good stuff, marks itself as unique, as the product of this particular author, this particular style, when you read it. I am being prescriptive and limited of course, but, I like to think, not completely wrong. Beauman isn't quite there yet, hasn't yet found a way to forge a vast collage of writers and sentences and styles and facts and details and history and life into a cohesive artwork. Undoubtedly, not having done so is the point, and it's terribly and grossly New-Critic-y of me to suggest otherwise. And it is. But I don't think the two are irreconcilable; a cohesive collage, a themed scrapyard, if you will, is an achievable goal.