Category: Reviews (page 1 of 4)

A Book A Week #39 | Phone, by Will Self

Phone, by Will Self

Will Self is an author with a peculiar quiddity. Much like Marmite, it’s impossible not to have an opinion on him. I’ll confess to a certain ambivalence here — on the matter of Will Self, not Marmite, which I’d happily eat with a spoon, were it socially acceptable. His columns for the New Statesman, rambles through non-spaces and roadside fast food joints, tinged with a hint of psychogeography, are just swell. Perceptive, cutting, full of juicy little phrases. Self’s Guardian essay on his years of drug addiction and his treatment for polycythaemia vera — a condition where your bone marrow produces red blood cells in overdrive — is that rare thing, a confessional essay which actually feels like a confession, rather than a posture.

But Self’s novels remind us that you can have too much of a good thing. All that wit, all that learning, coalesces and congeals into something quite unappetising. Phone is a sprawling, stream-of-consciousness (or consciousnesses) novel that deals, loosely speaking, with the ravages of dementia, psychiatry, and the depredations of the British army in Iraq.

A phone rings and awakens Zack Busner from some reverie or another. Busner, an ageing shrink and veteran from Self’s last two books, is beginning to show signs of senility. He finds himself, trouserless, being strong-armed to a hotel room caked with his own faeces. Haven’t we all? But all of a sudden, we’re not in a shit-smeared Hilton bathroom in Manchester; we’re listening to a monologue from Jonathan De’Ath’s penis.


Phone, by Will Self

The person attached to the penis is known as The Butcher to all and sundry. To his ever-so-English family — his two brothers are The Baker and The Candlestick Maker. To his friends at university — after a stunt with his college’s vegetarian society and a quantity of frying offal. To his colleagues in MI6 — The Butcher is a spook, a spy, and a budding Mycroft Holmes, with an eidetic memory and a penchant for expensive clothing. But, of course, Mycroft Holmes probably wouldn’t give his member a name of its own. Or date-rape a man.

That man is Colonel Gawain Thomas, who goes on to enjoy a furtive, undercover relationship with the man who drugged and violated him, without giving too much thought to the matter. He also goes on to command an outpost in Iraq, and preside over the murder of prisoners of war, again without giving too much thought to the matter.

Busner has pretty much no relevance to the plot — such as it is — of Phone, but his grandson, a severely autistic boy with shades of Gary McKinnon, threatens to uncover The Butcher’s secrets. This happens in the last stretches of the novel, after pushing six hundred pages of penis-soliloquies and descriptions of luxury lifestyle goods. But by that point, it’s hard to care.

Self’s novels have never worn their learning lightly, but his earlier novels had an eye for the perverse, and a gleeful sense of fun. Reading Phone, though, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Self is trying more to push a style to its conclusion than he is to write a novel. And that style belongs more to James Joyce than it does anyone else. Self tries to emulate Ulysses’ verbal pyrotechnics — Phone is littered with Joycean puns and leaps of dream-logic — but the novel never catches light. Phone is an unabashedly modernist work that forgets that modernism is in the past now. Phone creaks under its own weight: it’s hard enough to follow one of the novel’s narrators, let alone work out whose meandering monologue, peppered with digressions and absolutely littered with gratuitous italics, you’re reading — they all sound exactly alike. Which is to say, they sound like Will Self.

Will Self, Phone, Viking (London: 2017)

Viking kindly furnished me with a review copy of Phone.

A Book A Week #38 | Strange Heart Beating, by Eli Goldstone

Strange Heart Beating, by Eli Goldstone

Leda is dead. She was killed by a swan — well, what else? She leaves in her wake a widower, floundering in grief. Sorting through Leda’s things, Seb finds a box of letters in Latvian, to someone named Olaf, a cousin he never knew she had: letters to a relative Leda had never talked about, about a childhood they’d never discussed, in a language Seb has never been able to speak. Unmoored by grief, Seb travels to Latvia to piece together her story. But with every day that passes in the hallucinatory wilds outside of Riga, with every curious apparition he meets from Leda’s old life, Seb comes to realise that he knows less and less about his wife.

Strange Heart Beating, by Eli Goldstone

Strange Heart Beating could easily turn into an existentialist dirge about how one person can never know another, but Seb’s narrative voice makes it more than that. Eli Goldstone has crafted a masterwork of minute bathos in Seb. A somewhat effete art historian, he is extravagantly sorrowful as only a self-confessed “slavish aesthete” could be — he carries a lock of Leda’s hair and wallows in baroque pity. He is also uniquely ill-suited to the dark corner of Latvia where Leda comes from, and where he rocks up, hapless and unwitting. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Hampstead anymore. The endless sandy beaches lose their allure when the mosquitos come out at dusk and those tangled, dark woods look less romantic when Seb is dragged along hunting wolves by cousin Olaf and his sidekick, the ambiguously sane Georgs. And all the while, the ‘real’ Leda slips further and further from Seb’s grasp.

Interspersed between Seb’s travails are snapshots of the life he came to Latvia to uncover, in the form of diary entries written by Leda herself over the course of a lifetime — snapshots that Seb never gets to see — ranging from the scribblings of a child who only dimly realises that she is having what might be termed a traumatic childhood, to the cynical posture of a young woman who realises she has to get out of Latvia, to leave the country and her own past behind.

Moving, tender, and poignant, but also richly peopled and crackling with a savage wit, Strange Heart Beating is not just a deliciously strange and oneiric attempt at answering a philosophical question — can we ever really know another person — but also a sympathetic sketch of human grief.

Eli Goldstone, Strange Heart Beating, Granta (London: 2017)

Granta kindly provided me with a review copy of Strange Heart Beating.

A Book A Week #37 | Keshiki Chapbooks, by various authors

Keshiki Chapbooks, by Strangers Press

The Keshiki Chapbooks are a series of eight short story pamphlets by Japanese authors, published by Strangers Press, who are part of the University of East Anglia’s publishing project. As well as being fascinating stories by some of Japan’s most exciting young authors, illuminating the work of writers whose work, somewhat shamefully, hasn’t made it over to the West, these pamphlets are beautiful objects in their own right. The diminutive pamphlets have bold Pop Art covers — shades, perhaps of Milton Glaser and of Eduardo Paolozzi — as well as French flaps and gorgeous typesetting. The Keshiki Chapbooks are Strangers Press’ first project, and hopefully the first of many.

Time Differences — Yoko Tawada, trans. Jeffery Angles

Three men uprooted and spread over three corners of the world — Mamoru awakens in Berlin, missing his boyfriend Manfred, adrift in New York who, in the middle of the night, awakens from a terrifying dream. In Tokyo, it’s the dead of night, and Michael is lost in thought — he remembers a passionate tryst with a Japanese man in Berlin. Yoko Tawada’s brief, heartfelt tale is one that navigates the perilous shores of relationships in a world where vast distances can be crossed in a matter of moments, but never entirely bridged. The trio try to arrange synchronicities — they work out together, going to the gym at the same time, in vastly different places; they drink together, shotting soju and sake at the same time, on the other side of the world from each other. Tawada’s prose is a ghostly one, but one rooted in the mundanities of long-distance relationships: Skype calls and solitude. ‘Time Difference’ is a romance story for the Easyjet era.

Friendship for Grown-Ups — Nao-Cola Yamazaki, trans. Polly Barton

Nao-Cola Yamazaki’s short story collection begins with a creation story without a creator. In the beginning, there was light, but there’s nobody around to say that it was good. Rather, the light hits a rock, which kickstarts a process of evolution beginning with amino acids and ending in ennui, the inorganic and the organic flowing into one another, the simple becoming complex, and the complex remembering a time when everything was simple, all without any animus or direction. Yamazaki’s other stories engage with a similar sense of duality — the story ‘The Invisible Apartment’ shows a pair of exes, a once-couple walking around the building site where the apartment they shared once stood: it’s not just a journey to a building site, but that most cliched of journeys — one to the past. But it’s one that Nao-Cola Yamazaki pulls off without cliche or sentiment; one that is filled with pregnant longing and simultaneity. The final story of the collection, ‘Lose your Private Life’ deals with an author, Terumi, and her relationship with Matsumoto, a musicologist,, one that veers between Terumi’s desperate longing for intimacy, for closeness — she yearns to him to call her Teru-chan and text her emojis — and studied need: Terumi wants to write a novel about music, while Matsumoto wants to be able to say that he dates a writer. ‘Friendship for Grownups’ is a difficult thing to navigate, as indeed is friendship for grownups, and Yamazaki’s writing demonstrates the curious tensions that exist in relationships teetering on the edge of intimacy. Nao-Cola Yamazaki is big in Japan, but not over in the Anglophone world: let’s hope that ‘Friendship for Grownups’ changes that.

Spring Sleepers — Kyoko Yoshida

Yuki is ill. He has a disease known as “genuine insomnia” — as opposed to all that fake insomnia going around — and he has not slept in two months. It’s a condition that has spread through Tokyo’s great and good, who boast to one another in pricey bars of how much extra work they are getting done. The downside: Yuki’s mind is deteriorating. As ‘Spring Sleepers’ goes on, Kyoko Yoshida’s story becomes more and more oneiric, more and more absurd — the farther away Yuki gets from sleep, the closer he comes to a curious dream-world where narrative logic is forsaken in favour of the impossible disjunctions and curious flux of the dreamer’s experience. The further Yuki goes, the further we step away from narrative, into a strange world where uncanny flashes of semblance are mingled with impossible happenings, like a Haruki Murakami novel compressed, concentrated, and distilled into a potent shot.

Mariko/Mariquita — Natsuki Ikezawa, trans. Alfred Birnbaum

‘Mariko/Mariquita’ is a tale of a curious duality. Kyojiro is a cultural anthropologist visiting studying a tribe on Guam, when he meets Mariko, who goes by Maria, or Mariquita, a Japanese woman who lives on the island, selling jet-ski rides to tourists. ‘Mariko/Mariquita’ could easily be read as a love story, but it is as much a story of anthropology, of what makes a person Japanese or Chamorro. The slash in the title is as much a piece of punctuation as it is a piece of semiology. It is at once a reference to an ineluctable duality, the sense in which Mariko exists as much as Mariko as Mariquita, as a hybrid identity bearing a hybrid name, as much as it is to a disjunction — that Mariko/Mariquita exists as one or the other, as either/or, but not both. Natsuki Ikezawa has created a haunting tale of dislocation and hybridity, of identities set adrift amid the Pacific ocean. Mariko or Mariquita. Japan or Guam. Either or. Take your pick.

The Girl Who Is Getting Married — Aoko Matsuda, trans. Angus Turvill

The girl who is getting married is getting married. The girl who is getting married lives on the top floor of her building. An unnamed narrator is on her way to visit the girl who is getting married — she has known the girl who is getting married since before she was the girl who is getting married. They first met at school. They first met at a part-time job in a soba shop. They first met in a train carriage, when the narrator fled to escape the wide-spread legs of a man. And so on. Aoko Matsuda’s modus operandi in ‘The Girl Who Is Getting Married’ is to unsettle, to put forward so many competing versions of the truth that they flicker and fizz in and out of view, like the bubbles in a flute of champagne — it becomes all but impossible to tell which one of these competing stories, if any, are true, and in any case, it’s besides the point. You don’t try to count the bubbles: you just delight in them popping on your tongue.

At the Edge of the Wood — Masatsugu Ono, trans. Juliet Winters Carpenter

There’s a sense of creeping horror in Masatsugu Ono’s collection of linked short stories, ‘At the Edge of the Wood’. In these bizarre and Kafka-tinged fables, a father lives in a wooden house at the edge of an unnamed wood, waiting with his son for his wife’s return — she is pregnant and feels it would be safer to give birth at her parents’ house. Their lives flicker between the mundane, between trips to the supermarket, and the fairytale, dwarves who are refugees fleeing some unknown conflict and an old woman streaming water whom the boy adopts as a grandmother. Ono’s prose, deceptively complex in its elegant simplicity, walks a fine line. One side is the simple delight of a child running through an autumnal wood; the other side lie nightmares whose names cannot be spoken.

Mikumari — Misumi Kubo, trans. Polly Barton

‘Mikumari’ is a sex story that is also a falling-out-of-love story. A senior in high school gets picked up by a woman in a Tokyo comic market. She’s attracted by his apparent resemblance to an anime character — not that Misumi Kubo’s narrator ever quite works out who. He knows her only as Anzu. Almost immediately, they begin to have sex: ludicrously scripted, costumed affairs that allow Anzu to live out her anime dreams. At the same time, Kubo’s narrator falls in love — actual storybook love — with a girl from his school. Over time, he becomes increasingly conflicted and increasingly wary of Anzu but is unable to tear himself away from her. Kubo’s narrator has an exceptional voice — he shoots for cynical and streetwise, but winds up at hapless and unknowingly self-pitying: imagine someone trying to be Holden Caulfield but failing — it’s this voice, hilarious and poignant, that separates ‘Mikumari’ from any number of love stories.

The Transparent Labyrinth — Keiichirō Hirano, trans. Kerim Yasar

‘The Transparent Labyrinth’ is a potent shot, heady with aromas of Wilde and Poe and de Sade — decadence, decay and depravity. Okada is meeting clients in Budapest when he meets Misa, and Federica — Misa has been travelling around Europe for some months and is in a mysterious debt to the possessive Federica, whose behaviour alarms Okada. Concerned with Federica’s behaviour, and for Misa, he accompanies them to a party which becomes increasingly depraved, increasingly horrifying. The next day, Okada returns to Japan alone, but the spectres of Misa and Federica follow him. Okada simply cannot disengage from that night in Budapest — it haunts him, traps him in a hazy world of doubles and deeply-repressed trauma that can’t help but bubble to the surface.

Strangers Press kindly sent me review copies of the Keshiki Chapbooks.

A Book A Week #36 | The Beautiful Bureaucrat, by Helen Phillips

The Beautiful Bureaucrat, by Helen Phillips

It’s pretty much an immutable law of the universe that any activity that takes place in an office will be labelled ‘Kafkaesque,’ usually by some smart-Aleck who doesn’t have to work in one. That said, it would be difficult not to read Helen Phillips’ new novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat without picking up on the strange blend of paranoia and mindless, hemmed-in, tedium that characterises Kafka. To call The Beautiful Bureaucrat a Kafkaesque tale of offices and paper-pushing would be to miss half the point, though — there’s more than a hint of Borges or Calvino in Phillips’ story as it shifts gear from squalid office comedy to metaphysical mystery, but more than that, hidden amid the cubicles and acres of filing cabinets is something wholly original and utterly preposterous and entirely compelling.

Josephine and her husband, Joseph, have moved from the hinterland to the city in search of work, which she finds quickly enough. She is offered a job by a man who is wholly forgettable, apart from his impossibly bad breath. The job is in a vast office complex, the size of a small town — Josephine is assigned to a small, windowless cubicle whose walls are scarred with gouge marks from its previous occupants.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat, by Helen Phillips

Every day, she types a hundred or so first lines from a hundred or so forms into the Database, before going home and waking up to do the same thing over again. Bouncing from squalid bedsit to squalid bedsit, the Database begins to consume her life and her health — Josephine’s eyes are bloodshot, her nails chewed and frayed, her forehead bubbling with zits. And as Joseph starts disappearing more and more, the Database looms larger and larger.

Telling someone not to do something is far and away the easiest way of ensuring that they do just that, and The Person with Bad Breath tells Josephine that there is “no need to be curious” about the strings of ineffable code that she inputs, day in, day out. So, naturally, Josephine tries to puzzle it out: she’s not got anything better to do, after all. And in doing so, she stumbles across an ontological mystery hidden in the heart of the Database’s spreadsheets and filing cabinets, a mystery that manages to play out at once like a Borgesian parable on the infinite and on a level closer to home, one that is stiflingly claustrophobic and crushingly intimate.

Helen Phillips, The Beautiful Bureaucrat, Pushkin Press (London: 2017)

Pushkin Press kindly sent me a copy of The Beautiful Bureaucrat.

A Book A Week #35 | The 7th Function of Language, by Laurent Binet

All The Gang’s Here: The 7th Function of Language, by Laurent Binet

The author is dead. A specific author, that is. Specifically, the author who did the most to kill the author — the notion of the author as some sort of a textual god, whose diktat is law. More specifically still, that author is Roland Barthes. His 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author’ declared that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination” and that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”

“Author” with a capital ‘A,’ that is. Barthes wasn’t in the business of bumping off writers. Rather, he intended to strike a blow against a literary culture “tyrannically centred on the author” as an implacable source of authority. The Author must be knocked off his (for the Author is always going to be a He) pedestal and replaced with the reader, as an implacable source of authority. Geddit?

Barthes was killed on the morning of the 26th of March 1980, knocked down by a laundry truck. Laurent Binet’s novel, The 7th Function of Language imagines that the author’s death was no accident but an assassination; part of a carefully orchestrated conspiracy that implicates the upper echelons of French academe. Inspector Bayard, squat, proud Giscard voter and entirely uneasy with academia, is called to investigate Barthes’ death. On the way, he picks up a sidekick, the Holmes to his Watson, the rake-thin, timid semiotician Simon Herzog, to help him navigate the echoing corridors of the university.

Their investigations will take them from Paris to Bologna to Cornell, via steamy bathhouses where Foucault cavorts with gigolos, the office of the president, and a debating society where more than words are at stake. The whole gang’s here: the book’s dramatis personae reads like a who’s who of literary theory at its height: Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Kristeva, Sollers and Cixous, Derrida, Searle and Roman Jakobson. Oh, and don’t forget Umberto Eco, who pops up throughout the book as a sort of guide for the perplexed.

In fact, The 7th Function of Language owes rather a lot to Umberto Eco — if the book sounds somewhat like an Ecosian fantasia, that’s because it very probably is. There’s more than a hefty slug of Dan Brown in Binet’s work, but that might be because Brown is, in fact a character in one of Eco’s novels. As Eco once said, “The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.” A delicious quote, and one that finds echoes in The Seventh Function of Language. Wheels within wheels within wheels.

The 7th Function of Language, by Laurent Binet

It would be easy to rhapsodise about Binet’s writing all night — the ludicrous erudition, the way that dry academic debates are weighted with the same import as a firefight, the puns (oh, the puns). Even the Deleuzian sex scene — especially the Deleuzian sex scene (“the two desiring machines collide in an atomic explosion, and become, finally, that body without organs”). But, stepping out of my own shoes and into those of Barthes’ impersonal reader, without history or biology (or, perhaps into those of a better critic), does the novel actually work? How might The 7th Function of Language read to someone without a literature degree or two, saturated in what’s become known as Theory-with-a-capital-’T’?

To return to that Umberto Eco quote about the hermetic secret, everything might be connected, but what does that matter if you don’t have the foggiest what the Rosicrucians are, or the Masons, or the Jesuits? A reader less clued in to all this is perhaps unlikely to get much joy from Binet’s conspiracy — which is the way all conspiracies work, after all. Pizzagate, to draw a particularly ridiculous example, only works if you’re aware of the DNC’s hacked emails, and John Podesta’s penchant for pizza, as well as the Alt-Right’s tendency to happen upon conspiracies around every corner, most of which implicate the targets of that day’s ire. On the other hand, 7th Function might well play better with a Francophone reading public than an Anglophone one — France still has what might be called public intellectuals, whereas we’re all tired of experts now.

Stepping back into my own habitus now (there’s no escaping Bourdieu; not now, not ever), this overly-educated, Theory-saturated curate-cretin-crritic, the sort of person who can laugh out loud at a good Derrida pun, finds a lot to love. Any book where Derrida is killed off in 1980, leaving him to write his 1993 book on hauntology from beyond the grave, tickles my fancy. Any book where Umberto Eco plays a starring role is a good’un, in my ever-so ‘umble opinion.

Pacy, ludicrously witty, and clever to a fault, The 7th Function of Language is a literary thriller in the most radical sense — a madcap, screwball, twisting, turning thrill-ride of a book with impeccable literary credentials. The Author is dead. Long live the Author.

Laurent Binet trans. Sam Taylor, The 7th Function of Language, Harvill Secker (London: 2017)

Harvill Secker kindly furnished me with a copy of The 7th Function of Language.

A Book A Week #34 | House of Names by Colm Tóibín

House of Names, by Colm Tóibín

If someone invites you to a party at the House of Atreus, don’t go. Nothing good can come of it. Their nibbles are substandard, the drinks warm, and you are likely to end up in the dungeons. And that’s the best case scenario. House of Names, Colm Tóibín’s new novel acts as nothing less than a catalogue of the woes that could befall an ancient Greek family back in the day, from human sacrifice to kidnap to murder. Tóibín’s new novel is a loose adaptation of Aeschylus’ Orestia, or at least two-thirds of it — oddly and perhaps sadly, a courtroom drama adjudicated by none less than Athena herself seemed not to have appealed to the author — beginning with Iphigenia’s sacrifice by Agamemnon to change the winds and speed his fleet towards Troy, and ending with the murders of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus by Orestes, Iphigenia’s brother and Clytemnestra’s son.

(Can you really spoil a story that’s about two-and-a-half thousand years old? Especially when it’s a tragedy — a genre that only ever ends one way?)

Interpolated between the well-worn stories written by Aeschylus are new vignettes — what made Clytemnestra so enraged that she waited ten years to kill her husband? Where was Orestes where his father was killed? What is Electra’s part in all of this? The most effective of these is the one that kicks off the book: Agamemnon’s deception and Iphigenia’s sacrifice. The snapshot begins from the perspective of a mother beaming with pride — Clytemnestra believes herself to be sailing off to marry her daughter to Achilles, the most famed warrior in all Greece. But her pride fast turns to grief as she learns from none other than the husband-to-be that Iphigenia is not to be married, but to be killed, to guarantee a strong headwind for Agamemnon’s fleet. Grief turns to murderous rage as she is forced to watch her daughter’s throat cut, bound and gagged and helpless on an altar. It’s a startling and ferocious ten pages or so of high-flung virtuoso emotion, of the sparks that fly when something as close to universal as a mother’s love and pride and grief is cast against something as alien and inscrutable as the whims of the gods.

House of Names, by Colm Tóibín

Tóibín’s major achievement with House of Names is in humanising the Orestia — a play cycle first performed over two thousand years ago in front of an audience of ancient Athenians in a ritualised drama competition devoted to Dionysius — without losing the crystal-sharp, hard-edged harshness of the original, set in a universe where justice is swift, and meted out with knives and relish. What Tóbín does is removes the gods from Aeschylus’ universe, makes justice something that humans are beginning to do to one another, rather than something which is meted out from above. As Electra says, “We live in a strange time … A time when the gods are fading. Some of us still see them but there are times when we don’t. Their power is waning. Soon, it will be a different world. It will be ruled by the light of day. Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting. You should feel lucky that you were touched by the old world, that in that house it brushed you with its wings.”

Or, as someone else would very nearly put it, two millennia later, heaven is empty and all the devils are here.

Colm Tóibín, House of Names, Viking (London: 2017)

Viking kindly furnished me with a review copy of House of Names.

A Book A Week #33 | White Tears, by Hari Kunzru

White Tears, by Hari Kunzru

At the heart of American music is the blues. And at the heart of the blues is an unspeakable cruelty. That’s what Hari Kunzru’s new novel reminds us. White Tears is the story of two white kids in love with a past that isn’t theirs. Carter is a trustafarian, complete with blonde dreads and an unfathomable source of dirty money, who takes the socially inept Seth under his wing. The two are united by a love of the blues. For Carter, this love is more of an obsession — he spends his life hunting out impossibly rare ‘78s, the cracklier the better. But when Seth records a panhandler singing under his breath, singing a song that Carter has never heard, this obsession turns into something far stranger, far darker, far more primal.

The pair of them record this song and “drown it in hiss,” make it sound like it’s been “sitting under someone’s porch for fifty years”. They invent a label for the record; invent a singer — Charlie Shaw. But Charlie Shaw is real, according to a record collector who refuses to believe Seth concocted ‘Graveyard Blues’ in a Brooklyn walk-up. The revelation sets Carter and Seth teetering, and it transforms White Tears.

What starts as a spirited skewering of a faintly unpleasant white dude-bro culture is pushed into the maw of a Hieronymous Bosch hellscape of twisted figures that flits back and forth between the Jim Crow-era Deep South, where a bluesman named Charlie Shaw is picked off the street on his way to a recording session by sadistic policemen, and a post-9/11 New York. As Seth picks his way south, through the history of the blues, of a tradition he cooks up in a studio, the lines between then and now dissolve, and the legacy of Charlie Shaw comes to haunt the present, in a kind of ghoulish racial revenge tragedy, caught between abuser and victim, past and present, black and white.

White Tears, by Hari Kunzru

Perhaps a better way to read White Tears is as an allegory for power, instead of a story about music. For Kunzru, music is just another way of talking about power, about the struggle to express and repress, a struggle which is deeply implicated in any discussions of race. Charlie Shaw might have sung ‘Graveyard Blues’ in the Deep South, but up in New York half a century later, Carter can crow “These fuckers think this music was made in 1928, but actually we made it. We made it, fools! We made that shit last week! So who’s the expert now? Who knows the tradition? We do! We own that shit!” They own that shit, indeed. And look where it gets them.

Hari Kunzru, White TearsHamish Hamilton (London: 2017)

Hamish Hamilton provided me with a review copy of White Tears.

A Book A Week #32 | Spring Garden, by Tomoka Shibasaki

Spring Garden, by Tomoka Shibasaki

For all the physical space that suburbia occupies — housing over thirty million Britons at the last count — it seems to take up very little room in our collective imagination. Surprisingly, neat little rows of semidetached houses and commuter rail lines tend not to inspire artists and musicians, poets and novelists, in the same way that a shiny metropolis, or a good deserted hill might. There are, of course, a few artists of various stripes who brave the suburbs. David Lynch is known for plumbing the depths of the sheer menacing surrealism that lurks behind picket fences, but for my money, it’s another David, David Byrne, who sums up that curious sense of duality, that your neighbours live on the other side of a brick wall, but a world away. Tomoka Shibasaki’s new novel Spring Garden sees her joining this small group of authors who make their home in suburbia.

Taro is one of the few remaining inhabitants of an apartment block scheduled to be torn down. He perhaps resembles one of Murakami’s vague male protagonists: recently divorced, his closest friend outside of work seems to be a pestle and mortar used in his father’s funeral rites. Taro finds himself drawn to Nishi, a woman living in his apartment block, who has an obsession with the sky-blue house on the other side of their block. The house has a secret history, though an undramatic, domestic one, detailed in a decades-old photo book ‘Spring Garden’. It’s this book that brings Nishi to the apartments — if she couldn’t live in the sky-blue house, then she could at least live somewhere overlooking it.

Spring Garden, by Tomoka Shibasaki

Spring Garden, the first novel by Shibasaki to be published in English, is written in a transparent and capacious prose that manages to circumscribe all of the petty strangenesses of suburban life — the boredom and alienation and curious menace. For all its deracinated newness, Spring Garden’s suburb is one with a past that remains barely hidden — not just in photo books, but under tarmac and under feet.

Every day, [Taro] walked over culverts with rivers running inside them. There were water pipes and gas pipes underground too, and maybe unexploded bombs, for all he knew. […] If there were unexploded bombs still underground, then there must also be bits of the houses that were burnt down then, items of their furniture. Before that, this area had been fields and woods, and the leaves and fruits and berries that fell every year, as well as the little animals, would also have formed layers over time, sinking down deeper under the ground.

And now Taro was walking on top of it all.

There is a kind of strange redemption in this vertiginous tumble down through centuries worth of soil — it’s the suburb’s more recent past, captured in Nishi’s photo book, that brings Taro out of a life spent travelling to and from work, speaking to nobody. Spring Garden promises a far richer, far more meaningful world, if only we allow ourselves to see it.

Tomoka Shibasaki, trans. Polly Barton, Spring Garden, Pushkin Press (London: 2017)

A Book A Week #31 | One of the Boys, by Daniel Magariel

One of the Boys, by Daniel Magariel

“That’s how you stay one of the boys,” says the narrator of Daniel Magariel’s debut, having slogged his way through a day at pre-school with a broken collarbone. Being one of the boys in One of the Boys means solidarity and grit. But it also means silence, complicity and lies. The father has won “the war” a bitter and bruising custody battle for his children, and he spirits them away from their home in Kansas to a new life in Albuquerque — away from their mother, “the Amalekite” and to freedom. Or so he says, at least.

The adventure palls. The boys begin to miss their home. And the father’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic, more and more sinister. That ever so-innocuous phrase “one of the boys” becomes a weapon that is used to divide brother from brother as the father succumbs to a druggy, violent paranoia. By the book’s end, the father is too strung out to go out for drugs himself, and resorts to pushing a wad of cash into his young son’s fist and forcing him to score a bagful of crack.

One of the Boys, by Daniel Magariel

The book’s opening scene gives a hint as to the father’s devious tendency towards manipulation. He wants to have his cake and eat it — he wants sole custody of his two children, and he doesn’t want to pay a cent in alimony. His glee is almost palpable when he discovers that the mother has beaten the narrator with a telephone handset, and pressures him to take polaroids of the marks. But the marks are fading fast. The father drops hints that the older of the two kids should slap his brother, to freshen the marks up, to make them seem more dramatic. Here, the narrator steps in, eager to cement his position as “one of the boys,” to take a hit for the team.

In the mirror I remade my face with sorrow. This will get us free, I told myself. This was what they needed from me. With my right hand I slapped my right cheek. The left cheek with my left hand, then again, harder, alternating sides, following through a little further each time so that eventually my head turned not from the flinch but the blow. … I faced my father. “Now,” I said. “Take it now.”

My father kept clicking till the button stuck. After they developed, we chose five of the Polaroids to show Child Protective Services.

Written in a spare but elegant prose that seems the hallmark of MFA programmes these days, One of the Boys is a disturbing evocation, without even the slightest hint of sentimentality, of fiercely powerful relationship between a father and his young son, one where intense love sits alongside rage, paranoia, and an all-consuming need for control.

Daniel Magariel, One of the Boys, Granta (London: 2017)

Granta kindly provided me with a review copy of One of the Boys.

A Book A Week #30 | Carnivalesque, by Neil Jordan

Carnivalesque, by Neil Jordan

It’s a drear day in Ireland and the carnival has come to town. But there’s something curious about this carnival; something inscrutably different. Something not quite natural; or maybe something supernatural. Mikhail Bakhtin writes about the carnivalesque as a space where the normal order of things is overturned, where the world is turned upside down, where fools reign as kings. It’s this carnival space that we enter into when Andy, the novel’s protagonist, walks into Burleigh’s Amazing Hall of Mirrors.

One Andy walks in to Burleigh’s Amazing Hall of Mirrors, and two walk out. One steps out of the mirror as a not-Andy, a “thing called Andy,” a name which “seems the best for him now, since, having appropriated the shape, the sound, the smell of the reflected one,” it is only fitting that “he would appropriate the name too.” The other is released later, once his parents are gone and the carnies are packing up. He is re-christened Dany, and Dany gets swept away with the carnival: he’s become a carnie.

Carnivalesque, by Neil Jordan

While strange things coalesce around the peculiarly vacant Andy back in his parents’ house, Dany enters a paradoxical realm where immortal acrobats cling onto trapezes in order to stay on the ground, and long-forgotten legends forget about themselves. It’s this odd world that Dany needs to navigate in order to survive, and to entertain the possibility of returning home.

Neil Jordan is perhaps known better as a film director than a novelist — he counts The Company of Wolves and Interview with the Vampire among his credits. It’s no surprise then that his prose has a cinematographer’s eye for texture and tricks of the light, for strange and wonderful creatures, and sudden shifts in intensity. Encompassing myths and legends, centuries-old magical creatures and young children growing up, Carnivalesque is a rag-tag oddball of a novel that reads as though Neil Gaiman and Angela Carter started telling spooky stories around the campfire, and couldn’t stop. And that’s a very good thing indeed.

Neil Jordan, Carnivalesque, Bloomsbury (London:2017)

Bloomsbury kindly provided me with a review copy of Carnivalesque