Tag: book review

A Book A Week #13 | Trysting, by Emmanuelle Pagano


Trysting is a book about love. Not in a vague, slushy sense. Nor in the sense that Hollywood uses when they try to sell you tickets to rom-coms. Rather, the scraps that Emmanuelle Pagano’s book is made up of are hard and visceral; love is a force for her, not in an immaterial sense but in a very material sense—the force of two bodies slamming together. The fragments that make up Trysting almost obsess over the material and the bodily—one of them begins “When he plays, I don’t hear the music, I hear his hands”—and it’s in the mundane, the physical, and the quotidian that Pagano’s prose finds its power. Rubber bands, wind turbines, and shampoo; earplugs, suitcases, and collar-bones. That’s what Pagano’s love is made of.

Trysting, by Emmanuelle Pagano

Trysting, by Emmanuelle Pagano

It’s hard to describe what Pagano has written as a novel—perhaps prose-poem would be a more apt description. Or, perhaps, a series of prose-poems. Trysting is composed of a multitude of shards, some several pages long, some barely a line in length. Each of these fragments glints in the sunlight, reflecting an object, a sensation, an emotion, which in its turn describes a whole world in aphoristic, lapidary language. There isn’t anything too small to escape Pagano’s microscopic attention, and when she turns her gaze onto something (or some thing) that anyone else would miss, what she reveals is near-boundless in its generosity and its scope.

Pagano’s world shares something with that of the now-late Leonard Cohen—the ability to find the erotic in everything. Tea and oranges all the way from China; moulded earplugs bearing the imprint of one’s lover’s ears. And within the erotic is a world of dark, swirling, stuff: sex and death and pleasure; love and hate tearing at each other within the most mundane of objects. This is writing that lives in the shadow of Barthes, of the realisation that every object and every meaning is filled with mythology—not in a dry, academic way, but that everything is alive with a jouissance that can never quite be pinned down in words.

Emmanuelle Pagano, trans. Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis, Trysting, And Other Stories (London: 2016)

A review copy of Trysting was generously provided to me by And Other Stories.

A Book A Week #11 | No Art, by Ben Lerner

“Honk if you wish all difficult poems were profound”

“All readers of poetry sicken me.” This is Ben Lerner, in ‘The Lichtenberg Figures,’ setting up his stall. “And yes, of course, I sicken me”. No Art collects a poetry which is in tension with itself, unable to decide whether to embrace or hold at arm’s length its own literariness. At least it owns up to it. It’s fitting that a writer who takes hatred for poetry as the ground zero for his defence of it writes with an endless iconoclasm that drives his poetry between registers, between genres, between ways of thinking. Lerner writes a questing, searching poetry that is never satisfied with its own conclusions, which can veer around the place as easily as it can quietly and subtly shift from one thing to another without fanfare—compare, for instance, a line from ‘The Lichtenberg Figures’ such as “I fuck his girlfriend and induce epistaxis in his homeboy” with the barely perceptible shift of ‘Mean Free Path’ from meditation on the act of writing to strangely impassioned love lyric.

It’s a rare poet who writes phrases like “the depression of spirit and the cessation of hope” alongside references to Britney Spears. It’s a rarer one who pulls it off, somehow. For all their self-professed cleverness and despite the topics that they tackle, Lerner’s poetry is genuinely funny. He writes with a sense of pathos and wry puzzlement—the posture of a thoroughly avant-garde poet who nonetheless isn’t quite comfortable with the term.

No Art Cover

No Art, by Ben Lerner

Lerner’s poems play with form as much as they do language, from the sonnet in ‘The Lichtenberg Figures’ whose last eight lines are its own publication data (too much? Too much), to the cut-up, collage-like prose paragraphs that make up the ‘Angle of Yaw’ poems. His poems are spiky, with lines bubbling into being, erupting into view. Think about the lines “If you would speak of love | Stutter, like rain, like Robert, be |Be unashamed.” The line “If you would speak of love, be unashamed” is straight out of a cliched rom-com writer’s playbook. But the interruption “Stutter, like rain…” changes what’s at stake here. It is a stutter, but it’s an instructive one, one that speaks.

No Art is a collection which has one eye turned inward, and one focused out on the world. It’s not easy poetry by any means, but it’s a profoundly rewarding collection.

Ben Lerner, No Art, Granta (London: 2016)

A copy of No Art was generously provided for review by Granta.

A Book A Week #10 | Here I Am, by Jonathan Safran Foer

 Two Jews, Three Opinions: Here I Am, by Jonathan Safran Foer

In the Haggadah, the book of prayers used at Passover, there is an anecdote—the Rabbis Eliezar, Joshua, Elazer, Akivah and Tarphon held a Seder, but so engrossed were they in debating the finer points of Exodus all night that they did not notice that the sun had risen. Admittedly, it’s not the most thrilling of anecdotes, but it gives you some idea of what the Rabbinic tradition looks like—a tradition that Jonathan Safran Foer explicitly locates himself in. As they say, two Jews, three opinions, and it’s hard to find a character in Here I Am’s 600-odd pages who isn’t Jewish.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that Safran Foer’s family drama is an explicitly intellectual affair, one that makes a great deal of its own erudition. Loosely speaking, the novel follows the implosion of the Bloch family. Jacob and Julia try to navigate their collapsing marriage whilst causing as little upset to their young but preternaturally bright children—it’s not a Serious Literary Enterprise if it features a child acting their age, after all—as possible. Just as his parents’ commitment to each other is being tested, Sam is testing his and his family’s commitment to their Judaism in struggling towards a Bar Mitzvah that he feels he should want far more than he actually wants, one that is far more a gesture towards the idea of being religious than it is an act of religion. As Jacob observes, “He’d never not belonged to a synagogue, never not made some sort of gesture towards kashrut, never not assumed […] that he could raise his children with some degree of Jewish literacy and practice. But double negatives never sustained a religion.”

Here I Am

Here I Am, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Quite a way through the novel, however, the stakes are radically changed when an earthquake strikes Israel and the wider Middle East. Its epicentre is the Temple Mount, holy to both Muslims and Jews, and much of Jerusalem is buried. The Israeli government—Safran Foer doesn’t explicitly say it’s not the Netanyahu government, but it’s not not Netanyahu’s govvernment—reaction does not exactly help relationships with Israel’s neighbours, febrile at the best of times. In short order, the Jewish state is fighting for its existence, and the Diaspora has to come to terms with a radical change in the terms of its own existence. The rhetorical claim that Israel makes on the Jews of the Diaspora becomes paramount as not-Netanyahu calls on hundreds of thousands of Jews to come to Israel’s defence and swell the depleted ranks of the IDF. To identify with the Diaspora is to navigate with a strange paradox, to tread a fine line between competing loyalties—or to be seen as treading such a line, sometimes more crucially, and Safran Foer brings this paradox into full view.

Sadly, all of this happens too late. Here I Am is a vast and capacious book, a huge and self-consciously erudite burlesque that pays homage as much to Woody Allen’s wry, self-aware comedies of manners as it does Philip Roth: it’s nigh-impossible to write a teenaged Jewish character without Portnoy’s Complaint coming to mind, and Safran Foer doesn’t shy away from this. One could easily argue that Here I Am is too capacious—there’s a few too many Bloch children, making a few too many wry and wise quips. Consequently, when Safran Foer’s critique of Diaspora politics comes to play, 300-odd pages through a 600 page book, it doesn’t make much of a splash in a pool that’s already choppy with a whole tradition of humour and wisdom.

Jonathan Safran Foer, Here I Am, Hamish Hamilton (London: 2016)

A copy of Here I Am was generously provided for review by Penguin Random House.

A Book A Week #8 | The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

It might seem natural by now to compare Eimear McBride to James Joyce. To be glib, both are Irish, and both are difficult. To be less glib, both dive headlong into the depths of the human psyche, to the point where language itself fractures and splinters, and the stuff of human consciousness is revealed. It’s a comparison that McBride herself disavows, though, telling The Irish Times that “Joyce is centring his work in the middle of the world and going out into the universe, and I’m about going as far inside humans as possible.” The Lesser Bohemians is a book that goes deep, deep inside the body, down into the dusky worlds that exist where conventional language doesn’t—where the sentence breaks down and elongated spaces between words take the place of syntax. This is a language that situates itself in the midst of the body, in the midst of sex. Good sex, bad sex; loving sex, abusive sex. Sex is, in a very profound sense, the subject of The Lesser Bohemians, and McBride writes in a lilting, rhythmic language that has sex at its foundation. As Jacqueline Rose writes in the LRB, “What fucks up language is fucking.”


The Lesser Bohemians, by Eimear McBride

The Lesser Bohemians is a love story, in one sense. It’s the story of a young woman, Eily, from Dublin who comes to London to study acting. She meets an older man, Stephen, and, predictably, they fall in love. Both have been sexually abused in the past, in Stephen’s case, horrifically; they both carry the scars of this abuse with them. In Stephen’s case, these scars are both metaphorical and literal; his abuse is written on the body, in an alphabet of scars from decades of beatings and self-harm. His tale erupts into the fabric of the novel (such as it is), in what Rose calls his “confession,” one that lasts over seventy horrifying pages. This marks a fundamental change in Eily and Stephen’s relationship—and our relationship as readers with the text. It is only after Stephen “confesses” that we learn the two characters’ names. Before that, Eily is the “I” that narrates the text, so far enmeshed in her own bodytalk that we cannot catch sight of the surface, her exterior, and Stephen is simply “he”. McBride seems to be saying that, paradoxically, it’s only when delving into one’s deepest and darkest, most secret past, that we can communicate, that these selves cocooned deep within fleshy bodies can begin to reach out to one another.

Eimear McBride, The Lesser Bohemians, Faber and Faber (London: 2016)

A Book A Week #5 | Hystopia: A Novel, by David Means

Hystopia: A Novel, by David Means

A mind-bending story of fear, paranoia, and altered consciousness set in an unheimlich almost-America, all underscored by a mass of critical apparatus which highlights the tale’s own fictive nature, its unreality—sound familiar? David Means’ Hystopia: A Novel is a novel about trauma, about carrying around the burden of one’s past, so it’s perhaps fitting that it carries with it a heavy tang of its forebears, works like Slaughterhouse-Five, works like Infinite Jest.

It’s some time in the 1970s, and Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet didn’t kill Kennedy. Nor, in fact did several other would-be assassins’ bullets. It’s the President’s third term, and the war in Vietnam grinds on and on, producing a generation of traumatised veterans, whose psychic wounds are treated by a process known as “enfolding”. A patient’s horrific memories can be sealed off in a hidden vault, somewhere inside their mind, absolving them—as it were—of their guilt.

Hystopia: A Novel, by David Means

Hystopia: A Novel, by David Means

The bulk of the novel is taken up by a slow-motion chase scene, as two enfolded Psych Corps—the people responsible for administering the enfolding—track a failed enfold named Rake as he rampages through the state of Michigan. Rake has kidnapped a young girl, also enfolded, called Meg, and here the plot thickens. Meg is the sister of one Eugene Allen, a Vietnam veteran who is responsible for writing the novel-within-a-novel, ‘Hystopia’. In the ‘real’ world in which Allen writes, Meg has committed suicide, and his novel is in some way an act of recovery, of mourning but also of analysis. Whilst the two Psych Corps seek to undo the enfolding treatment, seek to recover the cause of their trauma, Allen seeks to recover his sister from the cold grasp of death.

‘Hystopia’ sputters and stalls for much of its duration, relying on clunky exposition to get across its mass of druggy psychotherapy, although when Means gets going, he writes some incredibly stylish prose. Means’ depictions of the vast north, its ravaged cities and its forested wilds are bleakly evocative, but Hystopia, the PoMo construct inspires less belief. Enfolded in the depths of Allen’s ‘Hystopia,’ it’s easy to forget the mass of editors’ notes that bookend the novel-within-a-novel, that hold it to account and continually render it under erasure. They want to play the role of Foster Wallace’s maddening, byzantine footnotes, but they just don’t figure in the narrative. One could easily ignore them and read a stylish, trippy alternate history of the Vietnam war, none the wiser. Inside Hystopia lurks a story of grace and recovery, trauma and healing, but it’s one that fails to convince.

David Means, Hystopia: A Novel, Faber & Faber (London: 2016)

A Book A Week #2 | The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Jenni Fagan

Two Different Ways of Looking at the Apocalypse, No. 1

The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Jenni Fagan

Picture it. It’s 2020, and the ice caps have melted. The great, life-sustaining salt-water currents that warm the earth have failed. The earth is plunged into the freezing abyss; a winter that none has ever seen before. Does this sound familiar to you? It’s pretty much the same set-up as the 2004 Roland Emmerich disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow. Luckily, the similarities stop there. Whereas Emmerich’s movie is a mess of CGI and faux-scientific mumbling and oddly weak acting on the part of Jake Gyllenhaal, Fagan has crafted something far more strange and wonderful out of the poetry of the frozen earth.

Icicles will grow to the size of narwhal tusks, or the long bony finger of winter herself. There will be frost flowers. Penitentes. Blin driftes. Overblaw. Skirlie. Eighre. Haar-frost

The Sunlight Pilgrims centres around three characters who are cut adrift from those around them in some way: Constance, who is shunned for taking two lovers; Dylan, the Incomer who has fled north from London; Stella, an eleven year old girl who has had the misfortune of being born into a boy’s body. They live variously in a Scottish caravan park, in the picturesque but isolated Clachan Fells, where they must endure the winter’s pressures as best they can—for when one lives in what Stella wryly describes as “what is essentially a metal tin at the bottom of seven mountains,” the elemental is never very far away.

Amid the intensity of the winter, the curious curvatures and formations of the ice-stricken landscape, everything in Clachan Fells seems to take on a heightened intensity. Every action takes on a far greater significance, every line of conversation is charged with meaning and the world falls into a strange, half-hallucinatory dreamscape. Fagan creates a reverie out of ice and isolation, where the imagination can roam free, and everything is strange and mutable.

The Sunlight Pilgrims | A Book A Week #2

Fagan’s strange and changeable landscape does not stop where the human starts, however. Stella is this mutability made flesh—she is “just a girl who might grow a boy’s face and voice; then every time she looks in a mirror who she is and who she sees won’t even vaguely match.” Her body is changing, but it’s changing in ways that are profoundly other to how she identifies. She has to circumnavigate not only the difficulties of growing up trans, but the difficulties of doing so in an environment where basic necessities such as food and medical supplies are not a given, let alone the hormone treatments that will stop her voice from breaking. It is no wonder that she fixes on the eponymous “sunlight pilgrims,” mystics in the northern islands who drink sunlight “right down into [their] chromosomes.”

Fagan sees this collocation of the quotidian and the strange and terrifying with a minutely-attuned gaze, and renders it as such. The strangeness that the winter brings with it is not just to be found in the skirlie or the eighre or the haar-frost, but in the silence that it brings with it, swaddling each moment of human consciousness in a blanket of cold and white.

Jenni Fagan, The Sunlight Pilgrims, William Heinemann (London: 2016)