Tag: review

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 #9 | All That Man Is, by David Szalay

The Fury and the Mire of Human Veins

There just aren’t enough books about men. Specifically, there aren’t enough books about white, European men. Enter David Szalay, stage left, with his latest book, All That Man Is. His new novel can’t quite be called that—it’s closer to a short story collection, telling the tales of nine men at different points in their life, from seventeen to seventy-three. What connects these men is more a mood than anything narrative, a sense of overwhelming Weltschmerz, an inertia that leads Ferdinand and Simon, two students celebrating the end of their A-Levels by backpacking around Europe, to look at all that the continent has to offer, with the same level of disinterested ennui that Tony, the eldest of the nine men, looks towards decrepitude and death. If there’s one thing worse than tourists, it’s tourists determined not to enjoy themselves.

Everyone in All that Man Is is, in some sense, a tourist—that is to say, nobody’s story takes place in their home country. Whether they are actual tourists, as in the first two stories, working in other countries, or are celebrating not working any more by retiring to sunnier climes, the stories are uprooted, deracinated somehow—always pointing towards a home, but never quite getting there. There’s a lot of hanging around in what Marc Augé called non-places, those strange places that nobody really feels strongly in any way about enough to build up common social references or any sort of community. In a novel where everyone is on the move, it’s easy enough to find references to motorway rest stops and train stations, but the logic of the non-place reaches out to consume pretty much everywhere, from unattractive villages in Croatia to superyachts.

All That Man Is, by David Szalay

All That Man Is, by David Szalay

It’s against this backdrop that Szalay’s vision of disappointment plays out—all of the men in the novel are disappointed in one way or another. Sex is a disappointment; lack of sex is a disappointment. Money is a disappointment; lack of money is a disappointment. Power is a disappointment; lack of power is a disappointment. It’s worth noting that the there’s always a lot more of the latter than of the former in Szalay’s world. It’s this bleak landscape that he shines an uncompromising light on, showing the world in flashes of seedy and scathing detail, though never for long enough at a time to get what one might call perspective. It’s a world of microwaveable “congealed brown food,” of “the fake Rolex that hangs too loosely” on someone’s “fat wrist,” of cigarettes smoked and cups of tea left to go tepid—like looking at a pointillist painting up close, but never quite being able to step back.

All That Man Is takes its title from a line in ‘Byzantium,’ one of W.B. Yeats’ more peculiar and enigmatic poems. Yeats writes that, “A starlit or moonlit dome disdains / All that man is / All mere complexities / The fury and the mire of human veins.” Szalay’s creations are, by contrast, “More image than man, more image than a shade”—their veins are devoid of fury or mire.

David Szalay, All That Man Is, Jonathan Cape (London: 2016)

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.”

lesser-bohemians-cover

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 #7 | Zero K, by Don Delillo

Zero K, by Don Delillo

It is perhaps odd to talk about the late style of an author who is still alive and kicking, but Don DeLillo very much has one, and his newest novel, Zero K is very much in thrall to it. Gone is the expansive accumulation of sheer stuff that characterised his earlier novels, the trash-heaps of Underworld and the cereal boxes of White Noise. Rather, DeLillo now writes novels of silence, where what is left unsaid weighs more heavily than what is said. Zero K is perhaps not as brutally stark as his last novel, Point Omega, which takes the form of a haiku, and where an unnamed desert is as much a character as any of the three humans in the work, but his latest is a work of stark minimalism nonetheless.

Zero K, by Don Delillo

Zero K, by Don DeLillo

Far beneath the Russian steppes lies a buried city whose tunnels, simultaneously byzantine and decontaminated stretch on for unknown miles. This is the Convergence, where the dying come to be frozen, awaiting their revival in the future. Suspended animation is an old trope, and one that has been explored thoroughly, from the hardest of hard sci-fi, to Futurama, but few have explored it with DeLillo’s consummate mixture of lyricism, existential awe, and rich wit of sorts. It’s a novel about Ross Lockhart, billionaire visionary devoted to his underground creation which is part technological masterwork and part spiritual project, and about his wife, Artis, who undergoes the Convergence’s grisly treatment part-way through the novel, certainly. But it’s as much a novel about Ross’ son, Jeffrey, who cannot so easily forget the outside world. DeLillo’s late style has been derided as sterile and not without reason. In Jeffrey Lockhart’s bewilderment, though, we get a glimpse of wry, deadpan self-awareness from DeLillo—Lockhart seems to be someone who has been parachuted into the land of DeLillo and must make sense of its people who speak in rapid-fire metaphors and gnomic utterances, its bizarre, cold isolation, and its sheer, wilful refusal to make sense.

Zero K is a novel about loss. It’s a novel about Lockhart’s loss of his family, but it’s also a novel about loss of faith in death. Famously, White Noise obsesses over dying, the idea of the end, but in Zero K, we see this obsession recapitulated and played upon—death isn’t the obsession in the tunnels beneath the steppe, but rather, what comes after. Without the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, well-meaning billionaires like Ross Lockhart and his team of gnomic prodigies step in, replacing grace, samsara, metempsychosis with “nanobots … embryonic stem cells … enzymes, proteins, nucleotides,” in a necropolis that may not be filled with cobwebs and eldritch horrors, but is every bit as oppressively Gothic as anything that H.P. Lovecraft wrote.

Don DeLillo, Zero K, Picador (London: 2016)

A Book A Week #6 | Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeline Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeline Thien

“Careful. Ghosts are illegal here,” says Big Mother Knife, warning her comrades of speaking too freely about the past. There’s a lot at stake talking about history in China. It can be used as a weapon, or as a shield, as a path to redemption or to damnation. But Madeline Thien’s new book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is saturated with ghosts, with a past that can barely be buried. Time does not unfold in a straight line in Thien’s novel, but rather it unfolds with the logic of Baroque music, in swirling canons and looping fugues that come round again and again, impressing on the novel a kind of inexorable, inescapable rhythm—perhaps a fitting form for a country where something that one’s mother or father did before you were born marks you out for life, a place where the sins of the father are visited on the son wholesale.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is, in the broadest sense, a family saga—it tells the story of three generations of musicians in Communist China, of a family who live by and live for music—but it’s more than that. A sweeping tale that stretches from the refined atmosphere of the Shanghai Conservatory to the desert wilds of the far west of China, and from the earliest days of Mao’s regime through to the present day, the fates of Thien’s characters are intimately tied to that of their nation, to the whims of the regime and the demands of its leaders.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeline Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeline Thien

But it’s more than a family saga, and it’s more than a historical epic. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is not just about musicians, but about music, and the curious power of redemption that art brings to bear. It’s not just the novel’s characters who live by and live for music, but the novel itself. It pulsates to the forms and the rhythms of classical music—Glenn Gould’s recordings of the Goldberg Variations form a skein running through the novel’s fabric, the very architecture of the novel coming to replicate its Baroque repetitions and recapitulations. Thien’s characters are made to suffer immensely for their music, but this music is also something for them to hold onto amid that selfsame suffering, a safe haven amid civil war and cultural revolution.

Rendered in prose of exquisite delicacy and beauty, Thien’s novel plumbs the depths of human relationships and limns the shadowy outlines of how we interact with the past. At once sweeping and intimate, epic in scale and minutely observed, Do Not Say We Have Nothing must be one of the most extraordinary books of the year so far.

Madeline Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Granta (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 #4 | Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, by Dan Fox

Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, by Dan Fox

In the interest of journalistic integrity, I feel that I should begin this review with a full disclosure. You see, I’m far from a neutral observer here. I have, as they say, skin in the game. It’s time to ‘fess up. I am pretentious. And a life spent in pretension is, as Fox observes, a life spent being read by others as performing, putting on what is inevitably seen as a “silly act.” This dramatic metaphor is evident throughout Fox’s essay right from his opening salvo, where he dissects the word “pretentious” etymologically—it derives from the “Latin prae—before—and tendere meaning ‘to stretch’ or ‘extend’,” bringing to mind the masks that the actors wore, or rather, held before them, in Greek drama.

Fox makes great play out of this strain of thought, trying with all his might to reclaim pretension from those who claim it as an insult. To be pretentious might be to don a mask, something which might “carry with it the sting of class betrayal” but equally, for Fox, the “anti-intellectualism” that is supposedly pretension’s opposite “is a snobbery just like anti-pretension.” For Fox, pretension is an inevitably loaded term which comes redolent with a complex of class neuroses specific to Anglo-American, and specifically British, society. After all, it was only in Britain that Pulp would have had a Top Ten hit with Common People, a song about “class dissimulation.”

Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, by Dan Fox

Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, by Dan Fox

But equally, Fox hobbles himself with the assertion that “pretension is always someone else’s crime. It’s never a felony in the first person.” Fox’s argument hinges on a dialectic struggle between pretension and authenticity (whatever that might be), but he doesn’t admit the possibility that one might be authentically pretentious. Pretentiousness argues vigorously against the notion that an afternoon spent reading Virginia Woolf might be less ‘real’ than an afternoon spent watching the World Cup, but what of the person who’d rather read To The Lighthouse than watch Tunisia play Luxembourg? Return to that disclaimer at the start. If pretentiousness is something that is “someone else’s crime,” what happens when one ‘fesses up to it oneself?

Fox is, one suspects, bang on the money when he talks about class, but there’s a lacuna where other considerations ought to be. Gender, sexuality and race are, by and large, noticeable by their absence. Fox writes that “code-switching is a white, middle-class privilege that ignores broader problems of gender, race and sexuality,” which may well hold true when it is a white, middle-class person doing the switching. But equally, when one doesn’t speak the dominant code as a native tongue (as it were), one inevitably finds oneself assuming a socially-sanctioned language that is, by and large, codified by white, middle-class people. Speaking “improper” English isn’t a problem if you look and sound like “proper” English comes to you naturally. The essay would benefit from a more in-depth discussion on the complex intersections of masking, and race and sexuality, of passing and trying to assume an “authentic” identity that cuts against the grain of dominant social mores.

For all those faults, though, Fox’s essay is a powerful call to arms, extensively researched and compulsively readable, challenging us to reclaim a kind of polymorphous cultural vitality that all too often gets shouted down. Pretentiousness is strongest when it discusses the pop music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and its inordinate, almost dizzying frames of reference—“All those books, films, images and sounds out there: pop told its audience that they belonged to them too. Go and take them, learn from them. You do not need permission from a higher authority.” This, in a nutshell, is Fox’s message to the world, and a mighty fine message it is, too.

Dan Fox, Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, Fitzcarraldo Editions (London: 2016)

A Book A Week #3 | The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, by Lionel Shriver

Two Different Ways of Looking at the Apocalypse, No. 2

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, by Lionel Shriver

“It has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” says Frederic Jameson. Lionel Shriver’s latest book, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 tries valiantly but unsuccessfully to imagine either eschatology. It’s 2029, and with much of the world’s economy in collapse, a new global reserve currency has been created, the bancor, backed by gold, oil and various other natural resources. And this obscure machination, barely a blip on most peoples’ radar, is where the fun starts. The US sees this as an act of economic warfare, an attempt to supplant the “almighty dollar itself” and refuses to trade in this new currency. In an instant, the US is an international pariah: nobody will trade with a state that has suddenly gone rogue; what was once the most powerful economy on the planet is sent into a death-spiral.

Not that the Mandibles notice, though. America’s middle classes are like frogs in that regard—caught unaware by the steadily increasing temperature of the water that they find themselves in. The various Mandible tribes have their comfortable jobs and houses—until they don’t—and they have Grand Man’s lucrative portfolio to look forward to—until they don’t. For the patriarchal pension pot is rendered worthless at a stroke, the US treasury bonds, formerly the safest investment in the world, reneged on, and all gold deposits requisitioned by the government. More blips. The price of cabbage spirals to thirty dollars apiece. Blip. Toilet paper becomes unobtainable. Blip. The army goes from house to house, ransacking citizens for their wedding rings. Blip.

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047

Where The Mandibles excels is in its depiction of lives—and a nation—torn to shreds by these blips. Slowly but surely, as their descent from genteel poverty to outright deprivation continues, the entire extended Mandible clan descends on one house, all ten of them in a tiny brownstone. Shriver depicts with a scabrous wit and acute ear the dissolving psyches of the Mandible tribe and the nation in which they reside, not just the injustices writ large, but the minute psychic stress fractures that appear in the edifice of a middle-class family living in what increasingly resembles a siege.

Where Shriver convinces less is in her characters’ relentless attempts to pontificate on the roots of their crisis. One way or another, at least half of the Mandible tribe—from the aged patriarch to his ten year-old great-grandson—has a grasp of the minutest details of US Treasury policy dating back over a century, and none of them is afraid to show off about it. It speaks volumes that my local bookshop, Segrue Books, has The Mandibles shelved alongside economics texts, rather than fiction, under which the rest of Shriver’s oeuvre is to be found. Shriver herself gestures towards this, writing that “Goog’s know-it-all loquacity could abruptly get on [his father] Lowell’s nerves because he sounded just like him.” Lowell is, at the crisis’ outset, a professor of (what else?) economics at Georgetown—he might be happy to discourse endlessly on the ills of fiscal policy, but it’s rare that the mechanisms of apocalypse are as interesting as the sheer and bloody carnage of it all.

The Mandibles tries to imagine the end of American capitalism, and it very nearly does so. But in the end, it pulls back from doing so. For the problem with what Ruth Franklin, in an article on Shriver called “dystopian finance fiction” is that always comes back relentlessly to the structures (and strictures) of finance—from the paragraphs of jargon that are disguised as dinner-table conversation early on in the novel, or from hyperinflation making the dollar in your pocket nigh-worthless. It is, after all, easier to imagine the end of the world, than it is the end of capitalism.

Lionel Shriver, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, The Borough Press (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)

A Book A Week #1 | Beast, by Paul Kingsnorth

This review is the first in what I hope will be a new series, A Book A Week, which is what is sounds like: a review of a book, each and every week for a year. That’s 52 reviews of 52 books. The only caveat is that the book has to have been published in 2016–or, indeed 2017, if I ever get that far. In no small part, this is to get me reading more modern fiction, and to get me writing (or trying to write) about literature again. It’s something I’ve not done seriously for quite a while, and it’s something I’ve missed, rather. Anyway, here’s Beast.

Beast, by Paul Kingsnorth

Modernity is what exercises Paul Kingsnorth. But modernity, for him, is not something to be embraced uncritically. In his first novel, The Wake, modernity comes not only speaking French, conquering and building castles, but also, much more subtly, as the new and foreign “crist” slowly ousts the old gods, those whose being is tied to the stones and water of England. In his latest novel, however, modernity is not something that comes wearing chain-mail or chasubles —rather, it’s a manner of being in the world.

Enter Edward Buckmaster, a pilgrim of sorts, and a hermit. He has travelled travelled “from the east […] from the dead fens, because of everything that grew there, from what was lodged in the dark waters.” He travelled barefoot to the high moors because he had become “entwined in wanting, and it took [him] away from the stillness that is everything.” Buckmaster wandered to the moors, stumbling across a derelict farmhouse which he took to be his hermitage.

“I came here,” Buckmaster tells us, “to measure myself against the great emptiness. I came here to touch the void and leap naked into it with the shards of what I was falling around me, to have the void clean me of the smallness that I swam in. To come out of that white and empty with a small, sharp piece of that emptiness in me always, because that is all that can ever save me.” A kind of metaphysical Escape to the Country, perhaps.

Beast, Paul Kingsnorth

Paul Kingsnorth, Beast, Faber & Faber (London: 2016)

But Buckmaster is engaged in something deeper than that. He’s following a very old path indeed, the via negativa, a mode of thought that finds truth through ceaseless negation, a kind of Zen. The things of the world are but distractions from a form of knowledge that exists beyond anything that can be grasped, whether physically, or linguistically. The modern world is noisy; it whirls incessantly, and Buckmaster seeks a way out of this noise, into a world where “everything [is] white and split apart and nothing [is] known.” The impulse is to be “in the places where the light comes through, where people are thin on the ground, where the old spirits still mutter in the hedges and the stone rows.”

As Buckmaster steps farther away from the things of the world he steps further away from sanity, and further away from the strictures of language and human thought, and towards what one might uncharitably call madness. Buckmaster becomes obsessed with a beast, lithe and mysterious and black, and seeks it obsessively, combing the moors and the forests. As he seeks the beast, though, he becomes more and more bestial. His carefully-planned strategy for combing the moors disintegrates into a wild hunt; his body disintegrates, becoming impelled by pain, fear and hunger; his language disintegrates. He becomes the beast that he seeks, a ragged expression of the land around him.

It’s Kingsnorth’s language, though, that makes Beast sing. Sparse, taut, and rhythmic, Kingsnorth’s prose is alive with a visceral intensity. The incessant, driving rhythm of Beast’s sentences is something that can be felt intensely, in the pit of one’s stomach. It’s tempting to liken Kingsnorth’s spiralling, vertiginous sentences to those of Eimar McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, but hold that thought, because what Kingsnorth does here is entirely his own. Something unabashedly ancient, yet ironically utterly modern.

Paul Kingsnorth, Beast, Faber & Faber (London: 2016)