Monday, 29 August 2011

Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne: review

Dunthorne: Talented
I've reviewed Joe Dunthorne's Wild Abandon for The Financial Times. I think Dunthorne has got a lot to offer us, but see what I think of his new book HERE. (It's the FT so you have to be registered.)

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Sound of Trumpets by John Mortimer

...and I've also reviewed the recently republished The Sound of Trumpets by John Mortimer for The Observer. Check it out here, funsters.

Gods without Men by Hari Kunzru

I've reviewed Hari Kunzru's fabulous new novel, Gods without Men, for the Daily Telegraph. Check it out HERE.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Bernie Simpson: Into the Sea

A quick post: Llama Farmers were - still are - one of my all-time favourite bands. Their songs, with their sweetly surreal lyrics and crunchily grungy guitars, swoop emotionally and deeply and still, as they say, get me every time. I often listen to "Big Wheels", or, in particular, "Get the Keys and Go", if melancholy is in the air.

But the band were young, and as young bands go, they went. So I was very glad to find out (through the magic of Tumblr) that Bernie Simpson (the lead singer) has written a new song called Into the Sea. The video is embedded below. It's a lovely, lilting elegy for a lost love. Listen! Love!

Violence, and the Pernicious Influence of "Friends"

"Can I get?"

I was thinking, the other day, about Friends, and its role in the collapse of current morality. It arrived on our shores when I was about fourteen years old. It brought, to my particular cold, foggy and isolated corner of the country, visions of smart, wilful, witty twenty-somethings having the times of their lives in the greatest city of the world. We waited - cool and non-cool groups alike – avidly for the new episodes, crowding into the television room at school to catch "The One with the Giant Poking Device". I expect that, subconsciously, we all yearned to be like them – to have our apartments, to do what we wanted, to be without limits. To be free.

It is this latter that was causing me pause the other day. Watching Friends again, I realised that to a kooky man and woman, they are all selfish, practically amoral creatures who care only for the preservation of their bourgeois lives. Yes, we are meant to laugh at them – but their freedom was so tempting it was presented as a valid and useful life choice. (Mary Poppins has a lot to answer for, too – "Feed the birds! Don't invest your tuppence in the bank!" Quite frankly it's probably because of her that the economy is in such turmoil.) But back to those glossy twenty-somethings.

It's all to do with the subtleties of linguistics. I was brought up to say in shops, "May I have?" Friends brought the ubiquitous "Can I get?" Already the burden of power is shifted onto the asker. He or she is stating their potency, their ability to get – to actively take what they want. "Can I get a muffin?" implies the answer is already yes. The person giving it to you has abrogated their function. With "May I have," the power lies with the askee. They have the power to say no. ("Get", incidentally, has further connotations of "begetting" – but that's by the by.)

I suppose what I am getting at is these little erosions of civility have a ripple effect. I see it every day. When I was small we were told to say hello to people behind counters, to smile and be polite to everybody. We would walk to the shops, talk to the assistants, say please and thankyou, and toddle back with our comics and crisps. And that's how you learn that you are part of a society, that it isn't possible to go in and "get" what you want.  Now we go into shops and are faced with machines that beep at you and tell you there's an "unexpected item in the bagging area." This only fuels rage in my experience. We buy things online, not from a real person. We listen to personal (and yes, it's there in the "personal") stereo players on the train rather than look at each other, pretending that we exist only in a musical bubble of our own making. We stare glued to moving collections of pixels that variously chop each other, eat each other and punch each other, even though we are in our thirties and forties and ought really to be reading the papers and engaging with what is around us.

How can we expect civility, if everything we do discourages it? How can we expect violence to be contained, if we don't give people the mechanisms to deal with it? Those shiny, "empowered" friends, on their sofa in Central Perk (and there you go again - "Perk", as if they somehow deserved to sit in that cafĂ©), are symptomatic – emblematic – of a selfish and materialistic society. And it does trickle down, through language, through symbols, through aspirations.

What is the solution? I only have one. Disavow the supermarket machines. Buy things you need from shops. And most of all – smile.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London Riots, J G Ballard and The Liberators

Croydon burns; people film
Like many, I spent most of last night huddled in front of the news, watching in curious horror as the violence and looting seemed to spread, like a disease, from one blameless borough to the next. It is a pity that J G Ballard is not alive to consider them: in his last novel, the ominously titled Kingdom Come , a shopping centre became the focus of violence; in High-Rise , memorably, residents became feral and savage.

But these riots are not Ballardian. His concern the middle classes – journalists, politicians, children's writers – who, unable to cope with the psychological pressures of modern life, revert to primaeval tendencies. They have some layer of civilisation which is removed. This is also what I discussed in my novel The Liberators , where the villainous Luther-Ross brothers offered a version of freedom – the removal of conscience – which resulted in murders, violence and rioting in Oxford Circus.

These riots have a deeper significance, though. They are much more frightening than J G Ballard's explorations of the psyche, because we always knew, when reading them, that in our reality our consciences would never allow those things to happen – crucially, though, whilst we remained civilised. What Ballard pointed up was just how thin that layer is. And it's a layer that is completely absent from these rioters.

Perhaps what was more disturbing was the reaction of many passers by – to record the action, as if they too were participants in making a cultural artefact in which violence is king. I imagine that most of the teenagers doing this believed that they were somehow heroic, people from music videos or other distorted and strange versions of reality. I imagine also that these looters and rioters will be eagerly watching each other on their mobile phones, convinced that what they have done is somehow fictionalised through its very recording.

The Luther-Ross brothers would have no trouble recruiting the rioters to their band of Liberators. They have no consciences to be removed in the first place. What we need to do is systemic, and it needs to be done from the roots up, and it needs to be done now. It has nothing to do with cuts, or even poverty. It is to do with generational psychological flaws: and the only way to solve this is to get in there and talk, and show that every action, mindless or not, has its equal and opposite reaction. We need to show unity, and show these children that their actions are not a form of freedom. Freedom comes from self-regulation, not self-abandonment. Their actions will only lead them into slavery: psychological, and real.

**** A tidied up version of this article appears on The Periscope Post****

**** Read Memphis Barker's account of the Clapham riots ****

Monday, 1 August 2011

The Booker Longlist: A Travesty - A D Miller instead of Edward St Aubyn? Madness

Hadley: elegant
I know a lot has been said about this already, but this year's Booker Prize Longlist is mostly entirely mad. It is making my blood boil to the extent that you could probably power an entire city off me. The point about a prize for literary fiction, one would have thought, is that it had literary fiction on its longlist - and by that I mean serious, well-written and thoughtful fiction that doesn't think about whether it will sell in Japan. Crime and thrillers have their own prizes - surely the raison d'ĂȘtre of the Booker is to give space to serious fiction that might not otherwise gain any press at all? I can't talk about the books I haven't read, but I know that I have read at least two novels this year that beat A D Miller's appalling Snowdrops into a cocked hat. Snowdrops, with its clunky prose and guessable plot, embarrassing stereotypes and cringeworthy similes, doesn't deserve to be on this list at all. What about Tessa Hadley's elegant and beautiful The London Train? Or Tim Binding's overlooked The Champion? Or, more potently, Edward St Aubyn's sterling At Last?

A list that has something as inherently bad as Snowdrops on it is not a list that I can take seriously. Perhaps it's time for the Man Booker to rethink its position. Why have thriller writers like Stella Rimington as judges (whose own last novel was reviewed rather, well, feebly). For publicity points? Why have Chris Mullin, whose only literary effort to date has been some rather amiable diaries? No Pepys he. This isn't a proper list - it's like the weird woman in the supermarket taking tins off a shelf at random.

We'll have to wait and see what the shortlist looks like: if Miller's on it, I'm leaving the country if that's what passes for decent fiction these days.

THE LONG LIST Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape - Random House)
Sebastian Barry On Canaan's Side (Faber)
Carol Birch Jamrach's Menagerie (Canongate Books)
Patrick deWitt The Sisters Brothers (Granta)
Esi Edugyan Half Blood Blues (Serpent's Tail)
Yvvette Edwards A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld)
Alan Hollinghurst The Stranger's Child (Picador - Pan Macmillan)
Stephen Kelman Pigeon English (Bloomsbury)
Patrick McGuinness The Last Hundred Days (Seren Books)
A.D. Miller Snowdrops (Atlantic)
Alison Pick Far to Go (Headline Review)
Jane Rogers The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)
D.J. Taylor Derby Day (Chatto & Windus - Random House)