Systemic Egyptian Sexism

This slim novel was a pick from my local library: the real asset to any respectable bibliophile. Our new one is a big improvement on the last, as there is a limit to how many Agatha Christie books you can read before you need a change and the library did not really provide much else that I wanted to try. Hence my delight upon finding that my new one has not only a fine selection of fiction, but also a whole host of graphic novels and comics! So more on that will be coming soon.

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Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero (1983)

I love looking through library shelves. This book caught my eye while I was hunting for copies of books on my reading list and somehow it staying in my hands after I pulled it out, so of course I had to borrow it. It was a quick and rather haunting read, though some of its power seemed to go over my head.

The novel is semi biographical, as Nawal El Saadawi is writing the life story told to her in a women’s prison by a women on death row, Firdaus. There is some literary license taken with the tale, as some scenes are written to echo one another, creating the effect of a chorus or an inescapable pattern. This helps to contribute to the overall feeling of helplessness in Firdaus’s attempts to participate within or, conversely, to fight against the patriarchal society she was born into. I could not help but feel that this book, like my earlier reading of Mary Beard’s musings on historical sexism, was a narrowly filtered account of a life. Perhaps it is my privilege of living in a fairly democratic society but I have not grown up with the sense of men being unanimously evil to me, nor of people all wanting something from me in such a crude way. Yes, I have experienced and read much about sexism, but the black and white portrayal of men vs. women is not something that resonates with me. I simply pitied Firdaus for her ingrained hatred of men and her declarations that murdering a man was not a criminal act:

“No woman can be a criminal. To be a criminal one must be a man.” [136]

or

“I don’t want to be released […] and I want no pardon for my crime. For what you call my crime was no crime. “

I understand that her hatred arises from her lifelong suffering under the patriarchal rulings of her father, of her uncle, of her husband, and of her pimp. I see that her ability to trust was eroded by a series of failures in the people she trusted. But I found the whole story hugely depressing rather than some kind of feminist promise. I do not see murder or violence as a solution to murder and violence. The Norse mythologies and Old English legends taught me that much; blood vengeance and the ethos of revenge only lead to more blood.

It was a depressing read, following Firdaus through her miserable life, through her realisation that life as a prostitute is better than the lives of married women or “respectfully”-employed women, as it provides more money and thus freedoms. In the end, my feeling was mostly that she was relieved to be nearly finished with life, as it had not given her anything to miss.

Similar books: Alice Walker, The Colour Purple; Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis; Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart; Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale; Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber; Han Kang, The Vegetarian.

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An Astrological Mystery in History

This year I have been an advocate for the Icelandic tradition of Jólabókaflóðið. Anyone who knows me well will know that I spent a couple of years fixated on Old Icelandic and its mythology. It transpires that I am also a big fan of modern Icelandic traditions, as Jólabókaflóðið is a relatively new Christmas tradition involving the exchange of books and chocolates on Christmas Eve. Iceland is well-known for its prolific book industry and the run up to Christmas has been affectionately nicknamed the Yule Book Flood as many new titles are released for the holiday rush. The thought of curling up with a volume chosen by a loved one and some sweet treats is one that captured my imagination very quickly, so I convinced my nearest and dearest to join me in trying it out this year. My partner and I went over to our local bookshop and…well….chose books for ourselves, then bought each other what we wanted. We meant to try picking for each other but it was too hard to resist temptation! We have sworn to do it properly next year.

My choice was a book that caught my eye as a fusion of two of my great interests – antiquated beliefs in lunar astrology and a complex, long mystery novel. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, set in nineteenth-century New Zealand was just the ticket for keeping me company on my long return journey home from a family Christmas.

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Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (2013)

I really fell hard for this book, as from the very beginning it had such a whiff of an older style to it. On top of this, Catton really delves into the inner workings of her characters, with introspection and descriptions that really show you both the inside and out of each person she introduces to the plot. Truly it is not so much a story as a plot, since each new paragraph seemed to bring further tangles to the questions raised, until I could barely imagine how it could be resolved. I was hooked, reading hundreds of pages each day, carrying the giant tome around and reading in every moment…only to find that the ending was slightly unsatisfying, as the pace slowed and became choppy, as things seemed to start to resolve the questions but then answers were thrown at me in quick succession, until the final page where it became clear that the story was being sacrificed to Catton’s literary ideas. I saw that the brilliance of the characters, the tension that was built, the red herrings, and the complex narratives weaving in and out of one another had all been abandoned to structure and form. There were so many clever characters, twists, ideas, and mysteries. Catton is a master of the long-form mystery, that is certain. I just wish she hadn’t spoiled it at the end with the sense of a waning moon, since it meant that the novel lost its force – ending with bathos rather than a climatic bang that you would expect from a whodunnit. But then this is no typical mystery book, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much for the first seven hundred pages.

Catton’s greatest strength is her ability to create realistic, likeable characters, that are sympathetic even in their ugliest behaviours. Each of the twelve zodiacal characters (each assigned to one of the zodiac signs) is subtly aligned to the stereotypical traits of each sign – for example, Benjamin Löwenthal, the man who runs the local newspaper, is the Gemini. Rather than using the sign’s duality to give the man a twin brother or make his moods shift from happy to angry, Catton cleverly depicts him as a man often torn between two choices that he is unable to choose from. I found it interesting to see how she wove these characteristics into her cast and it certainly gave a breadth of personalities into her story. As for uglier behaviours, there was a lot of overt racism in the story, as four of the Zodiac are native, Chinese, or Jewish (as well as sexism towards the female characters). This came in two flavours: either a blatant disregard for the humanity of these characters, as with the unpleasant, rich, and arrogant Dick Mannering violently threatening Quee Long for information or Edgar Clinch undressing the drugged Anna Wetherell and bathing her naked body without her consent. The other – and the more complex – was with likeable, even witty characters casually dehumanising the non-white or non-Christian characters, as in the following exchange between Thomas Balfour and Te Rau Tauwhare:

“Give us your name again? Your name.”
Ko Te Rau Tauwahre toku ingoa.”
“Crikey,” Balfour said. “Give us just the name part. […]
“Te Rau Tauwahre.”
“Can’t say that either,” Balfour said. He shook his head. “Well—what do your friends call you, then—your white-man friends? What did Crosbie call you?”
“Te Rau.”
“Not much better, is it?” Balfour said. “I’d be a fool to try, wouldn’t I? How about I call you Ted? That’s a good British name for you. Short for Theodore or Edward—you can choose. Edward’s a nice name.”
Tauwhare did not respond.
“I’m Thomas,” Balfour said, placing his hand on his heart. “And you’re Ted.” He leaned over and patted Tauwhare on the crown of his head. The man flinched, and Balfour, in surprise, quickly snatched his hand back and took a step backwards. [96]

It was a book with many intelligent moments like this, where we are able to see how repulsive such behaviour is without Catton having to explain this outright. It is the body  language, the sly comments here and there that truly demonstrate how arrogant and inappropriate white people were in the nineteenth century. These microaggressions, on top of the more overt violence in the novel show a more nuanced view of society — and one that we do not often see in history books.

Alongside these important social messages, Catton’s book is long enough that it can leisurely shift in moods and tones to include some really moody beautiful moments, some lighthearted wit and banter, some flashbacks and hints at earlier naïvety in her characters. I really enjoyed some of the later moments with the wonderful character Emery Staines, who is only introduced deep into the story, after much speculation. His sweet nature reminded me strongly of a favourite character from the second book in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series — the dreamy young Ivan, who becomes one of Anne’s bosom friends. He brings lots of brightness to the story after some dark and vicious actions and plots, as in the following exchanges with one of the central villains of the story:

“How do I paint a picture of my father? He is a reading man, and he is well regarded in his profession, but he has a queer sense of things. For example: he tells me my inheritance comprises only his fiddle and his shaving razor—saying that if a man is to make his way in the world, all he needs is a good shave and the mean to make some music.” [734]

and

“What would you say to a gold sovereign?”
“I don’t believe I’ve ever addressed one before,” said Staines.
Carver stared at him. [735]

He also has a quirky love of nature and life, as evidenced by his laissez faire approach to his own destiny, to human society and conventions. He also has peculiar, but totally sympathetic, feelings about life, as in his rambling to fellow passenger, Anna Wetherell, on a ship surrounded by birds:

“I suppose I ought to go and wake the others. It’s too perfect a sight to be missed.”
“Don’t,” the boy said. “Oh, don’t. Would you mind? I couldn’t bear to have a crowd of people jostling about. Not at this hour. Somebody’s bound to say “Instead of the cross, the albatross”, or “he stoppeth one of three”, and then the rest of the journey would be quite lost to argument—everyone trying to piece together the poem, I mean, and quarrelling over which pieces go where, which each man trumping the next, and showing off his memory. Let’s just enjoy it for ourselves. Dawn is such a private hour, don’t you think? Such a solitary hour. One always hears that said of midnight, but I think of midnight as relatively companionable—everyone together, sleeping in the dark. [627]

But Staines is just one of many charming characters that Catton takes the space to depict while unravelling her complex plot. Sometimes they are given their own chapters or segments, where we follow them in a part of the story, sensing their personalities through interactions with others or opinions about the mystery. Other times, we meet secondary characters through the viewpoint character, which is often just as effective, in this example early on, after Balfour has offered to take on the task of making enquiries on his friend’s behalf:

In fact this was the kind of delegation to which Alastair Lauderback was accustomed, as a man of means. It was not strange to him that Balfour should devote his Saturday to straightening out another man’s affairs. He did not pause to wonder whether Balfour could be risking his own reputation, by associating himself with a story of cuckoldry, blackmail, murder, and revenge, and nor did he spare a thought for how Balfour might be recompensed. He felt only relief. An invisible order had been restored: the same kind of order that ensured his boiled egg was ready every morning, and the dishes cleared away. [80-81]

I thought this was such a clever observation about the entitlement that wealthy and powerful people have, as when people assume themselves to be above others, they fail to consider the needs of those they perceive to be beneath them. Such comments are so true to life and really bring the people Catton writes of to a higher level of realism, even while remaining very artistic and entertaining. Another such witticism reminded me of someone I know very well, in a way that seemed to peel away another secret layer of his personality:

For although a man is judge by his actions, by what he has said and done, a man judges himself by what he is willing to do, by what he might have said, or might have done [142]

There were some extremely beautifully written moments in the book, where the story seemed to have space for art. Some were quietly slipped into dialogue, as characters seemed to transcend their own speech patterns to twinkle more brightly, merging with the narrator’s more beautiful style, as with the phrase: “When a man’s full of opium it’s like he’s made of water.” [212] At another tense moment, when Harald Nilssen is being blackmailed by the town gaoler, he “ha[s] a vision of a cat tapping a small rodeo back and forth with the flat of its paw, its claws in sheath.” [141] Finally, within one of my favourite scenes in the book, the narrative almost reaches the height of poetry, as Catton describes Anna Wetherell and Aubrey Gascoigne in a single moment: 

Anna went to the armoire to fetch the brandy, and Gascoigne sat down upon the bed to light his cigarette—and just for a moment they were fixed in a tableau, the kind rendered on a plate, and sold at a fair as an historical impression: he with his wrists on his knees, his head bowed, his cigarette dangling from his knuckles—she with her hand on her hip, her weight upon one leg, pouring him a measure. But they were not lovers, and it was not their room. [233]

Gascoigne was my favourite character, really, as I found he brought a wry humour and kindness wrapped in cleverness to any scene he was in. At first he appeared quite brusque, but this was slowly revealed to unveil an old romantic with an instinct for friendship, as shown in his rescuing Anna and in befriending the lonely stranger in town, Walter Moody. The moment where he and Moody eat breakfast together is so real it felt quite palpable, when Moody tries not to offend Gascoigne by rushing their meal, though he wants to pick up his long-awaited luggage.

Speaking of cleverness, the most brilliant twists in the story’s mystery lay in two places: firstly, the devil very much lay in the details here, and secondly, in the most esoteric answers reachable only through research. I was in awe when we discovered on of the brilliant ways in which gold was concealed, replaced, and revealed to be sewn into the boning and lining of five dresses at different times in the story. Elsewhere, there was some ingenuity about a signature being designed to be read two ways – in order to cover the signatory in case he was exposed as using a false name. The esoteric mysteries, on the other hand, are not explained directly within the story and I was left feeling quite dissatisfied until I chased for the answers myself. One excellent source was a book discussion blog where one reader explained the burning question I was left with, as I was unaware that the story contained an aspect of magical realism in the two Astral Twin characters, Anna Wetherell and Emery Staines. More specifically, at one point Anna is able to sign a contract with Emery’s signature perfectly, despite being illiterate and never having seen the signature before. I came away feeling annoyed that I was expected to think she just knew his character well enough to sign it. However, as I found, there was a better, though more mysterious and magical explanation:

Finally the Astral Twins – Anna and Emery, are a clear indication of the relevance of astrology in the book.
On the subject of the astral twins and the ambiguity throughout the book, there are numerous subtleties that run throughout, that on first reading may not be apparent. I would definitely like to hear others theory on their relationship, mine is as follows.  Anna takes the laudanum overdose, which effects [sic] Emery, leading him to fall into the shipping container, unconscious (in the last chapter Anna and Emery both stumble and fall at the same time). Unnoticed he is nailed in and taken on board the Godspeed. Later Anna shoots herself, but the bullet is transferred to Emery, who is seen spurting blood in a “ghostly” manner by Moody. The ship wrecks and Emery washes ashore, but is sustained by Anna who becomes thin and weak despite eating normally because she was sustaining him, Emery taking her opium habit from her (he becomes addicted at the time that she quits – she states that she took a lot of opium yet felt no effects of it when Gascoigne is interrogating her in her hotel room) and the way that she is able to sign his name even though she is illiterate. I believe that there are many more subtleties throughout the book that I probably missed out on. [user maverickf1]

With this understood, I am happy to bow my head to Catton’s cleverness, conceding my prior frustrations, though this is not clear at all from the book itself and I wonder at the reason for leaving this mystery out of the book. Overall, though, I really enjoyed this novel and found myself certain that I will one day read it again and discover even more from the second reading. I just doubt it will happen soon, at just shy of 850 pages!

Similar books: Ursula Le Guin, Tehanu; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes; Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anna Karenina; Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red; Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Petals of Blood; L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea.

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The Historical Origins of Ballardian Fiction

There’s a funny juxtaposition in my life at the moment, as I am enjoying a relaxing holiday while reading lots of depressing books…The Road and now Empire of the Sun. This is another book that has been on my list for a long time, as I grew up with Ballard as one of the family staples – along with Dostoevsky and Dumas. Unlike these latter two, I never felt a rebellious urge to avoid Ballard, which means that I am very familiar with his writing – Crash, High Rise, Super-Cannes…But our copy of Empire of the Sun was in storage with many of our books for a long time and so I am only now reading this essential key to Ballardian lore.

It became clearer and clearer to me how Ballard’s key influences stemmed from his wartime experiences and the strange juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, luxury and then imprisonment and starvation that he lived through in some of his most formative years. It seems so clear how his fixation on aviation, on the breakdown of human societies, on the inconstancy of material wealth, and on the transience of people’s loyalties came about. All of these themes that run through his books – the violence, glamour, and chaos – these are all showcased in this narrative exploration of his boyhood in Shanghai, first as a young member of the upper echelon of society in the city’s International Settlement, then as a displaced scavenger and internee fighting to survive alone in the city, local countryside, and in the Lunghua internment camp.

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J. G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun (1984)

Much of the power of Ballard’s account stems from his accurate, and often alienating, use of a child’s voice to describe the events around him. This results in a tone that can be cruel and unsettling, as is emphasised by the reactions of the adults around him to his pragmatic acceptance of his changed circumstances. For example, the depression of his fellow inmates simply confuses him:

The sight of so many adult men unwilling to cope with the reality of the camp always puzzled Jim [166]

He is also deeply suspicious of adults, as he quickly learns how indifferent they are to his survival:

For some reason he still liked Mrs Vincent, a handsome if frayed blonde, although her nerves were always stretched and she had never made the slightest attempt to care for him. He knew that if he starved to death in his bunk she would find some polite reason for doing nothing to help him. [133]

“Here you are, Jim.” Dr Ransome handed Jim his potato. He had taken a small bite, but most of the sweet pith was intact. “It’s a good one, you’ll enjoy it.”
“Say, thanks…” He swiftly devoured the second potato. Dr Ransome’s gesture puzzled him. The Japanese were kind to children, and the two American sailors had befriended him in a fashion, but Jim knew that the English were not really interested in children. [111]

When he is adopted by adults in the novel, he understands their ulterior motives, whether to sell him or use him to run errands, and accepts that being abandoned by these people is simply a fact of survival:

He and Basie had collaborated at the detention centre in order to stay alive, but Basie, rightly, had dispensed with Jim as soon as he could leave for the camps. [96]

He has few encounters with children or young people in the novel, which only heightens the sense that he is displaced not only in location and in family-situ, but also in age. The one youth he encounters early on in Shanghai is only interested in robbing and maiming him, and it is telling that the surrounding adults are entirely disinterested in this event:

The youth reached forward, swearing in Chinese, and seized Jim’s wrist. His fingers fumbled at the metal strap, trying to release the watch-clasp. The peasant women ignored him, chickens asleep on their laps. Jim knocked away the youth’s hand, and felt fingers grip his forearm. Inside his leather jacket he had drawn a knife, and was about to sever Jim’s hand at the wrist. [41]

Jim’s reaction to this event is similarly unnatural, as he later remarks idly that “there were certain advantages in being poor. No one could be bothered to cut off his hands.” [54] Interestingly, this dissociation between people is not something new to Shanghai – merely new to the Europeans and Americans living there. The local population has been dehumanised by the imposed ruling class of the internationals long before this point:

The nine Chinese servants would be there, but in Jim’s mind, and in those of the other British children, they remained as passive and unseeing as the furniture. [7]

The mood of the city is one of competition and unemotional, impersonal cruelty. I found it telling that this mood appears in many of Ballard’s novels, as he writes of a character discovering such a off-putting society or mood, then becoming immersed in it themselves, unable to leave like some kind of victim to Stockholm Syndrome. Similarly, violence and gore is all over the city, even before the comfort of the internationals is disrupted by the Japanese invasion. Some of these gruesome images were described by Ballard in such a way that there is something disturbingly lovely about them. For example, the recurring image of the floating coffins on the banks of Shanghai:

Every night in Shanghai those Chinese too poor to pay for the burial of their relatives would launch the bodies from the funeral piers at Nantao, decking the coffins with paper flowers. Carried away on one tide, they came back on the next, returning to the waterfront of Shanghai with all the other debris abandoned by the city. Meadows of paper flowers drifted on the running tide, and clumped in miniature floating gardens around the old men and women, the young mothers and small children, whose swollen bodies seemed to have been fed during the night by the patient Yangtze. [26]

Or another instance, when Jim breaks into him empty home and finds his parents’ bedroom disturbed with the aftermath of his mother’s seizure by the Japanese:

His mother’s clothes were scattered across the unmade bed, and open suitcases lay on the floor. Someone had swept her hairbrushes and scent bottles from the dressing-table, and talcum covered the polished parquet. There were dozens of footprints in the powder, his mother’s bare feet whirling within the clear images of heavy boots, like the patterns of complicated dances set out in his parents’ foxtrot and tango manuals. [44]

It is remarkable how Ballard is able to transform these traumatising moments, horrible things he saw and experienced, into something quite sublime. There are points where it is clear how far the former child has changed in response to the circumstances he is placed in, but elsewhere he is disturbingly normal, as though there is a face to humanity which he does not pretend is unnatural. This acceptance of a bestial, primitive nature to people is one of the strengths to Ballard’s writing, and it was telling to see how it grew in him, as he did in that strange unsentimental city. He writes of his frustration with the British, with their impressions of “a children’s book landscape of English meadows that he had never known” [4] and with their fixations on their homeland, even in the internment camp.

I often struggled, as I did reading The Road last week, to sit and read this book with a meal, as Ballard describes the unanimous starvation of the Chinese in Shanghai, of the prisoners, and – eventually – of the Japanese once the Americans joined the war effort after Pearl Harbour. There were so many gut-wrenching descriptions of desperation, like drinking from corpse-infested water, burying fellow inmates in the shallow earth, and of the indifference to the inevitability of death. Bodies became either commodities to be raided for potential use or used for extra rations before the wardens realised that they were dead. There were a good many queasy moments, such as when Jim was eating tins of warm spam, surrounded by corpses, or feeding it to a dead, or dying, Japanese soldier, cutting his fingers on the teeth of the cold mouth. In one awful scene, one among many but remarkable for the grotesque sense of movement around the stillness of the corpse:

Jim stopped by a shallow irrigation ditch, in which an air force private lay with his hands tied behind him. Hundreds of flies devoured his face, enclosing it in a noisy mask. [263]

This novel is not easy reading, certainly, but it is essential to any understanding of Ballard’s writing. Similarly, it reads as an impartial account of the horrible events surrounding Shanghai following the attack on Pearl Harbour, as Ballard’s young self is shown to have no bias in terms of which side he supports. He remarks throughout the book that no real war has sides and that he cannot decide who he is rooting for, merely appealing to any sympathetic person nearby to survive the chaos. Even his mission – to locate his parents and return to their home – changes, as he becomes familiar with the internment camp and feels that it is the safest place to be, with structures and rules that he has learnt to manipulate to survive. This book is essential reading, though perhaps save it for after the Christmas holidays.

Similar books: William Golding, Lord of the Flies; Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; Cormac McCarthy, The Road; Han Suyin, …And the Rain My Drink; George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London.

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Post-Apocalyptic Fiction and Self-Reflection

There is a real fascination with apocalypse scenarios and the post-apocalyptic works, which had been rearing its head in the last few years. Mad Max, The Walking Dead, Warm Bodies, and The World’s End, in film and TV; Stand Still. Stay Silent and The Walking Dead (again), in comics; and Portal and the Fallout series, in games. People seem to be really interested in exploring a future where civilisation had been destroyed or disfigured beyond recognition. There is something of this same interest in the surge of dystopian stories, like Man in the High Castle, The Handmaid’s Tales, or more recently, Power and Vox. People are drawn to these safe places in which we can imagine our worst fears realised and devastating. Perhaps we are fuelled by the numerous warnings that or current way of living is not sustainable, that we are destroying the planet, coming future generations. Perhaps it is a way of putting ones own problems into perspective. I certainly found the latter to be especially true in my reading this week.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006)

This was the sort of book which raises your hackles, as a reader comfortable enough to enjoy the luxuries of life in a first-world country in the twenty-first century. Things that most of us take for granted, such as food, shelter, health, and bodily safety, are not so easily won in the world of The Road. McCarthy’s two main characters, an unnamed father and son, are travelling along an unnamed road to reach the coast. The landscape is one that is burnt, if not still burning, unforgiving, and hostile. It is late in the year and the elements are against them. Horrifying bands of people travel around searching for human prey to enslave or eat. One description of such a group, amid the sparse, often bleak, events of the majority of the novel felt like a sensory overload, which amplified how shocking such an encounter would have been to the characters:

Dressed in clothing of every description, all wearing red scarves at their necks. Red or orange, as close to red as they could find. He put his hand on the boy’s head. Shh, he said. What is it, Papa? People on the road. Keep your face down. Dont look. No smoke from the dead fire. Nothing to be seen of the cart. He wallowed into the ground and lay watching across his forearm. An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three-foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings. Lanyards at the wrist. Some of the pipes were threaded through with lengths of chain fitted at their ends with every manner of bludgeon. They clanked past, marching with a swaying gait like wind-up toys. Bearded, their breath smoking through their masks. Shh, he said. Shh. The phalanx following carried spears or lances tasseled with ribbons, the long blades hammered out of trucksprings in some crude forge up-country. The boy lay with his face in his arms, terrified. They passed two hundred feet away, the ground shuddering lightly. Tramping. Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each. All passed on. They lay listening. Are they gone, Papa? Yes, they’re gone. Did you see them? Yes. [48]

The paucity of the landscape and the slow pace of the book, paired with the plain language, unmarked dialogue, anonymous characters, and McCarthy’s choice to forego punctuation all work together to create a timeless mood of desolation and scarcity. These stylistic choices helped to emphasise his imagined devastated world, as some scenes were muddled up and hard to follow, without the guiding principles of punctuation to show who is speaking, especially in the rare scenes where a third character appears. For example, at one point, the pair confront a thief that tried to steal their hard-won stores of food and essentials:

Dont do this, man. You didnt mind doing it to us. I’m begging you. Papa, the boy said. Come on. Listen to the kid. You tried to kill us. I’m starving, man. You’d have done the same. You took everything. Come on, man. I’ll die. I’m going to leave you the way you left us. Come on. I’m begging you. He pulled the cart back and swung it around and put the pistol on top and looked at the boy. Let’s go, he said. And they set out along the road south, with the boy crying and looking back at the nude and slatlike creature standing there in the road shivering and hugging himself. Oh Papa, he sobbed. Stop it. I cant stop it. What do you think would have happened to us if we hadnt caught him? Just stop it. I’m trying. [129]

There were very few moments of kindness in this harsh world. Rather, every group struggles to survive, some preying on others, some scavenging from the long-dead. Often, it appeared that the only thing keeping the unnamed man from falling into similar acts of savagery was the esteem of his son, as he aimed to remain “one of the good guys”. The conversations between father and son in this hostile environment were chilling to read, as it is horrible to imagine having to speak to a child about such things. For example:

Are we going to die now? No. What are we going to do? We’re going to drink some water. Then we’re going to keep going down the road. Okay. [44]

Dont be afraid, he said. If they find you you are going to have to do it. Do you understand? Shh. No crying. Do you hear me? You know how to do it. You put it in your mouth and point it up. Do it quick and hard. Do you understand? Stop crying. Do you understand? I think so. No. Do you understand? Yes. Say yes I do Papa. Yes I do Papa. He looked down at him. All he saw was terror. He took the gun from him. No you dont, he said. [57]

The boy lay with his head in the man’s lap. After a while he said: They’re going to kill those people, arent they? Yes. Why do they have to do that? I dont know. Are they going to eat them? I dont know. They’re going to eat them, arent they? Yes. And we couldnt help them because then they’d eat us too. Yes. [65]

On top of powerful dialogue, McCarthy’s descriptions of the dying world are often beautiful in their desolation. The earth is cold, covered in ash, burning and human creations are swiftly falling to ruin. The father and son travel along a merciless road, avoiding other travellers and searching each building they come across for anything that can help to keep them alive. In one place, the father searches a trailer, hoping to find food:

There was a skylight about a third of the way down the roof and he made his way to it in a walking crouch. The cover was gone and the inside of the trailer smelled of wet plywood and that sour smell he’d come to know. He had a magazine in his hip pocket and he took it out and tore some pages from it and wadded them and got out his lighter and lit the papers and dropped them into the darkness. A faint whooshing. He wafted away the smoke and looked down into the trailer. The small fire burning in the floor seemed a long way down. He shielded the glare of it with his hand and when he did he could see almost to the rear of the box. Human bodies. Sprawled in every attitude. Dried and shrunken in their rotted clothes. The small wad of burning paper drew down to a wisp of flame and then died out leaving a faint pattern for just a moment in the incandescence like the shape of a flower, a molten rose. Then all was dark again. [24]

Such nightmarish visions are aplenty in this novel, as they walk in alleys lined with bodies, finding burnt remains everywhere. What is unclear is how some people survived this apocalyptic event, but it was something that ceased to matter, as their suffering seemed either equivalent or greater than those who had died quickly. The father tries to shield his child from this gore but it is impossible when surrounded by horrifying sights in every place they go, even in unexpected places. For example, in a general store they are searching:

He took the boy’s hand and led him out but the boy had already seen it. A human head beneath a cakebell at the end of the counter. Dessicated. Wearing a ballcap. Dried eyes turned sadly inward. Did he dream this? He did not. [93]

Even the few normal things that are scraped out of this twisted world are tainted with the reminders of their mortality, rare moments of peace spoilt by the truth of things, whether eating a normal meal sitting down indoors or swimming in the sea:

He rose and let the blanket fall to the sand and then stripped out of his coat and out of his shoes and clothes. He stood naked, clutching himself and dancing. Then he went running down the beach. So white. Knobby spinebones. The razorous shoulder blades sawing under the pale skin. Running naked and leaping and screaming into the slow roll of the surf. By the time he came out he was blue with cold and his teeth were chattering. He walked down to meet him and wrapped him shuddering in the blanket and held him until he stopped gasping. But when he looked the boy was crying. What is it? he said. Nothing. No, tell me. Nothing. It’s nothing. [109]

They ate slowly out of bone china bowls, sitting at opposite sides of the table with a single candle burning between them. The pistol lying to hand like another dining implement. [105]

It was hard to read this book, sitting comfortably with some lunch, reading about people chewing hay to stay alive, but it felt like an important reminder that the life we lead is not normal, is a construction, and that not everyone on the planet is able to enjoy the luxuries of first-world life. It took McCarthy’s transposition of modern America into a desolate landscape to really hit this message home. It is when the familiar is transformed that we truly understand how fragile the normal modern world really is, as in one especially powerful comparison made by the father early on:

He thought if he lived long enough the world at last would all be lost. Like the dying world the newly blind inhabit, all of it slowly fading from memory. [9]

His character is quite reflective, as he aims to reconcile himself to the new reality he has to survive within, keeping his child alive and having lost his wife to suicide. His view of the world is fatalistic and one of staving off doom, as he fights to keep optimistic for his son, while believing everything to be entirely futile:

He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it. [67]

It is a depressing fact that the future of humanity is unlikely to be much less bleak than this book, unless we are able to reverse the damage we have already done to the planet with future developments in technology and greater care for the environment. It makes you wonder whether reading such books like this, which highlight that we must strive to protect the base essentials for safe and comfortable living – shelter, food, a collaborative society – and protect our planet, perhaps people would be more careful to reduce their own impact, however large or small. I would be interested to know whether the recent popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction in print and film has had any impact on environmentalism, or whether it is just entertainment.

Similar books: Minna Sundberg, Stand Still. Stay Silent; John Steinbeck, The Pearl; Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale; Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis; Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea.

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Meeting the King of Horror

Whew. That was a first. There was me thinking Dracula was scary. What’s interesting, is that like the famous vampire story, Stephen King’s Pet Sematary relies heavily on the slow build up of the characters and setting, before unleashing anything supernatural. Unlike, say, an Edgar Allen Poe story, where you are quickly introduced to the unnerving or spooky, there was nothing outwardly unsettling, only hints that could be your own imposition of the genre onto an otherwise normal story. I had never read any Stephen King before, but it had been on my list for a long time. Another triumph of reading bingo against procrastination, yes.

Stephen King, Pet Sematary (1983)

In many ways, I really underestimated this book. King presented everything to me in a naive style that made me forget his genius for horror, despite having the harrowing experience of watching the film adaptation of another of his novels, Misery. I found that the parochial introduction of Ludlow and its friendly American residents really put me off guard. The stereotypical, white, nuclear family of heterosexual couple, two kids and a charming pet similarly prepared me mentally for a harmless traipse through a dull family tale with mediocre adventures. I’m glad I was wrong!

The first hints of excitement hit me as King describes the first supernatural happening. It was as though the effect was all the stronger for my having forgotten I was reading horror and that I ought to be expecting the fear. I was impressed by King’s ability to distract me from the genre, and for the way that he avoided obvious gore, preferring to slowly develop the mood of unease and fear. Early on, I remember recalling that I found myself admiring his use of the main character – Louis, the father. As events become spookier, Louis is shown to deliberately rationalise and delude himself, finding excuses for things, even while admitting that he is doing this. It felt exactly real, like the reaction anyone would have, which just allows him to sink deeper into the mystery. For example, when Louis finds the last available plane tickets, which he needs in order to send his family away, he resists believing that this is anything but coincidence:

It’s almost like magic, Louis thought, hanging up the telephone, and Jud’s voice responded promptly: It’s been full of power before, and I’m ascared … Oh, get fucked, he told Jud’s voice rudely. I’ve learned to accept a great many strange things in the last ten months, my good old friend – if you’d told me the half of them, I would have told you my mind would probably snap under the strain. But am I ready to believe that a haunted patch of ground can influence airline ticketing? I don’t think so. [318]

The novel is a masterpiece in foreshadowing; King plants ideas in our heads, letting his readers explore numerous horrifying ideas as they read, before surprising them with something even worse. In this way he uses your imagination against you, until you are in a similar state of mind as the tortured characters, sensing doom and suffering around every corner. For example, I found that my mind was working in overdrive from the moment that a scalpel is taken from a bag. In other places, I felt less sure about King’s use of narrative techniques. I nearly wanted to throw the book at the wall when he feigns pulling the old “it was all a dream” trick. It is clear that this was used to heighten the sense of loss and devastation that the family is feeling at this point, but it felt like a cheap move after the brilliantly executed shock twist in the previous chapter. In the middle of a pure happy scene where Louis and his son fly a kite, King reveals for the first time that the child is about to die:

‘Kite flyne!’ Gage cried out to his father, and Louis put his arm around Gage’s shoulders and kissed the boy’s cheek, in which the wind had bloomed a wild rose. ‘I love you, Gage,’ he said – it was between the two of them, and that was all right. And Gage, who now had less than two months to live, laughed shrilly and joyously. ‘Kite flyne! Kite flyne, Daddy!’ [241]

The placement of this revelation after such a sweet memory the likes of which many readers will have for themselves only intensified the shock value of the revelation, as I found myself surprised by the presence of human grief in response to natural events in a horror story. It was as though I forgot that love, family, and the negative feelings that sometime accompany those treasures have a place in the genre. Things like that, strewn throughout the book really emphasised to me that King is not just a pulp horror writer, but a damn fine writer who just happens to be the master of truly creepy horror stories, drawing not just on monsters but on the psychological horrors that are often found in life, then amplifying these into realistic nightmares, with supernatural elements.

It was incredible to feel myself under King’s spell as I read. Whether at home or in public on my commute, the book had me and would not relinquish my mind even after I closed it. I was particularly scared when the lights flickered on the tube and we were told that the train had to stop as they needed to remove “…something” from the tracks. You can imagine where my mind was, as I was reading the climax of the book’s action at this point. The use of suspense seems to be different in the horror genre, as the sense of fear needs to be built up carefully, gently, without overdoing it. Normally, suspense is only developed in the approach to key events, such as in a mystery novel, before the great reveal, or when a detective is chasing a suspect or in danger during an investigation. In typical fiction, suspense is used towards the end as the author brings all the threads of the story together into a final flourish (or into a bathetic slump, as seems to happen more often in modern fiction lately). But King uses it sparingly, which allows the most dramatic moments to pop by contrast to the mundane.

One of the scariest ideas in the book was something completely plausible in life. The mother, Rachel, reveals that her phobic-aversion to death and anything remotely related to death arises from a traumatic experience in her childhood when her older sister developed a spinal disfigurement. The pain twists her into a cruel, miserable, hateful creature to the young Rachel, who is forced into a caretaker-like role, culminating in being alone with her sister the moment she dies. The way King relates this tale is so chilling, so disturbing, that every reference to Rachel’s childish association of this painful death with a picture of “Oz the Gweat and Tewwible” that arises later in the novel carrying a fresh reminder of this horror. I also loved the description of Louis’s relief of hearing this revelation, as follows:

Louis Creed was no psychiatrist, but he knew that there are half-buried things in the terrain of any life, and that human beings seem compelled to go back to these things and pull at them, even though they cut. Tonight Rachel had pulled almost all of it out, like some grotesque and stinking rotted tooth, its crown black, its nerves infected, its roots fetid. It was out. Let that last noxious cell remain; if God was good it would remain dormant, except in her deepest dreams. That she had been able to remove as much as she had was well nigh incredible – it did not just speak of her courage; it clarioned it. Louis was in awe of her. He felt like cheering. [224]

That isn’t to say that King doesn’t also have a mastery over the supernatural elements of the story. His descriptions of some of the creatures in the story are truly freaky in the midst of his vision of the dark, misty forest:

Louis opened his mouth again, the words What was that? already on his tongue. Then a shrill, maniacal laugh came out of the darkness, rising and falling in hysterical cycles, loud, piercing, chilling. To Louis it seemed that every joint in his body had frozen solid and that he had somehow gained weight, so much weight that if he turned to run he would plunge down and out of sight in the swampy ground. The laughter rose, split into dry cackles like some rottenly friable chunk of rock along many fault-lines; it reached the pitch of a scream, then sank into a guttural chuckling noise that might have become sobs before it faded out altogether. [140]

All in all, Stephen King truly impressed me again. Will I be hurrying to read everything else he’s ever written? Not so much. I’m not a masochist; I want to recover from that, so my next read is going to be something light-hearted, for once. I think I have earned a break from the horrors, both real and imagined.

Similar books: Henry James, The Turn of the Screw; Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby; R. L. Stein, Monster Blood; Bram Stoker, Dracula.

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Legends of the Big City

It felt appropriate to be reading about life in the big city as I settle back into London, readjusting to the unfeeling masses weaving through the underground tunnels and narrow winding streets. It was easy to slip into the busy environment of Jay MacInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, though I nearly missed my stop a free times. This book was one long overdue on my reading list, as it was a recommendation from a beloved teacher of mine, seven years ago now. Another one that made its way onto the reading bingo list I have been working through diligently of late. So, as I read, I found myself wondering whether she was imagining that my life in London would be quite as adventurous as the narrator’s. (She might have been disappointed to learn that there was a scarcity of models, late night parties, and cocaine.)

Jay MacInerney, Bright Lights, Big City (1984)

In this novel, MacInerney draws upon a healthy tradition of literary semi-autobiography, using his own youthful experiences of life in New York. What he illustrated particularly well was the division of cultures and classes in the city, as well as the separation of individuals from their families residing outside the narrow sphere of the titular “Big City”. I’ll get into this below.

Firstly, though the depiction of New York is one full of people from different walls of life, MacInerney’s narrator has an unusual and quite lonely social life, where he only associates with colleagues, a party boy, “good time” kind of friend, and a vast collection of strangers that flicker through his world during a night out, only to vanish back into the city again. Most of the narrator’s social sphere consists of little class, educated white people, and the diverse cast of the city are used as decoration rather than as serious inhabitants of the city. For example, MacInerney lightly touches on the tensions between different groups in the cities, with minorities such as the Jewish, gay, or immigrant communities facing petty bullying, derision, and general suspicion. 

At the Thirty-fourth Street stop there is a commotion at the door.
“Zact change,” the bus driver says. A young man standing by the change box is trying to work his hand into the pockets of his skin-tight Calvin Kleins. Peach Lacoste shirt, a mustache that looks like a set of plucked eyebrows. Under one arm he clutches a small portfolio and a bulky Japanese paper umbrella. He rests the umbrella against the change box. “Step aside,” the bus driver says. “People getting wet out there.”
“I know all about wet, big guy.”
“I just bet you do, Queenie.”
Finally he gets his change together and deposits the coins one at a time, with flourishes, and then cocks his hip at the bus driver.
“Move to the rear, Queenie,” the bus driver says. “I know you know how to do that.”
The young man walks down the aisle with burlesque moments of the hips and wrist. The bus driver turns and watches him go. When he gets all the way back, the driver picks up the Japanese umbrella he left behind. The driver waits until it is quiet and then says, “Hey, Tinker Bell. You forgot your wand.”
Everyone watching titters and guffaws. The bus hasn’t moved. Tinker Bell poses at the back of the bus, narrowing his eyes and scowling. Then he smiles. He walks back up the aisle, putting everything he’s got into it. He reaches the front and picks up the umbrella. He raises it over his head and brings it down gently over the driver’s shoulder, as if he were bestowing knighthood. He does this three times, saying in a cheery falsetto voice, “Turn to shit, turn to shit, turn to shit.” [68]

But MacInerney does not seem interested in exploring the lives that these groups lead, merely using them to demonstrate the cruelty and carelessness of the city. Perhaps he was trying to stay true to his experiences and did not himself mingle in any circles beyond his own lofty and somewhat snobby literary or party crowds. He seems more focused on capturing the rather shabby life that exists between the cracks of the glitzy city parties and clubs, using quick, witty phrases and clever metaphors that perfectly capture the mind of a smart literary type aiming to impress. Try this for size:

Tad runs his finger across the length of the coffee table.
“It looks like you could teach a course in dust here. Did you know that ninety percent of average household dust is composed of human epidermal matter? That’s skin, to you.”
Perhaps this explains your sense of Amanda’s omnipresence. She has left her skin behind. [34]

Or the comic moments that capture the narrator’s angsty mix of arrogance and self-loathing:

You are a republic of voices tonight. Unfortunately, that republic is Italy. [6]

Elsewhere, family trauma is masked with further wry humour:

“Your parents?” you say.
“Divorced three years ago. Yours?”
“Happy marriage,” you say.
“You’re lucky.”
Lucky is not the word you would have chosen, except maybe out of a hat. [74]

On this note, for the majority of the novel, we are led to believe that the narrator’s disturbed frame of mind is due to his ex-wife’s sudden departure, but MacInerney has a clever twist that really captures the tendency of the human mind towards immediate, extreme distractions and self-destructive behaviour when distressed.

I really enjoyed much of this novel, though it did feel somewhat dated to me, especially as it did not feel particularly ground-breaking to me, reading it nearly forty years later. It had the same air of disillusionment and defeat that many other novels of the time shared, as did much of the popular music. I found myself immersed in the spirit of many of parents’ favourite books and could almost smell the aged paperbacks at home, despite tapping through this on a Kindle. MacInerney certainly captures his time powerfully, as well as introducing many amusing moments and characters, as though writing a modern fairytale…a Fairytale of New York, one might say.

Similar books: Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream; F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Cruise of the Rolling Junk; Brett Easton Ellis, American Psycho; Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club.

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The Classical Roots of #MeToo

By happy coincidence, or rather, as evidence that my friends know me well, my colleagues picked up the next book on my reading bingo list for me as a leaving present. Back in my home city of London, after an 18 month sojourn in the North East, I have been enjoying a week of administrative duties and flat hunting, which left me lots of time for reading on various red double deckers, feeling like a kid again. Which brings me to Mary Beard’s Women and Power.

Mary Beard, Women and Power (2018)

Something very striking about this little volume is that it comes in parts, written at different times and in response to various contemporary events. Unlike a typical book, Beard’s decision to publish her thoughts in this way demonstrates her awareness and interest in her opinions on the current state of feminism. Her discussion is rooted in her status as Britain’s most popular classicist, as the lectures begin by laying out the Classical tradition of silencing, reducing, and vilifying women. These stories are nothing new but her connection of such historical roots to modern structures of power felt fresh, especially as she then links this to the seat of government, where politicians have been traditionally Classically-trained in rhetoric and heavily rely on these deep roots. Beard lightly touches on issues that female Prime Ministers face, in deciding how to present their femininity as a strength in such a male-dominated space and shows how other female politicians also fall foul of the assumption that they are usurping a role that should be male. I found that Beard’s argument was at its best when she stepped away from the entry-level Classics, where she was restricted by trying to keep her knowledge accessible to the public, and when she allowed herself to freely discuss her opinions on contemporary politics.

Something I found lacking, however, was that the book opens up these questions but does little to suggest any future resolution. After the initial published lecture, Beard has two addenda: one written during Obama’s administration and the other just after the #MeToo campaign. I found it fascinating how her mood as an author shifts from the lecture’s controlled format – presenting familiar materials and dipping into established fields of knowledge – to a wilder, more personal tone where she shares personal anecdotes of sexual assault, of online abuse and vitriol, and of her pessimism that public trends against sexual violence will do much to change long-standing misogyny. At times, it felt like she just needed to vent about her experiences, sharing her own stories of mistreatment and how she had coped, rather than suggesting any means of moving forward. She admits that this is an area she wishes to explore further but this only adds to the impression of a work in process, or of an unfinished set of thoughts. It feels like Beard concludes, watch this space. Indeed, that seems to be the mood we all share: cautiously hoping for a change but not foolish enough to think it will fall into our laps.

Similar books: Virginia Woolf, A Room Of One’s Own; Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman; Kristen Roupenian, Cat Person.

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