The Peak

Written For The New Statesman May 2020


I The Man

For a moment, the world is as it used to be – unconfined, uncurtailed, alive with human teeming: coronavirus-free. The early light of a mid-April morning is already at the window. Sun-shot images flit through his mind: he’s playing somewhere in a rock pool by the sea with his two children; his wife is laughing. Then the half dreams fade and, already, he can sense anxiety seeping through some defensive wall in the back of his mind, pooling and mingling with the rising self-doubt. This is the peak, they say: today, tomorrow, soon.

Normally – the word seems to have to stretch itself further and further back in time – normally, Jim Down would kiss his wife and get up and head into work. But today he’s on the night shift at the hospital so he has to stay in bed, stop his mind racing, try to sleep. He needs to rest. The shifts have gone up from nine hours to 12. And they are relentless. How many days has he been doing this? He’s lost count. The world of medicine – his world, our world, the only world – has never been like this. There is no relevant history, no textbooks and no studies. Nothing is peer-reviewed or follow-the-procedure. The virus is obscure, monolithic, alien. They are fighting blind. Hand to hand. Bed to bed. He tries to sleep. But there’s a voice from his dreams that persists in his waking: Jo’s voice. “Are you sure,” Jo asks? “Will it be OK? Are you sure?” But he’s not sure. And so what is he going to say to Jo?

Jim Down is 49. He is slim, fit, fair and 6ft 1in with dark blue inkwell eyes in which other people write their stories while he listens – patiently. He has disconcertingly boyish looks and an old-school English demeanour – that odd mixture of determination and diffidence, confidence and anxiety, can-do courage and better-safe-than-sorry. He looks like the kind of man that Roger Bannister might have asked to set pace for him when he ran the sub-four-minute mile: two metronomically dependable laps without detectable fuss or falter before quietly standing aside to clap the other man home.

He’s also the doctor that you might have seen on the BBC evening news a few times. The first time in 2006 when he came out to announce the death of Alexander Litvinenko after the defector’s polonium poisoning by Russian spies. The second time on the main segment of the evening news on 6 April when Fergus Walsh, the BBC’s health correspondent – suited-up in plastic, visor and gloves – was briefly allowed to enter the Covid-19 wards of University College Hospital (UCH) in London. Jim’s voice is muffled behind the mask and visor but the whole country heard it cracking when he spoke: “I think it’s very hard on the families,” he said, “my kids are at home, my wife is home schooling. It’s easy for me, I’ve got a job and I am busy all day. They don’t really know what it’s like here – whether we are bringing home the virus – and they’ve been amazing. They just let me do what I need to do and I’m just incredibly grateful to them.”

Boyish looks and an old-school English demeanour: Jim Down, 49, is one of the consultants in charge of critical care at London’s University College Hospital. Credit: Kalpesh Lathigra

Jim’s wife is the actress, Patricia Potter. Coincidentally, she played a doctor, Diane Lloyd, in the BBC series Holby City. They were married in 2007. And the twins were born in 2009 – a boy and a girl.

Jim’s father was a doctor. His father’s father was a doctor. His mother’s father was a doctor. His own training began 33 years ago when he was 16 and he chose the A-levels that would lead to his studying medicine. Then five years at Bristol University medical school. Then a year as a house doctor, intern junior; qualified but unregistered. Then a couple of years in Exeter training as an anaesthetist. Until, finally, he came to London to start his real apprenticeship: seven truly intense years of dual training in anaesthetics and intensive care. He chose the former because it is a highly sensitive minute-by-minute discipline and then took the unusual step of adding intensive care because it seemed to him to be the extreme end of all disease processes. Now, he is one of the consultants in charge of critical care – the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) – at the pre-eminent University College Hospital in central London.

Tonight, that will mean he will lead as many as 75 hospital staff through the toughest night of their professional lives. He’s not sure of the number of patients yet but the count is rising. The expectation is somewhere between 60 and 80 – depending on admissions, on deaths. He strongly resists the idea that his whole life has been in preparation for this moment. Instead, he insists he is just a doctor doing his job surrounded by some truly exceptional colleagues. Everything is collaborative. He’s not a leader, let alone a hero. He dislikes even the word. He would much rather talk about the people he has been working alongside – how he’s witnessed them rising to the challenges and working in conditions unlike anything they have previously known. He lists fellow doctors and nurses and porters and physios and pharmacists and ward clerks until he is forced to move on. He doesn’t want to be formally interviewed, he says, and he doesn’t want to be quoted. All he wants is to let the general public know what that night in April – the peak – was really like for the health workers who dealt with it. Medically, psychologically, from the inside. Because little has changed, he says, and right now they are preparing for a second surge this winter.

The truth is that Jim Down is one of the doctors with the most hands-on experience of Covid-19 in the country. He won’t allow superlatives. But if you fell ill with the disease and you could ask for anyone, then you could do no better than ask for Jim.

Today, though, too-early awake, all he wants to do is get up and help home school his children, play with them, make their breakfast, talk. The weather has been unseasonably warm and it’s going to be another beautiful day. Good Friday. He wishes he was religious. But he knows only too well that it takes more than three days to bring people back from the dead. And that nobody rises alone. Each of the patients he sees in the ICU will have two dozen of the very best healthcare professionals looking after them at one time or another – all day and all night. A constant vigil. Every minute. Often for weeks.

The peak is coming. He shuts his eyes and tries to slip the knots of consciousness. In his half-sleep, he hears the sound of coughing and the wheeze of the machines. The peak, the trough, the test.

II The hospital

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English Monsters

Written for the Guardian


English Monsters is exactly the right title for this dark, tender, troubling novel. The phrase comes from Shakespeare – “See you, my princes and my noble peers / These English monsters.” And it is spoken in the book by Mr Crighton, a teacher known as “Crimble”, halfway through the section entitled “Mayday”, which opens with the Labour victory following the election on 1 May 1997 but also sounds the international distress call. “The Agincourt stuff is very stirring, of course,” says Crimble. “But my favourite scene in Henry V is the one before the battle, when he punishes the traitors in his midst.”

This is James Scudamore’s fourth novel and follows the critical success of his other work, which has won the Somerset Maugham award and been nominated for the Booker. We begin in a 1980s prep boarding school, where young boys are abandoned to the sadomasochistic whims of the masters, who terrify them with violence, corporal punishment and the lifelong annihilations of sexual abuse. Scudamore has recently written a nonfiction essay about his own experiences at a prep boarding school – many of which, such as being sent out into the snow to defecate on his first day, are closely reproduced in the novel.

Max Denyer is the first-person protagonist. His father and mother live abroad. He must part from his beloved grandfather and go to the school “on the hill”, where he is soon subject to a beating from the headmaster with a “gnarling, wizarding cudgel”. At first Max cries constantly, but is ignored. He makes three main friends – Simon, Luke and Ish. The teachers include Wagstaff (“apoplectic”) and Spinks (“whacking boys round the head with his metre rules”), but the narrative focuses on “Weapons” Davis and most of all on Crimble, who is the novel’s most unnerving and macabre creation. We return to Max, his friends, their families and Crimble in the decades after they leave the school.

As one of Scudamore’s epigrams has it: “Energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be changed from one form to another.” And the novel is indeed a raw study in effects, after-effects and forever-effects. Max himself is not sexually abused, but many of those around him are. Thus the book comes to be about love and tragedy, about male bonds and gay friendship, as much as it is about cruelty and rage and the stark unavailability of parents to their children.

English Monsters is also concerned with puncturing what Scudamore refers to in his essay as the “entitlement illusion” – the feeling of superiority that “acts as compensation for the loss of childhood and the inability to empathise”. And it is in this sense that the book generates its wider resonances: because, of course, it is impossible to read these pages and not to think of the present blight of emotionally cauterised boarding-school politicians whose various pathologies, fantasies and defence mechanisms Britain must continue to endure.

I have always disliked the phrase “kill your darlings” because it reads to me as a clumsy attack on the poetic spirit, and I am a fan of the kind of ambitious fiction where words are weighed and piloted with precision. Just before Max falls in a frozen pond, for example, Scudamore writes: “The shimmer you hear in railway lines when a train is coming. That high tremble. Cracking ice has its tone.” Or of the headmaster’s wife: “She was one of those Englishwomen whose pride is indexed to their acidity.”

But, all the same, Scudamore is a victim of his own observational acuity and his darlings are a shade too copious: I would feel myself being asked to concentrate on some nuance of extraneous description when all around me raged the iniquities of the subject matter. I preferred the kinesis of his electric scene-writing – the adult encounter in a west London flat between Max and Simon; adult Max’s near-unbearable meeting with Crimble at his cottage. Most skilful of all was the dark, artistic achievement of Crimble’s letters to Simon, which reached right into the heart-mind sickness of the monster himself.

These are matters of contention and taste, though. The main endeavour of such fiction is to invoke our horror and our understanding; to render the dense and knotted contours of pain and shame and guilt in the hearts of the victims; to summon up the monsters – and Scudamore manages these tasks with commendable imaginative skill and honesty.

Travellers by Helon Habila


Written for The Guardian


Helon Habila’s fourth novel has it all – intelligence, tragedy, poetry, love, intimacy, compassion and a serious, soulful, arms-wide engagement with one of the most acute human concerns of our age: the refugee crisis. This is the answer to the question of what contemporary fiction can do, and the reason I laugh whenever people say (as a character declares ironically in Travellers) that the novel is dead.

Originally from Nigeria, Habila lives and teaches in the US. Back in the academic year of 2013-2014, though, he was in Berlin on a fellowship, and it is in this city that Travellers begins. The novel is divided into six sections. In One Year in Berlin, a nameless Nigerian academic, the principal narrator, falls in with protesters – who are “protesting everything” – and in particular with Mark from Malawi, who turns out to have had a previous identity; he is now “out-of-status” and therefore deportable. He also meets a Libyan doctor, Manu, now working as a bouncer, who lost his wife and child in a boat that sank at sea. Each Sunday, Manu looks for them at Checkpoint Charlie – the title of section two. Portia, a young Zambian student, is the daughter of a dissident poet in exile in London. She sets off to Basel (the title of section three) with the narrator to interview the woman who married and then killed her brother.

As Habila does with Europe, so too with European literature; you read it, experience it, feel it anew

In The Interpreters, Karim tells the narrator the story of his flight through Yemen, Syria and Turkey and his year in a Bulgarian jail trying to protect his sons. In The Sea, a woman who has lost her memory languishes in southern Italy and marries again – only to remember the husband she already has. When the narrator comes to London with Portia, they chance upon Juma, an asylum seeker hiding from immigration officials in a neighbouring flat. His whereabouts have recently been made public and now there are two sets of protesters outside – those trying to prevent his arrest and those demanding it. Juma himself is fasting, also out of protest; this is the sixth story, Hunger.

I’ve read fine journalism that reports on asylum seekers, the refugee camps of Europe and the journeys across Africa and the Mediterranean – but this novel’s great achievement is to make you feel it, smell it, live it. You’re in the sea – drowning, panicking, lost, “people clawing their way up to the deck, kicking and screaming and holding on to their children’s hands”. You’re in the camps on an Italian island where refugees have “rotting feet in their wet shoes … [and are] delirious with fright from being between dead bodies in the boat”. In London, you are jostled as you pass through the “nativist” protesters while a bus with “foreigners out” written on the side circles “round and round, slowly, like a shark circling a drowning swimmer”. You feel acutely the hostility of the “hostile environment” that is the Home Office’s cruel and inhumane immigration policy.

‘You feel acutely the hostility of the Home Office’s “cruel and inhumane” immigration policy.’ Photograph: Home Office/PA
Travellers is also replete with literary references that twist and gleam through the narrative, adding light and riches and setting off unexpected resonances. There is Flaubert’s image of the “river of shit relentlessly washing away at the foundations of every ivory tower ever built”, and Dostoevsky on love; Milton’s drowned Lycidas, Matthew Arnold and John Donne; TS Eliot’s The Waste Land and The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Shakespeare is everywhere.

As Habila reinterprets Europe, so too with European literature; you read it, experience it, feel it anew. Arnold’s “Dover Beach”, for example, is invoked from the perspective of a refugee in the Jungle at Calais: looking at the French shore, Juma’s friend comments that “Arnold says something about the ‘eternal note of sadness’”. And Juma replies: “I know what that means.”

And this is the novel’s greatest triumph – to conjure in the reader the seemingly irreconcilable feelings of both intense revivification and displacement. By the end, you feel as though you, too, are seeing what Europe means afresh: its racism, its confusion, its attraction, its incoherence, its safeties. But you are also full of stories of African conflict, dispossession and human suffering. Again and again, Habila asks the deepest questions about the relationship of Europe to Africa and Africa to Europe. And with great skill, he makes the unfamiliar familiar and vice versa. What more can you ask of a novel?

Adam Foulds – Dream Sequence

Written for The Guardian
Adam Foulds is the real deal. He has previously won the Costa poetry award for his reimagining of the Kenyan Mau Mau uprising, The Broken Word, and been Man Booker-shortlisted for his 2009 novel about John Clare, The Quickening Maze.

This is his fourth novel and it follows two protagonists: Henry Banks, a successful and solipsistic actor with an emptiness at the centre of his being that only the next big break can fill (but never does); and Kristin, a recently divorced American who is so obsessed with Henry that she writes letters to him twice a week and soon travels to London to begin the happy-ever-after life together that her stalker’s mind has convinced her awaits. Eventually they meet and … uh-oh.

Foulds opens Henry’s narrative with a simple sentence: “The hunger was beginning to hurt.” The actor is on a diet for what he hopes will be the lead role in the next movie of the great auteur, Miguel Garcia. But the ravenousness in this novel is as much metaphysical as physical. There’s deep psychology on every page – Henry is a textured portrait of a human being hollowed out by vanity and ambition, living in the dead eye at the centre of the celebrity vortex; but Foulds renders him vulnerable and lost and existentially panicked and therefore understandable. Meanwhile, Kristin’s mind is remote from reality in the opposite way; she lives enshrouded and dazed in the hex that celebrity projects.

But it’s the details of the writing itself – the precision of the word selection combined with the precision of the observation – that make for such enjoyable reading. Henry’s taxi pauses at traffic lights, for example, so that he might notice a man eating an apple by “delicately picking with his teeth at the remaining edible flesh by the core”. In his description of Henry’s lover, Virginia, a gangly fashion model “just this side of grotesque”, Foulds writes: “Her wrists were long and gave the impression of an unused excess of dexterity when she handled her glass and drinking straw.”

Adam Foulds … dramatic reach and range.Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian
Tourists ask for a picture from Kristin when she’s outside Buckingham Palace: as she points the camera, “their smiles grew fiercer”. Add to this keenness of perception a poetical ear for euphony and cadence and you have the quiddity of Foulds’s gift. On a boat trip during a festival in Qatar, Henry thinks:

This was being a tourist in the modern world, enjoying the view while knowing the water was poisoned, the sea overfished and the sea level rising. Among educated people this might be a topic of conversation, too, at least for a while, a little geo-political mournfulness between forgetful pleasures.

Beautifully put – but what additional skill it takes to make the rhythm of the sentence lap like waves. My favourite sentence of all, though, is this one about the Thames: “In a half-sleep one afternoon, when his thoughts swelled and slurred into dreams, he saw a cormorant very clearly, hunting underwater through the olive gloom, its fixed eye and featherless throat and witchy feathers.”

Yet despite all these satisfying readerly pleasures, I couldn’t help but notice that the book felt out of date as a stalking novel. No Instagram, no Twitter, no Celebrity Face Search? A fan composing actual letters to agents? It doesn’t matter in terms of the skill of the writing, but Dream Sequence feels a little late 1990s.

I also began to think that the wider resonance of the novel somehow isn’t as powerful as the prose: I wanted the sum of so many fine parts to add up to something more by the end. Perhaps there are too many pauses to notice indiscriminate detail, not enough of throwing the characters at each other, not enough fully realised, dramatic scene writing. Perhaps the story and subject are too off-the-shelf. In any case, it sometimes seems as though the too-familiar plot – the actual story – is there to serve Foulds’s other writerly interests.

There’s a similarity here with Julian Barnes (whom I also admire); I remember thinking when he won the Man Booker for The Sense of an Endingthat his great skill as a writer is ill served by his patchiness as a dramatist and his gestural plots. Dream Sequence is a better novel than The Sense of an Ending but, still, I’d love for middle-period Foulds to find a great Dostoevskian story-subject with a polyphonic cast of rich characters who rip into one another and the world about them – something with the dramatic reach and range to do justice to his immense talent.

Top 10 Shakespearean stories in modern fiction

For the Guardian:

Countless books have the Bard’s dramas at their core. From Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to Withnail and I, here are some of the best:

Some years ago, I went to see a production of King Lear and read a theory in the programme that he married twice. Regan and Goneril were the children of his first marriage – so the production proposed – but the younger daughter, Cordelia, on whom Lear so dementedly doted, was the child of his second wife and the love of his life. I have no idea if this thesis has any credence in academic circles but the thought stayed with me.
And so, when I came to write my new novel, Let Go My Hand, I decided to blend this idea with my story plan. Or, rather, to play with it a little; to make the three daughters into three sons and to narrate from the point of view of the youngest. This seemed like a way to revivify the relationships between four such characters; to refigure the complex emotional geometries of fraternity, paternity and filiality.

There’s something tectonic about Shakespeare’s work that appeals endlessly to other writers – not just the language (although that, too) but the dramatic structures, the simple-but-then-again-complicated trigonometry of the relationships, which can be drawn and redrawn. As is the way with the writing of long-form fiction, my own story soon started to germinate in ways that had little obvious resemblance to the initial thought. But, still, that seed is still buried deep in the novel somewhere … And so it is with these books, which likewise take the great man’s plays as their point of departure.

1. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov
First published in Dostoevsky’s magazine Epoch, this is a terrifying novella of sex, murder, madness and flagellation and is the better known companion piece to Turgenev’s short story Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District – probably because Shostakovich made it into an opera. There’s something about Shakespeare that appeals directly to Russians. I have a pet theory that this is because Shakespeare was also writing on the border between the medieval and the modern – just a few hundred years earlier.
2. Asterix and the Great Divide by Albert Uderzo
After the heavy Russian opening, a little light relief. I loved Asterix as a boy and this is one of the funniest. Two chieftains divide their town in two with a big ditch and fight for supremacy. But Histrionix, the son of one, and Melodrama, the daughter of the other, are deeply in love and their love reaches across the divide. Romeo and Juliet are reborn as cartoon Gauls.

3. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
When this came out, I was trying to write a (mercifully unpublished) novel of my own and had been reading too many British writers bogged down in the class system. But this was just a wide-open, soul-raging prairie epic based on King Lear – about three daughters and their monstrous dad who leaves them (and their husbands) his farm. I was electrified – and powerfully reminded that contemporary fiction could be so intelligent, so readable, and so widescreen.
4. The Diviners by Margaret Laurence
Published in 1974, this is one of the great classics of Canadian literature. Laurence was an early supporter of Nobel laureate Alice Munro and is considered one of Canada’s great novelists. This book is loosely based on The Tempest and swirls across time and space with magic, depth and darkness. Ostensibly, it’s about the relationship between a Scottish-descended single mother, Morag, and Jules, a Métis songwriter. But it ends up being about everything. A hidden gem worth digging out.

5. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
A sneak-in. One of my English teachers made us read this, even though it wasn’t on any syllabus. My eyes and ears were opened by the fast, elliptical, clever, musical dialogue. The sheer verve of it. This is the story of Hamlet’s two friends who have been asked by his parents to hang around Elsinore and divine what the hell is the matter with the mopey prince. Except, of course, Hamlet is going to send them to their death. Just brilliant.
6. Indigo by Marina Warner
Another novel by a shimmeringly intelligent writer.

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Review of The Nix by Nathan Hill

Written for The Guardian:

The best thing a reviewer can do when faced with a novel of this calibre and breadth is to urge you to read it for yourselves – especially if your taste is for deeply engaged and engaging contemporary American prose fiction of real quality and verve.

The Nix is Hill’s debut. He is in his early 40s and I suspect he has been drafting various sections of this book for most of his adult life. Many chapters feel like separate novel fragments that have been skilfully woven together over time and – since Hill’s talents as a writer are so abundant – the resulting 200,000-word leviathan is replete with a great many passages of lush reading pleasure.

With near-absurd brevity, therefore, let me say that this is the story of Samuel whose mother, Faye, abandoned him when he was a boy. She comes back into his life via the news networks as the “radical hippie prostitute teacher” who has been captured on a phone camera throwing gravel at a faux-folksy governor presumed to be running for president. The video has gone viral and Samuel has been tracked down. At first he refuses to have anything to do with Faye. But when he is faced with the cancellation of a pre-existing book contract and repaying the big advance, writing a quick and savage “tell all” about his mother seems the only way to avoid bankruptcy and save his literary career. Thus Samuel’s investigation into the reasons for his own maternal rejection begin …

And this is merely the framing. The Nix is really a novel about growing up in the US, about the two childhoods of mother and son, about coming of age, awkward friendships and first loves, about the loneliness of intelligence, about loss and mishandled relationships. The word “Nix” refers to a malevolent life-haunting homunculus that deceives its victims into loving those that hurt them the most – and so furnishes the book with a metaphorical organising principle.

Hill is an assiduous selector of words whose artistic concentration seldom lapses
The writing is a delight; Hill is an assiduous selector of words whose artistic concentration seldom lapses. He is also a very musical stylist – the book is full of long, beautifully counterweighted sentences and subtle cadences that change from voice to voice as different characters take up the narrative. His descriptions are apposite and are telling: for instance, Samuel describes Periwinkle, his agent, as “like a flashlight aimed at all your shortcomings”.

I really loved, too, that the book was so intelligently funny. (Why are these two indispensable qualities so seldom bedfellows?) And I was impressed by the psychological layering throughout. Most of all, I relished the unstrained profundity that emerged at odd moments. The novel’s credo owes a great deal to Virginia Woolf’s “for nothing was simply one thing” (from To the Lighthouse): “There is one true self,” Hill writes, “hidden by many other true ones.”

For all its mighty accomplishments, though, The Nix suffers from several missteps and a few things that – to my mind at least – don’t quite work. It is overlong to its own detriment. Description reoccurs. There are many sections that the novel could have done without – those concerning vice president Hubert Humphrey, certainly, or the chapters devoted to Pwnage, the console-gaming obsessive. Sure, Hill writes with flair about World of Elfscape, his fictional computer game, but he has already got Samuel as an avid gamer and thus a repository for this material.

There are also several narrative hinges that do not hang right. The worst of these is the student and cop sadomasochistic sex-on-the-police-car-bonnet storyline, which is heavily laboured and ill-joined to the wider narrative. Indeed, the plot as a whole takes two turns too many to be plausible, and this has a corrosive effect on the manner in which the reader experiences the book. Hill suspects as much, of course, and has Samuel say “I cannot believe this” when Periwinkle ties the story up for him.

In a similar vein, the comic sections sometimes collapse into burlesque – such as in the re-encounter scene between son and mother, which takes place in the presence of a ludicrous small-footed lawyer who needs to go to the bathroom every 10 minutes and who sweats so much his shirt looks as though it “were being swallowed by a jelly fish”. One defect would have been enough. Again, the lampooning plays off-key against the scene’s natural power and the reader recalibrates into oh-it’s-a-joke reading mode.

And yet, in the final analysis, none of this matters because The Nix outflanks its own weaknesses with such copious strengths and collusive warmth that … well, let me urge you again to read it for yourselves.


Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes

Written for The Guardian


A Borgesian Maybe-Murder Mystery


Towards the end of this impressive and finely textured debut, there is a chapter entitled “What Happened to Carlos – Suspicions, Rumours, Links”. This is the only named chapter and it lists a series of variations related to the disappearance of the novel’s missing person – 29-year-old Carlos. These range from Carlos not being Carlos, to Carlos never having disappeared at all, or Carlos being the victim of a “sudden and giant molecular distortion”. The final speculation is No 29: “Carlos isn’t here. Carlos isn’t gone. This isn’t everything. This is a brief light.”

Of course, the list is no more or less of an account of Carlos’s disappearance than fiction itself accounts for reality. And, in a sense, that is the point; Infinite Groundtakes place in an unnamed South American country, and Martin MacInnes’s first novel is deep in sub-Borgesian territory. This is fiction as a metaphorical labyrinth of the mind – wherein what happens may or may not have actually occurred; wherein experience and imaginings are indistinguishable; and everything is equally true and untrue.

The opening citation, meanwhile, is from The Passion According to GH – the 1964 novel by the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, written in the form of a nightmarish monologue detailing an existential crisis following the accidental crushing of a cockroach. (The link back to Kafka is more than merely entomological.) Foremost among MacInnes’s subjects – thus we glean – are the fractured nature of consciousness and the fabric of reality itself.

Ostensibly, though, Infinite Ground is about an unnamed inspector trying to find Carlos by way of interviews and crime scene reconstructions. And for a while, MacInnes somewhat craftily benefits from the plot-pull of this setup. But if the inspector is the protagonist circling Carlos’s central absence, then “Suspicion, Rumour, Link” No 5 warns that the investigation might well be no more than “an indulgent and morbid fantasy created by a man in middle age in grief for his dead wife”. Another way to read this book is as a meditation on the nature of the human psyche under the intense pressure of loss and isolation.

Twenty years ago, this review would, by now, have used the word “postmodern”. And certainly, there are meta- and micro-games afoot. At roughly the midpoint of the narrative, the inspector gets lost in the unnamed city and finds himself in an “excited jostle” of people circling some incident. But “he hadn’t even noticed he was in the middle of it … [he] had passed right through it and missed his chance, seeing and learning nothing”.

Similarly, the inspector has “a problem of perception”. He starts to believe that his dreams of being in a forest, the “intensity of his exertions” there, might explain everything else. “He played with the old childish idea that the relationship between dreaming and waking life should be inverted, the experience of the former comprising the more significant period.” The last section of the novel, part three, is duly called “The Forest”, and its dream-like lyricism is by far the best writing in the book.

Throughout, MacInnes’s prose demeanour is slightly antiquarian – people “purport” and “assign … temporary monikers”. In the forest, while others are occupied with cameras, the inspector’s “leather pouch” contains “his own set of optical lenses”. This sets up a tone that creates a necessary out-of-time feel; but that sometimes chafes against modernity so that, for example, MacInnes has to clumsily append “and he didn’t have his phone” to an explanation of why the inspector cannot find the address of a hospital.

In terms of word selection, however, MacInnes is clearly a serious artist. There is a skilful and delicate cadence to many of the paragraphs. Images are novel and precise. The jungle air is “antic” with mosquitoes. The inspector’s forest tour group lacks the “shrill buoyancy” normally associated with such parties. A mechanic, Miguel, “threaded wire while he talked, his words small and conservative next to the fluency of his hands”.

Occasionally, MacInnes pushes too far, perhaps: “The words were mute, like the hummed melodies remaining in the ground surfaces of nightmare-weathered teeth.” But even this image is interesting and – on closer reading – a restatement of his main theme, if slightly off.

On the broadest point – to this reader’s mind at least – the novel feels more like a recapitulation of the literary ideas of its progenitors than a pushing forward. All the same, MacInnes often renders familiar existential observations afresh – not least on the nature of modern office work: “The meaning of [Carlos’s] work was concentrated in its finishing. What he was doing he was doing so that it could no longer be done.” And there are several moments of real and well-earned profundity – after a boat had been lost at sea, one character explains to the inspector, local people would wait on the beach; which was “more than madness and consolation … Because the information that expressed the lives came originally from the sea, where it was now deposited. It is still there.”

A last plea to “Leavers” ahead of The Referendum tomorrow…

Written for Prospect Magazine:


By the weekend, this grim and unhappy referendum on our membership of the European Union will have passed from our national life. And what a relief for us all that will be. It has divided us against ourselves and made enemies of friends. We have seen too much of the worst of Britain and not enough of the best. Most will by now have made up their minds. But for those still deciding, one last effort at persuasion:

The Economic Argument:

If we leave Europe, we will have to renegotiate every single trade agreement we have with the rest of the world. This will swamp the civil service for decades and cause chaos untold—evolving chaos, immediate chaos—for every business, employer, employee or individual otherwise connected by trade, profession or exchange to any other nation on Earth. Assuming the British re-negotiators do the best possible job—and I am sure they would—the very most that they could possibly achieve would be deals no better than those we already have; the status quo. The process will take several years. In the meantime, the people who would suffer most in the ensuing downturn—and both sides agree there will be one—are those with the least amount of money to insulate themselves against it. There is no serious economic argument for Brexit which is why there are no serious economists making it.

The Sovereignty Argument

The fact of the referendum itself is all the illustration we should need to realize that we are a sovereign nation who can decide whether or not we continue to delegate certain areas of law-making to Europe. These areas are mainly to do with trade, working conditions, common policies for production, agriculture and fishing—things centred around a common market. We choose to opt out of the euro and Schengen. Meanwhile, we choose to legislate for ourselves on the vast majority of issues from tax to defence to health and education and so on. But the stark and obvious truth is that had we abandoned our sovereignty, we would not be able to choose tomorrow whether to be in or out. The sovereignty argument is self-evidently falsified by the very fact of our vote tomorrow.

The Money Argument

In 2014-2015 we paid just over 1 per cent of our gross national income to Europe. This is the smallest proportion of income paid by any of the 28 members. Think about that for a second. And it’s been like this for decades. Here are the 2007 figures. Here are those in 2011. Again, this is a straightforward truth. Not only do we get an excellent deal, we get the best deal in Europe—and by some distance. We are one of the most powerful members of one of the most powerful groups of nations on Earth and yet, by gross national income, we pay the least to be so and have opt outs and rebates to suit us that others do not.

The Political-Historical Argument

At its simplest, the EU has been the greatest peace treaty ever drawn up. Consider the warring history of our continent through every bloody century that preceded it and consider the Europe we now inhabit, visit and share. Nobody can seriously argue that Leaving would do anything but play against or undermine that hard won peace, prosperity and partnership. For what? Meanwhile, not a single one of our allies wants us to leave. Not one. Unless we are to count Putin.

One more consideration: the people of Wales, Scotland and London could reasonably request that they be allowed to stay in the EU if—in those areas—the vote to “Remain” was decisive. The rest of the country could not then refuse to allow them the same self-determination they have just enjoyed. I believe a vote to “Leave” is therefore a vote for the beginning of the end of the UK.

The Immigration Argument

There are two channels of immigration: non-EU and EU. The referendum changes absolutely nothing with regard to the first which is roughly half the net migration figure; we already have complete control over this. The second stream is the only real argument “Leave” have and what their case is really all about.

Let me be clear: my own opinion is that immigration is healthy, vital, positive and necessary. On the long view, all of us not born in Africa are the descendants of immigrants. On the medium view, anyone making an anti-immigration argument in England is being wilfully ignorant of our history and not least with regard to the various Royal Families that have sat on our throne—Danish, Norman, French, Welsh, Scottish, Dutch and German as they have been. On the short view, EU immigrants are universally agreed to be net contributors financially to Britain, not to mention all the other million ways through work, enterprise and culture that they greatly enhance our national life.

But there is a perception—sometimes legitimate, sometimes not—voiced by significant numbers of people (including immigrants) that our country is over-stretched in terms of services, transport, schools and hospitals.

I do not wholly subscribe to this view. But it seems to me that if you are voting “Leave,” then the only unanswerable grounds you have is that you believe this particular issue—the numbers of recent immigrants from other EU countries to the UK—is so deleterious to national life that it trumps all other considerations economic, political, historical or otherwise. In which case, a vote to “Leave” is a legitimate and honest expression of that belief.


For many people, Nigel Farage’s views are somewhere between vulgar and sickening. Michael Gove’s are pompous and oddly constructed (as is his manner). And Kate Hoey is an embarrassment to everyone. But at least this ill-gathered ensemble honestly hold the positions they espouse.

By far the worst man of the hour has been Boris Johnson. Why? Because he cannot and does not believe most of what he says. Read his confected books on Churchill and London. Watch the TV shows he has made. Listen to his speeches as Mayor. Every strand of his intellectual and emotional DNA was bent towards Europe until the start of this campaign. And yet, throughout, he has curried popular favour with one oafish falsehood after another. He has deliberately misled audiences in order to gain personal political advantage. He has put himself above the nation that he claims to love. Hubris does not cover it; even last night, he continued to evince a belief that this whole referendum was about him and his career; the audiences’ view of him, the viewers’ view of him, his view of him, the endless onlookers (real and imagined) that he needs to bear witness to his life.

I hope the Tory party and the rest of the country now have the good sense to side-line Boris Jonson for good. Too long have we indulged his facile amour-propre as personality, his weasel cunning as intelligence, his lumpen bombast as argument. The clumsily deployed classicisms and the cultivated candy floss hair are chimera behind which you will find simple narcissism. He knows better. He understood these arguments. So either he is consciously attempting to manipulate the British people or his mendacity is so deeply subconscious that he cannot be trusted with any serious office henceforth. His remarks regarding President Obama and Hitler were, I think, a personal nadir and richly indicative of the man he has become. I am not alone in finding his contortions genuinely saddening—since, for a while, he embodied the better kind of Conservative. As to the naked attempt to recruit Churchill to Project Self-Aggrandizement—well: Boris Jonson is to Churchill as Dan Quayle was to Kennedy. Memo to Tory Party members: Napoleon was wrong—we are not a nation of shopkeepers and we do not wish to be led by a shopping trolley.

The Future

And yet a vote for “Remain”—my vote for “Remain” at least—is not a vote for the status quo. I want to see a much more accountable EU. I want it to set about dealing immediately with those tasks that only it can deal with: the refugee crisis, the insufficient payment of corporation tax by certain global corporations, our unfolding environmental concerns. The current minister for Europe, David Lidington, will have to go and we need a new high profile appointment who should be personally charged with making clear progress on such issues. We need to take our urgent demands into Europe with the same determined energy and engagement with which we have disputed this referendum.

Thatcher was wrong of course: there is such a thing as society. Indeed, the agreements of human civilisation are all there is between us and barbarism; the rest is a Farage-Gove fantasy of flags and civil-wars and tribes and Gods and a Europe in which the Enlightenment never happened.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, we are living at the exciting dawn of an age of super-technology and super-connectedness. Every year brings the planet closer together. Not in a bogus hippy way but in real way to do with what you eat, the weather, your pensions, the sport you enjoy, where the components of your phone are from, what you breathe, see, suffer and enjoy. We are all of us beginning to understand that what happens in the Antarctic or the Amazon or Aleppo affects everyone. There is no going back. Isolation is not just a bad idea; it is a now impossible idea that insists on an ignorance to which we cannot return expect by blinding and deafening ourselves. Just as our problems are global problems, so our solutions must be global.
The EU is far from perfect but in my view it is our best route to security, prosperity and the future of civilisation. Because, in the end, we human beings have a common destiny or we have no destiny at all.

Be British tomorrow. Be European. Be part of the greatest continent mankind had ever known. For that is what you are. Vote “Remain”.

Esperanto: the language that never was

Witten for Prospect Magazine:


The Komedia Kvizo had started. Perhaps this would be instructive. I had hoped to get to the heart of the matter straight away. I had hoped to re-examine the biggest question of our times—the European Union referendum—but to come at it from deep within the pan-European hinterlands of Remainia. But instead, the question we were all facing was: “Kiom ofte mi uzas drogojn?”

Welcome, friends, to the British Esperanto Conference 2016, “emanating” this year from Merseyside. Truth be told, things had not looked promising in the beginning. Sky like a sodden ashtray. Potato juice rain beading on all the windows of the buses going by. People hunched and harried on the pavement hurrying home. None of them going my way. No other writers. No journalists. No news crews. (It can be lonely at the top.) I had been directed to the single most anonymous and forlorn conference centre in the UK. There I had found a forgotten glass door on which was thinly gummed a single blue A4 poster: “Esperanto—Asocio de Britio”; the “o” of the word “Esperanto” having been replaced with a globe.

Once inside though… Once inside, everything turned colour and warm and iridescent. And what a welcome. No doubt about it: these were la belaj homoj. Seventy or so of the most sexy katoj you are ever going to meet in your life. I felt like I’d walked into a shiny multi-coloured electric Kool-Aid dream of an impossible future from long ago. Like it was Buck Rogers’s birthday all over again. (The word “Esperanto” means “a person who hopes”… in Esperanto). Like I’d left behind some terrible 1950s black-and-white nightmare of a purse-lipped Michael Gove-led rump-Britannia and instead entered a joyful Elysian of Enlightenment. Were Boris Johnson ever to re-spawn here, I thought to myself, it would be back in his rightful place—as a chubby eunuch-mute charged with the sole task of silently serving champagne by way of penance for his previous lifetime of deepest disingenuousness.

This was going to be my world. For three days. All good. All more than good. Except, I have to confess, for one thing: I was totally unable to understand a word that anybody said. Or any of the events. Or pretty much anything at all that was happening.

I remember I sat through Kalle Kniivilä (no relation to Evel Knievel—I checked) talking about “Putin—pri la naturo de la rusia re^gimo, la kialoj de ^gia subteno inter rusianoj, kaj la ^san^goj okazintaj lige kun la anekso de Krimeo.” And there was a guy called Guilherme Fians speaking on the subject of “Brazilo: pri la lando kaj ^gia nuntempa Esperanto-movado.” I might have missed Mudie: la pinta pioniro. And the Beatles amika konkursado pri Beatles-kanzonoj. Or I might not have missed it—or them, or something.

But I was back for the Komedia Kvizo because this was something I had a chance of almost understanding. Yes, crucially, the comedy quiz questions were being written up on the projector and, like Gulliver on his travels, I thought I might therefore mobilise an unholy concoction of Latin, Greek and French in the hope of gleaning something of what I was reading. I say “almost” understand because I didn’t have Belarusian, Yiddish, Polish or Slavic. Although, of course, the whole point of Esperanto is that you don’t need any of these languages to learn it or, according to the fundamentalists, any of these languages at all.

The host of the comedy quiz was a genial 35-year-old man by the (actual) name of Rolf Fantom. (Did I mention that this was a totally surreal weekend?) Fantom was famous for being that rarest of human incarnations: a second-generation native Esperanto speaker; that is to say, his mother’s parents met through Esperanto and this was their common language; they thus bequeathed Esperanto to their daughter who, in turn, brought up young Rolf to speak it as his denaska lingvo. Fantom’s immediate job, though, was to see which of the Komedia Kvizo contestants could talk for just a minute without ripetado, hezito a˘u devio on a subject of his choice. So he repeated the question: “Kiom ofte mi uzas drogojn?”

“What does it mean?” I whispered to the guy sitting beside me. His name was Matt, he was 36 years old and the closest I came all weekend to an interpreter. He was elliptically insane, of course, but maybe a little less so than everyone else and I will forever be grateful to him since he was later to invite me to the curry to end all curries. “Why is everyone laughing?” I asked.

“He’s just asked them…” Matt whispered back, trying not to laugh himself. “He has just asked them how often he uses drugs.”
Wait—what? How often does the Esperanto community use drugs? No wonder, I was thinking, no wonder. I see it all now.
“Right.” I whispered back. “Is the ‘j’ pronounced like an ‘i’?”

But Matt could say no more. Not in English. There’s a phrase in Esperanto “ne krokodilo” meaning “no crocodiling.” To crocodile is when two people, who have learnt Esperanto, speak to one another in another language. This was an offence punishable by banishment—a kind of community-enforced personal Brexit. And I didn’t want to be responsible for ruining lives. So I returned to my shiny happy confusion. I would have to pick them off one by one in the corridors, on the stairwells.

The night before, as yet unfamiliar with the protocols and proprieties, I had gone up to the front of the gathering and blithely unleashed the Brexit beast of my own. In stoutly unintellectual English I had asked for a show of hands as to who wanted to leave the EU and who wanted to stay in. There was laughter of the sort you might get at a Star Trek conference when making a distasteful joke in Klingon (another constructed language) but—surprise—five hands out of roughly 70 went up for “Leave.” So glister the dire snakes even in Paradise.

Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, inventor of the language Esperanto ©Forum/Bridgeman Images
Esperanto was invented by LL Zamenhof, a Polish ophthalmologist, who published his first book detailing Esperanto, Unua Libro, in 1887. He was born in Białystok—once a Prussian city, then Russian, now Polish—the epitome of the European hinterland indeed. Esperanto probably had its apogee in the period immediately following the First World War when the League of Nations almost voted to accept it as their working language. (The proposal was blocked by a single French veto; on such pique can history turn.) Thereafter the language suffered badly under the totalitarian regimes of the middle 20th century, for being internationalist and in the case of Nazi Germany on account of Zamenhof being Jewish. One of the delegates at the conference, Elizabeth from Stow-on-the-Wold, put it thus: “Languages follow the biggest armies and there’s never been an Esperanto army.” (Or, interestingly, as Fantom told me: “language is possession.”) The 1960s and 1970s saw Esperanto enter a cultish phase—never widespread or mainstream but an offbeat and peripheral part of a more optimistic forward-looking cultural idealism wherein the dream of a universal global second language still seemed plausible. (It is surprising and touching how many of the more senior delegitoj met their life partners through Esperanto; Terry and Anica, for example, who found each other on a platform at Amsterdam Station after a Kongreso in Rotterdam.) In the 1990s, things looked grim for Esperanto—but then came the internet, saviour and haven of all things niche and suddenly the language was being taken seriously enough to put in an appearance on Google Translate. There are now estimated to be around 2,000 speakers in the UK. Worldwide, the society claims two million users. Personally, though, I’d be surprised if the number were that high because…

…Because, of course, the massive, trumpeting, stamping, ear-flapping, blanka elefanto in the room is… English; English; English; the English language; the widespread global adoption thereof. I felt terrible bringing this up. Like telling Buck Rogers that it wasn’t the 25th century after all.

“Well,” said Matt, “if the EU were to say we want a standard language, then everybody would revolt. And rightly so.” But neither are the other countries going to accept English as a standard, he contended. So why not instead make the case for Esperanto being the universal second language people learn?

Geoffrey weighed in. He was 74. “Why is my rate bill in about six different languages?” he demanded. “Yes, some people speak English but a lot of people don’t.” I conceded the point. Wistfully, he added: “It would have been great if David Cameron had come back with a plan for Esperanto as everyone’s second language.”

Kelly had brought Maggie, the only child at the conference (“I love it,” said Maggie) and Kelly echoed Geoffrey. “Definitely,” she said: “Europe needs to get on with it and Esperanto could be a second language for everyone.”

Elizabeth (speaking outside and away from accusations of crocodiling) was even more effusive: “Yes, Yes, Yes,” she said. “The EU is about discussing rather than fighting. It’s hard for the UK to understand what the point is sometimes. But, for example, imagine you want to agree that the Danube should not be polluted. Well, that involves at least seven countries and you suddenly know why you need the EU. On a practical point, Esperanto would be incredibly useful: instead of having to archive everything in 23 languages… just think.”

“The massive, trumpeting blanka elefanto in the room is… English. The widespread global adoption thereof”
At its simplest, Matt’s case—Esperanto’s case—is this. First, that it is very easy to learn, simpler and more logical than non-constructed languages. (They say you can learn it five times as fast.) Second, that Esperanto is a great politically-neutral equaliser; two people from anywhere can meet and, if they both have Esperanto as their second language, then neither is at a cultural disadvantage, nether feels inferior or apologetic. Third and related, that it could bring the world together in a genuinely internationalist exchange of ideas and information—travel in, say, Japan or Iran or Vietnam need no longer be a farrago of wrong turns and shouting. Fourth, that Esperanto is an extremely useful basic grounding in the learning of languages per se without the necessity of everyone going on to become professional speakers, as with say learning the recorder vis-à-vis music in schools. By way of demonstrating this last point, Matt had invited me out for that curry.

Which was off-the-scale strange. Past surreal.
And stunningly successful and convincing as a validation.

There are few times in your life that you can be certain that you are doing what nobody else in the world is doing—or has ever done—or will likely do again. This was one of them. I was sitting at a table of six, with a Catalan, a Brazilian, a Belgian, a Londoner and a Slovakian, while they munched and guzzled their way through their kareos and had what I can only describe as the most kinetic, exciting and involving conversation in Esperanto that Spice City (of Stanley Street, Liverpool) is ever going to witness. The animation. The jokes. The asides. The soliloquys. The antanaclasis. Oh, if only I had known what they were talking about I could have… I could have told you. But I was converted. The whole idea and application of Esperanto was so obviously amazing, so demonstrably persuasive, so self-evidently practical that I forget all over again about English; English; English.

Two things I did learn, though, that evening. One, that none other than Neil Kinnock was in charge of the EU committee tasked with getting Esperanto up the agenda and more widely used. (Another failure.) And two, that there was among the Esperanto hardliners a mysterious and potent idea called… La Fina Venko. This is the concept of the “Final Victory” and denotes the moment when Esperanto will be used as the main second language throughout the world. A Finavenkist is therefore someone who hopes for and works towards this “Final Victory” of Esperanto. I am not sure but I have a suspicion that the Catalonian at our table was just such a one. Think Opus Dei. Think KGB. The Bilderberg Group.

But back to the conference and back to the Brexit question. I had found the ideological heart of Remania, no doubt, but I had one more task. To track down the snakes therein. The Outers did not want to give their names, preferring to go under elaborate pseudonyms, and to bunch and chunter in curmudgeonly myopic knots like Brexiteers up and down the land. I found them lurking in the corridor outside the resplendent buffet. (Oh, the metaphors.) How, I asked, how on Earth could they possibly be Esperantists and want out of Europe?

Came one reply: the problem with the EU is that, from the people’s perspective, it’s not European enough.

How Hamlet Became Prospero: On Bob Dylan’s 75th Birthday

For Prospect Magazine:


The first time I came to London on my own, I came to see Bob Dylan. He was playing at the Hammersmith Apollo. I had tickets for three of the shows. I remember freezing in the queues outside. I remember the stampede to get to the front when the bastards finally opened the door. And I remember the sheer visceral excitement—awe, relief, disbelief, euphoria—of the moment when he appeared on stage from out of the darkness. The strange affirmation of being in the same physical space as him. The gratitude that I wasn’t too late to witness him live. Sure, I had not had the chance to see him in the 1960s, but at least I had the chance to see him at all.

Back then—in 1990—Dylan was already 28 years into his career and nobody had any idea that he had more than another quarter of a century of great works and live concerts ahead of him. Indeed, as it has turned out, I was seeing him for the first time at roughly the halfway point of his career.

Dylan turns 75 on 24th May. For millions of devotees like myself—many of whom consider him the world’s greatest living artist—it is a moment of celebration tinged with apprehension. Joan Baez, his most significant early anointer-disciple (Joan the Baptist), best expresses what might be described as “the Dylan feeling” in the excellent Martin Scorsese 2005 documentary when she says: “There are no veils, curtains, doors, walls, anything, between what pours out of Bob’s hand on to the page and what is somehow available to the core of people who are believers in him. Some people would say, ‘not interested,’ but if you are interested, he goes way, way deep.” I love this for lots of reasons but most of all because it captures not only the religious devotion that many who love him feel, but also the bemused indifference of the sane and secular who do not.

Of course, the first order of business when writing about Dylan is to urge readers to ignore writers who write about Dylan. We are like Jehovah’s Witnesses, forever tramping door to door with our clumsy bonhomie and earnest smudgy leaflets; in all honesty, you would be much better off seeking out the resonant majesty of the actual work. Indeed, you’ll be relieved—and possibly endeared—to hear that Dylan himself considers his disciples to be deranged. “Why is it when people talk about me they have to go crazy?” Dylan asked in a recent interview for Rolling Stone. “What the fuck is the matter with them?”

I should say in passing that I am only mildly afflicted by comparison. There are tens of thousands of Dylan fans who are in a far more advanced state of insanity. Fervent purveyors of set-lists and bootlegs and best-of-performances; the blue-faced blogging battalions; the tens of millions who watch YouTube footage of him changing the lyrics to a song here or performing an unreleased track there. Soon these poor folk will be sifting the brand new 6,000-piece literary archive of his ephemera (acquired in March by the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a rumoured $60m) for clues as to his state of mind sequestered in the addenda to his legal contracts. There are already hundreds of “Dylanologists” who like to listen to individual instrumental tracks of his gazillion bootleg recordings—“stems” as they are called—so as to focus in on his rhythm guitar playing or keyboards. Then there are the serial show-goers stretching all the way back to the Gaslight Café in New York in 1962. There’s no other songwriter that comes anywhere near this kind of… what? Devotion, loyalty, study, analysis, contemplation, regard, fixation.

All That Man Is by David Szalay Review

For The Guardian:

I once had a discussion with my first US editor, an old-school literary titan of 40 years’ experience, on the subject of overt existential angst in the novel. Her main message was that if you’re going to do it, then you’d be better off keeping it Beckettishly short – a view, I have always thought, not dissimilar to Macbeth’s reflections on murder: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly”. This conversation came to mind with regard to David Szalay’s accomplished fourth book – albeit for paradoxical reasons. First, because he had not done it quickly – All That Man Is stretches to 448 pages. But second, because he had nonetheless done it exceptionally well. How so?

The answer is that this book is not a novel but a collection of short stories – each just the right length (that is: short) to deal with Szalay’s central existential theme: “Life is not a joke”. It seems disingenuous to pretend otherwise – unnecessary, in particular, because this collection is of the highest standard among younger British authors that I’ve come across. Szalay has previously won the Geoffrey Faber prize and a Betty Trask award, so I’m not noticing anything that hasn’t already been celebrated. But if you are unfamiliar with his work, let me urge you to read him since, on this evidence, he is one of those rare writers with skill in all the disciplines that first-rate fiction requires.

The most immediate pleasure is his literary intelligence – manifest in his scrupulous resistance of anything trite, twee or otherwise dumbly constructed. Instead, these nine stories about very different men are replete with richly observed humanity, caught on the page as if in the midst of lives that extend backwards and forwards beyond the time we spend with them.

What has Britain’s Most Commercially Successful Artist been up to?

Written for The New Republic Magazine (USA):  


Despite being just a short hop across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament, Vauxhall used to be London’s least fashionable borough, an area known only for its outdoor urinals and irredeemably depressed bus station. But this atmosphere is now changing. Damien Hirst, ex-enfant terrible of the art world and once agitator-in-chief of the Young British Artists (YBAs), has chosen Vauxhall as the venue for his first and very own art gallery. Suddenly the whole place is interesting, plausible, a destination. But as well as renewing interest in an overlooked post code, Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery has occasioned a rash of questions. Central to which, as ever, is what is Hirst up to?

The legacy of his life and work thus far is such that—regardless of his standing as a maker—Hirst’s every act continues to be scrutinized for further evidence of his undeniable artistic genius or his undeniable marketeering cynicism. Or both—if, like me, you consider his principal artistic subject not to be death (as he himself often claims) but the commodification of art.

Hirst is now 50, and his career thus far has been a downhill slalom of provocation and pound signs.



There were Two Oppositions in the Last Parliament

Written for The Guardian:


There were two oppositions in the last parliament: Labour and the Liberal Democrats. And, this week more than ever, it is worth saying that only the latter made any difference to the real lives of real people. Why? Because they were in government. But thanks to their brutal contraction and the subsequent departure of Don Corbyn de la Mancha for his knight-errant’s tour of windmills, we now have no effective opposition at all (unless you count the House of Lords). And this is about to matter in lots of painful ways to millions of people when the chancellor announces what cuts he plans to make in the spending review in his autumn statement on Wednesday.

You may recall that George Osborne used his conference speech – oratorically at least – to parlay his clammy mortician’s charm into something altogether more Nosferatu: a claim for the centre ground. But the spending review will disperse the swirling mists of his rhetoric and we will now see – in hard and detailed figures – exactly what this Conservative government looks like. Remember: Osborne has ordered the non-ringfenced government departments to find ways to slash their budgets by up to 40% by 2019-20 in order to meet the extra £20bn in savings in public spending that he was vowed to deliver.

I say “deliver”, as if the figure for these cuts were not an ideological choice but somehow undisputed and scientifically required. But it is important to remember that the pace of “austerity” is a strategic decision that Osborne has taken and then written into the narrative tectonics of the three-act play that he has devised for us all to sit through. (Spoiler alert: act three concerns widespread national rejoicing at The Surplus, miraculously coincident with the election of an Osborne-led Conservative government.)



Are we Sleepwalking to Brexit?

Written for Prospect Magazine:


The European Union referendum now lies splayed across the political event horizon like a giant jellyfish with which we are all soon going to have to wrestle. History will explain how Nigel Farage, whom I have interviewed for this magazine, tortured the Conservative Party into wasting the nation’s time and energy on what is essentially a Tory in-house disagreement. But this is his dream come true; and what a many-tentacled nightmare it turns out to be.

Make no mistake: in less than a year, Great Britain could be out of the EU and no longer Great or, indeed, Britain. David Cameron’s departure will surely follow Brexit, which will also be followed by Scotland’s attempted split from Britain. The splenetic strain of the Conservative Party will be left running Little England—for that is what we will be—and its business for decades to come will be the treaty-by-treaty renegotiation of our relationship with every other country in the world.

Why are we in danger of sleep walking to Brexit? Two reasons: the “in” campaign and the “out” campaign. The former is tangled, confused and complacent; the latter replete with experience and a fierce vitality.

The “ins” as presently configured, are, of course, bedeviled by macro politics that stall and occlude their purposes… What concessions can the Prime Minister get from the EU? When will he start campaigning? How exactly does all this play into George Osborne’s succession plans for himself? Which cabinet members will campaign to leave the EU? How can they then be part of the government? Where is Boris Johnson in all of this? Theresa May? But let us for a moment take the “ins” at face value.

Their first problem is their ostensible leader. Stuart Rose looks and sounds like the great chief executive of Marks and Spencer he once was—focussed and wiry, he radiates competence, work ethic and a steady mercantile understanding of high-street footfall. He is the opposite of what the “in” campaign needs. At the launch, which I attended, he seemed under-prepared for the political fray and actively to dislike cheerleading, rhetoric or enthusiastic case-making of any kind. He looked and sounded cautious, unwilling or dragooned. His speech was poorly structured, poorly written and poorly delivered—all in a salt-dry voice. Certainly, the “ins” need Stuart Rose on hand to make the many calm and clinching business points. But surely the leader’s job is to promote the case with warm and passionate conviction as well as authenticity. Even if—as with Rose—all he is doing is holding the fort until Cameron and Osborne mobilise.

Then there’s the authority question. Will Straw, the “in” campaign’s Executive Director, might one day be a force for good in the country. He’s decent, willing and impossible to dislike. But he looks and sounds out of his depth. At a recent debate, the first between the campaign leaders, he was properly pitted against Dominic Cummings, the battle-hungry director of what will surely become the main “out” (“Vote Leave”) campaign. This was Straw’s first real public test. He did not do well. As soon as the debate opened to questions, it became clear to the audience that Straw was not across the detail. He was unable, for example, to counter the demonstrably false figure of the “out” side that it costs £55m a day to keep us in Europe and instead the chair had to do it for him; and then—staggeringly—he had not even heard of the Rotterdam Effect.

What’s the Rotterdam Effect I hear you cry?


Beatlebone by Kevin Barry review – a darkly wry trip to Beatle Island

Written for The Guardian:


My favourite interview with John Lennon was by “whispering” Bob Harris in 1975. Throughout, Harris is the opposite of incisive, but his warm, respectful, almost innocent presence seems to relax Lennon into being unusually open and collusive; sure, the acerbic wit and that compulsive self-awareness are there as always, but in the last few seconds, Lennon dissolves with playful delight into a character halfway between Peter Cook and Peter Sellers. I mention this because Lennon is the protagonist of Kevin Barry’s second novel, and one of the many pleasures of Beatlebone was that it sent me back into my own past relationship with Lennon and, as Barry has it, “all the sweet and thorny emotions he routinely sprang in his brilliant and nerveless song-writing”.

The Lennon of Beatlebone is 37. The story opens as he arrives by night and incognito on the west coast of Ireland in May 1978; “all he asks” is to “spend three days alone on his island”. The island in question is Dorinish in Clew Bay, County Mayo, which the real‑life Lennon bought in 1967 at “the knock‑down price of £1,550” – and which he briefly visited with his first wife, Cynthia, and then with Yoko Ono. Barry’s Lennon has returned nine years later in search of solitude and in order to “scream his fucking lungs out” and “at last to be over himself”.

Screaming therapy is something Lennon began in 1970 after reading The Primal Scream by the American psychiatrist Dr Arthur Janov. At its simplest, the idea was that neurosis is best treated by summoning up the repressed trauma of childhood and comprehensively re-experiencing it in order to release the otherwise stored toxicity. Lennon never finished the course but some of the results can be heard on the 1970 album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. So we’re several years on when we meet Barry’s fictional Lennon being driven “fast and west” from the airport by the superbly drawn Cornelius O’Grady, a somewhat Mephistophelean character who will lead Lennon through a series of misadventures as bad weather and press avoidance require that they delay their trip to Dorinish Island.

But the bones of the plot are not at all what this novel is about. Rather, it is a psychological exploration of “love, blood, fate, death, sex, the void, mother, father, cunt and prick” set against a beautifully rendered backdrop of turbulent skies, seas, hills and west-of-Ireland weather. It is also a darkly wry novel with lots of Beatle references for those who (like me) experience an adolescent leap of joy whenever they pop up: there is no Gideon’s Bible at the first hotel; O’Grady’s hair is “greased and fixed like a ducktail joint”; Lennon is “so tired, he hasn’t slept a wink”.

Barry won the Impac Dublin prize with his first novel, City of Bohane, and here again, sentence by sentence, the writing is original, exact and telling. When Lennon is forced to lie low at the Amethyst Hotel on nearby Achill Island, the hog-like man running a “ranting” cult there has “tiny yellowish piss-hole-in-the-snow-type eyes” while his young acolyte has “milk-bottle shoulders”. There are a dozen great passages that lyrically solder the profound to the profane in the way of the great Irish playwrights. And lines emerge every few pages that make you want to read them again: the “sea-rasp outside hoarse as love by night whispered”; “dead love stories are what make us”.

But for all this, on the macro level, the novel didn’t quite work for me. The problem manifests itself in the uneasy fissure between Barry’s command of language and his Lennon’s less comfortable relationship to words: “What’s the fucking word? Crepescular.” (Is that “e” meant to be a Liverpudlian pronunciation?) This bum note proved symptomatic of a deeper issue which, I think, is to do with the artistic difficulty of inhabiting and portraying Lennon’s deep consciousness. It is notoriously hard to fictionalise public figures, especially linguistic artists; and for me the real Lennon kept hijacking the fiction and seizing back the biography of both the inner and outer life. Beneath everything else, the fictional spell must bind and the real-life Lennon simply wouldn’t let the Barry-Lennon convince me of his reality.

The novel also felt too fractured, as if compiled from distractions rather than written through: there are lots of short, bitty paragraphs – often in single lines, which then run the risk of making the blank space between them seem melodramatic. In part six, Barry makes the structural mistake of dropping in almost 30 pages in which a new narrator writes about his journeys around Clew Bay and how he came up with the idea for the book. “The idea is that I would get to the Island and I would Scream … ” The reader has to presume that this is Barry himself. But the effect of this disclosure on me was further to dispel the fiction by colonising the Barry-Lennon from the other direction – so that as well as the external pressure from the real Lennon, the Barry-Lennon began to feel hollowed out from the inside, as if some kind of proxy for autobiographical memoir.

All of which is to say that while I thoroughly enjoyed Beatlebone, somehow the sum was slightly less than its many fine and savoursome parts.

The Batman of Obscenity


Written for The Guardian:


Myles Jackman is on a mission to change Britain’s obscenity laws. For him, it’s more than a job, it’s a moral calling…


1. Tiger Porn

One evening in the late autumn of 2008, Andrew Holland returned from holiday to discover that the front door to his home in Wrexham had been smashed in. Thinking he had been burgled, he phoned the police. They came straight round – and arrested him.

It was the police themselves who had forced entry to his home. They had taken his computers in pursuit of what turned out to be an unfounded allegation; however, in searching the hard drives, they found something else. The original charges were duly dropped and instead, in the spring of 2009, the police indicted him with possession of two images under the new Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. One image was from a sadomasochistic series called the Body Modification Extreme Pain Olympics; the other showed – as the law has it – “an act of intercourse with a live animal”. The animal in question was a tiger.
On the streets of north Wales, in the newspapers and all over the internet, Holland quickly became known as “the tiger-porn guy”. As he told me, the consequences were “worse than being dead”. Vigilantes staked out his house. Hate mail and excrement were posted through his letterbox. He was banned from seeing his daughter for 18 months. He had a heart attack.

Meanwhile, from the roost of his London flat, Myles Jackman was watching. His was a constant vigil – Google alerts, Twitter, the forums, the court reports – for he was a man with a mission so unique that he alone considered Holland’s case to be an opportunity. More than that: a chance to change the world.

Myles Jackman is Britain’s leading obscenity lawyer. But he does not merely defend the accused: his life’s great plan and purpose is to rid this country once and for all of its laws criminalising extreme pornography – laws that he regards as morally and socially iniquitous. Jackman is broad and tall with plaintive eyes and a beard like Bedlam straw. From a distance, he looks vast and indomitable, a figure of great appetites and refusals, the rogue lawman in a spaghetti western. But close up, he’s softer, sensitive, comradely, far more Hagrid than Sergio Leone villain. (The invite for his 40th birthday, last November, asked friends to “a funeral – for the death of youth”.)

Jackman fervently believes he has to lead a crusade against what he sees as the unjust obscenity laws and that he absolutely must succeed – or else fail himself, his allies and the wider cause of civilisation as he sees it. He maintains that pornography is a class issue, a gender issue, a philosophical issue, a freedom issue, an everything issue. (One of his many dicta: “Pornography is the canary in the coal mine of free speech.”) And his campaign is against both state and statutes alike. By day, beneath the dark lawyerly suits that strain to contain him, he likes to wear Batman socks; by night, he wears Batman T-shirts. In the last six years or so, he has transformed himself from being just another lawyer into the Batman of obscenity.


Formula One: the limit of human skill

Written for Prospect Magazine:


The greatest sporting spectacle that I have ever witnessed live took place on a day of freezing rain, bitter winds and unimaginable mud in Leicestershire in April 1993. I had come seventy miles across the Pennines with my brother and a friend to camp for the weekend in a wind-ravaged field. But so cold and blasted was England that we abandoned our tent and drove all the way home again – only to set out once more on the Sunday at four thirty in the morning so as to secure the vantage that we feared we might have lost. We need not have worried. The crowds were thinned and desperate – blurry men and women twisting their backs into the whipping squalls. This was the European Grand Prix at Donington Park – a near-mythical race meeting among motor racing fans –  because of these conditions and because that day witnessed the greatest lap ever driven by the man whom many consider to be the sport’s supreme driver: Aryton Senna.

This was the only time that Formula One had ever been to Donington Park – the result of a late cancellation by another track in Japan – and it was a terrible idea. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong – for everyone, all weekend. (Silverstone is held in July for good reason.) Murray Walker described it as the worst weather that he had ‘ever seen at any race anywhere in the world’. And Donington never hosted a Formula One event again. Meanwhile, that season, Senna was in an inferior car to his cunning rival and nemesis, Prost, who had just returned after a ‘sabbatical’ and would go on to win the championship with the dominant Williams. Thus Senna was quietly furious at his lack of opportunities and Prost quietly anxious not to squander his advantage; three races into the season and already the two greats were already back to feuding, fighting, psychological warfare.



The Mark and the Void – Paul Murray’s take on the Celtic Tiger

Written for The Guardian:


This is it, at last: a fine work of fiction set in the present day that kicks all those asses that so urgently need to be kicked. Twenty pages in and I wanted to tour the nation’s nine remaining bookshops with Murray and shout from the back: “That’s what I’m talking about, people; this is what a real novel should be. Fuck all that ersatz pap you’ve been sold; read this!”

The Mark and the Void is the best novel I have reviewed by someone of my own generation writing on this side of the Atlantic. It’s unabashedly intelligent, it’s ingeniously inventive, it’s richly alive in language, thought and character; it’s read-the-whole-page-again funny and philosophically engaged with the great questions and circumstances of our times. It is the answer to the question of what a serious and seriously talented contemporary novelist should be writing.

I say “set in the present day”, but what I actually mean is that it feels like it’s set right now. When I was reading it, I turned off the midnight news (about the European financial crisis) to read the last 50 pages (about the European financial crisis) and it was as if I were reading an impossibly ingenious up-to-the-second artistic gloss on the bulletin just gone.

Set in Dublin, it is the story of a French banker, Claude Martingale, and his bromantic relationship with a struggling novelist, Paul Murray. The plot is a joke – as plots so often are; but, in this case, it is a joke on several interesting levels. Basically, Paul is desperately trying to raise money, because he bought a ludicrous flat with a stupendous mortgage when the Celtic Tiger was at full roar. So he comes up with the idea of robbing a bank – a plan that he executes by pretending to Claude that he is writing a novel in which he wants to make Claude the Everyman hero. This gives Paul the excuse to come in and stake out the bank with his sidekick, Igor. The plan is terrible, of course – it’s a merchant bank, for one thing, and doesn’t have a safe or any actual money.

The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood review – an absorbing insight into human creativity…

For The Guardian:

Note to all readers: keep going. I spent 137 pages of The Ecliptic thinking it was a very good but misconceived novel in which a talented male author had taken an artistically self-sabotaging decision to make his first-person protagonist – Elspeth Conroy, a Glaswegian painter – a woman with an oddly oblique antiquarian voice that even her own biography rendered suspect. It would ruin the plot if I were to tell you why my margin notes turned out not to be wholly germane. Suffice to say that the answers can be found in the fourth part, entitled “Clarity”, in which we learn how the scenes in the artists’ colony off the coast of Istanbul in parts one and three relate to Elspeth’s biography.

This is only Wood’s second novel – his first, The Bellwether Revivals, won the Commonwealth book prize – and as such, The Ecliptic represents a resounding achievement. Though I was not a huge fan of part one, it was everywhere apparent that Wood is the real deal: scrupulous in his choice of words, adroit with plot, assiduous about drawing character and engagingly pursuing an ambitious theme. On this last point, The Ecliptic is one of the most absorbing explorations of the artistic process that I’ve ever read in fiction – both in the painterly sense and in the wider psychological sense of how genuine day-in day-out creativity works. Or doesn’t. “Talent sinks,” Wood writes, “into the lightless depths like so much rope unless you keep a firm hold of it, but squeeze too tight and it will surely drag you under.”

And yes, Wood is startlingly good at conjuring images. Holden, Elspeth’s first teacher, would twist his ear “as though turning off a valve”. The love of her life – the sottish older artist Jim Culvers – is “not the sort of man for whom you felt an immediate attraction”, but “over time, he quietly detuned the strings of your heart, until his peculiar key became so familiar that you believed it to be the only one”. (I love how Wood rescues that cliche to create something moving, new and apposite.) Later, Elspeth will “wind in” her smile. These human moments are so very hard to write about inventively and attentively with any kind of freshness; but Wood does so often and deftly.

Forget the ‘Ajockalypse’, this was ArmaCleggon

For Prospect Magazine:

Hell yeah, we were pumped up. And so we came at last to Sheffield Hallam, the constituency of Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, a national media seeking answers. How many red lines were needed to draw a U-turn? On which party would he bestow the still-glittering orangey-gold crown? The Tories might do better than expected. Or Labour might lock them out. But the one thing we knew for certain was that the Liberal Democrats were going to be the “surprise story” of the 2015 election and nobody would be able to govern without them. Sure, the polls were deadlocked with the party stubbornly entrenched below ten per cent, but when we took account of “incumbency” and “grass roots” and being “dug in deep”, we were looking at between 25 and 35 Liberal Democrat seats. Which job would Clegg ask for? Which job would he get? Could the Tories win enough seats? And, if they did, how was he going to take his two dozen colleagues with him? If Labour, how would the master negotiator renegotiate?

But we were asking the wrong questions. In the wrong universe. What we were about to experience was not the re-appointment of a kingmaker; it was nothing short of ArmaCleggon.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold by Magnus Mills review – Britain in miniature

For The Guardian:

This allegorical story of territory – alluding to the Roman invasion, the Vikings and Christianity – is a singular meditation on history, immigration and fellowship…

Magnus Mills has a reputation for great originality. His first novel, The Restraint of Beasts, in which two men erect high-tensile fences across a bog, set the tone and was shortlisted for the Booker in 1998. So unconcerned was the work with anything conventionally considered reader-friendly that the suspicion set in that Mills, famously a bus driver but less well known as a columnist, was some kind of existential genius. Since then, reviewers have invoked Beckett, though noted the absence of ontological incandescence; cited Kafka, but without the political insurrection. Mervyn Peake, minus the magnification; dehydrated Pinter; Stoppard that won’t soar … This is not to slight Mills – quite the opposite – but to point to a peculiar quality in his work, which summons up such names while steadfastly rejecting the grandiloquence of their underlying artistic agendas.
When I read The Scheme for Full Employment (Mills’s fourth novel, about van drivers ferrying spare van parts around) I assumed it was some kind of sub-Orwellian allegory written in the 1950s. The Field of the Cloth of Gold, Mill’s eighth novel, feels very similar. We are firmly in allegory territory again. “The Great Field” is “bounded in the east, south and west by water”. To the north lies wilderness. “For a select few … it was the chosen field: the place where momentous events would unfold and come to fruition.” When the unnamed narrator arrives with his tent, only Hen is there – “he occupied the extreme western margins”. In the south-east, there is the impression of another pitch – the owner of which, Thomas, returns, wearing druidical flowing white robes. Isabella comes next, pitching in the far east and defiantly swimming naked in the river; her tent is crimson and the narrator “liked to imagine it was lined with cloth of gold”. They are followed by Hartopp and Brigant, who settles grumpily near the wilderness and begins “making reference to the ‘lower field’ and the ‘upper field’ as though the Great Field was somehow divided into two halves’ and “hardship and discomfort were the sole preserve of the north”.

By now, you will be getting the idea.



Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman review – sublime and ridiculous

For The Guardian:

The Sandman author’s new collection veers from masterful prose to embarrassing poetry…

This is a new collection of 23 short stories and poems that will delight Gaiman’s army of fans. But what about new readers? Almost alone in the universe, I found his last novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, unconvincing. So here was another chance – many chances – to discover where the reputation comes from.

Let me say this. It’s not from his poetry. The book opens with Making a Chair – and at the start of stanza five we get: “Making a book is a little like making a chair / Perhaps it ought to come with warnings / Like the chair instructions.” How could any writer with even a passing acquaintance with the glorious canon of English-language poetry kick off a collection with a poem this mundane unless writing for children? Meanwhile, “the retired dentist from Edgbaston” in My Last Landlady reads like a jejune parody of Eliot’s “small house-agent’s clerk” from The Wasteland; in fact, it is supposed to be a “scary” poem but the only thing scary about the poetry in this collection is its inclusion.

I’m afraid I didn’t much enjoy the 20-odd page introduction either: “I wrote this story on the Isle of Skye, while my then girlfriend Amanda had flu and tried to sleep it off. When she awoke I would bring her soup and honeyed drinks and read her what I had written of the story…” I’m just not sure how Gaiman wants us to take passages like this. Indeed, the introductory tone seemed generally designed to address some kind of perpetually wilting teenage goth. “There are things that profoundly upset me when I encounter them … But they teach me things … and if they hurt, they hurt in ways that make me think and grow and change.”



Walking with Karl


For Prospect Magazine



I am at the House of Commons. Karl lives less than three miles down the road. So I leave it late and I’m crossing the river on a bus when I get the message: “A very close friend of mine was stabbed severely in the chest yesterday and passed away an hour ago. I’m in the hospital now and won’t be able to meet with you today.”

The sun has fallen behind Westminster Abbey and the water below is the colour of charcoal. For half a minute, I think maybe Karl’s making it up because he’s changed his mind. Last time we met, he was shy and wary. I go through all the usual media organisations on my phone trying to find news of a stabbing and what is now a murder. It takes me almost 20 minutes to locate even a paragraph. Eventually, I have a name and a place: Dwayne Simpson, Brixton.

I find some words to text back to Karl, but even on my own screen, the exchange is unreal to me. Three days later, I receive the following: “The young man was more a brother than a friend and though the effect its had on me is unwordable, this pain must fuel a purpose.”

My purpose—my plan—had been to spend some time walking and talking with Karl through the streets, the scruffy asphalt parks and the estates of his childhood. I wanted to see our capital through the eyes of a man who for more than five years lived in the midst of intense physical violence.

Karl is 24 years old. He grew up in and around the Myatt’s Field estate in Brixton. His mother, Elizabeth, whom I later meet, is Ghanaian, like his father. She’s smiling, doting, warm, indulgent and cheerfully Christian. They moved to Britain about 30 years ago. In Ghana she was a teacher, but her qualifications were not recognised here, so she did various “hand to mouth” jobs and worked as a nurse. Karl’s father, whom he doesn’t want to name, “does a few jobs now, delivery work and security stuff.” He has one older brother who was in “some sort of menial job” the last time Karl heard about him.




Before, During, After review by Richard Bausch – precisely piloted psychology

For The Guardian:

This is an accomplished and, at times, harrowing novel full of the kind of psychological power and exactitude that first-rate fiction does so well. I found myself wincing half the time, whispering, wishing, willing the characters to take other courses.

For those unfamiliar with Richard Bausch, he has long been celebrated in America as a practised purveyor of Chekhovian precision. Before, During, After is his 12th novel and it again gives primacy to the observation of character. For Bausch, it is in the moment-to-moment detail of life that devilry and virtue vie for the human soul. This time, though, he has also written an explicitly widescreen book, since the action takes place against the backdrop of 9/11 and the inner lives of his two protagonists are detonated on the same day that the twin towers fall. Thus the title, and thus does Bausch seek to have the private refract the public.

Natasha Barrett is 32. Ostensibly, she is committed to her work for a senator in Washington, but she has entered a period of lassitude following a heartfelt affair with a married photographer. Michael Faulk is 48, three years out of a failed marriage and only just out of the Anglican priesthood. Ostensibly, he is warm and well adjusted, but inside he is having a crisis of faith and self-belief. These two people find each other and love does all the things that love can do – rescues them, remakes them, rekindles their desires. They decide to marry. But before this, Natasha must honour a holiday commitment to go to Jamaica with Constance, a wealthy friend. And it is on this holiday – “during” – while trapped in a luxury hotel and uncertain if her fiance in New York is still alive, that Natasha is raped on the beach.

Leonard Cohen is John Donne to Bob Dylan’s Shakespeare

Written for The Guardian:

The first time I thought consciously about Leonard Cohen’s death was in 2002. I was listening to his 2001 album Ten New Songs while crawling my way through the writing of a novel in which each chapter took its title from one of the poems in The Songs and Sonnets of John Donne. I remember hearing the following lines, among the hundreds of Cohen’s that I’ve come to revere: “So come, my friends, be not afraid/ We are so lightly here/ It is in love that we are made/ In love we disappear.”

In that moment, a network of biographical and thematic connections between Donne and Cohen suddenly rose up in my mind. No man is an island. Death be not proud. The bearable and the unbearable lightness of our being. The way that love makes us and remakes us. The secular sacrament of our lovemaking itself. The lover as saint. The high seriousness of love and death so entwined. The abiding generosity towards their listeners. Can there be two poets who credit their audience with more intelligence than Donne and Cohen? I wrote a few notes about the idea, the last line of which I underlined: Leonard Cohen is John Donne to Bob Dylan’s Shakespeare.

The pair have long been linked in my mind. And ever since I was a teenager, Dylan and Cohen have been an essential gloss on my experience, a significant part of my feeling for human iniquity and transcendence. This is to do with their eloquence, of course, their revivifying poetic intelligence, their seasoned wit. But also the sensibility they share – that their affirmations are narrowly won after much hand-to-hand fighting with discouragement in both the private and the public realms. “The world’s whole sap is sunk” – so Donne says – but intimately to know this and then to write and sing about such a defeat is somehow to seize something back. “I’m junk,” Cohen sings, “but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet.” The fallen state is the only state and, it turns out, the holiest, most resonant and most truthful.

And yet while Dylan’s lyrical gift is wild, copious, and immoderate, Cohen’s is precise, supplicatory and cloistral. Where Dylan rambunctiously inhabits the multifarious world, Cohen more often circles the many mortal contrarieties that lie between the lovers’ bed and the altar – regularly, for him, the same thing. Where Dylan’s genius often has a dizzying and effortless quality, Cohen’s feels mesmerisingly measured. You have your Dylan days and your Cohen days, and they’re very different.

Like Donne, Cohen began as the great lover-poet anatomist of the heart and ended as the priestly-poetical anatomist of the soul. And, of course, as with Donne, when you start to look a little closer, you find that the amorous and the ascetic, the profane and the sacred, Eros and Thanatos have been intimately bound throughout. “I’ve heard the soul unfolds,” Cohen sings, “In the chambers of its longing.”

There’s also consonance in the way the verse itself is made. Like Donne, Cohen has that rare ability to render the concerns of the mind, body and spirit with equal fidelity in a single work, or sometimes in a single line, and none at the expense of the other. His writing has that same feeling of being wrought to its purpose by a fierce animus – “there’s a blaze of light in every word” – of being vividly alive with the intelligent energy of human paradox: assertions are instantly countered, beliefs undermined, theses overtaken by antitheses, the profound and serious valiantly foregrounded only to disappear through trapdoors of irony, wit and self-mockery. Thus, the drama of Cohen’s intelligence, as with Donne’s, somehow becomes the drama of every human intelligence; for we are all of us busy deep down with the back and forth between love and death; between the redemptions of human intimacy and our need for a redeemer God to rescue us from transience. A God, by the way, in whom Cohen and Donne have a great deal of trouble believing. “Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?” (Donne). “A million candles burning for the love that never came” (Cohen). Their holy verses are not so much about the divine as they are about humankind’s search for the divine; for both of them, God is the Great Absentee who nonetheless presents his long list of demands.

Perhaps some of these correspondences can be attributed to a surprising similarity in certain aspects of their biographies. Donne was born in 1572 into an eminent Catholic family when persecution was the Catholic birth-right. On his mother’s side, he was descended from Sir Thomas More and his uncle was the head of the secret Jesuit mission to England. Cohen was born in 1934 into an eminent Jewish family in Montreal. On his mother’s side he was descended from a rabbi and Talmudic writer. The boyhood of both was lived with close awareness of brutal religious oppression: for Cohen elsewhere, in Europe, but terrifyingly extensive; for Donne right there in his own family and terrifyingly particular. Both came from families that prized intelligence, both knew the Bible intimately and both sought salve for their wounds – maybe even salvation – in their relationships with women.

It is this fusing of the sacred and the sensual that they share most of all. Think of the end of Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 14” where the speaker startingly addresses God as if wishing for a violent lover: “Take me to you, imprison me, for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” Think of the couplet in the fifth verse of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” which seems, on first hearing, to contain a non sequitur: “Maybe there’s a God above/ As for me all I’ve ever learned from Love …” Until, that is, you realise that for Cohen, love and God are one and the same.

The last recorded words on the last song of Cohen’s last album – released only last month – seem to me to be the ultimate distillation of this mingling. The human lover and the love of a difficult God addressed together – in one final, beautiful breath of unrequitable longing: “I wish there was a treaty we could sign/ Between your love and mine.”

Perfidia by James Ellroy review – crime fiction on a transcendental scale

Written for The Guardian:


In his latest novel, the ‘demon dog of American crime fiction’ has created an awe-inspiring vision of social, moral and human chaos in wartime LA…

There is a little-known Austrian documentary about James Ellroy entitled The Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction, in which the Los Angeles author can be seen howling at the sky and then dropping to his knees on the beach and making paws with his hands. Towards the end, Ellroy says: “I wanted to be Tolstoy … I wanted to be Balzac. Yeah. I wanted to be all these guys that – quite frankly – I’ve never really read. I wanted to give people crime fiction on an epic, transcendental scale.”

I bring this to your attention because Perfidia is surely Ellroy’s best shot at the second half of this ambition to date. My guess is that we’re deep into the dark side of 200,000 words. The dramatis personae alone runs to four and a half pages. And – yes – this is an epic and bizarrely transcendental novel that represents an extraordinary achievement by any measure.

Many people know Ellroy as the author of The LA Quartet, which includes The Black Dahlia and LA Confidential. Perfidia, so the endnotes tell us, is the first volume of the second LA Quartet; the beginning of a prequel that Ellroy hopes will leave him and us with “one novelistic history” comprising 11 books – the two quartets plus his Underworld US trilogy. This second quartet “places real-life and fictional characters from the first two bodies of work in Los Angeles during the second world war as significantly younger people”. The zone of Ellroy’s ambition, then, is an American Comédie Humaine.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that “perfidia” as a word – the profession of faith or friendship, made only to betray – simply doesn’t cover it.


Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? review – Dave Eggers’s accomplished hostage drama

For The Guardian

A doubting Thomas kidnaps and interrogates significant people in his life in Dave Eggers’s ambitious, dialogue-only novel

Dave Eggers is a one-man essay in the value and virtue of a life in writing in the 21st century. This is his third published novel in three years. And yet his work never drops below a certain standard and the dude just keeps it coming.

This is the story of a “methodical and non-violent” guy called Thomas, who is seeking the answers to some big questions in his life. In order to facilitate these enquiries, he chloroforms personally significant people from the local town, kidnaps them and then chains them to posts inside separate rooms in a vast disused military base overlooking the Pacific Ocean. As further questions arise and as the story expands, so too does the need for new captives. Thomas is able rigorously to insist (with the threat of his Taser where necessary) that his prisoners tell him the truth. And so one “deposition” leads into another until Thomas starts to feel that things “are really clarifying” for him. Then he meets a girl.

Interestingly, the novel consists solely of the interviews that Thomas conducts and is therefore written only in dialogue.


A Replacement Life review – Boris Fishman tells tall tales in a fine debut

For The Guardian:

The story of the impact of a woman’s suicide through anorexia on her brother and her father

I was always going to like this novel. It is about Russia and Russian-ness and America and American-ness, about the relationship between the generations, history, atonement, fact, fiction, biography, literature and the process of writing … And, as if this were not enough, there is a scene in which the hero, Slava, drinks Boddington’s, the Mancunian beer of my youth. Yes, this is the real thing.

Boris Fishman was born in Minsk and emigrated to the US with his family at the age of nine. They settled in South Brooklyn. In the tradition of first novels, A Replacement Life reflects and refracts this experience. On the death of his grandmother, Slava rides the South Brooklyn-bound subway back to Midwood, “a foreign city, if you were coming from Manhattan” where the émigrés from the many ex-Soviet republics live amid the rowdy “churn” of “new arrivals”.
Slava, a writer manqué working as a junior editor on a literary magazine, has never managed to get the full story of his grandmother’s life. All he knows is that she was orphaned when the Nazis razed the Jewish ghetto in Minsk, and that somehow she escaped.


Munich Airport by Greg Baxter review – good, old-fashioned existential angst

For The Guardian:

The story of the impact of a woman’s suicide through anorexia on her brother and her father…


In his 1967 novel, Gargoyles, the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard has the following passage: “Why suicide? We search for reasons, causes, and so on … We follow the course of the life he has now so suddenly terminated as far back as we can. For days we are preoccupied with the question: Why suicide? We recollect details. And yet we must say that everything in the suicide’s life … is part of the cause, the reason, for his suicide.”

In many ways, Munich Airport is a meditation on this passage of Bernhard. The novel tells the story of the impact of Miriam’s suicide through anorexia on her (nameless) brother, the protagonist, and her father. The two are stranded at Munich airport waiting for the weather to clear in order to fly her body home to the States. (Miriam has been living estranged from them in Germany.) Father and son are both now also turning away from food – and the agony of their departure-lounge delay frames an account of the three weeks they have spent in Germany waiting for her body to be released. Interspersed with this are recollections of details of the past life of the protagonist and his family. They search their memories of Miriam’s childhood and yet can find nothing, “or at least nothing so spectacularly out of the ordinary as to explain her suicide”.

The Bernhard Museum is only two hours down the road from Munich airport and close reading reveals that Baxter, an American who lives in Germany, is engaged with Bernhard throughout. Here is Bernhard: “All my life I have had the utmost admiration for suicides. I have always considered them superior to me in every way.” And here is Baxter’s protagonist on his sister: “Our faith that she would one day need us again, just as we needed her, no doubt belonged to the hedonism and extravagance and stupidity of life above the pain of starving.”


In the Approaches review – Nicola Barker spawns wild chaos

For The Guardian:

This ‘romantic comedy’ set on the Sussex coast is dazzling… when Barker remembers to let the reader in on the fun
I loved this book. I hated this book. I was amazed by it. I was bored by it. I thought it beautiful, skilful, profound. I thought it clumsy, callow, silly. I admired its elliptical brilliance and its deep human discerning. I despaired of its Carry-On-Up-the-Khyber bum jokes and all the stewing self-indulgence. Fans of Nicola Barker will smile. Professional admirers will nod slowly. Detractors will grimace and shake their heads. I have never read anything like it.

In short, In the Approaches is a romantic comedy centring on two protagonists, Miss Carla Hahn and Mr Franklin D Huff, set in the coastal village of Pett Level “in the approaches of Rye Bay and Hastings” in 1984. Miss Hahn is the ex-nanny of Orla Cleary, a half-Aboriginal thalidomide child, “a tiny-armed girl visionary”, who may or may not have been a saint and/or an IRA informer depending on whether or not we believe her father, Bran, a mural artist, to have been involved in the Troubles. Ostensibly, Mr Huff, an ex-journalist of sorts, is here to investigate what went down 14 years previously when the Cleary family themselves were lying low in Level. At that time, Kim, Huff’s wife, had an affair with Bran and made “a picture diary” – hence Huff’s return to uncover the truth.

But reading Nicola Barker for plot would be perverse.