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.

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.”

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.

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 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.

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.”



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.

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.


Glow by Ned Beauman review – a new drug hits London

For The Guardian:

The Man Booker-nominated author is overwhelmed by his own tortuous plot…

I once had a wise old American editor who believed that the secret to becoming a great novelist lay in learning the lesson that a brilliant facility with language is beside the point.

This advice was near-impossible to digest – not least, as she acknowledged, because a young writer is often acclaimed precisely because of this quality. But in order to produce work of the highest standard, she contended, a novelist needs to master tectonics – structure, how to maintain momentum without sacrificing depth, how to create and manage the deeper emotional vectors of the cast while paying conscious attention to the reader’s experience, and so on. Only then, she advised, might he or she deploy their linguistic gifts in the service of an artistic creation worthy of their style. She cited  many significant writers, Bellow among them, whom she felt had spent their first few novels “determinedly showing off about nothing very much” before they “got it”. And then – boom! The holy grail. A reverberating subject written in an incandescent style.

On the evidence of Glow, his third novel, I find Ned Beauman to be both a superb writer and a mediocre novelist. And, of course, the further proof of the former – his great facility with language – is the main reason for the disappointment of the latter. Beauman’s second novel was longlisted for the Man Booker prize and his first shortlisted for both the Guardian first book award and the Desmond Elliott prize. In other words, if he were not so good, it wouldn’t matter that Glow seems so glib and gauchely assembled; instead, I’d be reviewing a slightly silly caper by a guy who may or may not go on to have a career writing more of the same.



A Delicate Truth review – in a great Le Carré, the state has lost its way


For The Guardian:


The story of two flawed-but-good men in a world of government corruption and cock-up – pure pleasure


John Le Carré is one of a handful of writers whose every book I buy. And I always read them. Even better, I sometimes go on flights or car journeys with his audiobooks – and treat myself to Le Carré reading them to me. (Can’t recommend this highly enough, by the way.) So I can tell you with some surety that A Delicate Truth is one of the best of what we must now call the old master’s late period.

The novel tells two intertwined stories. First, that of Sir Kit Probyn, a retired diplomat, who is asked to oversee what he understands to be a counter-terrorism operation on the coast of Gibraltar – codenamed Wildfire. This goes wrong in ways Probyn does not realise. Second, there is the story of Toby Bell, a young private secretary to the bullish end-of-days New Labour defence minister, Fergus Quinn, who ordered the operation.



Redeployment by Phil Klay review – ‘Incendiary stories of war’

For the Guardian:

Ex-marine Phil Klay inhabits more than a dozen different voices in these compelling short stories of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan

One of the many things I learned in reading this book was that during the Iraq war the mines were often laid in “daisy chains”. Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) would roll out on patrol into, say, Fallujah and when they hit a bomb – “32,000lb of steel lifting and buckling into the air” – the immediate fear of the survivors was that this would be followed by a series of explosions from mines laid to have maximum impact on anyone approaching or escaping the initial carnage. The image stuck in my mind because that’s what this collection of short stories is: a daisy chain of incendiary fictional accounts of frontline military experience in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, carefully deployed to detonate in the reader’s mind one after another.

Phil Klay is an ex-marine who served in Iraq. But, in the present context, this is not what distinguishes him: what matters is that he is also a scrupulous and skilful writer. And Redeployment is the real thing – a vivid and vital battery of war stories that does not rely solely on its subject matter for impact (although, make no mistake, the subject certainly has impact).

I must admit, though, I struggled with the first few pages. I can’t stand the clear-as-a-mountain-creek regular‑guy style so beloved of the faux-masculine tough-but-vulnerable narrative. And for a page or two, Redeployment read to me as if it was written by a rogue Jack Daniels copywriter: “It was good. We got back on the plane and passed the fuck out. Woke up in America.” Lots of “roger” this and “roger” that, and sentences like, “Sweat a little of the alcohol out, too.” Here we go, I thought, 300 pages from some poor, screwed-up acronym‑spewing marine who finds himself intellectually embarrassed to discover that human beings have rich, deep and dark inner lives. Read War and Peace, soldier.

I was wrong. This was but a single voice.



At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón – review

For The Guardian:

An engaging story of love and imprisonment in Peru is let down by its narrator

Donna Tartt recently described the process of writing a novel as like “painting a large mural with a brush the size of an eyelash”. My own favourite is that it’s like trying to fill a swimming pool with a syringe. Or, in a different mood, that writing a novel is like trying to hold a vast and intricate maths equation in your head that seeks to represent reality and through which you are trying to lead people without them ever getting wind that said equation is, in fact, impossible to solve or that, actually, it might not represent reality at all. Hold that last thought a moment and we’ll come back to it.

Daniel Alarcón has been blessed and cursed by appearing on one of those literary lists – the New Yorker’s “20 under-40 young writers who capture the inventiveness and vitality of contemporary American fiction”. Though he moved to America when he was very young, Alarcón was born in Peru, which is where At Night We Walk in Circles is set.

The novel tells two main stories. First, there is Nelson, a young actor living in Lima. His ex-girlfriend, Ixta, is now with an intensely pedestrian man called Mindo – but she and Nelson have been conducting an affair, which she (mostly) wants to end: “You don’t stop loving someone like Nelson … You just give up.”


Personae by Sergio De La Pava – review

For The Guardian


This is a tricky novel to review. I’m not even sure it is a novel. And I’m not certain as to whether its fragmentary nature belies an organic structure of astutely sewn intention or is merely a disingenuous device to conceal a let’s-get-something-out cobbling together of unpublished material lying around the writer’s desk. What I can tell you is this: I was powerfully engaged and richly entertained by Personae.

Some brief background: a few months ago, Sergio De La Pava was awarded the prestigious PEN prize for his debut novel, A Naked Singularity, which he self-published in 2008. His work has, therefore, adorned many a told-you-so banner in the great forward march of internet publishing, where he has been championed as literary fiction’s answer to the delirious smutathon that is EL James. For the record, De La Pava lives in New York where he is a lawyer appointed to represent people who cannot afford to hire lawyers. He is of Colombian heritage and cultivates something of an outsider persona: “Sergio De La Pava”, says the jacket, “still does not live in Brooklyn.”

But let’s get back to the work. A reductive summary of Personae might describe it as a postmodern text that begins with the investigation of an “unnatural” death by a preternaturally intelligent and attractive concert pianist turned police detective, Helen Tame. (De La Pava is forever playing with fiction’s types and tropes as well as its form.) The body belongs to an elderly unknown writer, Antonio Acre, who has been discovered on the floor of his apartment aged 111. Tame finds what remains of Acre’s notebook and tells us that it “can be seen as a kind of warming up to [his] subsequent works that form the greater part of [her] report”.


Philip Roth: Notes on a Voice

Written for Intelligent Life Magazine:


Philip Roth turned 80 in March and announced his retirement after 31 books. He is going out on a high. He has more prizes than most novelists have procrastination tricks—36, including the Pulitzer. Half the literary world is aghast that he has not been awarded the Nobel; the other half is surprised that he has ever been awarded anything. For every reader who views him as a pre-eminent scrutineer of the human condition, there is one who sees an onanistic chauvinist with only one subject—himself.


He worked mostly in the isolation of his Connecticut studio, spurning marriage (he has had two), children (none known), the phone, even e-mail. He set out his artistic credo in “The Ghost Writer” (1979): “…serenity, seclusion. All one’s concentration and flamboyance and originality reserved for the gruelling, exalted, transcendent calling. This is how I will live.”


GOLDEN RULE He writes standing up, at a lectern. This lends him a declamatory vehemence, as if he’s forever seeking to persuade a hall of naysayers. He’s fond of cumulative cadences, questions and italics: “The stain that precedes disobedience, that encompasses disobedience and perplexes all explanation and understanding. It’s why all the cleansing is a joke. A barbaric joke at that. The fantasy of purity is appalling. It’s insane. What is the quest to purify if not more impurity?” (“The Human Stain”, 2000)

KEY DECISIONS To mine every last seam of his own humanity in the service of the novel; and, when there were no more seams, to start fracking. His work is thronged with clamorous alter egos, led by Nathan Zuckerman. In “Operation Shylock”, there are two characters called Philip Roth. But he disavows all these creations as his spokesmen: “I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn’t.” (“Deception”, 1990)

STRONG POINTS (1) Vividly kinetic prose that is nonetheless precise, inventive and beautiful. (2) Existential indignation: he inveighs tenaciously against the dishonesties of human life, relationships and consciousness. (3) An epic disregard for the rigid tedium of convention. When his narrator describes the wife of a friend with whom he hopes to sleep, the writing is incantatory: “What is happiness? The substantiality of this woman…The wit, the gameness, the shrewdness…that laugh marked with life, her responsibility to everything, not excluding her carnality—there was stature to this woman. Mockery. Play. The knowledge that everything subterranean beats everything terranean by a mile.” (“Sabbath’s Theater”, 1995)

FAVOURITE TRICKS You can’t disagree with Roth more than he disagrees with himself. You’re strapped in and riding the Large Hadron Collider of his pages and just as you’re starting to think, “this man is a monster,” you meet Philip Roth coming the other way just as fast. And boom…At last, the true particles of existence.

ROLE MODELS  His father, for the meaning of hard work. His mother, for the meaning of true love. His brother, for the meaning of everyday heroism.



The Circle by Dave Eggers – review

Written for The Guardian:


Could this be the most prescient satirical commentary on the early internet age yet?

In a recent essay published in these pages, Jonathan Franzen inveighed against what he sees as the glibness and superficiality of the new online culture. “With technoconsumerism,” he wrote, “a humanist rhetoric of ’empowerment’ and ‘creativity’ and ‘freedom’ and ‘connection’ and ‘democracy’ abets the frank monopolism of the techno-titans; the new infernal machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own developmental logic, and it’s far more enslavingly addictive, and far more pandering to people’s worst impulses, than newspapers ever were.”

I cite this because it chimes with the points that Dave Eggers is making in his latest novel, The Circle; we are at an interesting moment when two such significant figures of American letters have both independently been so moved to expound on the same subject. But my guess is that Eggers won’t suffer the same online crucifixion that has subsequently been Franzen’s fate. Why? Because although Eggers is saying all the same things as Franzen (and so much more), he makes his case not through the often tetchy medium of the essay, but in the glorious, ever resilient and ever engaging form of the novel.
The Circle is a deft modern synthesis of Swiftian wit with Orwellian prognostication.



Carnival by Rawi Hage – review

For The Guardian:

This tale of a taxi driver’s nocturnal meanderings shows lyricism, compassion and great human spirit

I enjoyed this book in so many ways that it is tempting to urge you to eschew any further reading and download it immediately or set off for the nearest decent bookshop, however many hundreds of miles that may now be. But Carnival is not a masterpiece – it is a rich and often beautiful, brave, engrossing, intelligent, literate, funny and very human novel, yet it is not quite as fine as it hopes to be.

Hage won the lucrative Impac prize for his first novel, De Niro’s Game. And the spirit of De Niro also hovers over Carnival, his third, because this is the story of a taxi driver: “a man of contradictions” named Fly. Fly was born in the circus. His mother “nursed [him] through … the follies of clowns and the bitter songs of an old dwarf who prophesied for [him] a life of wandering among spiders and beasts”. Which is more or less exactly what Fly now does – criss-crossing the nameless city, mostly by night, picking up and participating in the lives of his various fares: drug dealers, prostitutes, strippers, debauchees, feuding lovers and drunken tourists. The “spiders”, we are told, are the cab drivers who “wait at taxi stands for the dispatcher’s call … for things to come and ages to pass”; but the flies are “wanderers, operators who … navigate the city, ceaseless and aimless, looking for raising arms to halt their flight”.



The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman – review

For The Guardian

Neil Gaiman is at his best when he abandons his trademark fantasy for stark realism

This is Gaiman’s first adult novel since Anansi Boys in 2005 and his millions of fans will be mad for it. It tells the story of a man who returns to Sussex for a funeral and then finds himself driving “randomly” to the scenes of his childhood. He is drawn to the Hempstock farmhouse wherein, he remembers, there lived three generations of powerful and mysterious Hempstock women. The youngest of these, Lettie, used to call their duck pond her “Ocean” – later revealed (in a beautiful passage) to be a metaphor for what might best be described as the cosmic life force. And it is by this Ocean that the narrator sits down and recalls the magical and traumatic events that befell his seven-year-old self.

Those events get scary when the hero wakes with a coin choking his throat. He and Lettie take the problem to the older two Hempstock women who warn them to be careful when they set out to “bind” the malevolence.

Out in the fields, they encounter the monster: “some kind of tent, as high as a country church, made of grey and pink canvas that flapped in the gusts of storm wind… a lopsided canvas structure aged by weather and ripped by time”. In the ensuing struggle, the narrator lets go of Lettie’s hand as she chants the binding spell (though these Hempstocks don’t call them spells: “Gran doesn’t hold with none of that. She says it’s common.”) and the monster places a worm into the arch of the narrator’s foot.

Later, the boy removes the worm but doesn’t quite get it all out. The malevolence stays and assumes the human form of the tall blonde Ursula Monkton, the narrator’s evil live-in nanny, who wears a ragged grey and pink dress that also flaps. Now there’s real trouble. And the only thing that Ursula Monkton is scared of, the only thing that will get rid of this kind of a monster, are the formidable “hunger” birds…

You’d be right in surmising that I find all these flapping tent-monsters and worms in your feet and beautiful governesses slightly gauche. Which wouldn’t matter (and doesn’t, in terms of those millions of fans) except that I also find Gaiman much more interesting as a writer than this somewhat laboured “mythic” story permits.


Pulphead: Dispatches from the Other Side of America by John Jeremiah Sullivan – review


Written for The Guardian:


I began this book reluctantly – I was deep into Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which is pretty much the exact opposite – but by the end I wanted to hand out copies to all those poor folks I see squirming their way through the squalid prose-dungeons of Fifty Shades. I wanted to launch a new British magazine especially for long-form journalism. I wanted to go out and round up a good few of the nation’s so-called columnists and shame them into admitting that the weekly crap-farragoes that they are pretending to call careers will no longer do. I wanted to say “that’s what I’m talking about”.

What am I talking about? Pulphead is a collection of essays that appeared in various American magazines written by a journalist in his late 30s, whom almost nobody in Britain will know. But my guess is that those of you who like real writing (I know you’re out there) will soon come to love John Jeremiah Sullivan – especially if he turns his talent to writing fiction, which, on the evidence of this collection, would not be too great a stretch. My stateside siblings tell me that he’s already got a foot on the same escalator that took Foster Wallace, Franzen and the gang per aspera ad astra. Meanwhile, various people are calling him the next Tom Wolfe this and the new Hunter S Thompson that. Who knows? I’d say hold off a spell – he’s simply not produced enough assessable work. But I certainly found this collection wonderfully engaging, lucid, intelligent, entertaining, interesting and amusing.

The first pleasure of Pulphead is the subject matter.


Among the Russians: Giving the Tolstoy Lecture at Yasnaya Polyana


Visiting Tolstoy’s estate, Edward Docx met writers who live gloriously and furiously—and took a beating on behalf of the former head of MI5


Written for Prospect Magazine:


We are walking through birch trees that quaver and drip with a steady but refreshing rain. We are on our way to Yasnaya Polyana, the country house of Leo Tolstoy. I am with two fellow writers: Evgeny Vodolazkin and Igor Malyshev. The path is muddy here and there and sometimes we go in single file.

“Perhaps it’s because Tolstoy doesn’t have a sense of humour—or not a very good one,” says Evgeny from the back.

“Or maybe it’s because with Dostoyevsky something is always moving,” says Igor, up front.

“Yes, it’s more dynamic,” I venture, “but maybe that’s because there’s more at stake. Unlike Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky has a preoccupation with how to eat as well as how to live.”

“Yes, Dostoyevsky was… what is the English?” Igor asks.

“Skint,” I say.

This is a more than usually germane point since the Tolstoy estate (which remains in that family) stretches away in all directions around us: heavily wooded and undulating with scattered, scruffy villages and sudden long-grassed fields that put me in mind of those scenes in Anna Karenina when Levin goes out scything with his serfs and resolves to eschew all human falsity in favour of a sweat-drenched agrarian redemption.

Nemesis by Philip Roth

For The Guardian


Before we get into this I should probably say that it’s my belief that Philip Roth, now 77, can write whatever the hell he likes. After more than 50 years working at the highest level, after having produced at least three enduring masterworks of prose fiction, after having vigorously, unflinchingly, brilliantly and beautifully wrestled with the notions of nationhood, religion, love, death, belief, despair, destiny and the fundamental nature of human experience, I consider that he is entitled, if he so wishes, to bind and release his fridge magnets one letter at a time.

I realise not everyone shares my view. But a mere two novels into my own career I find I cannot but have a deep respect for the sustained calibre of his work, and I am prone to suspect anyone who doesn’t get Roth of being callow, parochial, prim or thick. I keep Sabbath’s Theater (1995) by my desk along with Coetzee and Hollinghurst to remind myself what the modern novel is capable of, and it’s the book I most often give as a gift – especially if the person in question claims they liked, say, On Chesil Beach. And, well… if this approach doesn’t work for you then you should stop here. Maybe try Closer magazine.
So then: Nemesis is Roth’s 32nd book. (And even the worst is still quite good.) It is set in Newark during the sweltering summer of 1944 and it tells the story of Bucky Cantor, a playground director “who, because of poor vision… was one of the few men around who wasn’t fighting in the war”. Instead, Cantor’s war is with a gruesome outbreak of polio. The narrator is one Arnie Mesnikoff, himself a child at the playground and also a victim of the disease; it is Mesnikoff who runs into “Mr Cantor” years later in 1971 and learns how things turned out.

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

For The Guardian. This review was written before the novel won the Man Booker Prize.


Flaubert once wrote to Turgenev: “Never have things of the spirit counted for so little. Never has hatred for everything great been so manifest – disdain for beauty, execration of literature. I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.” It’s a favourite quotation of mine for many reasons – among them the way it is both so pompous and so not-at-all pompous at the same time – and of course every serious writer thinks exactly the same of his own age. But all the same, so weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seems the mood of the publishing industry at the moment, and so swollen and celebrated seems the appetite for the ill-bound crapola of the departure lounges, that it is tempting – after reading something as fine as The Finkler Question – not to bother reviewing it in any meaningful sense but simply to urge you to put down this paper and go and buy as many copies as you can carry.
But let’s press on for now. The Finkler Question (longlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize) is full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding. It is also beautifully written with that sophisticated and near invisible skill of the authentic writer. Technically the characterisation is impeccable, the prose a subtle delight, the word selection everywhere perfect, the phrase-making fresh and arresting without self-consciousness. Indeed, there’s so much that is first rate in the manner of Jacobson’s delivery that I could write all day on his deployment of language without once mentioning what the book is about. A single line describing the hero’s father will have to do: “a man who stood so straight that he created a kind of architectural silence around himself”.

So what is the book about? Well, this is the story of Julian Treslove, once of the BBC (pleasingly satirised) and now making a living as a celebrity lookalike. Treslove is not Jewish but, in simple terms, the narrative details his love affair with and besotted inquiry into what Jewishness means – politically, socially, economically, romantically, intellectually, emotionally, culturally, musically and so on. Treslove has only a “timid” awareness of his place in the universe “ringed by a barbed wire fence of rights and limits”. He wants to be part of something vast and ancient, something abounding and intense. He wants to be Jewish.