‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy

satinislandAn unexpectedly accessible and engaging cerebral read, Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island is a state-of-the-world stream of consciousness as corporate anthropologist, U., navigates his way through contemporary life and his role in the multi-national, multi-government epoch-defining Koob Sasson Project.

Tasked by Peyman, his boss, with the writing of the book to define the age, U. spends his time in a sporadic oscillation between global and localised catastrophes (oil spills, Lagos traffic jams) and page five news about a dead parachutist – along with the occasional sexual encounter with Madison, a woman he met at a conference in Budapest. His purpose is to accumulate information from which the identification of a codex can possibly be developed – so that he can write that defining tome.

Satin Island is no domestic narrative of the mundane and the every day – it’s about airports and overseas conferences (London, New York, Paris, Seattle, Turin, Vienna), data analysis and expounding theories of human and corporate behaviour. It’s about disappearing into screens, power point presentations and decoding the world.

But what prevents Satin Island from slipping into a miasma of intellectual and theoretical inaccessibility is the wry humour and lightness of touch by Tom McCarthy. Contemplative and challenging it may be as U. scrutinises everything around him in what is essentially a novel without a plot. Madison features occasionally, as does Petr, a friend dying from cancer – but that’s the limit to the human-interest story. The remainder of the relatively short novel is about connection and events, a Chaos theory for the 21stcentury that will enable U. to write that book.

Shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize, Tom McCarthy lost out to Marlon James, the first Jamaican author to win the award, and A Brief History of Seven Killings.

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‘The Siege of Krishnapur’ by J.G.Farrell

siegeofkrishnapurTo the north of Calcutta, (the fictional) town of Krishnapur and its British garrison is laid under siege by rebelling sepoys during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Essentially the retelling of the (true) siege of Lucknow, Farrell’s engrossing novel is based partly on contemporary accounts, diaries and letters of the British residents themselves.

Imperialism is placed under the microscope as a complacent community, with the exception of our hero, Mr Hopkins (the Collector), ignore all danger signs. Hopkins is a rarity in that he is a man devoted to progress and contemporary culture. Yet even his values and ideas about civilisation, religion, community – even the essence of Englishness itself – come crashing down around his ears amidst the terrible privations, disease, inhumanity and death during the months under siege in almost unbearable heat.

As Indians encamp in their hundreds on the far banks of the dry river bed to watch the spectacle, the folly and illusions of colonialism are driven home. Cholera cares not for the British class system and, after several months of water rationing, personal hygiene may not be high on the priority list. Food is so scarce that the capture and satisfying crunch of a beetle elicits jealous rage and, of little value, silver cutlery ends up being sequestered for (effective) canon ammunition.

The Siege of Krishnapur, through humour, cutting wit and more than a little moral high ground (the now discredited phrenology, for example, looms large throughout), draws out the drama of events as the characters are subjected to changes in rules almost unfathomable to the privileged many.

Farrell himself (who died tragically at the age of 44 in a fishing accident) said that he wanted to show “yesterday reflected in today’s consciousness” – and his incisive prose and biting wit suggests that he more than achieved this. Occasionally, however, Farrell slips into preaching, particularly when it comes to the discussions and arguments about religion. But a minor caveat for a book that looks not to why the rebellion happened from the Indian perspective, but from the perspective of the ingrained, misplaced superiority of the colonialists.

JG Farrell was awarded the 1973 Booker Prize – and The Siege of Krishnapur is regarded by many critics as the best of all the winning novels.

‘Headlong’ by Michael Frayn

headlongMichael Frayn is a successful novelist and playwright equally at home with farces, comedies and profoundly serious dramas. Throughout, he explores the extreme lunacies of life and the thin dividing-line between order and chaos.

Headlong is a ‘classic’ Frayn, incorporating a farcical narrative where a young academic and wannabe art historian believes he has stumbled across a missing Bruegel masterpiece with scholarly investigation and art history. And like so many farces of wrong doors, missed opportunities, inappropriate clinches, dropped trousers and general absurdity (Frayn wrote Noises Off after all), Headlong is a frustrating, bumbling, infuriating novel.

Martin and Kate Clay, with baby Tilda in tow, head for their country home (a damp, slightly squalid cottage some three hours drive from London) for a year’s sojourn of research and writing (both are university lecturers). On arrival, they discover their neighbour, Tony Churt awaiting them. Never having spoken to any of the local residents, the part-time country folk are surprised by an invitation to dinner at Upwood, the very dreary, run-down Churt manor house. Evidently looking for quick cash, Churt introduces Martin in particular to the family Giordano in the hope of advice on an under-the-counter, avoiding-inheritance-tax deal. But among many other paintings in the freezing house, Martin is convinced he has spotted a Bruegel.

Cue initially fascinating research into the (little known) life of Pieter Bruegel and the politics of life in 16th century Protestant Netherlands under Spanish Catholic rule. Theory and counter theory abounds along with the following of historical lines that may prove the authenticity of a missing (or several) Bruegels from the series of works in The Seasons. Martin’s research also explores the ideology that, like so many paintings of the time, the works were iconographic in their messages – symbols of oppression by the ruling Spaniards. More and more convinced of his discovery, Clay looks to defraud the Churts.

But a convoluted plot evolves where Martin looks to find a ‘mysterious buyer’ for the Giordano (to the Curts, the centrepiece of their collection) and who will throw-in a few thousand pounds for three or four other works (including, of course, the Bruegel).

In the course of looking to validate his discovery and secure purchase (including hightailing it out of the mud-splattered valley to London driving an ancient Land Rover towing the Giordano wedged into a horse box before parking it illegally outside a Mayfair art gallery), Clay comes close to destroying his marriage, bankrupting the family, having an affair with Laura Churt, the glamorous wife of Tony, killing himself in a road accident and defrauding Sotheby’s.

Headlong is a story of prejudice (city culture and rustic ignorance) and miscommunication, a so-called comedy of misattribution (misunderstanding motives, whether in the English countryside or the oppressive imaginary landscapes of the 16th century) and missed opportunities (Clay constantly forgetting to check known recent auction prices for Giordano is the equivalent of the farce dramatist’s ‘wrong door’). It’s infuriating – and, after a while, a little too academic for its own good.

Favourite to win the 1999 Booker Prize, Michael Frayn lost out to J.M.Coetzee and Disgrace.

‘Empire of the Sun’ by J.G. Ballard

empiresunBased on his own childhood experiences, J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun is a compelling war torn story of deprivation and starvation as teenager Jim Graham looks to survive the Japanese Lunghao Airfield internment camp south of Shanghai.

A life of chauffeur-driven privilege in the International Settlement of the Chinese city is permanently changed by the Japanese entering the Second World War with the destruction of the American fleet at Pearl Harbour. That same morning, two Japanese warships scuttle American and British gunboats in dock and seize control of the Yangtze River. Confusion reigns: Jim loses contact with his parents and is left to fend for himself.

Roaming free for several months, Jim survives by breaking into the homes of wealthy Europeans, living off water from the soda syphons and cocktail biscuits. But a sense of exhaustion and fear sets in, resulting in his surrender to the Japanese.

Interned in Lunghao, Jim is exposed to the deprivation and cruelty of the Japanese guards. In his three years at the camp, he faces hunger, disease and death. But in his determination to survive, Jim ingratiates himself with prisoners and guards alike to gain food and gifts to later barter for food.

It’s in the detail that Ballard shines. The evocation of the teenage boy’s inner thoughts and confusion, his desperation to avoid slipping into a sense of uselessness along with a sexual awakening in his attraction to Mrs Jenkins: we see Jim grow. He admires the American prisoners and, strangely, identifies (in part) with the Japanese – the pilots in particular. It’s this dislocation of ‘loyalty’ (he has little respect for fellow Brits and the homeland he has never been too) and Jim’s dawning awareness that, as the end of the war approaches, it is likely safer in the camp. Resourceful and wily, having attached himself to other ‘survivors’ (Basie, Dr Ransome), Jim sees the danger that comes with the confusion of the end of the war – starving peasants, rogue Japanese, Chinese communists, bandit camp-survivors. An extraordinary number die after the final days of the war – so many that Jim wanders if World War Three has begun. The dead piled up by the side of roads, bloated corpses floating in the nearby irrigation canals, the sounds of Chinese peasants strangled by soldiers.

A new order is already beginning and the last vestiges of the Empire of the Sun, of the European Empires, of the Chinese Nationalism of Chiang Kai-shek are slowly dying out. Survivors battle survivors for food, booty, a passage to somewhere.

Ballard’s novel is an extraordinary achievement – a semi-fictionalisation of his own personal experiences (a teenage Ballard was interned in Lunghao with his parents and sister). From the pool parties of the International Settlement to deprivation and starvation, from the disregard of local Chinese workers to imprisonment and abuse, Ballard has created a haunting sense of time and place.

The Empire of the Sun was shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize but, much to the dismay of the literary world, lost out to Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.

‘Hotel du Lac’ by Anita Brookner

hoteldulacFollowing an initially undisclosed indiscretion, Edith Hope, writer of romantic novels, is packed off for an out-of-season sojourn on the shores of a Swiss lake. In the solicitous yet stolid hotel of the title, she is shown into her room, the colour of over-cooked veal. Nothing describes Anita Brookner’s somewhat turgid, thankfully short, novel better!

Brookner, through Edith Hope, delights in cruel portrayals of the few other hotel guests – particularly the wealthy yet vulgar Mrs Pusey and her attentive spinster daughter – and it is at these times, through gently acerbic prose, that Hotel du Lac is at its descriptive best. Regarded merely as the listener to the older woman’s tedious observations, Edith is soon bored by the self-indulgences of the Puseys. And, equally quickly, so are we.

Yet a lonely, isolated Edith continues to find comfort/solace/company with the two women as they drink their after-dinner coffee in melancholy surrounds. But that all changes (in temperament if not pace) with the arrival of Mr Neville, post Geneva conference.

It’s at this point that Hotel du Lac becomes overtly contrived in its narrative. Small talk between guests evolves into a level of unexpected absurdity (no spoilers here) that upsets the balance of what had been a well-written but mundane literary short story.

Somewhat controversially, Hotel du Lac was awarded the 1984 Booker Prize over the critically acclaimed Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard.

‘4 3 2 1’ by Paul Auster

austerEpic in every way – a thousand plus pages, a grand sweep of American post-World War II history, Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 is a celebration of liberal ideology and a reflection on a generation that sexually, politically and culturally defined the end of the twentieth century.

It’s a glorious telling of the life of Archie Ferguson, the only child born to Stanley and Rose Ferguson in New Jersey on 3 March 1947. But it’s not told through one single narrative … the torment of being alive in a single body was that at any given moment you had to be on one road only, even though you could have been on another, travelling toward an altogether different place. Auster thus choses four separate roads and four different lives.

And those four lives are not told simply as separate entities. Instead, they are intertwined geographically and chronologically. The illusion of a single storyline is jettisoned when we become aware of Aunt Mildred having never married. A few pages earlier, in the preceding chapter, we are introduced to her new husband. And so it begins, a miasma of confusion and an introduction to a whole series of friends and family members who bear different relationships to Archie dependent on the narrative of a given chapter.

His parents are the only characters that remain constant and retain their professions – she a photographer, Stanley a businessman. Yet they too have four lives with financial success, career acclaim, divorce, early death, remarriage, near bankruptcy. Throughout, Archie is close to Rose but his relationship(s) with the father(s) varies wildly. The other single most important person to Archie is Amy Schneiderman – cousin/stepsister/lover/ friend/mentor/ confidant. She is, throughout, Ferguson’s soul mate and (mostly) ideal sexual partner, the indispensable other who dwelled inside his skin.

Together and separately, the two travel through the second half of an American twentieth century, each reacting differently according to circumstance. The Kennedy Brothers and Martin Luther King assassinations, Vietnam, the Rosenburg executions, Civil Rights and the Black Panther movement, student uprisings at Columbia University. But we must also deal with the disorienting family scenarios where Amy is Ferguson’s cousin (Rose has married her uncle) or his stepsister (a divorced Rose has married Amy’s widowed father).

Political activist, journalist, sportsman, novelist, translator of French poets: gay, straight, uncertain: living in New York, Rochester (New York State), Paris, Princeton. Take your pick – all are facets of the four Archibald Isaak Fergusons – the passionate lover of French new wave films of Godard and Truffaut, the adoring fan of the slapstick adventures of Laurel and Hardy, an excellent baseball player, a promising basketball student. The militant Amy in one anti-Vietnam narrative balances a disinterested or marginalised Archie whilst Archie 2 (or is it Archie 3?) is equally vocal in a second narrative whilst a third is living in Paris.

No question, 4 3 2 1 is a gargantuan novel (it can be argued it’s actually four books in one). It can also be very confusing in the attempt to recollect the history of the particular Archie of the section/chapter focus. And, like most books of a particular size, it does lose steam towards the end (whilst finding the 1968 Columbia University sit-ins informative, there’s an overzealous text-book feel to the detail – a positioning by Auster himself to his perspective and opinions to the situation). But those are minor caveats.

Auster’s 4 3 2 1 is a success because he chooses to place the four Archies together in a chronological state of relative sameness. Thus, all the early lives are essentially centred round the same/similar Jewish suburbs in Newark/New Jersey. Manhattan is writ large – as is Paris and the French language. Auster has not (thankfully) created four wholly different Archies but essentially four identical but different people with the same name Ferguson. As a result, we see the Fergusons grow up alongside each other and how events around them affect (or not) the pathway they choose to take.

It’s a remarkable yet challenging book with an extraordinary sense of detail determined by its importance to Archie (pages devoted the films of Laurel and Hardy, comparisons of contemporary French poets and Manhattan Beat literature, baseball averages, the speeches of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement). And, whilst Auster does occasionally slip into academic pontificating (do we really need whole paragraphs of the names of Ancient Greek writers and philosophers on the Princeton syllabus?) and political jockeying that leaves no doubt as to where Auster himself stands on events of the 1960s and 70s, 4 3 2 1 is a multitudinous, wholly engrossing narrative.

One of three Americans shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize (Emily Fridlund and George Saunders being the other two), Paul Auster lost out to Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

‘History of Wolves’ by Emily Fridlund

wolvesWhilst a beautifully written novel, no matter how much I appreciated Emily Fridlund’s prose and her vivid sense of place, History of Wolves failed to emotionally engage me.

It’s an austere novel of northern Minnesota and its long, harsh winters and equally brutal, short summers where fourteen year-old Linda lives with her ex-commune parents on the shores of a network of lakes. Isolated, Linda is something of an outsider. With no friends to speak of, her life revolves around domesticity; the family dogs and long hikes between home, school and the nearby town.

Into her life come Patra and precocious young son, Paul, who move into the luxurious cabin across the lake. But as early as page four, we know the child is doomed. It simply takes most of the novel to find out just how.

With Paul’s controlling and overbearing father Leo mostly absent, Linda’s narration meanders through babysitting duties; encounters with her teacher, Mr Grierson; home life and a teenage crush on Patra. It’s a time-fractured narrative: Linda as a teenager is interspersed with an older, but not necessarily wiser, Linda reflecting on events she is only now able to come to terms with.

History of Wolves is a transformative coming-of-age tale, its central character a narcissistic teenager blind to events around her, subject to bouts of meanness verging on cruelty. But Linda is also something of a victim – regarded as a freak at school with parents who barely acknowledge her. An adult Linda says of herself  I was flat-chested, plain as a bannister…I made people feel judged.

Time with Paul and, in particular, with Patra offers the young girl a sense of being needed for the first time. But the arrival of Leo sees all that unravel. Linda knows something is wrong but cannot see what secrets she is being drawn into, what is yet to unfold. It is the older version that drip-feeds us insight and knowledge, creating a sense of foreboding and uncertainty without giving the whole game away.

But when the whole is revealed, it’s a crashing disappointment, an almost throwaway reveal. That whole lacks any real urgency – a thriller without any sense of thrill. The beauty and strength of History of Wolves is in its original and haunting prose – not its storytelling.

Shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, Emily Fridlund’s debut novel lost out to George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo.

 

‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler

besidesReadable it may be, interspersed with the occasional provocative wit, but overall, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves left me cold and unengaged.

Rosemary Cooke (our narrator) has a sister. Or did. Fern disappeared from the family around Rosemary’s fifth birthday. And to add to the childhood trauma of loss, her older brother Lowell walked out of the family home in Indiana seven years later – and hasn’t been seen since (although news of his whereabouts occasionally filters through). Now a college student in Davis, California (the place of Lowell’s last reported sighting), a lonely Rosemary grieves for her lost siblings. Only it transpires that Fern was a chimpanzee (apologies for the spoiler).

Inspired by real-life experiments dating from the 1930s onwards, the family ‘twin‑sisterhood’ was part of an experiment conducted  by her psychologist father for five years before being abruptly terminated. Just why never becomes completely clear until towards the end of Fowler’s novel. It’s Rosemary’s culpability (or at least her belief of it) that forms the core – a motormouth child who now prefers silence as an adult and who remembers only snatches of her earlier formative years. But then a simian upbringing is likely to silence most discussions with peers!

Psychology theories abound in Fowler’s book (transpires her father was a professor of psychology in Indiana) as Rosemary looks to justifications and answers. And she is constantly looking for answers. But those answers are in her past.

What starts out as a traditional family narrative soon becomes anything but. And whilst the dysfunctional family is well written, it soon becomes overanalysed – as does the message regarding animal lab testing. Ultimately, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves becomes a labouredrepetitive story as Rosemary looks to understand just what happened when she was five years old.

Shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize (the first year where American authors qualified for consideration), Karen Joy Fowler lost out to Richard Flanagan and The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

‘Our Fathers’ by Andrew O’Hagan

ourfathersA controlled, assured first novel, Our Fathers is an elegiac yet dark stroll down a Scottish memory lane. It’s 1960s Glasgow and the time of social reform and urban renewal. Out with the slums and in with the new – clean, modern, light-filled high rise tower blocks.

But 30 years later, the legendary Hugh Bawn is dying from cancer on the 18th floor of one of those same tower blocks he helped create. His grandson Jamie returns from England to watch over him  – and it is he who is Our Fathers narrator.

It’s a story of nationalism, socialism, alcoholism, pride and hopes – of three lives dictated and determined by the values and drive of one: Hugh ‘Mr Housing’ Bawn. He may be frail and dying in a flat where the lifts are constantly vandalised, but Hugh Bawn’s history is one of municipal principles and righteous politics. But it came at a cost – an alcoholic son who could never live up to expectations and who, in return, deeply traumatised and rejected his own son, Jamie. Even those same tower blocks, standing ‘proud as a Soviet gymnast’ are now being demolished, built as they were with substandard materials. And with them go the idealism and aspirations of the old working class socialist values.

Andrew O’Hagan is in the territory of writers such as Jack London and Robert Tressell,  with its overt celebration of social (socialist) working class realism. In writing almost a century later, however, Hagan records the loss of much of its associated idealism (it’s no coincidence that Jamie has moved to England and is a demolitions expert – both anathema to his grandfather).

But in looking to that recording of social realism, O’Hagan misses a crucial element to his narrative – emotional empathy. Consequently, whilst Our Fathers is an informative construction with rich prose and savvy dialogue, the heart yearned for a little more emotion and less emotional detachment.

Shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, Our Fathers lost out to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.

 

‘Disgrace’ by J. M. Coetzee

JMCoetzee_DisgraceA compelling, multilayered exploration of the dilemma of South Africa in the immediate post-apartheid years, Disgrace is a beautifully written story of power, sexuality and redemption.

Twice-divorced David Lurie, a middle-aged lecturer of Romantic poetry at the Technical University of Cape Town, has an ill-advised short-lived affair with one of his students. When a complaint is filed against him, an arrogant and dismissive Lurie refuses to acknowledge the inappropriateness of his behaviour and, as a result, is forced to resign. Retreating to his daughter’s isolated smallholding in the Eastern Cape, Lurie is forced to confront his values, opinions and position as a privileged white male in the new South Africa.

More anti-hero than Byronic, Lurie’s complex emotions to his situation – a man seeming without purpose – is heightened by the attack on his daughter Lucie and himself by three young black men in their own home. Lucie refuses to file a complaint, much to the distress of her father.

Roles and position have changed, inevitable but, in some instances, sudden. Lurie is no longer the man he once was – no job, little influence on his daughter, ageing. But there is hope for him – the sexual relationship with Bev, a woman he finds physically unattractive, is an act that is a step towards “annihilating his sexual vanity and his sense of superiority.”

A lyrical, riveting metaphor, Disgrace was the winner of the 1999 Booker Prize – and possibly one of the best books I have ever read.