Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Week Twenty-One - Jeanette

Three Blind Mice by Caron Freeborn (2001)
Recommended by Naomi

This weekend, family has been high in my mind.

My uncle died. He was a gentle, gentle man. That gentleness is the main thing I recall right now (well, and that he ate his tea very slowly, which became something of a standing joke among the relatives – ah, those little foibles, always jumped on and exaggerated in a family). I’ll be going back to Norwich for the first time in nearly two years, and seeing people I haven’t seen for even longer, not since my own father’s funeral in 2006. That’s how family goes as you get older, I suppose. If you don’t have children of your own, the word becomes ever increasingly synonymous with rot and loss. Slowly, those people who knew you as a barely-formed, instinctive thing depart: the character you were before self-consciousness, before wanting to impress friends and lovers, before the branding iron of the day-to-day burned the skin.

What has this to do with Three Blind Mice? Nothing, really. It has a family in it, the Spences, but then most books have a significant family in it somewhere, even if it is one in absentia. It is about a working class family, but the differences between the Spences’ version of working class and the Leeches’ version of working class are such that I might as well compare my family to the Tudors. The Spences live in the East End, call each other the c-bomb all the time, and indulge in the odd bit of arson and GBH. We, er, didn’t.

Although Three Blind Mice is more thoughtful than a TV show such as Shameless, I do get a little edgy with works like this. When class is a central part of a book – and it often is with working-class authors, in a way it normally isn’t for other classes – it’s a difficult thing to get right. As Jude wrote in Week Fourteen, Jeanette Winterson is very skilled at honestly unpicking her roots while managing not to stereotype, or to come across with a massive chip on her shoulder. I also think the first series of The Royle Family did this very well. Apart from the major signifier of their house décor, identity was expressed incrementally, via tiny details. My favourite vignette is where Twiggy comes round to the house, to flog some cheap Wash ‘n’ Go; he says it’s ‘like in the shops, but there’s Arabic writing on the bottles.’ Most families can relate to incidents like these. Another example is the brilliant scene where Nanna Royle gets giddy at seeing a woman from Droylsden undergo a makeover on This Morning (‘Droylsden’s only ten minutes from me’). Nannas from Lancashire to Berkshire might do this. Taken individually, the incidents of The Royle Family are widely relatable; taken together, they paint an effective and human picture of a family who are, both economically and culturally, working-class.

At a time when the working-class is demonized by government, one could argue that it’s harder to write these natural depictions. Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash might, in 2013, think twice about creating Jim Royle. They may, for example, worry that they were propagating the myth that all people on benefits are ‘scroungers’, or simply think that an audience would not sympathise with a family who didn’t do much paid work, but who did watch a lot of telly.

Caron Freeborn was writing Three Blind Mice at the time when the grating Guy Ritchie fad for working-class gangsters was still flaring, and her book bears the mark of this. The main plot – which, until the end, is mainly a framing device for the issues she wants to explore rather than acting as a strong spine to the book – is debt collection gone awry, violent confrontation, stool pigeons and fall guys. This, in itself, is pretty Mitchell-brothers-in-Eastenders fare, but what Freeborn does well is – as in The Royle Family – humanizing the Spences through tiny details. I particularly enjoyed Darren (or ‘Spence’, the brother, and main hard nut of the book) and his almost constant observations of life’s minutiae.

Ben got a Mars out. Unwrapped it slow, more than what was natural.

Fucking nail varnish though – that white stuff what made out like it weren’t meant to show, but it was.

Rosie, the spiky sister, is the main focus of the book. Much of the story concentrates on her relationship with Alex, a rather earnest middle-class substance misuse worker. About a third of the way through, the dynamic between the pair is explored.

She offered him the glass, but when he went to take it, instinctively she refused to let go; he swore under his breath but leaned forward to sip as she held it. Rosie wiped her thumb across his lips.
                        ‘Thank you’.

Soon, their domination-submission dynamic is expressed sexually. Freeborn writes this aspect very believably; it’s far from the millionaire-in-sex-dungeon stuff. Instead, it’s often messy and instinctual, Rosie and Alex getting off on everyday circumstances such as muddy walks as well as via their more theatrical situations. Curiously, few of these scenes are really sexually explicit. I wonder, if Freeborn was writing Three Blind Mice in a post-Fifty Shades world, whether she would have written (or been encouraged to write) in a more detailed and overtly erotic prose style.

The hurt gleefully suffered by Alex is in contrast to the fate of the most interesting character in the book for me, Ben. Ben is Darren’s friend, and has been in love with Rosie for as long as he can remember (although has never got anywhere with her). He’s not a particularly pleasant person – racist and sexist, to start with – but has flashes of self-awareness and real poignancy.

At this rate, him and Spence’d end up two lonely old gits, off down The Mice every night with no-one giving a toss if they got off their heads.

Mixed up with Darren in the shadowy criminal netherworld, he suffers a horrific facial injury. Unlike the middle-class Alex, he’s not playing at pain, and nor can he cover up his wounds.

He touched the scars. Felt horrible, they did, like he was growing extra skin, with lumps underneath it. Him and Spence had took the piss something chronic out of Paul Carter for his acne at school, even now he was called Crater Face. They’d call him [Ben] something soon, if they never already.
            ‘Rosie, what do they call me?’
She never made out for one second like she didn’t know what he was on about.
‘Frankenstein,’ she said. Looked right at him. ‘Franky. Won’t be long before they’re calling you it to your face.’

Like my uncle with his leisurely eating habits, then.

Ben’s own family comes second very much to how he feels about Rosie and Darren; they are his people, his safe space in the world, even though his involvement with them ends up being far from safe.

And that’s, I suppose, how I want to wind up this rather rambling post, a post that (sorry) has been far less about the book and far more about my own tricky few days. For Naomi has been a very good friend to me over the last near-decade. Absolutely unshockable, she rallies round during difficult times, and her help does more than to tackle the problem in hand. I’ve always believed in myself that extra half an inch after a conversation with her.

For years now I’ve seen more of friends like Naomi than of any family member. So, friends, family: the distinction is a matter for semantics.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Week Twenty - Jeanette

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (2001)
Recommended by Alix

My hands were shaking.

I’d been interviewing Steven Collins of The Owl Service for Seasons They Change. Halfway through the conversation, I realised my purse had been stolen. Somehow I managed to complete the interview; very surreal talking of Blood On Satan’s Claw and Vashti Bunyan’s comeback while knowing someone might be racing to the nearest Rhythm ‘n’ Booze for a case of Remy Martin on your dollar.

Outside the pub, I called Alix. ‘I don’t know what to do,’ I burbled. I was staying with Alix and her husband Malcolm. ‘I just don’t know what to do’. I didn’t. My security walls were always so high, and I couldn’t believe they’d been breached.

Alix, her voice rock solid, checked that I had enough money to get back to hers (I did; the compassionate Steven had loaned me the fare), advised me to go directly to my bank to cancel my cards, then told me to come right back. That night, she and Malcolm took me to one of their favourite foodie pubs, where the chef too was kind; he kept cooking after the advertised time, and didn’t mind having a vegan sprung on him.

That incident definitely intensified the friendship between Alix and I. Since then, we’ve supported one another over various creative projects, and we’ve even been jilted brides in a video together:

(Alix is a professional actor. I am not. It shows: while she creates a character, I fall off the bottom of a child’s slide and flash my knickers.)

Alix and I have talked of our mutual love for the great English novelists on several occasions. I wonder if that was something behind her recommendation of The Eyre Affair: a nerd’s paradise for Jane Eyre fans that masquerades as a detective story.

I’ve read Jane Eyre but once, and a long time ago. I personally prefer Charlotte Bronte’s last novel, Vilette, yet Jane Eyre is so very striking that I remember a huge amount of the plot, purpose and imagery of it. This was a real help when reading The Eyre Affair; in fact, I’d say it’s essential to have a basic knowledge of Jane Eyre, and ideally a hearty love for it, to appreciate much of this book (and especially towards the end).

The Eyre Affair is set in a quasi-parallel England where supervillain Acheron Hades runs riot, dodos have been recreated, and (more unbelievably) the government is prepared to fund a department devoted to protecting literary integrity. This, SO-27, is where Thursday Next works. She chases Hades as he steals the Martin Chuzzlewit and Jane Eyre manuscripts, penetrates their worlds, disrupts their plots, and kidnaps their characters.

Within twenty seconds of Jane’s kidnapping the first worried member of the public had noticed strange goings-on around the area of page one hundred and seven of their deluxe hide-bound edition of Jane Eyre. Within thirty minutes all the lines into the English Museum were jammed.

In the age of Kindle, this is a very interesting idea. As we travel ever more towards the all-electronic reading experience, what is to stop a Nineteen Eighty-Four-ish control of text in this way? After all, that’s what happened to ancient works. We’re at the mercy of what survives, or what controlling forces choose to let survive. This makes Fforde’s choice of Jane Eyre, and Charlotte Bronte, especially biting. There is a never-proven rumour (first told to me by my sixth form English teacher) that Charlotte, jealous of Wuthering Heights, destroyed the manuscript of Emily’s second novel immediately after her sister’s death. If true, then Charlotte herself is a kind of Acheron Hades.

While it served the plot for Hades to be so overblown, I had a problem with Next’s character. Perhaps satire was Fforde’s intention (and her name does suggest it), but she is so much the spunky-yet-emotionally-vulnerable heroine that I found her, often, completely unrelatable. Her love interest, Landen Parke-Laine, is even worse, and I wish the romantic aspect of the book wasn’t in it at all. Perhaps Fforde thinks he’s created a new Mr. Rochester but, for me, Parke-Laine is both unbelievable and reprehensible. He’s happy to marry someone he doesn’t love, yet equally happy to call it all off for Next if she says the word. Of course, people do sometimes marry people that they don’t love, and don’t marry people that they do love, but I’d wager that this is a fearsomely complex process that almost never works out well. Next and Parke-Laine’s happy splashing in this very real emotional effluent seemed insulting.

(EDIT: I've thought a lot about this in the last few hours. I wondered, was I too guilty of 'happy splashing in very real emotional effluent' in the video I posted above? Being left at the altar (or leaving someone there) must be one of the most traumatic experiences of a life. All I can say is that I felt the video was cathartic, depicted a moment, and was celebratory of how women can help one another through a crisis, while I do feel Fforde's take on ill-advised marriage was insufferably glib.)

There are a lot of ideas in The Eyre Affair. It’s as if, once Fforde decided that he had to break the rules of physics to get people in and out of Victorian novels, he thinks what the hell and does anything he pleases with the rest of reality, too.

            ‘New car, Uncle?’
            ‘No, no,’ said Mycroft hurriedly. ‘I don’t drive. A friend of mine who hires these out was    lamenting about the cost of keeping two, one black for funerals and the other white for weddings – so I came up with this.’
He reached in a turned a large knob on the dashboard. There was a low hum and the car turned slowly off-white, grey, dark grey and then finally to black.

Some vignettes (as above) are charming. And, I’m sure for many tastes, this is the central appeal of the book: the reader is pelted with so many incongruities that it feels almost Pythonesque. However, much like my main criticism of Jonathan Carroll’s The Panic Hand back in week nineit generally didn’t suit me. I felt sometimes as if I was sitting in Fforde’s brainstorming session rather than reading his novel. I would have loved to understand a bit more of Fforde’s philosophies on impermanence and state support for the arts, on reader interpretation and the culture of literary superfans, all of which were brought up in The Eyre Affair. But it simply felt Fforde would rather get on with his next bright idea.

I’m starting to sound like Andrei Tarkovsky, wanting things to be slower and duller.

To be fair to Fforde, he became more measured in the final Jane Eyre-fixated section, and I really did enjoy that. It would be interesting to know – as this is his first book, and he has written further Thursday Next adventures – what happens to his style. I suspect the multicoloured chaos will ramp up, and that would be a shame for me, because I like him best when he calms down and looks around Thornfield Hall for a while.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Week Nineteen - Jeanette

 Zona by Geoff Dyer (2012)
Recommended by Andrew

‘I’m off to see Tarkovsky’s Stalker tonight’, Andrew texted me last summer. He was in Edinburgh, spending some time at the festival.

‘Oh, Stalker!’ I replied. ‘I have opinions about Stalker. “Enjoy”.’

I shared those opinions when I next saw him. I considered Stalker overlong and indulgent: a great concept frittered away by a director too in love with his own visuals and not with his audience. I related an anecdote that, to me, summed it up: I’d been watching the film, got bored, gone off to make a cup of tea, came back, and exactly the same shot was still on the screen.

Fast forward a few months, and Andrew recommends me Zona, Geoff Dyer’s recent book about his love affair with Stalker. I’m going to have to watch the bleeder again come May, I thought.

However, through Artificial Eye being useless and happily letting important films go out of print (don’t get me started on their treatment of Rainer Werner Fassbinder), Stalker is unavailable on DVD in the UK at the moment. So I did the next best thing; I rewatched another Tarkovsky movie, Mirror.

I first saw Mirror not long after Stalker and vastly preferred it (I’ve also seen Solaris, which I consider the worst of the three). Mirror probably has even less of a plot than Stalker, but there was a warmth to its images: without wishing to sound too pretentious (very difficult to avoid when talking of Tarkovsky), Mirror evoked the curious space of childhood memory and its impact on the present with great sophistication and candour. I liked it even better on a second viewing.

Immediately, in Zona, Geoff Dyer addresses my moans about Stalker.

By any standards it’s a slow start to a movie. Officials from Gosinko, the central government agency for film production in the USSR, complained about this, hoping the film could be ‘a little more dynamic, especially at the start.’ Tarkovsky erupted: it actually needed to be slower and duller at the start so that anyone who had walked into the wrong theatre would have time to leave before the action got under way. Taken aback by the ferocity of this response, one of the officials explained that he was just trying to see things from the audience’s point of view… He was not able to finish. Tarkovsky couldn’t give a toss about the audience.

So I was right about the Tarkovskian arrogance towards the paying public! But how about that static shot when I went off to get a cup of tea?

Often, in Tarkovsky, when we think something is still it’s not; at the very least, the frame is contracting or expanding slightly, almost as if the film were breathing.

Pah. One-all.

Dyer broadly sees the total lack of interest in a cinema audience as a plus point for ol’ Tarkers: it’s exactly because of that attitude Stalker is the achievement it is. Although mostly Dyer was persuasive as to his argument, he annoyed me at one stage:

At first there can be a friction between our expectations of time and Tarkovsky-time and this friction is increasing in the twenty-first century as we move further and further away from Tarkovsky-time towards moron-time in which nothing can last – and no-one can concentrate on anything – for longer than about two seconds.

This may very well have a kernel of truth in it, yet Dyer’s tone and use of ‘moron-time’ smacks of unpleasant superiority. This was its most obvious example, yet there were other hints that Dyer occasionally didn’t care about his audience, either.

Zona – and I suspect this was the reason Andrew recommended the book to me, rather than simply to argue by proxy about Stalker – is part-autobiography. Dyer not only considers his relationship with the film, but how its various ideas and imagery offer insight into his own history.

The football pools: that, for many British people, was their equivalent of the Room, the thing that would make all their wishes come true. ‘All I’d like to do,’ my mum said with a mixture of pride and humbleness, ‘is go down to the supermarket and buy the nicest piece of steak there. That’s all I want.’

Reading these bits, which increase in frequency as the book goes on, was great, and really helped me understand why Dyer loved the film, and perhaps, also, why I did not. It seems to me that if we only admire a movie for its innovation or beauty, cinema wouldn’t work the way it does, and none of us would have a favourite movie at all, even. But those treasured films, those that do touch us deeply, they set in motion a special chemical reaction. Their content pings off our own yearnings or regrets, loves or hatreds. It’s easy when writing – or speaking – of a film to neglect this, perhaps because we don’t think others will be interested, perhaps because we don’t want to unpick our own muddled feelings, perhaps because its simply easier to praise (or criticise) an audaciously lengthy still shot than to analyse why it affects us so. And this is where I come back to Andrew: in the relatively short time I’ve known him, it’s been his unapologetic and intelligent capacity for introspection, along with an unusual and eloquent means of expressing it, that has had a striking effect on me.

So I can see why Zona has resonated with him. Dyer explicitly applies his own narrative to Stalker, and sometimes this means the structure of the book is messy – many will be frustrated with the digressions via footnotes, everything from a bitch about Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels to missed opportunities for ménage a trois – but I found it a price worth paying. Zona has much more in common with House Of Leaves than, say, with a coolheaded Cahiers Du Cinéma anthology.

Another text from Andrew (yesterday):

            If we ever find a copy of Stalker I demand a gala viewing.

And what did I reply? Has Zona convinced me to sit through it again?

            You’re so ON.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Week Eighteen - Jeanette

A Book Of Common Prayer by Joan Didion (1977)
Recommended by Tom

This is Tonantzin Villaseñor.

Tonantzin is my favourite character from one of my favourite things: Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar stories (a key part of the Love And Rockets comics). I’ve read these strips dozens of times. Tonantzin is a strong and confident woman, who sells fried babosas (slugs, yum) and looks like Sophia Loren. She becomes very politically committed, a stance to which her friends, lovers and family find difficult to adjust.

Palomar’s location is never disclosed: ‘somewhere below the US border’ is all Hernandez tells us. However, we do learn, through Palomar's course, something of the complicated relationship between the US and Central American nations. This most obviously happens in the story ‘An American In Palomar’; it concerns a photojournalist, Howard Miller, who comes to document (and simplify) the lives of the Palomar residents for consumption by the US.

There are very notable differences between Palomar and A Book Of Common Prayer (which I’ll come onto shortly) yet both have a central unhappy idea that wider societal forces, especially the relationship between nations with a history of explicit or implicit colonization, poison individuals and their naturalness with one another. Within a few chapters of A Book Of Common Prayer, I was compelled to pick up Palomar yet again.

A Book Of Common Prayer is set in Boca Grande which is (like Palomar) a fictional Central American location. Our narrator is Grace Strasser-Mendana. Originally from Denver, Grace – like Howard Miller – looked outside the US, fascinated by the ‘other’.

I studied under Kroeber at California and worked with Lévi-Strauss at São Paulo, classified several societies, catalogued their rites and attitudes on occasions of birth, copulation, initiation and death; did extensive and well-regarded studies on the rearing of female children in the Mato Grosso and along certain tributaries of the Rio Xingu, and still I did not know why any one of these female children did or did not do anything at all.

Grace, disillusioned with anthropology, marries a rich Boca Grande man and takes up amateur biochemistry instead, ‘a discipline in which demonstrable answers are commonplace and “personality” absent.’ Her status allows her knowledge of both the high political machinations and everyday gossip of Boca Grande.

Give me the molecular structure of the protein which defined Charlotte Douglas.

Charlotte is another American, yet she is a far more recent traveller to Boca Grande; the locals refer to her as la norteamericana, or sometimes la norteamericana cunt. She is attempting to track down her daughter, Marin, who is being investigated by the FBI for her political activism and terrorist links.

Like Tonantzin, people found it hard to adjust to Marin, a young woman, becoming enmeshed in radicalism. However, whereas Tonantzin explains her ideology (which is then generally dismissed as crackpot paranoia), Marin only really gets to express herself through slogans on a fuzzy tape recording.

This is not an isolated action. We ask no-one’s permission to make the revolution.

These slogans – not explanations, but merely empty signifiers –are not dismissed, but taken very seriously indeed (even when it is revealed that at least one was lifted wholesale from someone else). Marin thus becomes the sum of how other people attach meaning to her, slivers of a fun-house mirror glued together.

Although Charlotte’s physical and psychological search for Marin might be the premise of A Book Of Common Prayer, it quickly ceases to be its point. Instead, Didion creates a completely unforgiving web of human relationships – parental, sexual, communal – within and beyond Boca Grande. Conversations are mannered and conventions often polite, but obviously people want to garrote one another with piano wire.

The first thing to say about this book is that it’s extremely well-written. Magnificently so.

But the second thing to say about this book is that I’m not sure I liked it.

I admired it; I found it to be almost perfectly structured and ferociously intelligent. But its greatest achievement – its pitilessness – was what prevented me from bonding with it.

             They had made that crab bisque in Greenville. She had bought the crabs and Warren had
             shown her how to make the bisque.
‘You’re ruining it,’ she had said. ‘You’re putting in too much salt.’
‘You don’t know anything about it.’
‘Taste it, it’s brine.’
‘Taste it yourself,’ Warren had said, and pushed the wooden spoon in her face.

Unlike Hernandez’s Palomar stories, which invite you, allow you, demand you to care about every single character, even those who appear in only a few frames, and even leeches like Howard Miller, the surgical precision of A Book Of Common Prayer allows for little human sympathy. As I was reading it, it struck me that I would hate to know Joan Didion, because she would find your flaws as easily as a night vision camera finds a fox.

I think this aspect of A Book Of Common Prayer surprised me, given who recommended it: Tom, also known as Thomas Jerome Seabrook, the author of the brilliant Bowie In Berlin. He edited my book Seasons They Change and in the acknowledgements I gave my thanks to him first and foremost. I stated that I couldn’t have written it without him.

This is because Tom’s importance to me and to Seasons was never confined to the physical task of editing text. From the very earliest stages, he listened to my worries, gave me priceless advice, kept me focused and – something I’ll never forget – stood up for the integrity of my work to others. When I submitted a manuscript way over my agreed word limit he got it down to a manageable length without changing my intention or tone. Tom is overflowing with sympathy – and not only for people, but for words, too.

Given that, I think I’m missing something of Didion’s intention. The skill of the woman is such that it must have been a very conscious choice to savagely cut back on the emotional content of what could have easily, and perhaps more naturally, been a melodrama: after all, the story deals in terrorism, sexual intrigue, fractured relationships and political shitstorms. Until I understand why she takes the tone she does – which will require a re-read, plus a wider investigation of her authorial notions – A Book Of Common Prayer is, to me, a perfect heart of marble.