What it’s about…

Welcome along to the Fiction of Relationships, my blog for commenting on, or – just about – reviewing, books I’ve read. I’ve been doing this on and off in Amazon for a long time but the comments kind of disappear there and when I want to look back to see what I thought about a book, perhaps because someone else is reading it, it is often hard to find them.

Increasingly, I’m getting books for pre-publication review from the kind people at NetGalley. If a book is marked as NEW it isn’t published yet but when it is I mark it as ‘Just Published’. Books without either are published and available!

I’m interested in the nuts and bolts of popular literary criticism and I think it’s interesting to share different readings of texts in trying to understand what the writer thinks they’re about, and what they might be also about, while putting into words where they might add to what I’m about.

I’m not precious about literary criticism. I have previously got into trouble for casually describing Manon Lescaut as porn for priests and suggesting that Jane Eyre might be related to chick lit but I was only trying to stir things up a bit and move beyond the literary voice.

My view is that you can read most of what you like into texts which is why they are so enjoyable. You should not have to take on received messages or recite ‘literary’ observations to get your grade or make your point. Being totally heretical, because you are talking to a group of collaborative readers, I’m not convinced that you have to evidence with quotation and reference every assertion that you make and there are certain disciplinary practices at work in the formal practice of literary criticism which Foucault would have a laugh about.

It might also be worth remembering that literary criticism has not been going on that long, has constantly been owned by a middle-class and allegedly educated elite, and is subject to constant internal arguments about what it actually is. It also easily leads to sloppy lists of conclusions about books which are simply assumed to be true. That doesn’t of course detract from the enjoyment of talking about books you’ve read!

Finally, one of the nice things about a blog like this is the element of social construction. The reality of any book can be built by readers contributing to blogs and forums, writing fan fiction or whatever and perhaps being informed by expert voices but not necessarily led. Comments are very welcome on any of these reviews!

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NEW: She Wants It – Desire, Power and Toppling the Patriarchy by Jill Soloway

I don’t think I altogether expected to enjoy reading a book by the creator of an Amazon series about the father of extended family who decides to come out as a woman. I thought there might be quite a bit of diatribe, self-righteousness and an element of look at me! It says a lot for Jill Soloway’s book that I came away from it wanting to watch the series.

The book is basically an account of how Transparent came to be shown on the screen and how it has clearly been quite a struggle not only to sell the idea but then to produce it without offending too many of the general public and, more specifically, all of those involved in debates about gender. It’s also a true story about Jill Soloway’s family and I do wonder about the ethical dimensions of that but I think she pulls it off. One way she did this was by assembling an excellent team of people, one in which women, trans people and the LGBT community were probably over represented and that makes a nice change.

It clearly wasn’t easy. Along the way she discovered her own sexuality, split up from her husband and must have caused some havoc for her own kids – as well as coping with all the public disquiet about the series. This is a warts and all account of what went on including the crisis in Series 4 where the lead actor, who of course was playing a trans parent, was accused of inappropriate behaviour within the #MeToo debate.

The book doesn’t really end. It simply rolls along recounting a life lived with some stunningly successful series including Six Feet Under and I Love Dick. Jill Soloway writes really well but, when you think about it, her most successful programmes sound like a series of conversations you might have with friends even if sometimes taken to extreme levels! Making those conversations sound both distinctive and personal is a real achievement and she manages to do the same in this book.

It won’t be for everybody. Some people will wrestle with the subject matter and might find her a bit over the top while wondering how success and fame seems to just fall naturally into her lap but I enjoyed it.

(She Wants It: Desire, Power and Toppling the Patriarchy by Jill Soloway is published by the Ebury press. I received a copy of the book through NetGalley in return for a fair review.)

PUBLISHED! The Cactus by Sarah Haywood

Although she keeps a small collection of these plants the biggest, spikiest thing in this novel is the central character, Sarah Green. She’s really unpleasant and the challenge for the reader is to decide whether she is simply beyond the pale or capable of the inevitable redemption which this kind of novel provides.

Her obnoxiousness is fairly boundless. Her mother, who she has clearly neglected for many years in the interests of being an efficient person, dies. She finds the arrangements for the funeral tiresome and she has to meet her brother Edward who she dislikes intensely for a number of evident failings, as well as some fairly harmless relatives who also come in for heavy sledging. More trouble starts when she finds out that her mother has left the house to her brother for his lifetime and she determines to contest what is evidently a clear expression of the old lady’s wishes. She is also pregnant by her unenthusiastic but sexual relationship with someone called Patrick and is evidently disliked and unsuccessful at work. Parts of this are funny if you find that kind of snobby contempt for the human race amusing but she isn’t a lovable person.

She is saved by a friend of her brothers called Rob who persists in being nice to her despite the way she treats him. She is helped by Patrick who wants to help as a father despite strenuous rejections and her rudeness and by a friendly single mother who lives upstairs. As readers, we are invited to decide that this help is okay and she can then be properly excused or redeemed by a series of family revelations about her drunken father and her parentage which somehow makes the person she has become more understandable – even if not socially acceptable. That leads the book to a happy ending when she has a baby, comes to know herself a little more, finds love and understands friendship – all nicely oiled by her brother’s decision to sell the family home and share the proceeds immediately.

I’m afraid I didn’t warm to her at any point. I found her cactus like behaviour offensive and it stopped her from appearing to be a victim like, for example, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant. There is too much nasty snobby contempt for the human race – work colleagues, people on the tube, relatives – and if she is a victim, she hasn’t made much effort to ever come to terms with it. And, it has to be said that her redemption doesn’t come from within! I have a feeling though that the person she is at the start of novel will appeal to some readers and, yes, you could sort of laugh at the way she puts people down but it wasn’t for me.

(The Cactus is published by John Murray and I received a review copy courtesy of NetGalley in return for a fair review.)

PUBLISHED! Milkman by Anna Burns

This is a very strange book. The narrator is the eldest sister in an extended Northern Ireland family living in the midst of the Troubles. She’s only ever referred to as Eldest Sister which distinguishes her from the other members of the family who are also all referred to in the same way. So, there are Wee Sisters, Middle Sisters and a multiplicity of numbered brothers-in-law. It is all more complicated because the family has been decimated by the ‘war’ so, sometimes, it is hard to keep track.

The central event of the book which, bizarrely, never seems to take place is the narrator’s assumed relationship with a paramilitary known as the Milkman. He seems to be interested in her, knows where she goes and what she does but she is not really interested in him and, ultimately, he gets murdered – apparently by the security services and the state. She has a sort of boyfriend, Maybe Boyfriend, with whom she has an on off relationship but her main interest is reading while walking. It is this odd trait which attracts attention to her.

To make things even more complicated her mother is in love with the real milkman as is half the street and he gets shot as well – probably accidentally. Also, I shouldn’t forget that someone called Tablet Girl poisons the narrator and it is widely assumed that she is killed by the paramilitaries in revenge although this probably isn’t the case and the narrator is beaten up by a man called Somebody McSomebody who is then himself punished by a mob of women.

What exactly happens is all a bit unclear because the book is essentially a monologue with multiple diversions. Elder sister has more than a touch of Molly Bloom about her and the same kind of rambling Irish style. Sometimes, she struggles to make sense of what’s going on and sometimes you tend to think she’s got it completely wrong.

Because of all of this, the book is a hard read so what is there to like? First of all, it sort of works. It creates a picture of what must have been an absurd but also terrifying and stressful life for ordinary people during the Troubles. Everyone is suspicious of everyone else, anyone can take offence about anything and life is lived on the edge. Maybe Boyfriend, for example, is in trouble for having a car part – a Bentley supercharger – which is evidently English! And, of course, there are kangaroo courts, constant observation, bombs and shootings.

Secondly, the narrator is convincing in her confusion about events, her uncertainty about herself, her relationships and life. It is worth mentioning that this kind of unreliable narration has weaknesses as well as strengths.

Thirdly, the book is really funny in a black sort of way. The narrator’s attempts to cope with the level of gossip about her non-existent relationship with the milkman, the oddities of the connection with Maybe Boyfriend and her insights into various brothers-in-law would be laugh out loud if they weren’t quite so troubling.

I’m not sure it should have won the Booker prize. Last year’s winner, Lincoln in the Bardo, was equally odd stylistically but it developed and grew to draw in the reader. I’m not sure this narrative does that and, to be honest, it is a bit James Joyce but it is still an interesting if challenging read and an insight into a bit of local history that we still have a problem in understanding or empathising with.

PUBLISHED! So Much Life Left Over by Louis de Bernières

When I started reading this book I didn’t realise that it was actually a sequel to an earlier book called The Dust that Falls from Dreams. It didn’t stop me reading it as an independent entity but finding that out explained why some odd characters surfaced without much relevance to the plot.

That is pretty simple. Daniel Pitt, fresh from the First World War, tries to find things to do before the outbreak of the second. He starts off in Ceylon, in love with his wife and everything looks idyllic but then they lose a child and she’s never the same again. She’s called Rosie and she should really have married his brother Archie who nurses a lifetime passion for her but that’s another thing that goes wrong and Archie’s life is destroyed as a consequence. Meanwhile Rosie has two sisters, with whom Daniel gets involved and that story gets complicated too. Around the edges, some old ladies go mad and the working class diversion, Oily Wragge, just gets on with life.

It should be quite a miserable book since Daniel starts off with everything hunky-dory and ends up looking forward to being killed on special operations in the Second World War. Things haven’t gone that well. Actually, they have gone disastrously and, perhaps, that is the theme of the book. Things never work out as you hope and it’s mostly downhill!

Having said that, it is an entertaining read and I think that is because there’s an authenticity about this life and the way that it is described which draws you in. I don’t know if it’s intentional but Daniel is a pretty hopeless character happy to stride about waving his gun but struggling to cope with his own emotional state and needs. You feel sympathy for him. Rosie is unsympathetically drawn, plain nasty at times and overly religious. I thought this portrayal was a bit cruel and Daniel’s stiff upper lip was as big a problem in their relationship as her state of mind. It’s these uncertainties and what ifs which give a story like this its strength and Louis de Bernières can certainly tell a good one. Recommended!

JUST PUBLISHED! Transcription by Kate Atkinson

I enjoyed this book but I also found it vaguely unsatisfying. Perhaps that was because I was bowled over by the previous two but I don’t think that’s entirely the case. Transcription is the theme of this story because the central character, Juliet Armstrong who works for MI5 during the Second World War, is employed in transcribing conversations which German sympathisers have with Godfrey Toby, who they think is a Nazi agent. He isn’t but then no one in this book is quite what they seem.

That’s the other element of transcription and its major flaw. There are gaps in the typed record created by Juliet and there are also gaps in the story. Transcription is not perfect and overlooks elements of purpose and motivation. It gets worse when the gaps may be deliberately incorporated. So, most of the characters work for MI5 and none of them are quite what they seem. Godfrey Toby is talking to a man in an Astrakhan coat, Peregrine Gibbons, call me Perry, could be anyone but is certainly self-deceiving when it comes to his sexuality. Oliver Alleyne might be working for anybody as well and Juliet doesn’t trust him but that might be because she’s working for somebody else too. At least the German fifth columnists are fairly straightforward and there’s a dog which is loyal to whoever owns it at the time.

Juliet moves from transcription to infiltration because it seems to be part of the job and becomes involved with joining and exposing a right-wing group. It ends badly with the group under arrest but that may have been the plan all along. Who knows?

The story jumps about between wartime, the early 1950s and 1981. In the 1950s, Juliet is working for the BBC in schools broadcasting. I liked this side of the novel which is well observed with rather odd people doing things which they think are appropriate for children without very much idea of what that might be but, then, the old wartime loyalties and events start to intrude. It turns out that Juliet is still working for MI5, running a safe house and then someone with secrets who is passing through the safe house gets lost and everything comes apart. Juliet is lucky to escape with her life.

It was this last section I wasn’t entirely satisfied with. The dénouement baldly tells you that everything you thought so far is just a transcription and the truth lies somewhere else or in between. Maybe I needed a few more clues along the way!

One thing to note about the book is how authentic it is  – well researched and reflecting the state of British intelligence, both in wartime and afterwards where everyone was spying on everybody and there were many divided loyalties. Kate Atkinson has rooted around in some interesting sources to create this story so the narrative itself becomes a kind of transcription, a palimpsest, an overheard conversation about what was really happening. And, maybe, that’s all we get – even today – and that’s one of the lessons of the book.

It’s well written. It reminded me in some ways of William Boyd’s ‘Waiting for Sunrise’ which also has deception written into the core and it’s an enjoyable read. Perhaps, if you knew the ending was going to be different you might spot the clues on the way but there would still be a lot of red herrings – mostly working for MI5!

JUST PUBLISHED! The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

There have been a few books written about women in the Trojan wars and Briseis, the Queen of King Mynes of Lyrnessus, features prominently in others but Pat Barker puts a different gloss on the story.

First, the role of the gods is downplayed. Homer, in The Iliad, puts them centre stage  but, here, they seem to be more of an excuse for events than the driving force. The Trojan War in this novel is a nasty dispute between men over a woman which turns into a protracted and pointless conflict. The map is deliberately small with two armies lined up against each other outside the walls of Troy and a battleground between them. Every day, the armies and their hero leaders go out to fight because, well, that is what they do, while the women work on looms.

Second, there is a brutal frankness about how the women are described. They are in the novel but neither romanticised nor at the centre. After the fall of Lyrnessus and the death of the King and his family in the conflict, Briseis is taken as a slave and trophy. She ends up with Achilles which is probably not the worst end she could have faced at that venture. There’s no drama about this. The men and the boys are murdered and the women are raped and enslaved. That’s just what happens when you conquer a city. And, once you’re a slave, you’re just an object to be transacted as and when.

Third, when that happens it is at the whim of your hero owner. These famous names are pompous and petulant as well as being soaked in blood, and a stupid argument between Agamemnon and Achilles causes more death and destruction than required and ends with Briseis being transferred to Agamemnon. Jostling for position and status, taking easy offence and needing constant reassurance, the heroes are deranged. Pat Barker manages to give the impression that they are all suffering from traumatic stress disorders. They sleep badly, kill people on whims, make bad decisions and so on. It’s not surprising. They’ve been on this pointless killing spree for any number of years and they’ve ended up with these two front lines and a mucky mess of no man’s land in between. Sounds familiar?

Briseis strikes up some kind of connection with Patroclus, the close friend of Achilles. After Achilles is instrumental in his death, really only because of his arrogance in letting him take his place in the battle, and after Achilles has killed Hector and, finally, let his (Hector’s) father King Priam have the body, Achilles realises that in some way he needs her support. In some novels this might be played quite sentimentally but not here. Achilles is simply falling apart and needs a bit of sticking plaster before he dies too.

Then, Troy falls and, understandably, there is more murder and rape and then the besieging army sets off home. Just to make sure they get there and just to rub in what this story is really all about, they brutally sacrifice King Priam’s young daughter, Polyxena, in the hope that the weather will be good for the journey, yes really.

She’s gagged before being killed for trying to speak. It’s not good in this world for the chaps to be cursed by someone who is being sacrificed especially an innocent girl so, like all the other women in the narrative, she is silenced. Even Briseis who, to all intents and purposes, is a heroine knows when to keep her mouth shut – because ‘silence becomes a woman’ especially a disempowered slave.

The strength of the novel is that this is a brutish narrative about stupid men having even more stupid arguments. It’s not heroic to die like cattle but lots do and there’s nothing the women can do about it except survive, help the wounded, dress the corpses and keep quiet. That’s when you realise that Pat Barker isn’t just writing about the Trojan wars but about all of them in all of their grand futility. It’s a powerful read.

(Thanks to the publishers, Penguin Books, for a review copy of this novel through NetGalley in return for a fair review.)

NEW! Alice in Pornoland:  Close Encounters with the Victorian Gothic by Laura Helen Marks

This book could do with a severe edit (it reads like a PhD thesis) but once you get past the jargon and repetition it starts to get interesting. It’s a monumental, academic and detailed account of the way that pornography makes use of what is broadly termed Victorian Gothic. That starts with the concept of the neo-Victorian which is an umbrella term for the way that modern culture reuses or reworks widespread cultural understandings about Victorian life. As an example, anything that works its way round the notion of ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ with pompous aristocrats, poor working domestics and a bit of interplay between the two is a good example.

However, this book is about porn and the way that pornography plays around with some specific cultural understandings of what the Victorians were like. That means a lot of exploitation of prostitutes and maids, wives on pedestals lusting after the gardeners, vampires, innocent and hysterical young girls, spanking, colonial relations with the natives, a furtive secrecy about sex, the sense of a bubbling set of passions underneath a refined surface and quite a lot of ignorance. You can add your own topics but you can see how it is attractive material for pornographers as well as for storytellers.

Pornography works at the boundaries of culture, challenging or transgressing our (normative) understandings of what can be properly be said and, here, transforming the past to produce something arousing for the present. There is an interesting circularity there because the arousal links back to an understanding of Victorian culture which in many ways is not as far distanced from 21st-century life as we sometimes like to pretend. In other words, we like this porn (or upstairs, downstairs type material for that matter) because it connects meaningfully to the present. So, maybe, if you went to a more prestigious school you might be into spanking!

Laura Helen Marks points out how there have been efforts in the past few years  to control pornography and to control the spaces, from the Internet to red light districts, where it flourishes, just as Victorian legislators attempted and for similar prurient reasons. In a sense, there’s a constant battle between pornography and censorship but the author also makes the point that the battle ground is also a playground – people enjoy these marginal spaces as porn, mostly on video these days but as prose and graphics in the past.

The focus of the book revolves around some key Victorian starting points including ‘Alice through the Looking Glass’, ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, ‘Dracula’ and ‘Dorian Gray’. There’s lots of material there to work with for pornographers! Some of this kicks off in the domain of respectability so there has been academic and literary interest in Lewis Carroll’s dodgy enthusiasm for young girls, Dracula’s taste for maidens and the question of just how far Dr Jekyll enjoys being Mr Hyde. The trick with neo-Victorian pornography is to take the extra step so that, while providing some arousing titillation in the present, it lifts the lid on an alternative viewing of the past. As just one example, a more feminised reading of ‘Dracula’ makes these extremely voracious fluid extracting women more frightening than the original hero!

The field is slightly complicated by the fact that porn is quite happy to slip over into pastiche so the target of the pornography is something that already represents Victorianism without necessarily providing a ‘real’ picture of life in those times. As an example, there is a short film pastiche of the serious TV series based on Alex Haley’s novel ‘Roots’ called ‘Can’t be Roots’ where everyone, except the cuckolded, daft colonial plantation owners, is at it constantly. At one point, you can imagine the scenario, one of the slaves exclaims, ‘It ain’t so bad being a slave…’. The film, of course, is underlining the opposite point through this pornographic monstrous exaggeration.

Whatever you think about porn and however good you are at concealing and controlling the Mr Hyde which lurks inside you this is a fascinating book. It provides an alternative view of the Victorians as well as of porn, offers an interesting counter to all those genteel accounts of life in those days and provides a gentle warning against well, or unpleasantly, motivated censorship and oppression.

Will you be shocked? Probably not as everyone knows about these sorts of things even if they don’t talk about them. If you follow some of the references – and ‘Can’t be Roots’ is widely available on the Internet – you might be, but blame it on Mr Hyde!

 

(Alice in Pornoland will be published in October 2018 by the University of Illinois Press. Thanks for an advance copy provided by NetGalley in return for an honest review.)