Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Vegetarian is a novel by South Korean author Han Kang, translated to English by Deborah Smith. The book is broken into three parts, all of which were apparently published as separate novellas, before being bound together as a novel.

The first part, The Vegetarian, is narrated by the husband of a woman named Yeong-Hye. He begins his story thus:

Before my wife became a vegetarian, I'd always thought of
her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank,
the first time I met her I wasn't even attracted to her.
In fact, Yeong-Hye's husband picked her out specifically for her mediocrity. He wanted a simple, unchallenging wife who would make his meals and see to his other physical needs. Thus he is seriously unprepared for the day when he comes home to find her cooking seaweed soup, refusing to eat or prepare a meat dish ever again. What's more, his body's organic meat odour has become disgusting to her. What he regards as his conjugal rights he begins to take by force.

Yeong-Hye begins to lose weight. To questions as to why she has radically changed her diet she answers simply that she had a dream. Her family—and particularly her parents, who find her behaviour puzzling and shameful—begin to pressure her to yield to her husband's culinary requirements, but Yeong-Hye is steadfast in her
refusal. By the end of this section of the book, the tension has mounted to an outbreak of actual violence.

So far this book probably sounds like either a farce or a satirical attack on Korea's oppressive cultural conformity and patriarchal structures. Perhaps it all seems a little absurd (although any vegetarian will be able to tell you about the vast number of conversational strategies we develop in order to avoid having to endlessly justify the tiny difference between ourselves and those we are dining with). Certainly this kind of satirical element is present in Kang's novel, but if there is farce here, it is not terribly funny. And something far more complex and subtle is at work too, as suggested by the occasional insights into Yeong-Hye's thoughts:

Sleeping in five-minute snatches. Slipping  out of fuzzy
consciousness, it's back - the dream. Can't even call it that
now. Animal eyes gleaming wild, presense of blood,
unearthed skull, again those eyes. Rising up from the
pit of my stomach. Shuddering awake, my hands, need
to see my hands. Breathe. My fingernails still soft, my
teeth still gentle.

 The novel's second part, Mongolian Mark, centers around Yeong-Hye's brother-in-law, a video artist with a growing obsession with his wife's sister. He becomes both sexually and artistically preoccupied with the idea that she will feature in his next work. He wants to use her to recreate a vision he has had of two bodies, covered in the images of flowers, entwined sexually. Yeong-Hye is pliable and amenable. She likes the flowers he paints on her body because they stop her oppressive dreams. Although it should be clear to the reader by now that Yeong-Hye's behaviour and thinking is disturbed, Han Kang relates this part of the story from the artist's perspective, such that what happens between the two of them seems understandable and almost innocent.

It's not until the third part of the book, which is told from the viewpoint of the artist's wife, Yeong-Hye 's sister, that it becomes obvious how monstrous the artist's behaviour really is. By this time Yeong-Hye is in an institution. She has stopped eating completely, and sometimes she stands on her hands, believing her fingers sprout roots into the ground.

To a degree, The Vegetarian is a story about schizophrenia—about the creeping onset of the condition, the confused and damaging ways in which people can react to it, and the terrible effect it can have on both the sufferer and those around them. Yeong-Hye withdraws from the world little by little, and is almost wholly gone before anyone really realises how little they knew her. In this sense it is a sensitive and moving study of the reality of mental illness.

But this is really not a book simply about a disease. There is also an element of complete comprehensibility in Yeong-Hye's break with reality, in her desire to turn her back on the animal world and embrace the quiet simplicity of plant life. Her sister, In-Hye, when she looks back across their life together, sees that there were signs even in childhood that life's demands, their family life, her position in it, were too much for Yeong-Hye. In-Hye reflects that with slightly different choices, under changed circumstances, or if her own chosen coping mechanisms had not involved a sense of huge responsibility, maybe something in her would have let go too.

This is one of the best books I've read for a while. For everything I've said about it, I think it is ultimately a book about the sometimes horrific limitations of being a human, and about that sense we sometimes have that life as we are living it is a pale imitation of what it could be. But it is also a book about love, specifically about the bond between siblings; a bond which though it might sometimes feel hopeless, though it might be a source of guilt and sadness, and in this case is a largely tragic one, remains nonetheless unique and often meaningful.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Day of Creation by J. G. Ballard

In an unnamed Republic somewhere in central Africa, by the side of a drained lake, a territorial dispute is gearing up between the local police chief, Captain Kagwa, and a revolutionary Pan African communist called Harare. Harare's militia of child soldiers are regularly treated for sickness and disease by the narrator of this book, one Dr Mallory. Mallory, though officially working for the WHO, has taken over an abandoned drilling project to try to find water trapped under the desert. He has dreams of irrigating the Sahara. When the book begins, the local political situation is escalating on all sides. Mallory is reluctantly preparing to leave the area, but when he dislodges the base of a dead oak tree, water begins to trickle out. Before long, this small stream has eroded the ground both before and behind it and grown into a huge river.

Mallory claims the river as his own. A disgraced TV documentarian named Sanger, who has come to Africa to save his reputation, even registers the new river under Mallory's name. And so begins a hallucinatory journey up the river, on which Mallory sets out with a child soldier called Noon, a 12-year-old girl in an ill-fitting camo-jacket. His motivations are unclear even to him. He vacillates between wanting to save the river and wanting to destroy it, but the goal of the mission is in either case to reach the river's source.

J. G. Ballard started his career as a writer of science fiction short stories and weird, surreal and dystopian adventure novels, but he drifted towards a self-created genre that is now often called ballardian. Ballardian fiction tends to be set in a parallel reality, where the corrosive effects of technology and/or social decline are slightly exaggerated to horrific effect. The most famous exception to this trend is Ballard's most read book, the autobiographical Empire of the Sun, which dealt with the writer's own childhood experiences in WWII China. The Day of Creation is the book he wrote after the unexpected success of Empire of the Sun, and in many ways it is quintessentially ballardian. It looks back to his earlier weird adventure novels, like The Crystal World, in which surreal, transformed landscapes were central leitmotifs, but it also makes much of the unsettling presence of technology. The landscape in The Day of Creation is often strewn with refuse. The arrival, early in the story, of Sanger’s documentary crew allows Ballard to insert Mcluhanesque truisms about how sooner or later everything turns into television. Mallory's journey up the river is made on a car ferry, progressively more junked up with cameras, screens, VHS tapes, as well as a black Mercedes stolen from Captain Kagwa. 

On one level, The Day of Creation is a hugely symbolic satirical novel. There are obvious references to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, with Mallory standing in for both Marlow and Kurtz. Mallory's belief that he created the river, his naming it after himself, his pathetic attempts to reroute and destroy it, all seem to be insane parodies of European colonialism. Noon, the child guerrilla, becomes obsessed with Sanger's collection of phoney African documentaries, watching their constructed images of African warrior queens and modelling herself after them. She hardly speaks, but instead clicks VHS tapes against her teeth. When she does say the doctor's name she calls him "Doc Mal," as if referring to the illness he represents. As the journey up the river progresses, and Mallory becomes increasingly Humbert Humbert about his relationship to the girl, even their relationship seems to echo the delusional colonialist's distorted view of Africa.

It is often the case that a writer's distinctive features are both their major strength and their key weakness, and that is very much the situation here. I don't know if it is simply because of the myriad contemporary writers and visual artists who continually rip off Ballard (Tom McCarthy, for all he bangs on about Kafka and Joyce, basically grafted Ballard's worldview onto John Berger's G in order to create the formula for his execrable novel, C), but reading Ballard today can feel like reading a parody. If I had to write a treatment for a balladian novel set in Africa, it would be exactly like this book, although I might have missed out the sexual obsession with a child. However, it is also true that Ballard is much a stronger writer of horror and psychopathology than he is a builder of characters or stories. As much as the obsolete technology, descent into amoral madness, murder and social collapse are what make this book recognisably ballardian, and thus a little predictable, they are also where the writing is strongest. In the first part of the novel, Mallory's obsession with the river feels laboured and contrived, and though the story strives to be thrilling it ends up flat and unengaging. As the journey goes on though, as the characters become sicker and and the whole world goes insane, the vision begins to fall in place and the book becomes convincing.

This is probably not a novel for someone wanting an introduction to the author. An easier entry would be High Rise, for example, or any one of the earlier novels. Those particularly curious about Ballard's weird vision of humanity's relationship to technology could do worse than to start with Crash. On the other hand, people interested in reading an alternative take on the European novel set in Africa will probably find The Day of Creation interesting, and I imagine a person could write a Masters thesis on this book's satirical use of colonial imagery. Diehard lovers of the author will find plenty of his trademark idiosyncrasies to enjoy here. Personally, reading The Day of Creation, I mostly wondered whether Ballard's appropriation by other writers and artists hasn't permanently rendered his work a little toothless and boring. 

Friday, 30 January 2015

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

Set in 2001, Pynchon's Bleeding Edge is a surreal, insightful, paranoid and funny novel about the time when the Internet started to accelerate its creep into all our lives. Set in New York, the book follows Maxine Tarnow, a Fraud investigator who has lost her licence, as she gets drawn into a web of hackers, left wingers, neo-conservatives and dot-commers, centred around weird goings-on at a tech firm called hashslingrz.

I haven't read Pynchon's last book, Inherent Vice, but I understand it surprised many people . It seems it was a reasonably straightforward humorous noir thriller, while Pynchon fans are used to sprawling, weird and confusing post-modernist narratives in which everything and nothing might be a clue to some vague yet vast conspiracy. With this in mind, Bleeding Edge feels like a combination of Pynchon's older work with some of the tricks he may have learnt from trying his hand at a more conventional genre. The confusing cast of characters, shadowy government activities, paranoid conspiracies and joyously complex sub-plots running through this novel all reminded me of Vineland, but unlike that earlier book, Bleeding Edge follows a single protagonist all the way through, and while the narration is third person, almost everything that happens is focalized through the wise-cracking New-York-Jewish consciousness of our heroine, Maxine.

Pynchon has often been an anarchically comedic writer, and in some ways, Maxine's spunky persona made me wonder whether the author wasn't trolling his super-serious, high-lit loving audience by paying his respects to Janet Evanovich. But Bleeding Edge's protagonist is also reminiscent of Raymond Chandler's Marlowe—a tireless, sardonic investigator in a corrupt world, where the odds are always stacked against the little (wo)man, and where supporting cast members will suddenly turn up dead in observation rooms under swimming pools. In fact, Pynchon seems to be doing for New York in the early 2000s what Chandler did for 1930s Los Angeles. Bleeding Edge lifts the lid on late capitalism to show the grubby reality beneath, where tech firms are laundering operations for Mossad donations, there's no clear line between corporate interests and the CIA, technology is always led by military innovation, and nobody really knows whose side anybody is on.

The term "bleeding edge" appears only once in the text and is used to refer to the most advanced technology: Not just cutting edge, but bleeding edge. However, the title seems also to refer to the ways in which one thing will tend to bleed into another, until all certainties disappear and the question of choosing a side may be moot. Morally guided Maxine finds herself experiencing an unhealthy attachment to a sadistic, neoliberal hitman with a long history of torturing and murdering South Americans in the name of US interests. Deep web application DeepArcher, a kind of metaphysical VR simulator that supposedly operates beneath the surface of the Internet, appears to be a portal of some kind, and may even house the dead. Random number generators cease to be random on September the 11th, and a video appears that apparently shows American agents practicing a dry run on a roof top with a rocket launcher some days earlier, ready to shoot down the planes should one of the pilots bottle out. By the end of the book, the virtual world and the real world have melded together in subtle ways, foreshadowing the way the Internet really would colonise all our lives over the decade following novel's end.

I really liked Bleeding Edge. I love the little details as much as anything: The tech nerd with a foot fetish; the man with a forensic capacity to smell things, whose private hobby is attempting to reconstruct Hitler's scent; the young graphic designer who has spent years and a small fortune trying to get her hair to look exactly like Jennifer Aniston's does in Friends; Maxine's secretary, who almost always speaks in a kind of ironic Blaxploitation jive; the sinister presence of the novel's off-screen villain.

But more than all this, Bleeding Edge is one of the first fictional books I've read that really tries to address the world as it is now. It is a comedy, but it is also deadly serious. In going back a few years to the start of the century, Pynchon is able to say everything about where we are today. It really brought home to me the way in which we are all trapped in the Web; how even those powerful people we assume to be in some kind of control are really just avatars, working within pre-scripted scenarios—as free as the protagonist of a third-person shooter.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Electric Eden by Bob Young

Rob Young's Electric Eden is intended to provide a history of England's visionary music. More than a straight folk music primer, this book argues for the existence of a specifically English approach to alternative culture—an impulse rooted both in nostalgia and utopianism, identifiable in the works of Blake and Ruskin as much as in the music of the folk revivalists and the rock bands they influenced. It's an ambitious project, running to over 600 pages and blending social history with music biographies, album reviews and political ruminations. Young even indulges in one ill-advised foray into dream-like prose poetry, though quite why he was allowed to do so escapes me.

The early part of Electric Eden is fascinating, especially if you are not well versed in the history of English folk revivalism. After an introduction in which he sets out a theory of folk culture as a type of time travel or liminal space, Young tells the story of Vashti Bunyan, a young folk singer in the 60s who first lived in a forest with her boyfriend, and then, having been evicted by the bank who owned the land, walked most of the length of the British Isles with a horse and cart before disappearing from public view, leaving only one record behind her. That's until, in the early 2000s, she got an Internet connection and a letter from Devendra Banhart, leading her to discover that she was a cult favourite. She finally got the confidence to release a second record. Bunyan's story is an endearing one, but for Young it also exemplifies how folk music works. For him, folk music is a journey into one's self as much as it is a geographical or temporal journey. Learning about folk culture also the act of creating that culture.

 This concept of folk culture as both a personal journey and the on-going invention of an imaginary past is convincingly brought home again and again throughout the book. Because folk songs were transmitted in an oral tradition, each singer has always been free to alter and invent, meaning that the original version of any song represents a kind of unknowable platonic archetype. The people who travelled around putting together the first collections of folk songs adapted the lyrics to fit with their conservative tastes and entirely neglected to record the most obscene material. Composers, like Vaughn Williams and Holst, who did a lot to popularise and rehabilitate the common man's music in the early 20th century, did so in the framework of a new style of composition. Even the guitar, now such a ubiquitous symbol of folk song and protest, was practically unseen in the UK before the late 1950s.

 The early chapters on the British folk revival, both within classical music and within circles of folk historians and musicians, are where this book is strongest. Anyone wanting to investigate the subject could do worse than to start here. Reading this book with a laptop to hand makes for many evenings of interesting listening and provides a decent introduction to the people who invented English folk music as we now know it. Young is also convincing on the natural progression from the early English folk revival scene to the folk-rock fusion style of bands like Fairport Convention. The story of the making of their album Leif and Liege is a fascinating one, full of tragedy and inspiration. Later the book covers the ways tragedy and inspiration also marked the life of Sandy Denny, the singer who, on Leif and Liege, interpreted the old songs so well and provided her own haunting murder ballad towards the album's end. For me, having little knowledge of this material before hand, it was a pleasure to get to know the music and these small histories were fascinating.

 However, Rob Young also dedicates many, many pages of this book to a series of late 60s and early 70s bands and musicians whose stories are less interesting and whose music has not dated nearly so well. How much a reader enjoys many of the chapters towards the middle of this book will depend on how much one cares about people like The Extraordinary String Band. For me, there came a point when I grew sick of the period in question and felt a weary sense that Young was aiming to be exhaustive purely so as to avoid the criticism that he had left someone out. What's more, the bands and musicians I most would have enjoyed reading about—people like Pink Floyd and Kate Bush—figure more as supporting characters.

 Fortunately, as the book goes on, Young expands his focus. He writes a long section about the cult film The Wicker Man, and explores the mid-20th century development of witchcraft as a spiritual and cultural movement. A long section of the book also provides a discussion of the growth of the music festival, the origins of Glastonbury, the travellers movement, and the ultimate war Thatcher's government waged on freedom of assembly, culminating in the Battle of the Beanfield, at which a large number of travellers, revellers and crusties were given a serious beating on their way to their annual gathering at Stonehenge, around which the police had erected a barbed wire fence. Young frames all this as a kind of battle for the soul of the nation—a fight for the right to use certain sites. He argues that the free festival scene had its origins in an idea of a less technological, more cooperative and nomadic form of living that was as much a paranoid response to the idea of a post-nuclear world as it was an idealistic rejection of consumer society. As much as this vision was only ever really available to a marginal few, Young argues, it's indicative of the utopian power at the heart of what may at first seem to be the conservative impulses of folk culture. This plays to a well known narrative of the 1980s as the point in time when Great Britain lost its ability to dream, an ability Young would seem to like to see restored via a semi-spiritual engagement with an idea of Avalon.

 It's difficult to know, really, how honest this account of the free festival scene actually is, given that the whole thing was over by 1985. Was there ever a real possibility of social change? I knew a lot of people who went to free parties in the early 2000s, and I went to some of them too. People used to talk a lot of against-the-social-contract, smash-the-state talk, but the whole thing always seemed to be more about drugs and getting attention through terrible Drum & Bass "freestyling" on the topic of Iraq than being about any kind of plausible challenge to the status quo. Maybe that's because the people I knew were just folks who had read No Logo and started slumming it, while the crusties in the 80s really lived the life, dreamt the dreams and had real dogs on ropes. I don't know. What I do know is that as Electric Eden wears on, it becomes more and more difficult to trust Young.

 Rob Young's history of folk echoes his own insight into folk culture as an invented past. His aim is to create a reality, as much as to chronicle one. Electric Eden is all about presenting a dream of a better England. It is vitally important to Young's narrative that folk music and folk culture are seen to be progressive forces, not conservative ones. He puts it like this:

 "In the global history of class struggle, revolutions are typically assumed to bring about fundamental changes, recasting political and social paradigms and remaking the world anew for a permanently altered future. That was true of the Communist Manifesto... just as it was true of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the social engineering of Hitler's Nazis, Mao's Great Leap Forward, and the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge of 1970s Cambodia, to name a few. But revolutionaries are equally inclined to turn the wheel backwards, fighting to restore a perceived lost estate or denied birthright, than campaigning for a gleaming, high-technology future. From Winstanley and his Diggers ... to the Parisian Situationist sloganeers of the May 1968 disturbances, daubing walls with "Sous les paves, la plage!" (Beneath the paving stones, the beach!), there has always been this desire to prise open the veneer of modern industrial society and reconnect with a fundamental mode of existence. "

 The problem here is that in order to align folk music with the more acceptable face of revolution— the Diggers and the Situationists, as opposed to the Nazis and Khmer Rouge—Young has grossly distorted the truth. Despite what his cherry-picked quote might suggest, the Situationists were not a nostalgic, anti-modern movement. Amongst other things, members of the Situationist International wanted to use modern technology to redesign the city so that it was a constantly moving place of play. They were universalists who rejected tradition and aimed to use modern architecture as a liberating force. The Khmer Rouge, on the other hand, far from aiming to "remake the world for an altered future," wanted to turn the clock back to the Middle Ages. After year zero was declared, you could get your hand cut off for wearing a watch and get killed for wearing glasses, since both of these were perverse western innovations. If anyone ever wanted to "prise open the veneer of modern industrial society and reconnect with a fundamental mode of existence," it was Pol Pot.

 Likewise, when Young argues that the image of horses on the cover of Jethrow Tull's album Heavy Horses shows an unimaginative Luddism, it hard to see this as anything other than a convenient reading designed to support his narrative and play to his tastes. There is no reason this image is more conservative than the artwork for any of a million folk record sleeves, except that it was released in the year that Young wants us to believe marked the end of an era. This kind of opportunist reading of symbols will be familiar to anyone who has ever written an English literature essay in which they began with a theory about a book and then browsed the unread volume for quotes they could twist to support that theory. In other words, Young is writing a polemic, and the veracity of the details are less important to him than the overall arc of his argument.

 This is why, while towards the end of the book Young dedicates a lot of time to Julian Cope, a man who researches stone circles, makes rock and roll music influenced by pagan ideas and subscribes to a hippyish, liberal, left wing philosophy, he says very little about the neo-folk scene. Neo-folk is rife with bands suspected of holding far right, even fascist sympathies. Though Young alludes to the scene's existence, Death in June's use of Nazi uniforms and SS runes, and David Tibet's strange religious theories about Hitler would muddy the waters of Young's lake so badly that he ellects not to discuss these issues at all.

Electric Eden is a music book that doubles as a social history, but it is one with an unreliable narrator. Reading it is like spending a long night drinking in the company of a talkative man with a massive record collection, a good knowledge of English history, a personal politico-spiritual vision which he believes ties it all together, and a burning desire to share all of this with you. How much you enjoy the experience probably depends on the degree to which that kind of night appeals to you, and how far you think his enthusiasm compensates for his biases. As you wander home in the early light, your hangover already creeping in, you'll probably find yourself muttering, shaking your head—partly in wonder and partly in frustration—your mind full of new knowledge and snatches of old songs, but echoing too with all those counter-arguments he wouldn't let you finish. 


Sunday, 13 July 2014

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

When I was 15 I had a girlfriend with big curly hair and a gap between her teeth. This being the 90s, my girlfriend was a fan of Friends, and from that show she got the idea that we should read each other's favourite book. This is how I came to read Desperation by Stephen King, a book I did not like at the time, and which I still think had a terrible ending, but which contained images and scenes I remember vividly to this day. That book has stuck with me in a way that the Graham Greene novels I read that year have not. Having no favourite book, I gave her What a Carve Up by Jonathan Coe, thinking it would play well with her animal rights obsession, but in the event she never read it.

While this introduction to King wasn't enough to convert me, the way Desperation kept popping up in my brain eventually brought me back to his work. I got around to The Shining only a few years ago. I found bits of the book genuinely scary, parts of it touching, and other bits ludicrously ill judged, such as the hedge animals that come to life and engage in threatening behaviour. Despite any faults, The Shining is a compelling book. While reading it, I accidentally left it at a friend's house. I felt an urgent need to get hold of another copy the next day, in order to finish reading as soon as possible.

At its core, The Shining is about alcoholism and a dysfunctional family.  Jack Torrance, played with such memorable mania by Nicholson in the movie, is a man haunted by his own abusive childhood. He wants to be a better man, but ultimately the anger and addiction within him make him a target for demons. This is a story that has been told many times, and lived many more, but in Stephen King's world the ghosts that haunt the Overlook Hotel, where the Torrances spend the winter, are demons just as real and threatening as any suppressed oedipal rage. Recognisable real-world issues sit side by side with the fact that Jack's five-year-old son, Danny, has psychic powers—a phenomenon called the shining, from which the book takes its name. Drowned women come alive in the bath tubs of deserted rooms. Long-dead men quote Edgar Allan Poe at midnight.

King waited over three decades to start work on a sequel to The Shining. In tone, it is a very different book, but the same kind of imaginative free-reign operates in these pages as in the earlier novel. Danny Torrance, the scared little boy trapped in the Overlook Hotel with his violent dad, has grown up into Dan, a man with his own alcohol problems and dark secrets. He finds a degree of peace in AA meetings and his work at a Hospice, where he can use his supernatural gift to help the dying leave this world. He comes into psychic contact with a young girl, Abra, who has her own version of the shining. Meanwhile, a group of middle aged and old people who tour the country in mobile homes are really a tribe of ancient monsters who feed on the energy of such gifted children, torturing them horribly and burying their bodies in shallow graves.

These monsters disguised as old folks, led by a beautiful woman in a top hat, are reminiscent of Roald Dahl's Witches. They also have something in common with vampires—a point King references perhaps a few times too often. They never really become frightening, and Doctor Sleep is not really a horror novel. It is very suspenseful, masterfully so, and it does have some grim passages, but the aim of the book is not to horrify readers, or even scare them. In a sense, this is a fantasy work, which builds, as so many American narratives do, to an inevitable confrontation.

King writes action incredibly well. Reading Doctor Sleep is like seeing a film in your head. Long stretches of the book amount essentially to chase sequences or showdowns, and yet they are never boring. People jump in and out of each other's consciousness, experience visions and live flashbacks without any of this ever becoming abstract. The writing is visual without ever being too descriptive, and it is simple enough to be almost invisible, yet it manages largely to avoid becoming banal. King is a popular author for a huge audience, and whether this is a consequence or a reason, I think it explains the way he leaves no thread untied. Every idea is explicit, every reference is explained, and every plot point is clarified. This is impressive, given the huge and apparently unrestrained imaginative scope he allows himself. Many authors of more "literary" fiction make ambiguity a point of honour, and while there is doubtless something to be said for letting the reader do some work, King makes ambiguity in fiction look like an excuse to be lazy. Reading this book, I found myself wondering: how many contemporary authors would actually be capable of tying this many ideas and plot points together coherently?

There are things I don't like about King's writing though. He appears to have a desire that his narrative voice will be down-to-earth, but the result is that there are times when it ends up sounding mannered. This is never more obvious than in the bizarrely frequent references to shit and toilets. To me, his dialogue can suffer the same problem. On those occasions when it's supposed to be snappy and witty it often rings hollow. Sometimes he labours a point for several paragraphs where his initial attack at the idea was succinct and sufficient. It must be said that these are all issues that I've had with other works by King, and they are no worse here than usual. Doctor Sleep is definitely not one of the ones where you find yourself asking what the hell happened to the editor. It also bears saying that while the dialogue can sometimes be weak, the characterisation is not, and the different people in the pages of this book are rounded, believable and easy to invest in. King is traditionally much better at drawing men than women, and that's largely still true here, but 13 year old Abra is a likable and believable teenage girl.

One of the major themes of this book is redemption. Every alcoholic has to let go of the awful shit they did in their drinking days in order to stay dry. Stephen King, himself a recovering alcoholic, seems still to be channelling that darkness into his work, but now in a more hopeful and reflective fashion. Dan Torrance's work in the Hospice is part of his way of atoning for the hurt he brought the world. His opportunity to help Abra is also a chance for him to be the man his father was not. But while there is this sense that children provide an opportunity to break away from the pain of the past, there is also an acknowledgement that each child has to find their own way of dealing with the anger and pain passed on. 

Doctor Sleep is an entertaining book. It avoids casting a shadow on the memory of The Shining because it is a different type of work that still manages to stay true to the characters and world of the first novel. Strangely it is also quite a comforting book, despite handling issues that have no easy answers.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Lauren Slater: Opening Skinner's Box

'Opening Skinner's Box' is a collection of essays about ten significant psychological experiments of the twentieth century, including the eponymous B.F.Skinner's infamous black boxes, Stanley Milgram's electric shock chairs, Bruce Alexander's utopian rat parks and Elizabeth Loftus' imagined and implanted shopping malls. Each experiment is recounted as narrative, with Slater as the earnest, intrepid, increasingly existentialist detective narrator. The point, she says in the introduction to the book, is to lift these stories from the dusty academic journals, from the flatness of quantified data and black bar charts, and to elevate them, and celebrate them, as narratives, as theme and plot, as biography, history and philosophy.

One such theme is free will. B.F.Skinner's experiments, and their supposed implications, are well known - through conditioning and reinforcement, levers and pellets, the behaviour of rodents and pigeons, and so by inference our behaviour too, can be, and indeed perhaps is at some unconscious level, engineered and controlled. We are thus, according to the usual interpretation of Skinner's work, heteronomous slaves to the accidents and contours of our environments. We gamble because once or twice we were rewarded for doing so. We are superstitious because we seek causal links between our environments and our fortunes, between the levers and the pellets. These causal links are our narratives, and narratives are the format by which we make sense of the world, and of ourselves. Elsewhere in the collection, in an essay about Elizabeth Loftus' false memory experiments, Slater explores the idea that our free will may be undermined, not only externally by the contours of our environments, but also internally, because of the malleability of our own memories. False memories can be implanted, suggested, sewn as seeds which the subject then nurtures, elaborates and integrates into his or her own individual personality, into his or her own evolving narrative or world view. Loftus' experiments, like Skinner's, were controversial and incendiary, ostensibly because they were often, in the 1990's, utilised by defence teams in cases of historical sexual abuse, where the prosecution cases relied upon the previously repressed memories of the allegedly abused. In existentialist terms, these false memory experiments, like Skinner's experiments with rodents, were and are controversial because they strike at the notion of free will, and thus at our conception of ourselves as autonomous beings in control of our own choices, beliefs and personalities. Much of this book's appeal derives from Slater's interrogative approach to these and the other experiments, whether they be concerned with free will, or with conformity, cognitive dissonance, ethics or authority, and, more specifically, from the continual re-examination of the self that this interrogative approach provokes.

Inextricably woven in with the psychological implications of the experiments Slater explores are the biographies of the people involved, the psychologists themselves as well as the subjects. Skinner's biography is fascinating if only because of the schism between the myth and the reality. The myth is of a fascistic, amoral misanthropist, a monster who kept one of his two infant daughters in a box for two years to train her, who later drove her to suicide. The reality is more mundane, and more humane, a story of a man who was an early environmentalist, with a social conscience and two very much living grown up daughters. Our own responses to Skinner's experiments, and the existentialist insecurities suggested by those responses, are what the schism between the monster and the man, the myth and the reality, works so deftly to refine, reveal and challenge. Likewise, our initial responses to Stanley Milgram's infamous shock machine experiments are challenged, in part by Slater's biographical portrait of Milgram, but, more so in this instance by the retrospective biographies of the subjects who took part in the experiments. These experiments, as is the case with many of the experiments discussed in this book, are initially morally questionable. Milgram had his subjects believe that they were inflicting painful, sometimes potentially lethal shocks, upon a second subject, the latter strapped into an electric shock chair the other side of a pane of glass, often screaming in (feigned) protest. In the post-holocaust climate of the 1960's, the claims of the defendants in the Nuremburg trials still resonating, the point of Milgram's experiments was to test how far ordinary, rational people would go, how much pain they might be willing to inflict, under orders from an authoritarian personality. The results are now notorious, and seem, alarmingly, to give credence to those Nuremburg defences. Slater tracks down some of Milgram's subjects, and in her interviews with them tries to understand their responses to the experiment, as well as discussing the impacts and impressions it has left.

Altogether the experiments discussed in this collection serve not only as psychological interrogations, but also, in the trajectory of the moral, social and existentialist concerns they raise, as an alternative historical document. Each experiment is a reaction to, or resonance of the evolving landscape of the second half of the twentieth century. The Second World War and the Nuremburg trials provide the backdrop to Milgram’s electric shock experiments, and also to John Darley and Bibb Latané’s experiments into bystander behaviour, the latter also informed more specifically by the bizarre and disturbing murder, in 1964, of Catherine Genovese in Queens, New York. Leon Festinger’s experiments to test his theory of cognitive dissonance also draw from the post-holocaust climate of the 1950’s, and, in particular, from the perhaps inevitable emergence of apocalyptic cults within that climate. Bruce Alexander’s rat park experiments are set in the context of a newfound preoccupation with, and demonisation of drugs, born of the counter-culture movement of the 1960’s, and the final essays in the collection, concerned with memory, neuroscience and psychosurgery, draw our attention to modern day attitudes towards anxiety, depression and self-medication.

Anchoring the stories of these experiments in a familiar, evolving historical backdrop, Slater succeeds in lifting them above the dust of academic journals and into distinctly human narratives, narratives which cannot escape “the residue of mystery and murk” but carry it with them, narratives with themes which are conspicuously our own and a plot which, as all the best plots do, refuses resolution.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Laurent Binet: HHhH

This review has taken three or four months to write. I began it I think in September, wrote most of it in an hour or so, then left it alone until today. Today I finished it. So it has been three or four months in the making, those months bookended by an hour or so at either end. A gestation period this long tells you something about me, but it also tells you something about this book, and for that reason I include this as a not entirely irrelevant preamble.

HHhH stands for 'Hmmler's Hirn heist Heydrich', meaning, so they said in the SS, 'Himmler's brain is called Heydrich'. So this is a book about Himmler's brain, Heydrich, which it partly is. Binet wanted to call the book 'Operation Anthropoid', which was the code name given to the plan to assassinate Heydrich in 1942, organised in London by the Czechoslovak government-in-exile together with the British Special Operations Executive, and carried out by two paratroopers, Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik.  'Operation Anthropoid' is a better name for the book, but was dismissed by the publishers for sounding too much like a Robert Ludlum novel. I've never read a Robert Ludlum novel.

HHhH is a part-autobiographical account of the author's efforts to write a historical novel. Binet calls it an infranovel, and in as much as the prefix suggests a rumbling and a reverberation beneath the surface, emanating quietly outwards, it's not a bad name for it at all. That's kind of what lots of the scenes in this book feel like - not quite still, quietly reverberating. Binet's predilection for revisionism, and his seeming B.S Johnsonesque disdain for the contrivances of fiction, are behind these quiet reverberations. He will often correct or agonise over a detail from a previous chapter, whether it be the colour of Heydrich's Mercedes, a passing reference to a Charlie Chaplin film, or a single line of dialogue. One chapter early on is a sort of stream-of-consciousness reflection on four lines of dialogue from the preceding chapter, and becomes more generally a commentary on the problems and the artificialities of reconstructing dialogue in a historical narrative. At times this constant revisionism smacks of self-indulgence, especially towards the end of the story when the authorial interventions are conspicuously contrived to prolong the suspense of the final shoot-out scene. But at other times the interventions serve to expose a scene to a new perspective, or to present the scene in a different tone or colour. In this sense Binet goes some way to achieving what he set out to achieve, namely a sense of realism and authenticity.

Although not perhaps when it comes to Heydrich. The eponymous character remains just that, a character, too grotesque, too much like the caricature nazis of 1980's Hollywood to  ever convince as a living and breathing historical portrait. He is the blonde, blue-eyed paragon of Aryan idealism, and the machiavellian schemer of a Shakespearean tragedy. Heydrich never quite escapes from a technicolour procession of familiar cultural and literary templates: the bullied, humiliated schoolboy as embryonic form for the bitter despot adult, the sleazy "inveterate pussy hound" lieutenant smacking of sexual and moral degeneracy, the meticulous, kafkaesque behind-the-scenes schemer as chief of the Gestapo and the SD, and, as Protector of Czechoslovakia, the hubristic villain surveying his kingdom from his gothic crenelated lair.

The biographical procession of Heydrichs is one of two main threads in this book. The second is the story of Kubis and Gabcik, the two Czechoslovakian paratroopers charged with fulfilling Operation Anthropoid. Much of Binet's more purposeful prose is preserved for this second thread. Trained in Britain, dropped back into Nazi controlled Czechoslavakia in 1941, Kubis and Gabcik are presented as two sincere, determined boys "without a chance in hell of getting out alive." Eager to provide each with a fitting historical testament, and eager also to develop a dynamic to sustain a narrative momentum, Binet carefully delineates the two protagonists of this second thread as balanced, complimentary characters. Whereas Kubis, the Moravian, is tall, quiet, thoughtful and easygoing, Gabcik, the Slovak, is small, sociable, "a fiery ball of energy". Kubis was put in charge of the explosives, Gabcik the machine gun. Their training in Britain, the psychological portraits of them offered up by their superior officers, their acceptance of the mission and subsequent integration into an underground Czechoslovakian community in Prague, and of course their preparation for and implementation of the assassination plan, as well as what became of them afterwards, are details which make for an absorbing story. Binet communicates the story with enthusiasm and skill.

While the stories of Heydrich and of Kubis and Gabcik respectively are Binet's two main threads, the third, subsidiary thread is composed of the succession of narrative interventions, of the aforementioned revisionist kind, and also of the kind that are more direct digressions into the author's life. This third thread is the autobiographical part of the book. It is the part which most distinguishes its very conspicuous postmodern style, and though avowedly subsidiary, its function being to facilitate the two main stories, it is the part which, in hindsight at least, seems to reverberate the most. It is appropriate therefore to finish with a brief discussion of these autobiographical digressions. The first is an early memory of the author's father, "in a few awkward phrases", telling him the story of Operation Anthropoid, which sparked the enthusiasm which later became HHhH, written in part "to reciprocate (the) gift." Beginning with this anecdote from his childhood, Binet intermittently retraces moments of his life, ostensibly as background to lend authenticity to the historical narrative. In 1996 he was a French teacher in a Slovakian military academy. Soon after he met a beautiful Slovak woman, Aurelia, in Prague, and soon after Aurelia there was Natacha, with whom Binet shared the joke that he, with so many books about Nazism lining the shelves in their apartment, was running the risk of ideological conversion. He is quick to remind us that for the "son of a Jewish mother and a Communist father . . . immersed through (his) literary studies in the humanism of Montaigne and the philosophy of the Enlightenment", such a conversion was "obviously impossible." As with the earlier examples, these autobiographical interludes can sometimes be helpful, but sometimes they seem like diversionary procrastination, digressions meant to forge a coherence that HHhH otherwise struggles for. Sometimes they feel altogether like an awkward sleight of hand.

And so it's difficult to summarise this book. I learned about people and places and moments that I knew little or nothing of before. One or two scenes I still remember vividly. The climactic scene for instance, in which Kubis and Gabcik, holed up in a cathedral, under siege from seven hundred SS guards with machine-guns, hand-grenades, tear gas and fire hoses, defend themselves heroically with only pistols, holding out for two hours. A plaque inscribed with their names, photographs of their faces and bullet holes in the stone mark the cathedral on Resslova Street in Prague today. For scenes like this, HHhH is certainly worth reading. For its postmodern, occasionally indulgent stylistic idiosyncrasies, it is difficult to forget. It is perhaps a shame that it's not the other way around.