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NB – To the driver of the ice-cream van

If you drive around here one more time while I am listening to Beethoven
swear I will come for you.

Yours, etc.

jus sayin’

jus soli

jus sanguinis

jus poetarum

(jus sayin’)

Eight debut novels

Currently sitting at 12 to 1 for this year’s Booker Prize, first-time novelist Paul Kingsnorth has set the cat among the pigeons through the disarmingly original expedient of submitting his offering in a fictional language. Composed in what Kingsnorth calls the ‘shadow tongue’ of ‘eald anglisc’, The Wake (Unbound 365pp £16.99) explores one angle of the ill-remembered insurgency that arose after the Norman invasion: that of ‘buccmaster of holland’, freeman of the Fens.

Buccmaster believes the old gods built the Roman roads and talks about ‘angland’ in a time when much of the population has only just finished being Danish. He has no truck with ‘cyngs’ and does not answer Harald’s call to Hastings. But when ‘geeyome the bastard’ arrives with his punitive taxes and rapacious knights, Buccmaster finds himself inspired to launch a violent rebellion against legal, financial and cultural annihilation.

History will not permit that he succeed, of course, so perhaps it does not much matter that Buccmaster is delusional, cowardly, and generally a disastrous leader. But his political objections are entirely legitimate, not least regarding a people’s access to their native language: ‘all that we is is bean tacan from us’. It has been a long time since Buccmaster’s descendants had cause to view themselves as victims of a conquest, but this remarkable feat of literary sympathy puts us right back in his apocalyptic vision of the end times for ancient England.

Rather more recent British history repeats itself in Randall (Galley Beggar Press 317pp £11), Jonathan Gibbs’s scathing pseudo-memoir of the Young British Artists and the art market under Cool Britannia. In a parallel artiverse where Damien Hirst died in the late 1980s, Ian ‘Randall’ Timkins has taken the London contemporary scene by storm, selling ‘holographs’ to the rich and famous derived from their own used toilet paper. He and his circle hang out in the pubs around Goldsmiths, attend events they ‘affect to despise’ and say profound things like, ‘There’s only two things you can do with art: make it, and buy it.’

Randall and his retinue occupy a milieu that’s equal parts Geoff Dyer and Bret Easton Ellis, and if the overall tone is just a fraction too refined for a City-boy narrator whose idea of culture was once a ‘signed and framed’ poster of Cindy Crawford, it’s a credit to Gibbs’s writing (and the YBAs) that you don’t need to have paid any conscious attention to the art world over the last twenty years for all of this to still feel familiar. If you can only put up with the slightly obnoxious characters, in fact, Randall is ideal for those who already dismiss most contemporary art as just so much Merda d’artista.

Aaron Thier’s The Ghost Apple (Bloomsbury 289pp £16.99) belongs to the more full-blown variety of satire. Tripoli College, a fourth-rate New England liberal arts institution – established for the betterment of ‘Indian Scholiasts’ – has been hit hard by the financial crisis, thanks largely to its overexposure to the company that manufactures Monopoly money. The college forms a new ‘partnership’ with Big Anna® Brands, a snack-food corporation, the ethical commitments of which include ‘the introduction of clean Human Power™ plow technology’ on its Caribbean plantation estates. One of these is the island of St Renard, where Tripoli’s ‘Field Studies Program in Tropical Agriculture’ enables politically engaged students of all creeds and colours to experience life in a Big Anna® republic.

With his merciless spoofing of course-listing gobbledygook and ‘brand history’ bullshit, Thier’s hectic assemblage of prospectuses, slave narratives, ‘Scandal Vulnerability Assessments’ and insane (but basically verbatim) Victorian health advice marks him out as a potential successor to the late lamented Tom Sharpe, and reaches a new high – which is to say low – for the satirical campus novel.

In Deepti Kapoor’s A Bad Character (Jonathan Cape 234pp £14.99) a young woman from Delhi comes into adulthood at the turn of the millennium, amid a human geography of cyber-boom and rampant development but also abysmal poverty, corruption and obsession with the country’s nuclear neighbour. One of a generation of schoolgirls who were told that they would be ‘the future of India’ but still find it unsafe to go out at night without ‘a man and a car or a car and a gun’, she sidesteps her aunt’s incessant attempts to marry her off and begins a turbulent physical relationship with an ‘ugly’ young man with whom she makes eye contact one day in a busy restaurant. He is the first person she has met who lives on his own, and he becomes her guide to parts of the city that have been thus far inaccessible.

Although the story is not exactly a happy one, the boldness of our protagonist is redeeming: in a setting one expects to be peopled with trapped or defeated women, her determination to forge her own genuine, personal experiences (however painful) is important. Kapoor’s prose, though, is a bit over-wrought and self-consciously modernist in places, and her whistle-stop tour of what should be the seamier aspects of the Indian capital occasionally seems to be ticking boxes (‘Lutyens’ Delhi’; ‘monumental grandeur’) for the ‘international’ audience.

In The Scatter Here is Too Great (Jonathan Cape 203pp £14.99), Bilal Tanweer does a better job of maintaining the flavour of something from another culture. Nine interlinked stories – focusing, in threes, on ‘A Writer in the City’, an old communist poet and a young man who steals cars from defaulting bank customers – orbit at various distances around a bomb blast at Cantt Station in central Karachi. In delivering these disparate viewpoints and dimensions of big-city life, Tanweer purposefully encourages an element of narrative opacity and incoherence. But although each individual strand is not without interest, no one section is particularly substantial or rewarding, and the book as a whole struggles to generate much momentum. Ondaatje-esque reflections appear here and there in support of Tanweer’s approach – ‘True stories are fragments. Anything longer is a lie, a fabrication’ – but, bluntly put, this collection could have done with a little more fabricating.

No such complaint could possibly be levelled at Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know (Picador 555pp £16.99). ‘As a child,’ announces one of his Sebaldian co-narrators, ‘I maintained the expectation that obscure and difficult things would be discussed.’ Rahman satisfies that expectation in spades and with considerable control and polish. On one level, this is the story of two boys from different sides of the tracks and, indeed, from different sides of what used to be East and West Pakistan, who meet at Oxford in the late 1980s and then go on to work in high finance until one loses interest, retrains as a human rights lawyer and ends up in Afghanistan.

On another level, this book is a colossal investigation of the difference between seeing and knowing and understanding, taking in geopolitics, the banking crisis, black swans, NGOs, game theory, the British education system, cartography, war, primatology, (post-)imperialism, Christopher Hitchens, carpentry, Glyndebourne, translation, naval pennants, cognitive sciences, literature, black holes and Bath Olivers. Deeply insightful and limitlessly quotable, this is the kind of book every novelist dreams of writing and no first-timer should ever have had the chutzpah to attempt. As Rahman’s own narrator says, somewhat flagrantly: ‘nothing in his account was out of place, nothing extraneous, even if at times it seemed incomplete and obtuse.’

The same cannot be said of Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood (Serpent’s Tail 232pp £11.99). One drought-ridden summer John Cole shuts up his bookshop, gets lost driving out of London, breaks down and ends up being invited into an unofficial lunatic asylum, the occupants of which, for some reason, believe they were expecting him. He stays a week. Why? He is frustrated, even scared, by his new companions (Perry is good at the tiny details of mistrust and uncertainty); he thinks they are all lying to him; they are. But he doesn’t leave. Is he perhaps there for his own treatment? We are not vouchsafed an explanation.

Thanks to the litter of symbols and portents (think Henry James rewired by Murakami, or Virginia Woolf directing a sequel to The Village), After Me Comes the Flood consistently feels like it’s about to have a lot going for it. But there’s ultimately no pay-off, leaving the impression that it was all just an exercise in atmosphere.

None of that airy ambiguity in Katherine Faw Morris’s Young God (Granta Books 195pp £12.99). When her skeezy mother dies falling into a ‘witch-tit freezing’ river, trailer-park teenager Nikki decides to take control of her life and sets about making something of herself – specifically, a drug dealer. In two hundred short, violent and often unpleasantly sexual pages Nikki goes about her emotionally lobotomised progress, smoking Kool menthol cigarettes (‘the best thing that’s ever been in her mouth’), shaving herself like a porn star and responding to should-be major life events with a perfunctory ‘Oh’.

The basic so-what-ishness of the ending is perhaps unavoidable, given the context. But Morris’s punchy and unwavering style is absolutely of a piece with her unforgiving environment of post-Palahniuk white-trash girl-power – with guns. And fuchsia end-papers.


For Literary Review

Brilliant idea for a short story, last night:

Anyone remember what it was?

O, ye women disporting yourselves upon blankets!

O, ye women disporting yourselves upon blankets!
Please stop it. I’ve work to do.

End of the Line

The Narrow Road to the Deep North
By Richard Flanagan
(Chatto & Windus 448pp £16.99)

‘We will die, and who will ever understand any of this?’ So asks Colonel Dorrigo Evans, second in command of the Australian Imperial Force’s 2/7th Casualty Clearing Station, slave worker on the Siam–Burma ‘Death Railway’, and redoubtable hero of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Flanagan’s novel is dedicated to ‘prisoner san byaku san ju go (335)’ – his father, a survivor of the railway (and worse) during the latter half of the Second World War. And it has already become a significant bestseller in his homeland, where it serves, among other things, as another brick in the wall against forgetting.

Colonel Evans, a Tasmanian Army surgeon with a fondness for Tennyson (‘Ulysses’, not coincidentally) is mobilised for war – leaving behind a burgeoning affair with his uncle’s much-younger wife. After stints in Egypt, Syria, and Changi Gaol in Singapore, he winds up in 1943 in thrall to the murderous, ‘Pharaonic’ Burma railway (cf. The Railway Man, Bridge on the River Kwai, et al) – a project that, as the Japanese repeatedly relate, the supposedly advanced Western nations have never even dared to attempt.

The flag-waving Alec Guinness types having all quickly succumbed to cholera, this ‘most conventional of unconventional men’ finds himself in charge of a sub-unit of ‘shitting skeletons’ dressed in nothing more than ‘cock rags and AIF slouch hats’, hacking, drilling, digging and lugging their way north through Siam, belaboured by jungle, disease, tigers, metric measurements and pathologically-obtuse, haiku-reciting Japanese officers (Flanagan’s title is taken from Basho, famously a high point of Japanese cultural sensibility).

They live in an unreal reality – ‘north-north-west of no south’ – and the track they are laying becomes its own existential explanation: ‘the Line’, a meaningless, Euclidian progress into hell. Evans, as both unit leader and prison doctor, is solely responsible for practically every aspect of his dwindling band, his jury-rigged amputations and appendectomies cruelly nullified by the coin-toss nature of daily life on the railway. ‘Darky Gardiner died and there was no point to it at all.’

His men – colourful characters, many of them underage and all of them decades younger than they now appear – do what they can to get by (not all of it heroic): stealing food, memorising Mein Kampf or Mrs Beeton, sketching portraits of the prison officers (seemingly a nod to Ronald Searle; but perhaps that is doing someone a disservice). The literally muscular Christian Tiny Middleton embarks on such a Stakhanovite fuck-you to the Japanese that he endangers the lives of his less-able comrades. It is not, of course, an experience that is intended to be survived.

Their Japanese overseers subsume themselves in the only way that seems to work – to the ‘careless fatalism’ of the universe, or the Imperial will (‘a poem of one word’), or the railway’s progress through the landscape – and one of the greatest merits of the book is its unblinking elucidation of the Japanese point of view, especially where the human rights of their Australian prisoners were concerned. ‘Being prisoner great shame. Great! … Redeem honour building railway for Emperor.’ The Japanese commandant remarks that, for him, surrender would have constituted a capital offence. Army psychiatrists will later counsel the Australians not to talk about their time in South-East Asia.

Flanagan exhibits an almost faultless emotional intelligence (especially for the minutiae of infidelity) and a poet’s appreciation of the unsentimental detail. His prose is studded with dark, gleaming gems (a record needle ‘scratching circles of sand into the night’) which bestow the quiet blessing of veracity on episodes perhaps otherwise too outlandish or too harrowing to be thought real.

These are, by his own admission, experiences – albeit proxy ones – that Richard Flanagan has needed to get off his chest for some time, and The Narrow Road is a big book. Perhaps slightly too big. Its somewhat contrary billing as a ‘love story’ never sits right, and in the slower patches around the middle of the novel – dysfunctional Odyssean resonances notwithstanding – one begins to suspect that the author may have originally had two stories to tell, and allowed an only moderately substantial romantic storyline to piggyback on his war narrative.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is, at the time of writing, on the shortlist for Australia’s Miles Franklin Literary Award – a fitting tribute to the memory, and indeed memories, of Arch Flanagan, the story’s progenitor, who died the day the novel was finished. Just because the world is, relentlessly, ‘what it is’ doesn’t mean it has to lack a certain poetry.


For Literary Review

Hen-do

When my fiancée went out to her hen-do
(the first one)

I stayed at home,
watched some rugby,
wrote a poem,
and did the dishes.

To the agony aunt at The Lancet

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
how does my chestbone crack?!

Fragment (after Sappho)

no more for me
the honey
or the bee

A short story

I am currently in possession of two secrets:

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