It's impossible to pick The Good Soldier up without having read some of the fawning praise of the book from various literary heavyweights of the twentieth century. I dare say without such endorsements this seemingly rather plain story of adultery would be skipped over by many, but what a mistake that would be!
For any writer, Dowell - cuckold and narrator of the story - is a near-perfect example of the unreliable narrator. The revisionism involved in Dowell's narrative as he wrestles with the facts of his wife's affair (mentioned on the novel's first page) is an extraordinary exploration of a mind trying to maintain self-image in the face of painfully dissonant knowledge. As Dowell attempts to create a sense of inevitability about events and sentimentalise his wife's lover, his own passive role in the story is slowly revealed despite Dowell's obfuscation of the facts.
As a study of fragile masculinity and the internal machinations that allow one to navigate the rupturing of the safe reality which we all create for ourselves in various way, The Good Soldier is unmatched. There is far more to the book than that, but it is the execution of this theme that, I think, really marks it out as one of the twentieth century's most remarkable novels.
Comparisons with modern novels like The Remains of the Day and The Sense of an Ending are inevitable, but it also made me think of Lolita as another novel in which the narrativising of one's life is turned into a complex art form.
While on the surface a rather simple story, The Good Soldier is one of the most beautifully constructed novels I have ever read, a masterpiece of (self-)deception, and a near-perfect work of art. ...more
Alice and the Fly (2015) by James Rice is a novel of isolation and obsessions, love and families. Greg is a loner, a teenager who doesn’t quite fit in. Diagnosed with schizophrenia and with a crippling phobia of spiders, he bounces from a loveless home life where he is largely ignored by his adulterous plastic surgeon father, depressed and painfully socially aware mother, and dance-obsessed sister to school where the only attention he garners is from bullies who label him a ‘psycho’. The one bright light in Greg’s rather gloomy world is Alice, a girl at his school. Greg dreams of sweeping Alice off her feet and running away to a better life with her like in one of the classic movies Greg watches on old videos in his bedroom. The problem is that Alice barely knows Greg exists. She lives with her violent father in the Pitt, a sink estate, where many of Greg’s schoolmates live, and thinks little of the loner kid who rides the same bus as her every day. Told through diary entries, Greg’s efforts to win Alice are recorded in painful detail, he more an observer of her life than a suitor. However, when transcripts from police interviews appear, interspersed with Greg’s diary entries, it becomes clear that something has gone terribly wrong. Quite what this is remains a mystery until the novel’s conclusion.
Inevitably, Alice and the Fly will be compared to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, both of which have a character struggling with mental illness at their centre. For all that Alice and the Fly is told from Greg’s perspective, however, it is as much concerned with the very ordinary failings of the characters around him as with Greg’s own difficulties. He may be the archetypal outsider – bullied, misunderstood, unable to reach out for human connection – but all of the characters, it becomes apparent, are locked in their own, isolated worlds, both lonely and consciously self-absorbed.
This landscape, where people live psychically apart even when they are physically close, allows Rice to explore a wide-range of issues, from casual adultery to social inequality, bad and abusive parenting to mental illness. Even Greg, in the haze of his phobia, deals with very typical teenage issues: unrequited love, a fear and confusion over sexual love as opposed to romantic love, a want to fit in with his peers while disdaining much about what that means.
As the story develops, it becomes clear that there have been incidents of violence in Greg’s past, which, it is assumed, foreshadow the unexplained event that hangs over the whole novel, which the police interviews throughout allude to. For all that Greg is humanised throughout the narrative, however, it is inescapable that schizophrenia is again depicted as producing violent and dangerous episodes. The novel should be read as a warning about what can happen when people, not just Greg, are ignored, by family, support networks, or society as a whole. After all, the indifference Greg’s family show to him and his condition is just a microcosm of the wider community that lets vast swathes of people fall into despair and poverty, hiding them in estates like the Pitt, excusing away their unhappiness by slapping labels onto them or otherwise overlooking their being cut adrift from society.
As a storytelling vehicle, the diary style is sporadically successful. For the most part, Greg’s stream of consciousness passages are well done, however, at times literary techniques rather detract from the overall notion. When one is presented with a chapter-long sentence to represent the anxiety of ideas spilt onto the page, or an absence of punctuation and poor spacing to represent the diary being written at night-time, it is hard not to appreciate the idea but these isolated efforts become a little irritating after a while, more a piece of creative writing flair than a necessary part of the narrative (were they to be used more consistently throughout this may feel less like the case). Indeed, when chapters are cut short because Greg has, presumably, collapsed, one wonders why he would exhibit the anxiety of the moment described when later writing about it in his diary, and why he could not go back to complete the sections later on. In this way, the diary conceit becomes a little muddled with a straight first-person narrative where events would be relayed as they happened rather than at a distance. More problematic are the transcripts from the police interviews. Aside from the fact that they sit incongruously interspersed throughout a diary – a necessity to the plot not the diary as a document (the drip-feed of information breaks the suspension of disbelief in these moments) – the dialogue often feels contrived and very clunky in transcribed form.
That said, Rice writes his main character well. Greg’s voice is strong and while his behaviour is sometimes a little inconsistent (he is not the only character whose behaviour stretches credulity at times), his story is told in a very humane way. The central mystery – the event to which the police interviews relate – keeps the reader engaged with the story despite being relatively easy to predict in its nature if not its detail. There are some strong metaphors too, ranging from the big to the minute, and Greg’s increasing fantasies turn the already dystopic world he inhabits into a space where nothing seems quite real.
Throughout the narrative, Greg refers to Finner’s Island, a place that seems to represent hope for him but which, it becomes clear, is also a place where violence is located. In a strange and poetic final chapter, the reader is left to unpick a rather opaque end to the book.
If this is a novel about “[f]inding love, in any of its forms, and nurturing it,” then it is not through any definite affirmation of love in the story. The narrative is, in fact, heavy for the absence of love and it is this absence that makes one acutely aware of its value. With an injection of love, the indifferent and often cruel world that Greg inhabits would be a very different place and his personal story would be markedly changed, filled with real connections rather than imagined ones.
It is clear the Rice understands the mechanics of fiction well and he has built a well-structured book, if one that, at times, runs the risk of literary techniques being a little too overt where they might be more neatly woven into the story. The slightly dystopic edge to the world coupled with Greg’s age give Alice and the Fly the feel of a YA novel, but whatever age it is pitched at, it is a novel that a range of readers will enjoy....more
Man (Dis)connected: How Technology Has Sabotaged What it Means to be Male (2015) by Philip Zimbardo and Nikita D. Coulombe is a clear-eyed appraisal oMan (Dis)connected: How Technology Has Sabotaged What it Means to be Male (2015) by Philip Zimbardo and Nikita D. Coulombe is a clear-eyed appraisal of modern masculinity and how technology is accelerating the decline of men. The book follows four years after a short but provoking TED talk delivered by Zimbardo in 2011. His message to the psychology community and beyond then was simply this: hooked on a cocktail of porn, video games, and prescription drugs, young men are failing like never before, academically, socially, sexually - it’s time to do something about it. Since then research into the effects of online pornography and video games has increased, and Man (Dis)connected represents a fuller appraisal of the current situation as well as an opportunity for the authors to work through some potential solutions, something that the world-famous psychologist’s TED talk tantalisingly omitted.
Although pornography and video games are the headline news here, what lies behind this exploration of how young men are living their lives is far less to do with the technology directly, and more to do with the isolating effect it has on young men. While women - who are disposed to be more social than men, Zimbardo argues - increasingly outperform their male counterparts academically, socially, and increasingly in the work arena, young men are retreating to the isolation of their own bedrooms, where video games offer a safe and easy way to gain a sense of achievement, and pornography provides a warm embrace without the requirement to negotiate any form of social interaction. Of course, the more often guys retreat into isolation, the less opportunity they have to develop the life skills they need to succeed in the world. It is in these self-formed realities that guys’ sexual education is played out. No wonder then, that sexual failures and objectification of women are on the increase. When young men do venture out from digital sanctuaries, their concentration is wrecked from the lightning fast stimulation that video games provide and they are increasingly diagnosed with ADHD as a consequence. Not only this, but anxiety disorders are on the increase, and young men are more likely to be medicated than ever before, whether for supposed ADHD or an anxiety condition. All this is set against a picture of absent fathers, disconnected families, economic turmoil, poor health, and lack of exercise that makes up the modern world for many youngsters in the west.
It would be easy to feel despair at the state of modern masculinity when painted in these terms, but Zimbardo and Coulombe’s message is not one of hopelessness. Indeed, they see positive aspects to all of the technology they discuss and the final section of the book is reserved for the discussion of potential solutions as the authors see them, whether these be suggestions for how the media - porn and gaming included - can adapt to offer a healthier message, the government can help encourage men to take responsibility for their own lives and reach their potential in the real world, or for the men, women, and families who are affected by the new digital world to adapt to this new arena. While the authors are convinced that there is financial-incentive enough for pornography companies to produce romance-led films and move away from the dulling objectification of women, video games companies to produce more social games, and governments to produce better citizens, one is aware at all times that this has to be a financial argument as, after all, digital media is designed to appeal to men’s every desire - from lust to violence - and make money from it. Ultimately, it is the companies that profit from keeping men spellbound that will determine the shape of media going forwards.
Trying to unpick the effect of technology on modern masculinity in under three hundred pages sounds like an incredible task, and it is, but Zimbardo and Coulombe have organised Man (Dis)connected - cycling through the symptoms, causes, and solutions - into a remarkably reader-friendly series of information flashes; short, sharp, and reminiscent of the style of browsing digital media that insists information be compacted into chunks bearable to even the most addled grazer. This is a smart move, and even when the chapters become longer as the book moves towards the causes of the problems, it never becomes weighed down. Instead, it is a light and breezy trip through an area of social psychology that should be as important to the general public as it is to researchers. The digital world is ubiquitous and failure to engage with everything that stems from this can only be to the detriment of society’s shared future.
Engaged is, in fact, a perfect word for Man (Dis)connected. Undoubtedly this is helped by the extensive survey data collected by Zimbardo, which is often referred to and offers a chance for young men to have their own say on the problems that affect them. Despite being a somewhat whistle-stop tour of the issues (the pages of notes and references kept neatly to the end of the book indicate how deceptive the feeling of lightness in the main text is) there are few areas that one feels are left unaddressed in some form. Young men will recognise the landscape as described here, and for everyone else this will provide an entree into the often disturbing worlds of young men. Orwell wrote that the “power of facing” was one of the key skills of a good writer - so too for a social psychologist, and little is turned away from in Man (Dis)connected. At times, the authors appear to be pointing back to a form of masculinity now swept away as the preferable model for modern man, but aside from this and a few sentiments relating to the rise of women that might be challenged, this is as clear-eyed and on-point evaluation of modern masculinity as one could expect from what is, in essence, a popular psychology book about the plight of young, heterosexual men.
To declare a bias, Man (Dis)connected is, to my mind, the non-fiction equivalent of what I attempted to capture in fiction in my own debut novel, ****, or, The Anatomy of Melancholy (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2...). Clearly, this makes me both the ideal reviewer and the most biased, but this seems to me a well-rounded, engaged discussion of an absolutely crucial topic for our times. Young men are starting to recognise the problems of their lifestyle, and it is time that the wider community acts on this before a generation of young men are lost entirely to the stupefying effects of the digital world. ...more
The Buried Giant (2015), Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade, is a complex and allegorical mediaeval-style fantasy set in post-Roman Britain arouThe Buried Giant (2015), Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade, is a complex and allegorical mediaeval-style fantasy set in post-Roman Britain around the sixth century, which has as much to say about modern life as it does about the slaying of dragons. Across the fictional land, an unexplained fog hangs, which causes a kind of collective Alzheimer’s, with all memory being slowly lost to the mist. The novel’s main characters – Axl and Beatrice – are an ageing couple who set out from their small village to visit their long-departed son, who lives only a few villages away. With the war between Britons and Saxons not long finished, lands are not always hospitable and along the way the couple encounter a handful of major characters with whom they travel, some friendlier than others. There is a young boy, Edwin, who is cursed and seeking his lost mother; Wistan, a warrior who is honourable but dangerous and derives, surely, from Beowulf; and, finally, Sir Gawain, a famous if ageing knight of King Arthur’s court, here closer to Don Quixote than the fresh-faced knight of the famous story. In the haze of the mist, their stories mingle as, in classic quest story tradition, Axl and Beatrice face all manner of test, from negotiating difficult terrain and devious monks to fighting Querig, the dragon who has doomed their lands to the collective amnesia. All the while, they make their way towards their son, who lives, it transpires, on an island away from Axl and Beatrice’s own country. To reach it, they must claim passage with a boatman: strange and mythical men who, it is said, will only on rare occasions carry couples together to other lands, and only then if they are able to prove their devotion to each other. This is the final, defining test that Axl and Beatrice must face, no matter how heavily the odds are weighted against them.
The fog of collective amnesia that is slowly overtaking the inhabitants of Ishiguro’s world is an excellent conceit: the buried giant, more than Querig, refers to the memories deeply buried (or perhaps lost altogether), a mass forgetting that has allowed two peoples – Saxons and Britons – to find peace and reconciliation after a bloody war, just as, on a personal level, it has allowed Axl and Beatrice to be reunited after trouble in their own relationship. Within this giant allegory of a novel, this is the central and most powerful metaphor. It is reminiscent of Jose Saramago’s Blindness, in which a collective loss of sight amongst a city’s people is used as a metaphor for humanity’s failure to see even in clear daylight. Here, Ishiguro’s metaphor is as relevant to the reader as to his characters: if forgetting brings happiness, then how far ought we to excavate our own buried giants – the dark memories that dwell within us, unspoken for fear of their implications? And without memory, what of identity, individual or national? What holds the threads of life together if it is not memory? Without it, there is only an unending present.
This idea of truth hidden beneath the surface not only acts as a metaphor for the human relationship to memory but also to Ishiguro as a writer. No matter which genre he writes in, Ishiguro’s novels deal with life on the surface level, the meat of his works hidden deep beneath the words – The Buried Giant is no exception, although one might argue that in such an openly allegorical tale this fact is concealed less so than in some of his other works – and in this way The Buried Giant is almost a critical analysis of Ishiguro’s own attitude towards writing characters.
If the novel is about a way of living – about how relationships are formed and sustained, the trials that one must face in life and how they can be met with love, and the knowledge that not all is as it seems – then it is equally as much about death. The son that Axl and Beatrice seek has passed over to an island beyond their reach – they must persuade a boatman to carry them across the water to this isle – and the Mediaeval tradition, used by modern authors like Tolkien and Pullman, informs the reader that such a journey represents more than a simple crossing of water but a trip to the afterlife, a passing from this life to the next. In Ishiguro’s world, the boatmen who carry people from one isle to the next determine whether a couple are carried together or separately. It is a rare privilege for both to make the trip together, and Axl’s repeated anxiety about this journey throughout the novel is representative of the very human response to potential loss; the wrenching of a long loved one from one’s arms. As the novel progresses and the mist that engulfs the reader and the characters begins to lift (note, another subtle metaphor for the reading experience), the sense of existential dread that hangs about the novel begins to solidify into a very real, precise fear. In this way, Ishiguro creates an incredibly poignant journey that mirrors the experience of ageing with a partner and the creeping move towards the ultimate separation.
Ishiguro is always readable but although plain in its language, The Buried Giant describes a world that is full of classic mediaeval tropes – monsters that must be vanquished, knights and civil wars – as well as drawing on the traditions of various other mythologies to form a narrative space that is uncanny and somehow both filled with interest and almost devoid of character. Everything is muddled, from literary reference-points to the geography; all this contributes to the undeniable sense of confusion and dream-like suspension of reality. For Ishiguro, these half-formed allusions represent memories falling to the failing mind, and say something about the value of remembering and the threat of not, a fact that any historian will keenly confirm.
The dialogue of the novel is oddly formal, characteristic of language when it is not coloured by memory, but left as a functional tool of communication. This style introduces questions about the art of language and what elevates it beyond its rudimentary use as a means of communicating ideas. So too, the knock on effect this has on the formation and nurturing of ideas themselves: if language is functional, impoverished even, then thought must lose something. Like the people who inhabit Ishiguro’s world, when memory fades and words fail, nothing quite fits together. It is an interesting technique and one that fits with the wider ideas in the novel, but for the reader, the dialogue-heavy passages can leave one feeling a little dry.
Beyond the most obvious examples, there are metaphors all over the place in the text if one looks hard enough – try, for example, to read Querig the fiery she-dragon who terrorises a people as a stand-in for Margaret Thatcher and the novel becomes an intriguing political allegory. Or consider the suspicious monks who, it is suggested, keep Querig alive – and The Buried Giant becomes an attack on theologies that attempt to remove free will and keep people spellbound and stupid, burying logic rather than facing the existential reality that would see them dispel all theology. Indeed, the scope and range of valid readings is enormous and, at times, one wonders if Ishiguro quite manages to pull off the huge number of, often conflicting, things he attempts in The Buried Giant. On the whole, one would have to say that he does, and where he doesn’t the sheer ambition more than makes up for any slight issues.
As the final pages close in, much of the mist has cleared for the reader, but things are by no means clear. The strange ending leaves one in undiscovered territory, unsure how things stand within the novel and forced to delve into the questions raised in the previous three hundred pages. It is an oddly appropriate end to an unusual and thought-provoking read, which is reminiscent of The Unconsoled in its dream-like quality. The reverberations of what Ishiguro has attempted here will run on long after the final pages for the reader, and, as a more accessible piece than The Unconsoled, might find wider acclaim. Expect to see The Buried Giant on the shortlist for many a fiction prize over the coming year (those, at least, that can see past its nominal categorisation as a Fantasy novel – a genre that doesn’t seem to find favour too often)....more
Necropolis (2014) by Guy Portman is an unusual novel: a hybrid of both transgressive and thriller fiction. Dyson Devereux is the head of burials and cNecropolis (2014) by Guy Portman is an unusual novel: a hybrid of both transgressive and thriller fiction. Dyson Devereux is the head of burials and cemeteries for Newton Borough council in a London suburb. He is also a sociopath, as the blurb - aping American Psycho's - tells us. Living a life detached, Dyson baulks at the painful lack of refinement he sees in all of his colleagues at the council, and - testament to the ubiquitous tastelessness evident in Dyson's world - the gaudy tributes to loved ones that festoon the graves in the cemeteries he oversees. A string of casual liaisons and cheap lunches string together Dyson's monotonous existence, that is, until he finds a means of escape in the form of a disgruntled European: Kiro Burgan, a council employee who spends his days tending the borough's cemeteries. Convinced that Kiro is in fact a Balkans war criminal, Dyson sets about trying to prove his hunch and claim the two million euro reward that would come with it. Is Kiro just the escape route that Dyson needs? He certainly thinks so, and that makes him one dangerous sociopath.
From the novel's opening pages its hero, Dyson Devereux, speaks in a calm, detached voice that is more than reminiscent of American Psycho's Patrick Bateman, only here the protagonist drops the names of cheap deodorants and high street brands rather than expensive colognes and exclusive tailors. This juxtaposition, of the supremely erudite, discriminating narrator, stuck in a world where his good taste goes to waste on inexpensive Chinese lunches and snakeskin ties (the latter more an aberration in taste than a compromise) is extremely funny at times - particularly when one first encounters Essex's answer to Patrick Bateman. Dyson's voice develops, however, and drifts between the sociopath amused by humanity's foibles, and the autistic onlooker, bemused by society's customs - think more Don Tillman than Hannibal Lector.
Perhaps fittingly for the Head of Burials and Cemeteries, Dyson appears obsessed by death and war, leering over embalming methods whenever he visits the local mortuary and spending his evenings watching documentaries about wars or reading about weaponry. As with Six Feet Under, the death game proves a suitable background from within which to explore the banality of existence. Indeed, for Dyson the living are no more distinguishable from each other than from the dead. His derisory view of his fellow human beings extends to the point where not only can he not be bothered to remember most of their names, but reduces those he finds most distasteful to the offensive pronoun `it' - a slightly jarring way of demonstrating his contempt for others.
Deindividuation is important in Necropolis, Dyson's inability to recall the names of his colleagues a nod not only to his own insular mentality, but to the stagnant world in which he lives, where sedation is as readily available in the form mind-numbing programming like the X Factor as it is from more obvious sources like heroin, both of which his part-time girlfriend seeks solace in to Dyson's distaste. It might be surprising that such a sneering isolated individual should have a girlfriend of any kind but this is not this sociopath's only relationship. Indeed, Dyson has mastered the fundamentals of human emotion, able very easily to forge connections with others through small pieces of body language trickery, exposing how simple, and how easily manipulated, human connection really is.
The plot in Necropolis sits somewhere between transgressive fantasy and straight action thriller, and this is a fine line to tread. As Dyson boasts of his conquests, the women who simper at one of his smiles, even the incredible plot that sees him locking horns with a Sierra Leon war criminal turned drug dealer and a Balkans war criminal, all reported in his unexcitable monotone, one can't help but be pulled towards a transgressive reading, which has Dyson as a fantasist in the ilk of Tyler Durden's narrator. However, as the text progresses, one is forced, unexpectedly, to read it more as a realist thriller. Read in this light, the novel begins to resemble something more akin to Jeff Lindsay's Dexter books. This is fairly successful, although as the novel reaches its denouement, there is a slight lack of peril for Dyson, who appears to sail through most challenges calmly and with little chance of his world caving in on him. That said, the balancing act that Portman attempts to pull off here is a tricky one, and he cuts a definite path between the two genres, which makes Necropolis very much its own beast.
Dyson is well written for the most part and the satellite characters that surround him are disdainfully drawn, mere paper thin projections as seen through Dyson's eyes. The writing is crisp, suiting Dyson's logical, sneering voice. Occasionally too many adjectives are levered into a sentence, or a needlessly ornate word is misused, but these instances of overwriting are rare and concentrated near the book's beginning. Another minor gripe is the phonetic dialogue, which is used with a handful of supplementary characters, and is at times a little frustrating (although some readers will have more tolerance for this than others).
As is often the case with sociopathic characters, Dyson is able to highlight - to comic effect - some of the flaws in the way `normal' people live their lives. Here this is less through Dyson's own behaviour and more through his observations about the characters around him. The funniest moments, however, are probably those were Dyson's incongruence with his surroundings are most keenly felt. Necropolis is an intelligent novel, which to some extent gets caught between trying mesh a fast-paced plot with more thoughtful satire. Portman understands the genres in which he writes, however, and does well to bring the two together. While the plat may, at times, struggle to meet the demands of both genres, Portman's characterisation of Dyson works well and this mitigates, to an extent, any cracks that show in what is an ambitious novel....more