In Which I Fight The March of Progress

I love audiobooks. They are so soothing and comforting and nothing says relaxation to me like lying on my bed listening to a great story. Over the years I’ve amassed quite a library, the oldest on cassette tape – which are now hard to listen to because my cassette player is so ancient and well-used that the wheels scream in protest after an hour or so – the next era on CD, and then the most recent on the ipod Mr Litlove gave me for Christmas a couple of years ago. For my next birthday he gave me a docking station, because I prefer that to ear buds and because the docking station has no function buttons on it whatsoever, it comes with a remote.

Now the first little mishap I had occurred one night while I was sleeping. Evidently a butterfly flapped its wings in China, I turned over in bed, the thick corner of the duvet shifted, clipped the remote on the bedside table, and sent it on a neat dive head-first into my nighttime glass of water which was standing half full on the floor. I put the glass there so that it shouldn’t get knocked over and spill onto the pile of books I happen to have beside me. This goes to show that you really can’t think of everything.

Well, you may imagine my horror when I woke in the morning to witness the mischief that had taken place. Without the remote, the docking station is useless. But I dried it off, and by the end of the day it was working again, albeit unreliably. The on/off button worked, even if all the others didn’t seem responsive. I couldn’t honestly tell you it was much different when it was new, as I would often poke and prod it without effecting noticable change to anything other than the volume.

The next little mishap wasn’t even a mishap. I’d taken the docking station downstairs to listen, and then returned it to the bedroom. Obviously it travels as well as I do, because this caused some sort of short-circuit or dodgy connection at the point where the ipod fits onto the station. If I fiddled about with it and pushed it down harder, I could get it to play, but the sound could cut off abruptly if an atom shifted in the universe.

But hey, I could still get it to work, and after a long, frustrating evening, Mr Litlove managed to find a way to continue downloading audio books onto it, after itunes and audible decided that no one uses such obsolete devices as ipods any more. I think I’m supposed to own a swanky phone or tablet instead, so it’s a good job that none of these young turks at the forefront of modern technology have seen my 2004-bought pay-as-you-go phone which beeps every time I press a button, much to the amusement of my son, and can only save about a dozen messages at a time. In my defence, if I decide to commit a crime, I’m pretty sure the police will never trace me.

So having negotiated all these technological pitfalls, I finally discovered there was one thing I simply could not get around – and that was the chaos caused by falling asleep. It’s very hard not to, when you are warm and cozy and doing nothing more than listening to a soothing voice. Recently, I’d used my latest audible credit on Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which I was loving. It’s a wonderful family story, with all the trademark Tylerisms that make it so good to listen to, in particular her ability to turn out both a beautiful sentence and a great line of dialogue. Well, I was enjoying it immensely, but the inevitable happened and without being able to tell you at what point exactly it happened, I fell asleep.

I woke up to silence. This was worse than usual, as it meant that the ipod must have shifted on its docking station and lost its connection. How long had I been asleep before that happened? I’ve woken up before to disconcerting déjà vu when the story has both finished and seamlessly started all over again. But now I had no idea how much of the narration I’d missed. The remote was useless to me, so I went over to the ipod and fiddled about with it until it started speaking again.

My ipod has a touch screen the size of a large-ish postage stamp. It has two little lines or an arrow in the middle, for play or pause, and a triangle either side for fast forward or rewind. If you tap the triangle it skips a chapter (not at all the same thing as a chapter in the book, alas) and if you hold your finger down, it supposedly moves forwards and backwards more slowly so you can skim. HAH is all I have to say to that. I touched the screen and we instantly jumped forward by several book chapters. Now I was even more lost than before. I touched the screen to move backwards, and this time it was enough to cut the connection. After more wobbling and poking and calling it some ugly names, the narration resumed but way further back, back at a part I’d been listening to the previous day. There was more back and forth that I’ll spare you, but eventually I ended up deciding the best policy was to listen again to a chunk I’d already heard.

After the half hour it took to reach the place I fell asleep, I turned out to have missed only a paragraph or two.

What is this obsession with tininess? I don’t have particularly large hands, but this whole poking and swiping business is a nightmare of inaccuracy. My ipod could be three times larger than it is, and it would still be small. It could have buttons on it, so I could actually be sure what function I was selecting. The ‘chapter’ divisions could correspond to actual chapters in the book. And the most smiled-upon solution, to switch to a newer form of technology, means learning a whole new host of instructions on ever more complicated gadgets. What is a dinosaur of technology like me supposed to do?

The Faithful Couple

faithful coupleOne of the bits I really like in the film of Bridget Jones’ Diary is the fight scene between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. What makes me laugh every time is how real they manage to make it look – all clumsy grappling and uncoordinated lashing out, the impetus to hurt the other person kept in check by the much stronger desire not to be hurt oneself. They are two boys having a scrap in the playground, not Hollywood actors in a polished and well-choreographed routine and it’s very endearing.

It was the same sense of scrappy realness, a bit clumsy, a bit awkward, often mortified, that kept me engaged and enjoying The Faithful Couple, A. D. Miller’s bromance about long-term friendship between men. Adam Tayler and Neil Collins meet in California while travelling, Adam as part of a gap-year after his degree at Durham, Neil as a treat after he jacks in a pharmaceutical sales job. There’s a distinct, nuanced difference in class. Neil, though he also has a degree, will be trapped on his return into working at his widowed father’s dreary stationary shop in a dull, grubby part of London. His mother died when he was 14, and his older brother has gone off the rails. Adam comes from an entitled family, a jolly, confident bunch, his father in shipping insurance, his mother helping charities. Adam has the money behind him to be idealistic, and is intending to work in television.

But first: California. The young men fall into an easy, feckless friendship, their comfort with one another spiked at the edges by an undercurrent of rivalry. Travelling up the West coast of America, they urge each other on to bad behaviour, running out of a bar without paying. It’s nothing really, they are good boys at heart. But on a camping trip in Yosemite, the competitiveness gets a little out of hand over a young woman named Rose. Adam is aware of her age, and does not pass this information on to Neil. There is an ugly incident, but one that eventually passes over without any dire consequence. Back in England, Adam and Neil cement their friendship, the secret sin that lurks between them exerts a uniting effect, not least in their desire to cover it over.

But as the years slip by and things do not fall out as expected – Adam’s career repeatedly stagnates, his ambition lost to the daily grind of family life, whilst Neil moves from dotcom to property to financial management, making money all the way – the California incident begins to fester. It’s Adam who lets himself become needled with guilt. Partly the birth of his daughter affects him with superstitious karmic fear, but there’s also an unarticulated disappointment to deal with, that on paper, Neil is doing better than he is. In the unwritten laws of his upbringing, Adam realises that this inability to let an old, half-forgotten incident go is as verboten as any other form of weakness:

To moon over a girl was gay. To worry over exams was nerdy. Everyone was supposed permanently to be on good form, as if they were well-conditioned, moodless racehorses… They were all or nothing people, Adam realised, his family, his breed. Their only game plan was to get all the way through, right to the end, thinking as little as possible, in the hope that they could outrun it – whatever it was that they were frantically eschewing, the neglect or abuse or adultery.’

Adam can’t quite leave it alone; he has to use the incident in California as a stick to beat himself with, except of course he keeps missing and hitting Neil instead. The underlying preoccupation of the story is whether the men will allow it to destroy their friendship – something we come to understand is meaningful and important to them – or if they’ll find a way to neutralise their growing resentment.

This is a thoughtful, touching novel that feels unusual in its male-driven perspective. The question of whether men can still love one another as friends in a typical new millenium middle-class life that is far too bothered about money and success and advancement is not one that often gets asked – or at least, not one that gets asked to the exclusion of all else. The prose is supple and clever, though occasionally Miller does ask it to do too much, to fit in too many thoughts – there are sentences that require the reader to put on her wader’s wellies to get across. And I fear women might not care much for the way women are seen through the eyes of the main protagonists. There’s nothing sexist here. It’s just that women aren’t seen very much; the male gaze still tracks other, more self-regarding prizes than the happiness of those who love them. But I fear that may just be realistic. Other than that, Miller is particularly good on class, and on the changing face of life in London, and on bringing up children, and on the relentless, indefatigable competition between men and just about everyone and everything else. It’s that detailed attention to authenticity that makes this novel a pleasure to read.

Dangerous Ambition

theblazingworldI’ve been wondering whether to ditch the idea of reviewing Siri Hustvedt’s novel, The Blazing World. Not because I didn’t enjoy it or admire it – I did both. But because it somehow seemed difficult to write about. Briefly, the novel concerns neglected artist, Harriet Burden, a woman of great ambition, great intelligence and fierce drive, whose work has been repeatedly overlooked and dismissed by the critics. It is structured as a posthumous collection of disparate writings by and about Burden that trace the development of her life and her last, desperate attempts to prove gender bias by creating three spectacular shows of work that are fronted by men, masquerading as the real artist. This isn’t some pc-driven whine: in the novel it’s noted how many actual women artists were blatantly sidelined, receiving no real recognition until their seventies (Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois) or their death (Eva Hesse, Joan Mitchell) or indeed not at all – like Lee Krasner who was only ever seen through the frame of her husband, Jackson Pollock. The art world does have a problem with women, preferring ‘their geniuses coy, cool, or drunk and fighting in the Cedar Bar, depending on the era.’

Harriet Burden is driven to the edge of her sanity by the lack of recognition her work has received, and her dangerous ploy, to create work that men agree to show, backfires in all sorts of ways. Her first chosen male artist, a newcomer to the scene, is hailed beatifically and then cannot deal with the fact that he is not the work’s creator. Her second, a gender-bending black man, is too close to the feminine to attract the serious attention of the art world, though Harriet enjoys their collaboration most of all. The last, an already-established rock star of the art world, pretentious Rune, betrays Harriet in the worst possible way. Harriet proves the sexism inherent in art criticism, but she is powerless to change anything, and remains deprived of the satisfaction she seeks.

I thought a lot about Harriet Burden while reading Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives by Anna Fels. Fels’ argument is that ambition is useful to us – ‘coping skills, understanding of reality and sense of self-worth’ are all higher in women who have defined plans for their futures. Women who want to be ‘upwardly mobile via their own achievements’ turn out to be ‘the most psychologically well adjusted.’ But recognition – accurate, meaningful praise from the external world – is consistently withheld from women, and white middle-class women in particular are the group most loathe to go after it. Ambition is understood to be pushy, aggressive, non-feminine. Women will repeatedly say that they have nothing against ambition, that they understand it can be useful, but will stubbornly stick only to ambitions that involve nurturing others.

What I found most intriguing about this book is its insistence on the value and importance of recognition. It’s a tragic myth women tell themselves to try to come to terms with their lot that it’s all about the work for its own sake, Fels suggests. ‘[T]he recognition of one’s skills within a community creates a sense of identity, personal worth, and social inclusion – base cornerstones in any life’. The times we receive recognition are usually iconic moments we remember forever more. ‘Recognition by others defines us to ourselves, energises us, directs our efforts, and even alters mood.’ Fels argues that the times we are happiest and most engaged in our work are the times when we are most valued and validated – and alas for women, cultural validation only comes in the form of praise for selflessness, for stepping down, shutting up, putting their desires away and promoting others.

Honestly? I agree. There is so much of my own experience that resonantes here. Fels notes that: ‘When girls persist in being high achievers, they are subtly penalised by their teachers. They actually receive less attention from their teachers than any of the other student types.’ Yup, that was my experience at school. And the times I flew high and found my work easy and fulfilling were mostly during my graduate days when I had two mentors around me who encouraged me a great deal. When I began working for the university, there was no recognition to be had. In thirteen years teaching, I had two appraisals and only one sentence of praise which yes, I remember to this day (the then Senior Tutor said ‘no one can please all the people all the time, but you get pretty close to it’). The constant lack of recognition undoubtedly contributed to chronic fatigue – I paid out so much energy, and had so little re-energising sense of doing well in return. And I did indeed feel guilty and wrong for wanting recognition at all. Not least because I was aware that it’s so hard to come by. For instance, here’s an intriguing study from Fels’ book:

Two groups of people were asked to evaluate particular items, such as articles, paintings, resumes and the like. The names attached to the items given each group of evaluators were clearly either male or female, but reversed for each group – that is, what one group believed was originated by a man, the other believed was originated by a woman. Regardless of the items, when they were ascribed to a man, they were rated higher than when they were ascribed to a woman. In all of these studies, women evaluators were as likely as men to downgrade those items ascribed to women.’

Essentially, it’s the premise of Hustvedt’s book. Which of course puts women in a complicated position. What else IS there to do but try and find consolation in the practice of whatever work we do, in the full awareness that it’s the only reward we’re likely to get? Another interesting book that’s been holding my attention lately is Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Approval and acceptance are hugely important, they agree, but to jump on the bandwagon and produce commercially successful art is often to lose your identity as an artist, whilst standing out for your own vision is always fraught with inevitable misunderstandings: ‘The problem is not absolute but temporal: by the time your reward arrives, you may not be around to collect it. Ask Schubert.’ It’s a great little book, actually, that has made me laugh a lot, and has some pithy advice.

The lesson here is simply that courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts – namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work. They’re in a good position to comment on how they’re moved (or challenged or entertained) by the finished product, but have little knowledge or interest in your process.’

Sensible words, but I doubt they would have helped Harriet Burden. Ambition is like a virus, I don’t think you can just will it away, but it is also a very high-risk strategy, particularly for women and I can’t see that changing any time soon.

 

Writer Beware Writer

Ever since Dan Brown did his best to convince us that a Harvard professor of symbology could be an action hero, thrillers have moved into some unusual territories. Those of us crying out for the directions to the nearest library now turn out to have deeper and darker motives than you’d think possible. I was entertained lately by both Philip Kerr’s Research and Robert Galbraith’s (aka…oh you know don’t you) The Silkworm, books set fully within the world of publishing, where the authors had a great deal of fun at the cost of their profession’s integrity. Readers are more than welcome to join the party, but only if they suspend reality first.

researchPhilip Kerr’s Research opens with a shocking item on the news: it seems that multimillionaire author, John Huston, has shot his wife, Orla, and done a bunk from their luxury appartment in Monaco. Alerted to the news is struggling author, Don Irvine, who knows Huston better than most, given that he wrote a significant chunk of his novels. For Huston, ex-advertising copywriter and business mastermind, used to run what he called an ‘atelier’, a clutch of ghost writers to whom he would send out 70-page synopses, full of technical detail, to have them transformed into blockbusters. John is a man who can’t be bothered with the actual tedium of writing, and who saw from his first contract that there was serious money to be made if it were possible to produce generic fiction at a superhuman rate. Don was the first ghost he hired, and he used to do very well out of it, although he was paid a tiny fraction of the money that Houston glories in.

Then John Huston had an awkward turnaround; he decided he wanted to write something more literary and was tired of the treadmill of his empire. The atelier was disbanded and the men he employed were forced back on their own (literary) devices. When the news of Orla’s shooting reaches the papers, Don is dragged to lunch with the rest of the gang, all embittered, angry men who are delighted to witness Huston’s fall from grace. It makes a pleasant change from staring at computer screens, unable to come up with the plot that was John’s particular genius. (‘Being a published writer is a bit like what Schopenhauer says about life itself: non-existence is our natural condition.’) Don among them seems more loyal and forgiving towards their old boss. In fact, he’s expecting a call for rescue from him at any moment, and when it comes, the men team up in a race across the Riviera, trying to outwit justice. Or maybe, Don is trying to reach some unusual justice of his own.

The engine of the plot is rage and envy inspired in men by other men who earn a great deal more money. It’s structure is a two-handed narrative, as Don and John carry the story in turns, the better to twist and fool the reader. And the pleasures along the way are all about the ill-feeling that exists between genre and literary fiction. Huston’s brief to his atelier writers tells them:

If you want your novel to be a page-turner then make clichés your friends. Clichés – the kind of writing that Martin Amis makes war on – are the verbal particle accelerators to finishing books. Original writing just slows a reader down and makes him feel inadequate. Like he’s thick. Which of course he is but there’s no sense in rubbing that in. My readers actually approve of clichés.’

It’s a very funny book – you can’t help but laugh at the wall-to-wall satire – and it’s very slick. Though you get an ever clearer idea of where it’s headed the further through you get and the ending is not quite the exultant climax I was expecting. But it falls into the category of very pleasurable hokum.

 

the silkwormThe Silkworm is a strangely woven beast. Hold it up to the light one way and it’s dark, violent and grotesque; hold it up the other and it’s light, fun and entertaining. Essentially I think it’s written in Rowling’s easy, affable style, but inside her lurks the soul of a 10-year-old boy who is fascinated with everything disgusting and scatalogical (even the bit-part defunct cat is called Mr Poop).

Once again we have an author gone missing, but Owen Quine operates at the far end of the scale from John Huston. He writes revolting and perverse books of dubious literary merit that hardly anyone ever reads. Only when his body is found, murdered in the most ghastly circumstances, the motive seems to lie in his most recent book. In it Quine has taken revenge for all his perceived slights by portraying in ornately disguised fashion, his agent, his editor, his wife, his lover and his great literary rival. Having just written that sentence I suddenly wonder whether Peter Greenaway was a muse for Robert Galbraith; it’s plausible. Anyway, this part-disguise is in fact all about revealing terrible secrets concerning the above cast, things that they did not want the general public to know. Although the book is only in manuscript form, it’s managed to more or less do the rounds of the literary fraternity in London and so the possible suspects for the murder are legion.

Called upon in the first instance to find the missing Quine, is private investigator Cormoran Strike, the Rubeus Hagrid of gumshoes. A giant of a man but far from gentle, Strike wears his ex-military career in the form of a prosthetic leg, victim of a bombing in Afghanistan. Before we go any further, I would like to issue a plea to get that man’s prothesis sorted out. It’s clearly not doing the job, and I lost count of the times we are invited to be moved to sympathy because of it. I began to have fantasies about creating a detective who got the job done with tact and understanding; who realised the value of good contacts and used them, whose main skills lay in disarming and charming suspects and who looked after himself really, really well. But I forgave Cormoran because I like his secretary so much, the pretty and resourceful Robin who longs to be a detective herself. They make a good pairing.

The inadvertent pleasures of the book are to be found, again, in a slicing and dicing of the literary world, its greeds and envies and duplicities. Though really, Galbraith has more interesting and unusual things to say on the paradoxes of love. This is a long book, almost 600 pages, and its characters are for the most part unlikeable and unlikely, but the plotting is strong and sure-footed and the ending is cleverly done.

Robert Galbraith and Philip Kerr agree wholeheartedly that when writing about writers, it’s the compacted mass of dangerous emotions provoked by the desire to be validated through art that causes all the trouble. Writers, beware. And in both books the expletive count was astronomical. Readers beware. In Kerr this felt like parody, in Galbraith like overcompensation. Doesn’t everybody believe that writers are rough, tough stuff, just full to the brim of murderous violence?