Tag: poetry

Review: The Children’s Book

What a lovely, rich novel AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book is!

It begins in the waning years of the Victorians and ends on the battlefields of the First World War: 1895-1918, roughly. It begins when the son of a curator at the nascent Victoria & Albert Museum finds a potter’s boy living in the basement, sketching wonders by day and sleeping in a sarcophagus by night. The potter’s boy is Philip, who’s run away from drudgery and ill-health in the factories of the north; rescued by the curator, he’s put up by a singular family, the Wellwoods, who live in a rambling country house in Kent. Olive Wellwood is a writer of fairy tales and children’s fables, and it’s largely her labour that sustains her large family’s sunlit, charmed existence in the breadbasket of England. (Her husband, Humphrey, is a lecturer, journalist and activist – none of them particularly lucrative professions.) In due course, the Wellwoods find Philip a position with a local potter, moody, unstable Benedict Fludd, an artistic genius who refuses responsibility for anything practical.

The family of Humphrey’s banker brother Basil rounds out this cast of characters: they are artists, thinkers, teachers, writers, activists, all of them people interested in engaging with the world meaningfully, through politics or art or theory. But as Byatt’s title suggests, what the novel is really interested in is childhood – more specifically (and per Rudd, in Reading the Child in Children’s Literature), how the concept of childhood is represented by and mediated through adults. Byatt’s said that the novel grew out of an idea that the children of many classic children’s authors have become suicidal: what does the commodification of a specific child’s experience do to the child in question? And, what does that child’s experience really look like?

It’s in service to this project that The Children’s Book exploits the gap between children’s literature and literature about children. The novel frequently inhabits children’s points of view – particularly those of Philip and of Tom, one of the Wellwood children. When it does so, it frequently touches on things you’d never find in children’s literature: nascent romantic longing, questions about a parent’s fidelity or otherwise. And in doing so, it points up how children are simplified, idealised, by adults.

A key motive for that idealisation is nostalgia – the longing for an Edenic golden age when we were responsible for nothing and ran carefree in the endless summer woods. Much of the novel is suffused with this Edenic quality, with many of its adult characters engaged in the work of planning or attending retreats, artists’ communes, exhibitions; creating, evoking or in some cases defending ideal spaces free from crass economic considerations.

And yet the novel’s ironising perspective on childhood makes it clear that such frozen, idealised bubbles of time did not, cannot, should not exist. The novel’s children do have real, “adult” concerns: poverty, parentage, the fights of adults around them, the shape of their futures. And attempting to “freeze” these children – to encourage them, like Peter Pan, never to grow up – has disastrous consequences for at least one of them. Even the titles of the novel’s three sections make it clear that Eden does not exist: Age of Silver, Age of Bronze, Age of Lead. There is no Golden Age.

What all of this is building up to, of course, is the apocalypse of the First World War – the conflict that irrevocably, inevitably shapes the lives of all these children (as we know it must right from the beginning of the novel), that puts an end to all thoughts of utopia once and for all. In Lacanian terms – also per Rudd – we can say that the war is the savage, uncontrollable irruption of the Real into the Imaginary, the ideal artistic Eden that Byatt’s characters have been striving towards for 600 pages. It shatters all illusions of meaning; in fact it co-opts Edenic meanings, as we see when a character starts collecting the whimsical children’s names men on the front have given to the trenches that become their tombs, grim travesties of the wonderlands those names are drawn from.

It’s the same kind of semantic breakdown that we see in T.S. Eliot’s great Modernist poem The Waste Land: “I think we are in rats’ alley/Where the dead men lost their bones.” Perhaps what Byatt is offering us here, then, is an evocation of our own golden age, the golden age that postmodernism looks back to – a nostalgia for a pre-ironic era when revolutionary ideals and ideas were sincerely held and the woods of England were still wonderful. In this reading, even the war is comforting: it is a telos, an ending we always already know is coming; even in its meaninglessness it gives these characters’ lives a meaningful shape.

But the novel’s layers of irony have already alerted us to the perils of nostalgia. There is no golden age. So this apparently nostalgic text ironises itself, in its final ultra-postmodern move: it becomes, like all the works of fiction and imagination it describes, unstable and contingent exactly where it seems most permanent, most ideal.

Review: The Monsters and the Critics

The Monsters and the Critics is a collection of lectures and essays by J.R.R. Tolkien, very loosely themed around linguistic topics – that is, they range from “English and Welsh” which looks in detail at the linguistic relationship between those two languages, to “On Fairy Stories”, the famous essay in which Tolkien talks about what a fairy story is and relates their power to the story of Christ.

It is, as you can imagine, not exactly a light read – even for someone who voluntarily re-reads The Lord of the Rings every year. And yet, it’s also not as dense or difficult as you’d expect from its age and Tolkien’s own tendency towards archaism: academic writing tends not to age well at all, and the lectures here were mostly given as early as the 1930s. But Tolkien-the-essayist is quite instructively different from Tolkien-the-novelist; or, rather, the voice of Tolkien-the-essayist has more in common with the voice of the narrator of The Hobbit rather than that of The Lord of the Rings. He has decided opinions, which he expresses through logical and above all lucid argument, sprinkled with colourful and/or poetic metaphors like this one, from the title essay “The Monsters and the Critics”:

it is of their nature that the jabberwocks of historical and antiquarian research burble in the tulgy wood of conjecture, flitting from one tum-tum tree to another. Noble animals, whose burbling is on occasion good to hear; but though their eyes of flame may sometimes prove searchlights, their range is short.

It is this wry, imaginative wit that makes Tolkien-the-essayist such a satisfying companion: it’s easy to follow his argument because he knows how to do rhetoric. And his arguments are worth following because they shed light on his more famous works of fiction: in particular, “The Monsters and the Critics” offers a reading of Beowulf as a poem in which “Defeat is the theme. Triumph over the foes of man’s precarious fortress is over, and we approach slowly and reluctantly the inevitable victory of death.” That is one of the themes of The Silmarillion, in which Morgoth the Dark Lord will never be fully defeated; and it’s a mood that informs The Lord of the Rings, too, with its emphasis on death and decay and the passing of magic.

It is, perhaps, a shame that we only read Tolkien’s non-fiction in the light of his fiction. His Old and Middle English scholarship has largely been discredited (although it was always a thrill as an undergraduate to come across a reference to his work in an academic text). I never studied Beowulf, opting for the alliterative delights of Early Middle English instead, so I don’t know if “The Monsters and the Critics” has anything to do with modern thinking on the poem – but for a reader of fantasy like me, it is a reading full of potential and imagination, opening Beowulf back out from an object of antiquarian study up into an actual poetic work with reservoirs of deep meaning. It’s a reading that can be built on, in other words, rather than one that aims to give a single prescriptive answer, and I’ve always found the first kind of criticism vastly more useful and enjoyable than the second kind. In fact, I wish more academic writing was like this: logical and rhetorical at the same time; inventive, poetic and persuasive; solidly supported by a deep familiarity with the material. This is how to do it, surely.

Review: Invisible Cities

Confession time, here’s what I’ve got: I have no idea what to say about Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

The explorer Marco Polo sits in the palace of Kublai Khan, and tells the ageing emperor stories of the cities he has visited. There is a city whose inhabitants tie threads between the houses to show the relationships between their inhabitants. There is a city constructed entirely of rope bridges over a gaping chasm. There is a city where the mummified bodies of the dead are placed in complex underground tableaux, mirroring the living city above. And so on. There are fifty-five cities in all, all of them with women’s names.

Is it a novel? Is it a work of philosophy? Is it a collection of prose poems? What does it mean? Does it mean anything?

The 2019 Tournament of Books started today: the only place on the internet where it’s actually safe to read the comments. One of the things the ToB always reminds me is that reader response is a valid way of interrogating texts; that your visceral response to a book can be an excellent guide to what it’s trying to do.

So. Invisible Cities is, above all, a difficult work. Or – if “difficult” is too loaded a word – it is oblique. In the frame scenes between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, there’s a lot of discussion about the impossibility of describing the places Marco Polo has seen accurately. Initially, the explorer and the emperor have no shared language, and Polo has to perform the cities to Kublai, representing each city with a gesture, or an object. But Calvino (Polo?) is keen to point out that none of these gestures or objects have any symbolic relation to the cities they stand for: the gestures and objects are random. There’s something here about the inadequacy, the paucity of language, I think, how words have no symbolic link with what they signify, which makes describing a thing ultimately useless: there is no way to convey the reality of the thing, its thing-ness, your experience of it. Perhaps that’s why none of Calvino’s invisible cities really feel like cities. They are too schematic, there is only ever one thing that happens in them; they do not live. The act of retelling, of turning them into anecdotes, has flattened them, stripped them of something vital.

Relatedly: is this a book about empire? This Kublai Khan, like Alexander the Great, has overrun so much of the world that there is nothing left to conquer. His interrogation of Polo, his need to have his empire described to him, is ultimately unsatisfactory. Empire consumes cities, uses them up, in a never-ending quest for novelty, for an exoticism that flattens its subjects.

But there is also something going on here to do with impenetrability. Many of the rituals of Marco Polo’s cities are obscure or macabre. There’s a city which you don’t know you’re in until you’ve left. They are mysteries, often deliberately so; they seem to have meanings which are inaccessible. This impenetrability is different to the inability of language to describe experience, and it is not just a product of exoticism: there is a sense in which each city is indescribable not just technically, because of the limitations of language, but also essentially, because of what it is. A city is a thing so huge and deep and complex that its surfaces are not rational, they seem to make little sense, because we do not have access to the conglomerates of history and ritual and human interaction that have brought about those surfaces. The truth of a city is a thing that can only be glimpsed obliquely, in half-sense metaphors, in moods, even in what other cities think of it.

To return to reader response: it seems fitting that I don’t really know how to talk about Invisible Cities, because it’s a book that itself doesn’t seem to know how to talk – about anything. Which sounds insulting, but: this is a book about the limits of language, about travel, about the stultifying effects of careless storytelling, about the very un-narratability of the city. There is, of course, a good deal more to say about it than I’ve managed to say here. I will probably need to read it again sometime.

Review: Trigger Warning

If there is one thing I would like to happen in 2019, it is for us all to agree that Neil Gaiman’s work is nowhere near as edgy, dark or interesting as his public persona is.

(Actually, there are a lot of other things I would rather happen in 2019 – sustained action on climate change, the impeachment of Donald Trump, a second Brexit referendum – but, you know. Neil Gaiman’s also quite annoying.)

How did I end up reading Trigger Warning? The marketing for his work promises twisty, thorny fairy tales, urban fantasy from the underbelly of modern life, stories that are fun and yet meaty, and that was what I was hoping for from this collection of “Short Fictions and Disturbances”.

And once again, I found it lacking that indefinable something. Depth. Nuance. Resonance.

To me, the most satisfying fantasy, the best fairy tales, are built on a paradox: they describe something that is indescribable. Through omission or metaphor, they talk about the numinous, the earth-shattering intrusion of the Real into our lives that lie under layers of story and symbol; they are about things that cannot be narrated. They resonate because they contain lacunae.

Perhaps this is why Gaiman’s Sandman series of graphic novels works so much better for me than his novels and short stories do: the images supply that resonance; wordless, they speak the unspeakable. There is nothing in Trigger Warning that does the same.

If you’re looking for an example of the collection’s lack of depth and nuance, look no further than its red-flag-to-a-bull title, based on a deliberate misunderstanding of how the phrase “trigger warning” is actually used. In his introduction to the book, Gaiman muses, with reference to his title:

Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places?

And then, later on, he talks about stories he read as a child:

they…taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could.

This romanticising of story and having grown up through fiction, as so many of us readers did, is of a piece with Gaiman’s authorial persona: the mysterious storyteller/bard warning us that fiction is never just fiction, that it can lead us into the mire and through the dark forests of the night, and that this is, mystically, a good thing. But, you’ll notice, it’s not actually very well-argued. For a start, note how paying heed to a trigger warning becomes conflated with not leaving your “comfort zone”. No. Staying in your comfort zone is, like, never watching anything apart from Doctor Who on TV, or having the same sandwich every day for lunch. Whereas, as I suspect Gaiman very well knows, encountering a trigger unannounced can be for a PTSD sufferer a matter of life and death. Comfort zones are formed by habit, and, mostly, there’s nothing actually unsafe about leaving them. (Although, as a sidenote, what’s wrong with staying in your comfort zone at least some of the time?) Trigger warnings are about not destabilising someone’s entire mental health. Fiction doesn’t need to be a safe place, but neither should it be radically unsafe. There’s a world of difference between the two, and it says nothing for Gaiman’s power as a writer that he misses, skips over, that nuance.

As for the stories themselves: they are mostly quite ordinary. There are sub-Twilight Zone-ish stories with trick endings and nothing much else, like “The Thing about Cassandra” and “Click-Clack the Rattlebag”; very inferior verse offerings like “My Last Landlady”; riffs on other people’s work like “The Case of Death and Honey” (Sherlock Holmes) and “Nothing O’Clock” (Doctor Who). There’s an entire “Calendar of Tales”, all of them very short and very minor.

I’ve written about Gaiman’s squicky fetishisation/aesthetisisation of dead or unconscious female bodies before, and sure enough, it turns out here in force, marring particularly the better stories in the collection. Take “Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale”, which Gaiman originally wrote to accompany a photograph of a dead woman. (Actually it was his wife pretending to be dead for an art project, which actually makes the whole thing more troubling.) And the dramatic reveal at the end of the otherwise standout “Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is founded on the remembered image of a red-haired female skeleton.

I enjoyed “The Return of the Thin White Duke”, which feels like something that’s wandered out of a Mechanisms fanfic, but, once again, its sole female character is aesthetisised for the male gaze (although not dead, so that’s some improvement).

We can probably tie this aesthetisisation of women to Gaiman’s deliberate misuse of the phrase “trigger warning”, which originated in feminist spaces. In too much of his writing, women don’t get to have voices, and they don’t get to have agency: they exist to be looked at, to bear children, to inspire men to revenge or fulfilment. Their images and their words get co-opted by a highly influential white male author – an author whose public persona and reputation in the press exudes progressiveness.

My favourite story in the collection was “Black Dog”, a companion story to Gaiman’s novel American Gods. I’ll probably end up reading that too at some point. And I’ll probably finish it feeling disappointed and a bit angry.

The Last Ten Books That Came Into My Possession

Not counting library books or books lent to me.

  1. The War Poets: an anthology. You know how grandmothers always try and give you random crap when you go visit them? That’s where I got this, a couple of weekends ago. Because poetry. (Actually Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et decorum est” has been one of my favourite poems since I read it out in assembly at school. Like all the best poetry, it dictates how you read it aloud; it makes you dramatise its fury through how you sound it out.)
  2. Sisyphean – Dempow Torishima. So apparently the last time I bought something in a bookshop was in April? In New York? Which seems unlikely, but I can’t think of anything I’ve actually bought since then. Sisyphean was okay, a bit organic for my taste.
  3. Space Opera – Catherynne Valente. This was part of my New York haul. I was ridiculously excited about this, as I bought it around the time Amazon sold out and the only copies left were scattered around various Barnes and Nobles and I GOT ONE and it’s lovely.
  4. The Refrigerator Monologues – Catherynne Valente. Yeah, I basically treated America as a chance to buy all the books that are fiendishly difficult to find over here. This included ALL THE VALENTE.
  5. Saga Volume 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I read this a couple of years ago, but I’ve been wanting to own it for a while – the art is so lovely and MY HEART ALANA’S FACIAL EXPRESSIONS. Plus, it actually seemed to be cheaper in New York than over here.
  6. S.  – J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. I actually cannot remember exactly when I bought this, except I know it was definitely in the Oxford Blackwell’s shop. I haven’t read it yet, because of the vagaries of my TBR pile, but I can’t wait.
  7. What Are We Doing Here? – Marilynne Robinson. This was an emergency buy when I was stuck in Bologna without anything to read, and it was a great choice if I do say so myself: engaging, thought-provoking and empathetic.
  8. Imaginary Cities – Darran Anderson. I bought this in Oxford in January. It was rainy and cold and we were looking for somewhere to hide for an hour before dinner, and Blackwell’s rode to the rescue (not literally, although that would be impressive). I read the first couple of chapters of this fascinating book curled up in one of their armchairs.
  9. The Compleat Discworld Atlas – Terry Pratchett and the Discworld Emporium. This was a Christmas present from my sister! It is, physically, a lovely book. It is very geeky. It is also…a bit problematic, and nowhere near as fun as the actual Discworld novels, or even some of the older companion books.
  10. The Book of Dust – Philip Pullman. Also a Christmas present, also from my sister, more interesting than the Discworld Atlas even if it’s not quite what I wanted from a His Dark Materials prequel.

(The prompt for this post comes from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Real-Town Murders

Adam Roberts’ latest novel, The Real-Town Murders, is, on the face of it, a fairly conventional SF thriller. It’s set in a future United Kingdom (rebranded UK-OK!) in which most people spend most or all of their time in the Shine, an immersive virtual reality. Even those who don’t use feeds, which give their users access to, basically, the internet, all day, every day, whatever they happen to be doing. Our Heroine is Alma, a private detective who stays out of the Shine, for various reasons, one of which is her partner Marguerite. Marguerite has a debilitating illness genetically engineered so that only Alma can treat it, which she has to do every four hours exactly, within a four-minute window, or Marguerite will die.

Once upon a time, Alma is called upon to solve a seemingly impossible murder: a body is found in the trunk of a car that’s fresh off the production line, made in an entirely automated factory. Advanced CCTV and AI surveillance shows that no humans entered the factory at any point during the making of the car. So how did the body get in the car?

Inevitably, things escalate, and Alma’s drawn into a political battle between the government of the Shine and the government of the Real – who happen to be, between them, the government of the UK.

Conventional on the face of it: I say that because, while I enjoyed The Real-Town Murders, it seemed to be missing a certain Robertsian zing, the conceptual playfulness that makes his non-fiction such fun to read and his novels so, well, not always successful, but challenging, certainly. It’s a technically perfect thriller: the tension ratcheted steadily up by Alma’s regular four-hour deadline (will she make it home in time? will she get past the guards on her house? and so on), the stakes rising just when you’d expect them to. It has some pretty on-point things to say about control: if you’re in the Shine, your very thoughts, the world you experience, is subject to the surveillance, and thus the control, of others; whereas the Real by definition contains uncontrollable elements, even if it’s only inside your own head. That’s a timely and important point, especially in the wake of recent revelations about the misuse of Facebook data; but it’s not quite as subtle as I’d come to expect from Roberts. It’s an excellent thriller with important things to say; but it’s nothing more than that.

(And maybe that’s not quite a fair assessment on its own merits; if this had been anyone but Adam Roberts, maybe I’d be raving about it. But that’s the bias I bring to this book.)

And there my review would have ended, if I hadn’t re-read Kevin Power’s Strange Horizons review of the novel, at lunchtime today in fact. Power reads The Real-Town Murders as a novel about attention and where our attention is best directed.

So, caveat lector: in a novel about attention, we should be careful about what we notice, or we just might discover, when the final page is turned, that we have noticed nothing at all.


Well, I am a competitive English student if nothing else, and that’s practically an invitation to go back to the text and re-engage with it, intellectually and emotionally.

Power’s argument isn’t one I disagree with exactly, but nor do I think it’s quite true to my own experience of the text. Partly this is because I’m not convinced Power shows his workings at every stage of his essay: “for Roberts, the real lives in language.” This feels like an inaccurate statement to make of a novel which is precisely about how the Real cannot be controlled and rendered absolutely; a novel in which people mangle their language when they enter the Real because they can no longer remember how to speak in the presence of others.

What does feel like an interesting avenue of exploration is Power’s attention to Roberts’ Hitchcockian references – beginning with the epigraph to Part 1 from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: “Think of the key, each in his prison/Thinking of the key”. It’s attributed to something called North by North Wasteland, apparently a reference to the Hitchcock film North by Northwest. I’ve never seen a Hitchcock film, which is why I missed this way into the text; but I think we can see the series of Hitchcock allusions which Power lists as part of a wider matrix of cultural allusion in the novel. There’s a mini-motif in which characters will make obscure cultural references, only for their interlocutors to look up what they mean on their feeds, or, if they’ve turned their feeds off for privacy purposes, to request that people don’t make such references while they can’t look them up. In other words, the power of cultural reference is subverted by instant access to all the world’s data. The point of allusion, especially in day-to-day interaction, is to signal in-group membership: “if you know what I am talking about then we can be friends”. If you can just look it up, instantly, that power (and as every geek knows, it’s a superpower), that semantic playfulness, is gone.

Hence The Waste Land, a poem which enacts a breakdown of cultural meaning. Adam Roberts’ Real has become a waste land – a waste land bare, specifically, of human interaction, of shared cultural referents and of interest in those shared cultural referents. In an attempt to draw people back into the Real, the government of UK-OK! has carved Mount Rushmore-style heads of famous poets and artists into the White Cliffs of Dover. It is, of course, a futile attempt.

But what’s really interesting is that Roberts is describing this breakdown by engaging in its opposite – by drawing on a shared SFnal culture to create a matrix of coherent meaning. All language does this, of course; but Roberts’ prose is a particularly rich site of semantic and cultural playfulness, as we can see from the Hitchcock references, and from lines like:

There was an impressive popping sound, as if from an alt-reality where the Hindenburg was assailed with a titanic pin rather than fire.

That’s asking us to remember a specific moment of history, and it’s doing so using a specific idiom that feels very SFnal: “alt-reality” is a phrase plucked from SF criticism, surely. This is SF written for geeks – it’s SF being used to create and reinforce in-group links at the same time as it’s describing their erosion. To paraphrase Eliot, Roberts uses these fragments to shore against our ruin. It’s not language per se where the Real lies; it’s in shared history, shared culture, shared experience. And it finds its expression, its in-group, in a long-term queer couple, one of them disabled, one of them a carer, holding the world of the novel, the world of the Real, together.

Conventional, did I say?

Top Ten Places Books Have Made Me Want to Visit

  1. Istanbul. This was a by-product of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which is about a literary treasure hunt across Europe and makes Istanbul sound absolutely fascinating, a mix of ancient and modern. Sadly it’s not the safest place to visit at the moment.
  2. Exeter College, Oxford. I remember vividly, the first time I visited Oxford, using the map in Philip Pullman’s Lyra’s Oxford to find Jordan College. Which is Exeter. Yes, I am a nerd.
  3. The Discworld Emporium, Wincanton, Somerset. Do I really need to explain this? My parents now live within touching distance of Wincanton, anyway, so I’m hoping to visit very soon!
  4. The Shambles, York. The Shambles are the original of the Shades in Ankh-Morpork, the sprawling, smelly city-state in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Fortunately you are approximately a hundred per cent less likely to get murdered in the Shambles than you are in the Shades. Although the prices in the shops there do amount to daylight robbery (some of them, anyway).
  5. Tolkien’s grave, Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford. Tolkien’s buried with his wife Edith, and carved below their names are the names Beren and Luthien: the species-transcending lovers of The Silmarillion. When I went in February, there were fresh flowers there, but it wasn’t a shrine or anything; just solemn and sad and I had a moment.
  7. The Pump Room, Bath. This is a restaurant now; but wouldn’t be cool to go there and pretend to be a Jane Austen character? Yes. Yes it would.
  8. New Zealand. Actually I’m not a huge fan of the whole getting-on-a-plane-for-a-zillion-hours thing, but if I had to it would be New Zealand I’d go to – for, yes, Hobbiton and Mount Doom and Edoras and all the wonderful corners of Middle-earth. Actually, doing the Simple Walk into Mordor would be quite fun, for a given value of “fun”.
  9. The Whalebone Arch, Isle of Harris. The actual arch is less impressively Mievillean than I hoped it would be (I was thinking the Ribs from Perdido Street Station, which, not so much), but it’s still pretty cool: an arch made of the jawbones of a whale.
  10. East Coker, Somerset. Yes, because of that poem by T.S. Eliot. (Which I read part of at my granddad’s funeral in January, so it’s kind of important to me.) I don’t think there’s actually very much at East Coker, just one of a thousand tiny villages you’ll find in the hollows of the Somerset hills, but. But.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)