Tag: smash the kyriarchy

Review: Borrowed Time

Naomi A. Alderman’s Borrowed Time is a Doctor Who novel first published in 2011 and recently re-released to capitalise on the success of Alderman’s award-winning The Power. In it, the Eleventh Doctor, Amy and Rory visit the headquarters of the fictional Lexington Bank in the City of London in order to have ringside seats at the 2008 financial crash (???), only to find that there’s more than one speculative bubble in the making. The bank’s employees are impossibly productive and prepared, doing vastly more work than they should have time for. Turns out that two fishy characters by the names of Symington and Blenkinsop are lending out time to all and sundry: who wouldn’t relish having an extra hour or so in the day? But the wonders of compound interest have people owing more time than there is in a lifetime – tens if not hundreds of years.

Borrowed Time is, first and foremost, a lot of fun – unexpectedly so, for a novel about banking. The conceit of having time lent out like money, and on the same capitalist principles, serves to clarify the stakes of actual, real-world banking practices like those which precipitated the 2008 crisis: practices which ruined people’s lives just as thoroughly as they would have if they’d literally taken years from them. Poverty is still a major killer, even in the West, which makes bankers the biggest villains on the planet. Perhaps some of the imagery is a little on-the-nose: Symington and Blenkinsop, the predatory loan sharks, are also literal sharks. Well, shark-headed, anyway. And it’s a little difficult to believe that bankers would fall for the compound interest trick. But, hey, this is a book that’s designed to be accessible to older children as well as adults, so I can forgive a little narrative efficiency. (This is Doctor Who, after all. Subtlety has never been its strong point.)

I’m not sure how to parse the weird meta doubleness of having all this go down in a bank. Of course it’s thematically appropriate and it’s a great way of explaining the complex economics of the sub-prime mortgage crisis; but making the bankers the victims of their own behaviour (without making it explicit that they too would engage in Symington and Blenkinsop’s trickery if they had the chance) perhaps lets them off the hook a bit. What’s more, one of the sympathetic human characters goes on to lead the bank, weathering the financial crash and achieving huge success – which definitely excuses her of culpability. The novel encourages us to think that there are “good” bankers and “bad” bankers, instead of a system that incentivises risky, predatory decision-making.

Having said that, would the story work as well if it was set in a management consultancy, or a law firm? I’m not sure. I think Alderman is aiming for clarity of purpose here rather than complete ideological purity, which might be beyond the scope of a Doctor Who novel anyway. As it is, taken on its own terms, this is a clever, light adventure story with a bit of depth to it – something for everyone to enjoy.

Review: Swing Time

Narrated by a young biracial woman, who remains unnamed, from a housing estate in northwest London, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time charts the course of a friendship. Our Narrator and Tracey meet at a dance class aged about eight. Tracey is a talented dancer; Our Narrator is a good singer but has hopelessly flat feet. Tracey is confident and straightforward; Our Narrator is inconsistent, passive, contrary.

The two grow up: Tracey strives for a professional career in theatre but never makes it out of the chorus line, while Our Narrator gets a glamorous, jet-setting job working as an assistant for pop sensation Aimee.

On the face of it, Our Narrator’s achieved the success Tracey was going for: she’s made it out of London, she experiences Aimee’s showbiz life almost first-hand. But Smith, of course, complicates this picture. Aimee’s philanthropic ambitions take her to West Africa, where she founds and funds a school for a rural village, but her glittering visions of educational excellence far outshine the unglamorous day-to-day support the villagers actually need, and do nothing to affect the structural reasons that put school out of reach for the young people there. Back in London, meanwhile, Our Narrator’s self-educated mother, freed of the burden of domesticity, makes a career for herself in local politics, serving the community she’s lived in most of her life.

Taiye Selasi’s review of Swing Time in the Guardian identifies change as a key theme of the novel, citing the various characters who pull themselves up by their bootstraps into a narrowly-defined version of success. For me, however, the novel’s key concern is not change but inescapability. Despite these characters’ outward success, there’s always something pulling them back, back; unavoidable structural factors or personality flaws that keep them trapped in their own heads, that prevent them growing as people or achieving contentment. Nothing that Our Narrator can do can shake Aimee’s self-absorption, her cultural and economic power. That inability to reach her employer eventually sends her back to her old London housing estate, where she began. The narrator’s mother’s career in local politics can’t undo the decades of resentment and intellectual stifling she experienced when the narrator was a child. Tracey can’t escape her class and the circumstances of her birth, and like her best friend she, too, ends up where she began.

This, I think, explains Our Narrator’s passivity, even her lack of a name: she’s propelled through life by forces beyond her control. She has no agency to change her fate. Her one significant act in the novel, at its climax, achieves nothing. Like most people, her choices and her future are circumscribed by factors she has no control over: most notably socioeconomic class, but also race and gender – all three influencing the power structures she, and we, move through every day.

I’m aware that this is all sounding Very Depressing. It isn’t, really: its inevitability is leavened by moments of genuine connection and understanding. And alongside its tracing of power structures goes some insightful exploration of the limitations of Western philanthropy, the importance of community and the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade. I enjoyed Swing Time a lot.

Review: New York 2140

Set, unsurprisingly, in the year 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 sees the Big Apple thriving in the aftermath of climate change. The sea level has risen about fifty feet in the aftermath of two “Pulses”, about a hundred years apart, leaving lower Manhattan underwater. Which hasn’t stopped people living there, using boats, skybridges, water taxis and airships to get around. Otherwise, life in the city continues pretty much as it always has: people still commute to work, pick up dates in bars, grab coffee with exes, etc., etc.

The novel focuses on the inhabitants of the Met Life building, repurposed as a residential community housing about two thousand people, with a communal dining room and farm level. Our main players are: a superintendent in the NYPD; a reality TV personality who traverses the world in an airship, showcasing and supporting conservation efforts; a pair of quants with ambitions of overhauling the financial system; an analyst who’s developed a financial index linked to sea level rise; the head of the Met Life building’s resident committee, who’s determined to fend off a hostile takeover bid; and a couple of treasure-obsessed kids.

One of the novel’s core themes is volatility: specifically, the volatility of the changing climate and the volatility of the markets that changed it. 2140 New York is still a financial centre, and is thus positively sloshing in volatility, both metaphorical and literal: much is made in the text of the intertidal, the places in the city that are flooded at high tide and walkable at low tide. It’s here, in buildings abandoned by capital, where this future New York gets most interesting:

Hegemony had drowned, so in the years after the flooding there was a proliferation of cooperatives, neighbourhood associations, communes, squats, barter, alternative currencies, gift economies, solar usufruct, fishing village cultures, mondragons, unions, Davy’s locker freemasonries, anarchist blather, and submarine technoculture…Also…art-not-work, the city regarded as a giant collaborative artwork; blue greens, amphibiguity, heteregeneticity, horizontalization, deoligarchification

(Notice here how Robinson’s very sentence structure performs volatility, that pile-on of commas turning sentence into paragraph, or straight-up list; this is a style that’s present to a greater or lesser extent throughout the book.)

Of course, having abandoned the intertidal when things got bad, the markets want to re-capitalise on it now it’s exciting again. So the relationship between the radical volatility of the intertidal and the volatility of the markets is essentially parasitical. We see this in the person of Franklin Garr, the aforementioned financial analyst. For him, highly-paid as he is, flooded New York is a glamorous SuperVenice, an opportunity to impress women in fast boats and make a lot of money shorting the intertidal property bubble. He sees the intertidal, and the markets, as abstract things, games to be played in the quest for individual wealth. His attitude stands in stark contrast to those of other characters who are more directly affected by the games the markets play: the residents resisting the buyout of the Met Life building; the quants targeted by ruthless investment companies; the old man who loses his crumbling home and all his possessions to the sea. These are people for whom the markets, and the volatility they produce, are not a game; they have damaging, real-life effects. Their values of mutual support and shared humanity are, in fact, in direct opposition to the selfish principles governing the markets (as represented in microcosm by Franklin, who notably wants nothing to do with the two dispossessed boys he keeps running into in various pickles).

Volatility also comes into play in the narration of a character named only as A Citizen, who puts the New York-focused action of the book into context by drawing our attention to global developments. Although the text tends towards optimism, the efforts of the Met Life collective to hold out against the pressures of capitalism eventually spreading to the wider city and even nation, A Citizen reminds us that such efforts are always contingent, a happy ending never assured:

there was no guarantee of permanence to anything they did, and the pushback was ferocious as always, because people are crazy and history never ends, and good is accomplished against the immense black-hole gravity of greed and fear.

One of the lessons of New York 2140, inasmuch as good novels have lessons, is that volatility will always be with us, the forces of capital and greed and an uncertain future attacking the structures we try to build. But that is, in itself, not a good reason to stop trying.

Review: How to Build a Girl

I’ve always enjoyed Caitlin Moran’s columns in the Sunday Times Magazine. Her writing feels unstudied, off-the-cuff, casual, in a way that’s both very rare and very hard to achieve, the smattering of ALL CAPS SENTENCES, slang and brand names belying compelling rhetorical structures and serious political (often feminist) points.

How to Build a Girl is her first novel: a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale about a young woman called Johanna Morrigan living in 90s Wolverhampton and dreaming of being – someone else. Almost anyone else, really. So, she invents Dolly Wilde, a gothpunk Manic Pixie Dream Girl Lady Sex Adventurer alter ego in a top hat, gets a job as a music critic and embarks on a life of drink, drugs and moderate, grungy showbiz. So far, so standard a teenage rebellion; what makes How to Build a Girl notable is its commentary on the poverty created by the closing of traditional industries under Margaret Thatcher; the Morrigans’ ever-present fear of having their benefits cut; and the objectification of female bodies. It is altogether a more…cerebral novel than its subject matter and origin might suggest.

The conversational nature of Moran’s non-fiction writing has been dialled back here: gone is the brand-name specificity, the knowing-wink directness. In long form, and without these embellishments, the relative simplicity of her sentence and narrative structures become apparent: I don’t think I’d ever categorise How to Build a Girl as literary fiction, it is too artless for that. But, just occasionally and at its best, Moran’s prose is reminiscent of Catherynne Valente’s in its very artlessness, its tumble of teenage emotion:

…it is a million times easier to be cynical and wield a sword, than it is to be open-hearted and stand there, holding a balloon and a birthday cake, with the infinite potential to look foolish.

One consequence of this artlessness is that the novel is, let’s say, quite tell-y not show-y. Which is to say, instead of allowing its readers to come to conclusions based on narrative and character, it spells out what you should take from it: see the above statement on cynicism, or this, from John Kite, a singer and Johanna’s crush:

When the middle classes get passionate about politics, they’re arguing about their treats—their tax breaks and their investments. When the poor get passionate about politics, they’re fighting for their lives.

Despite the fact that How to Build a Girl is ostensibly written from Johanna’s point of view, these passages feel like statements from an insecure author who wants to make very sure we Get The Point.

Which we do. And we agree with you. Don’t worry, Caitlin. It’s all good.

And yet. This is still, I think, an important book. Something I haven’t mentioned yet is how very many sex and masturbation scenes there are in this novel. Johanna/Dolly is, after all, a teenage girl discovering all the mysteries and pleasures of incipient adulthood, all at once, with multiple partners, or no-one at all if necessary. In one memorable scene, she gets cystitis from someone with a very large penis. This is important because, as Johanna herself says, “There is very little female narrative of what it’s like to fuck, and be fucked.” There are not many stories in which women are allowed to be like this without being seen as a kind of fascinating lusus naturae. There are not many cultural narratives as honest about the female sexual experience.

I don’t know that How to Build a Girl is going to stand as a classic through the ages, or anything like that. It is not a novel that can sustain much critical scrutiny or discussion – it wears its messages too obviously on its sleeve for that; we are never in much doubt as to Moran’s politics or Johanna’s opinions or motivations. As a “lighter” read, though, a chick-lit-style novel that doesn’t make you feel like you do when you’ve binged on Dairy Milk (unsatisfied and slightly nauseated) – well, it’s much better than Shopaholic, let’s put it that way.

Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

This review contains spoilers.

Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock opens, appropriately enough, on a dark stormy night in Gravesend, 1785, with a well-off merchant by the name of Jonah Hancock opening his door to the news that his agent has sold his prized ship in exchange for what is allegedly a taxidermied mermaid. Hoping to make the best of a bad situation, Hancock takes the mermaid to London, where it becomes a sensation – catapulting him into the upper echelons of society and steering him into the path of one Angelica Neal, glamorous, high-class courtesan. Their worldviews couldn’t be more different, but they’re thrown together when an ill-advised love affair sees Angelica facing bankruptcy and ruin; to save her, Hancock offers to marry her and take her to his staid household in Kent. And then a second mermaid comes into the Hancocks’ lives, one whose influence is much more sinister.

At its heart I think The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a novel about the exploitation of women in the Georgian period, and the sheer precariousness of their position in society. Angelica sees marriage as a domestic cage, preferring the sexual, financial and emotional freedom she enjoys as a courtesan; but her near-ruin and the example of one of her friends, another former courtesan who becomes the wife of her client, shows that marriage is still the only long-term guarantee of security available to her. (She could also become a madam – but this option is strongly aligned in the text with becoming complicit in her own exploitation.) Then there’s Polly, a mixed-race courtesan-in-training who runs away from her madam to escape a lifetime of relentless objectification as an “exotic” experience for upper-class men only to find herself offering the same services to genuinely dangerous men for shillings on the street. Finally, there’s Hancock’s niece, Sukie, a girl of respectable family who nevertheless has absolutely no say in her own employment situation, forever at risk of being shunted by her mother between the households of various relatives to play maid-of-all-work. These are women in very different circumstances, united by the fact that they really have no good choices because of a system that treats them in various ways as objects for the delight and convenience of white men.

This dynamic of exploitation actually gets slightly extended along a different axis: Polly’s story is part of an underdeveloped subplot involving her and the Black servant of her madam, who, like Polly, must exploit his own objectification and exoticisation if he’s to survive in Georgian London. Both he and Polly are hyper-aware of issues of performance, decorum and respect in a way the white characters aren’t – because their existence at a relatively comfortable level of society is much more heavily dependent on how other people see them.

This is all summed up by the image of the novel’s second mermaid, captured somewhere in the North Sea by a heavily bribed captain after Hancock’s marriage to Angelica. Kept underground in a dark grotto, far from her native waters, the mermaid emanates a creeping depression that infects the entire household: a metaphor for the damage inflicted on women, people of colour and the natural world by the rampant forces of mercantile exploitation. (Content note for miscarriage.) It’s only when Angelica finally takes back control of her life, literally and metaphorically setting the exploited free, that she can take her rightful position in society – as a fabulous style-setter and thrower of parties. Significantly, the Twelfth Night-style revel that ends the novel sees upper classes mixing with sailors, a symbolic breakdown of social boundaries hinting at the possibility of a more equal future.

It’s interesting to consider the historical background to all this: though of course The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a modern text, novelists choose their settings for reasons which are generally better developed than “because the Georgian period is cool”. The Georgian period saw the rise of imperial mercantilism on a grand scale: this was a time when much of the world was quite literally for sale. That’s a key dynamic underlying Gowar’s discussion of objectification and exploitation – and of course it’s highlighted by Hancock’s own business (more on that in a moment). This is also a period of mass urbanisation, which brings out certain anxieties in the literature of the time: the city’s lower classes are either conspicuously absent, as in Jane Austen’s novels, or portrayed as venal moneygrabbers, as in Alexander Pope’s satirical Dunciad. With The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, I think Gowar is attempting something similar to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: rewriting our understanding of a historical period to address and bring to light the invisible inequalities that inform our present-day situation. In other words, she’s highlighting that the Georgian period is a key historical point in the development of modern capitalism, and the oppression and exploitation that comes with it.

It does have some capital-P Problems which undermine this work. Chief among these is the fact that Hancock’s wealth must have come from slavery, somewhere along the line, just because of how the economics of the time worked. It’s this wealth that enables Angelica’s freedom and flowering at the end of the novel; which means that the novel is essentially about white middle-class women fulfilling their potential at the expense of everyone else. I also find Hancock’s Nice Guy tendencies a little…uncomfortable; he hangs around Angelica pre-bankruptcy despite knowing he has no chance with her, and then is conveniently in exactly the right position to take advantage of her desperation. This does not seem a great foundation for a lasting relationship – and the fact remains that she is forced into domesticity and marriage despite her resistance to the institution; it’s not really a free choice for her, given her situation at the time.

These are Problems, and I don’t want to downplay them. But I also found Angelica and Hancock so winningly sympathetic as characters that I couldn’t help but root for them, and hope they found happiness together. It’s an imperfect but cosy book, a novel for long rainy Sundays with a blanket and a cup of tea, thoughtful and melancholy and full of the sights and smells of Georgian London.

Review: Oryx and Crake

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake begins with Snowman: an old man living in a forest by the sea. The forest is full of savage genetically-engineered monstrosities; Snowman, starving, might be the only human left on the earth following a deadly plague. He’s not exactly alone, though – by the shores of the sea live the Crakers, a group of posthumans who have also been genetically engineered to, among other things, digest grass and other raw plants, have sexual urges only at specific times, and heal each other by humming at a certain frequency.

The Crakers see Snowman as a kind of god, and press him for stories about their creator, Crake. As Snowman tells them sanitised fables designed to consolidate his own position, we learn through flashback the true story of their genesis and of the apocalyptic plague. We hear about Snowman’s childhood friend Crake, who grows up to be a top geneticist with dangerous ideas, and about his crush Oryx, a sexual fantasy made suddenly real.

There’s a lot to unpack in this text. I want to think first about Atwood’s oft-quoted claim that her books are not science fiction: “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” This is not only a bad take, it’s a weird one, rooted as it is in the assumption that what happens in a book, its plot, is the most important or indeed only element doing any work. And, really, it’s hard to imagine that Atwood really, truly thinks of the events of Oryx and Crake as something that “could really happen”. Its SFnal parts – by which I mean mainly the parts involving Crake – are brightly painted and shallow, peppered with capitalised neologisms (RejoovenEssense, HelthWyzer, BlyssPluss) and references to a hyperviolent society gone far, far off the rails, with freely available child pornography, televised executions and general brutality as entertainment. A complex and skilful portrait of a realistic future it surely ain’t; in fact it’s in the grand old tradition of the cautionary tale, as exemplified by George Orwell’s 1984 or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit-451.

These parts of the novel are, in other words, satire; satire of corporate power, of our obsession with shiny new tech, of our ever-more-toxic relationship with the internet. And in their satire they’re as – hmm – referentially unrealistic as the talking squids, intergalactic space travel and Martians Atwood repudiates so vehemently. They’re using a type of fantasy to talk about present culture, present obsessions.

But then there’s the other half of the novel: the parts about Oryx and Snowman. And these are in their own way as chilling as anything Crake gets up to, despite their lower stakes. See, Snowman first sees Oryx, as a child, in a porn video. As her story unfolds it becomes clear that she was trafficked away from her village in an unspecified non-Western country. It also becomes clear that Snowman is more attracted to her as a victim than as a person, constantly nagging her for details about her childhood which she is unwilling to give. (Snowman, of course, thinks he loves her.) Oryx’s strategies of evasion remind me a little of Grace Marks, the heroine of Atwood’s earlier novel Alias Grace: like Oryx, she’s surrounded by men who want to solve the riddle of her, and manages to preserve her humanity by remaining elusive, mysterious. These sections of the novel are more conventionally “realistic” than those featuring Crake, focusing on things that could and do “really happen” and on Snowman’s and Oryx’s reactions to them – in other words, they’re much more character-based, in a way that literary fiction tends to prize. So it’s true, in a way, that Oryx and Crake transcends science fiction: SF is just one of the modes it’s deploying, but it’s not all SF.

But what’s Atwood hoping to achieve by folding these two modes, SF and litfic, together? To answer that, I want to look first at what she’s doing making Snowman our point-of-view character. He has no heroic qualities: pre-apocalypse, he is an advertising copywriter cynically twisting the English language into unrecognisable shapes; post-apocalypse, he’s quite happy to manipulate the innocent Crakers for his own comfort (forcing them, for example, to kill fish for him every day, despite their vegetarianism). By comparison with Crake, certainly, he is utterly unremarkable.

The key lies, I think, in his willingness to go along with Crake’s plans when he’s eventually hired by Crake’s corporation; his utter moral incuriosity about the fact that Crake’s literally breeding a new strain of humans. Snowman is Everyman, accepting moral compromise in return for material comfort, as most of us are forced to under capitalism. His inaction makes him complicit in Crake’sa hubris; and his Everyman status makes us, in turn, complicit. We are all Snowmen: enablers, willing or unwilling, of a globalised system that objectifies humans and animals both. Because what else is Crake doing, in engineering a perfect version of humanity, than failing to see humanity “in the round”, the good and the bad?

Snowman, too, is guilty of objectification, in the way he treats Oryx, not as a person but as an ideal. This, then, is the link between the two modes, SF and realism. And through this link Atwood suggests that small, individual failures of humanity, empathy, curiosity can, writ large, spell disaster; is, in fact, the same as disaster.

It has to be said that this is not a terribly interesting conclusion: substituting the speculative for the real is just what SF writers do, and have been doing for a long time. Really I think that sums up my experience of Oryx and Crake: it was a fine book, I didn’t dislike it, but nor can I see myself reading it again.

Review: Shopaholic Ties the Knot

This review contains spoilers.

Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series is a real guilty pleasure for me. Much like the consumer goods its protagonist Becky Bloomwood is always buying, they offer wish-fulfilling instant gratification that also feels a bit gross, long-term. In this, the third novel in the series, Becky gets engaged to her hunky rich boyfriend Luke and starts planning a wedding. But she soon finds she has to choose between a lavish New York wedding organised by Luke’s snooty and emotionally uninvolved mother Eleanor, or a homespun one at her parents’ house in English suburbia.

The solution combines the logic of capitalism with the logic of romantic comedy: she has not one but two weddings, and helps Eleanor and Luke rebuild their strained relationship along the way, thereby neatly pacifying both families and reconciling two apparently competing value systems: the one that says “family comes first” and the one that says “all your dreams can come true!” Although this reconciliation is really just a triumph for capitalism, which, as we know, is flexible enough to consume everything, even ideas.

Of course it’s ridiculous to talk about a Kinsella novel in this way, because ultimately they are the fast fashion of literature, meant for reading and discarding, no brain engagement needed, and they are very successful at that! But I wouldn’t want them to be the only things I read.