The Fiction Faction - Archive - September 2006-January 2007
Elizabeth Baines
 

July 2006
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Hot, hot, hot, just the weather for doing nothing but read in the shade; global-warming weird and going on and on, just the weather for strolling out to Jenny’s (still sweltering at eight in the evening!) to discuss a strange book about a parallel present, or rather near past, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

What on earth was this book about? This is what we discussed as the air con blew our hair around. Some reviewers seem to have said that the book builds masterfully to a horrific revelation, but the horrific ‘secret’ is clear from the first page. Kathy H, our thirty-one-year-old narrator, tells us right away that she has been a ‘carer’ for over eleven years and that she is about to cease being one, that my donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated’, even before the fourth donation.

It’s quite clear from this - the ‘recovery times’ - that what are being donated are organs or body parts, (that nasty detail of the ‘fourth donation’, which must surely mean death), and even if we have only ‘semi-guessed’ Kathy’s fate, as it is suggested by one reviewer we do, it is soon made perfectly clear that when Kathy ceases to be a carer she will become a donor too, and that she and her fellows in their boarding school Hailsham were bred specially for this purpose, the cloned products of genetic engineering. The fact of cloning then is not the heart of any revelation, and Ishiguro lacks the science-fiction writer’s interest in the logical details of the alternative scenario he creates, leaving unaddressed the issues of how precisely these donors manage to survive to a ‘fourth donation’, or who in this parallel nineties Britain benefits. We are treated instead to the minutiae of boarding-school life and teenagers’ mentality, and the love triangle between Kathy and her manipulative and controlling friend Ruth and volatile Tommy. Ishiguro’s interest is elsewhere: in the human spirit, and how people behave in hopeless situations.

The clones’ education is a kind of brainwashing, preparing them for their fate, and they are trained to brainwash each other (taking this ultimately into the role of carer). So brainwashed do they become that even once they are allowed out into the world they still accept their fate, looking in on conventional society like aliens from afar.

Trevor said with some glee that he felt that Ishiguro was - as usual, he thought - having a swipe at the public school system, which he said brainwashes people to conform in just the same way. Jenny expostulated that public schools teach people to lead, not submit! But Trevor said it didn’t spoil his argument, they still submitted to a social system. Anyway, he said, changing his argument slightly, what about all those kids down the comprehensive who have no higher aspiration than stacking shelves - or come to think of it, now that 50% of the population is meant to go to university, those graduates who have no higher ambition than that, either?

I said that my problem with the book was that although I can agree with this as a political theory - the idea that as a rule people submit to their fate, often indeed willingly or proudly (in keeping, as someone said, with both traditional Japanese and Protestant ethics) - I can't accept that no individual ever tries to rebel, and couldn’t take it that none of the donors tried to escape, and Hans strongly agreed. I said in fact it would have made a better book if they had. John at this point said that his problem with the book had been its flatness, its sense of a closed fate encapsulated in the flat mundane prose of Kathy’s voice. Trevor cried that he couldn’t disagree more, these were the things he thought were entirely great about the book. Anyway, he said, they do rebel in a way: they have the dream of ‘deferral’ (of graduation to donorship). Jenny said, Quite, it’s only deferral, that’s all they can imagine. Yes, said Hans, but you’d think that once they were together in the outside world they could have taken that idea further - and why were they so very immune to the influences of contemporary society and so outside of it when in fact they were free not to be? Hans didn’t find it credible that the brainwashing could be that effective, when it was after all a very mundane, recognisable and social sort of brainwashing, unlike the kind of brainwashing we encounter in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. Anne said, Yes, and in Nineteen Eighty Four Winston does actually rebel. They were clones! said Trevor. But, we said, it’s never made clear that they were fundamentally lacking in human emotions as a result, and it’s clear, Anne said, that Tommy has some of the emotional volatility of the person from whom he was cloned.

In other words, although we could see that the book wasn’t meant as conventional science fiction, none of us but Trevor could help reading it in that way and being dissatified with the logical holes. And taking it on the other level, as simply a disquisition on the passivity and hopelessness of the human spirit, we found it profoundly bleak.

John said, to be frank he found it pretty boring actually - that flat prose and all the petty details of teenage relationships. Trevor objected again that this was the brilliance of the book, portraying the way that horror lurks under mundane surfaces. And Hans pointed out the clever technique which Ishiguro uses to keep you hooked through all the banalities: Kathy's tick of constantly referring to incidents which she says she'll tell you all about in a while.

And then it was eleven-fifteen and we went home, and outside it was as hot as it had been when we came, and the possibility was lingering in the night air: that the effects of human tinkering with nature were too real in any case for science fiction.


September 2006
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Everyone present loved this 1961 book, recently reprinted by Methuen, the tale of the Wheelers, a young American couple trying unsuccessfully to lead intellectually-fulfilled lives and ‘find themselves’ in a barren, suburban post-war America. Everyone’s breath was taken away by the acute observation, the concise, satirical prose, and the sheer humanity… Everyone marvelled that they had never heard of Richard Yates before, and that nor indeed, apparently, had Clare’s friend, a university teacher of literature.

The book was not published in Britain until 1986, and people suggested that one reason was Yates’s very prescience: the suburbia he describes, with cocktails before dinner each evening in the little box houses of a modern housing estate, and neighbours coming round for drinks, did not come into being in England until the late sixties at the earliest, and so the world he describes would have been alien to Britons at the time of the book’s first publication. It is surprising, though, that even on its 1986 British publication it made no lasting stir.

John, introducing the book, pointed out how carefully constructed and unified the book is, and that although it has a veneer of realism it operates on a sophisticated symbolic level: the path which Frank Wheeler is having such trouble building across his lawn at the start of the novel, which ends up going nowhere, symbolising the characters’ existential floundering, the community play with which the novel begins symbolising the fact that each character is constantly ‘acting’ a role, unsure of who they really are.

There were two points of disagreement. Although everyone agreed that the novel was satirical most disagreed with my claim that it was actually funny. I read out a section to prove my point, a description of Shep, the Wheelers’ neighbour, escaping into machismo from the prissiness with which his mother has tried to smother him, a section which, to me, ends in a wry comic image: his eighteenth birthday sent him whooping and hollering into the paratroops. Everyone’s face remained straight and they all protested that that was sad, not funny! The situation is sad, I said, but what about the language (the comic image, the hyperbole in whooping and hollering), but people protested that the language wasn’t funny, just clever. Doug alone did agree with me that the descriptions of Frank’s workplace were comic, and especially the depiction of General Sales Manager, Bart Pollock, lunching with Frank:
He went on talking as he ate but he was quieter now and more dignified, using words like "obviously" and "furthermore" instead of "fart" and "bellybutton". His eyes no longer protruded; he had left off being the backwoods tycoon and was resuming his more customary role as balanced, moderate executive.
This to me comes from a wry, satirical authorial eye. Since everyone had already agreed that the book was satirical, though, I guess we were talking at cross-purposes: the humour I see in the book is wry rather than laugh-out-loud and always underpinned with the sadness of the situation. (Everyone did laugh, however, when I mentioned the spoonerism of Bart Pollock’s name, and indeed all of the names are similarly wryly symbolic.)

Our second point of disagreement was over the depiction of the women in the book. Everyone agreed that Yates is far more understanding of women than his contemporary John Updike, and indeed way ahead of his time in this, but most people felt that the book was nevertheless more weighted towards the men. Doug and I strongly disagreed. If more words are devoted to the men, then far more of the satire is devoted to the men. The sections devoted to the points of view of the women characters are extremely moving, and in terms of the structure of the book very important: they come later, undercutting the earlier reality of the men. It is April Wheeler’s tragedy, seen from her point of view, which forms the crux and denouement, and thus, it could be argued, the last word.

Very rarely do we discuss at such length a book about which basically we all agree. There was so much to comment on, the book was so rich. And it sent us off onto an animated discussion of the issues, and on into politics, until finally someone looked at their watch and found it was twelve-forty-five – the latest we have ever stayed for a book group meeting.

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October 2006
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Where is everybody? Only five of our huge group made it to Mark’s new house through a damp October evening so oddly warm that Mark’s little boy was waiting at the door in his bare feet and pyjamas, and it mattered not a jot that Mark had not yet had the boiler installed.

Introducing this book which caused a sensation on its 1965 publication, Mark outlined the circumstances of its writing. A ‘non-fiction novel’, as Capote called it, it is about the real-life mass murder of a comfortable ‘middle-class’ Kansas farming family, the Clutters, the police hunt for their two ex-convict killers, the effects of the case on the community, and the subsequent court trial and process of law. Mark described how Capote, an established minor novelist, was sent as a journalist to cover the case and ended up spending six years researching it, interviewing hundreds of witnesses, aided by his childhood friend Harper Lee, amassing hundreds of notebooks and forming relationships with many of the people involved, not least one of the young male murderers, Perry Smith.

The novel famously marries an objective journalistic style with some novelistic conventions, and Mark thought this brilliantly done. He particularly admired the objective and non-judgemental stance of the book, and the fact that nevertheless it was a compulsive read, a book you couldn’t put down.

Trevor agreed wholeheartedly, but to their surprise Doug and John and I said that we had struggled a bit with the book, and did not find satisfying the attempt to marry the two styles or forms. The police investigation is dealt with in a journalistic way, and the book opens with a journalistic account of the history, geography and economics of Holcomb where the killing takes place. However there follows the classic novelistic technique of alternating between two sets of people we know are destined to come together: the Clutter family going through their last day on earth, and the killers preparing their raid on the house and making towards them in their Chevrolet. Yet a journalistic distance nevertheless informs the portrayal of the killers and their preparations, and we are provided with only a partial insight into their psychology (more will become clear later in reported interviews), so that to us this novelistic treatment - the dramatised imagining of their conversations and journey - seemed both tricksy and incomplete.

Mark felt that the non-moralising tone prevented the portrayal of the events from being prurient, but the rest of us felt that the preparations for the murder especially did evoke prurience in the reader. Clare - arrived late from a meeting - commented that what was interesting about the book was that it buffeted your reactions - from prurience and out again - in a baffling way which usefully conveyed the sheer incomprehensibility of the killings, and their essential randomness. (The Clutters were targeted, but unknown to the killers, who were simply out to rob a rich household.)

Although the champions of the book within the group, Trevor and Mark noted that the psychology of Perry (the murderer with whom Capote developed the closer relationship during his research) is ultimately given more thorough and sympathetic treatment than that of the other murderer, Dick, and they saw this as an oversight on Capote’s part.

Everyone found somewhat tedious the legal and psychological reports at the end of the book, and the case histories of the killers’ cellmates on Death Row extraneous. John commented that these were novelistic objections, whereas this belonged to the ‘sociological tract’ aspects of the book. He thought that maybe this is how the book is read nowadays: as a sociological tract and a record of the times, rather than as an example of the ‘new literary form’ which Capote felt he had invented.

All of us also felt that there was something else missing from the book: the significant effect, recorded elsewhere, of a novelist/journalist spending years in a small community raking over such an event, keeping it alive, developing relationships with the protagonists, including the killers, and giving them all their fifteen minutes' (or rather, lasting) fame.

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November 2006
Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr

We take it in turns to choose books for discussion, and when it’s a person's turn they offer two and the rest of the group vote for the one we’ll discuss. Trevor decided on two books the publishers of which had, in the sixties, been prosecuted for ‘obscenity’: DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. We voted for the latter.

Trevor, renowned in our group for liking books others find too harsh or distasteful, said that this book, which was new to him, had really shocked him. This made us laugh but we all understood why. A depiction of the lives of fifties New York drag queens, bisexuals, prostitutes and drug addicts, it confronts unflinchingly the relentless violence and hopelessness of those lives in a way which I feel is stunning and unique.

John said he thought it was a joke that the book had been prosecuted for being likely to deprave: there was nothing erotic whatever about the explicit sexual scenes, undercut as they were with violence, sadness and a dreadful loneliness, and the rest of us agreed, apart from Jenny who said that as a teenager she had found it titillating. John said that indeed the book was utterly moral, more moral than most, in the clear-eyed and empathic way it portrays the unhappiness of the characters and their terrible spirals of degradation, and Trevor and I agreed, saying we thought it was a truly great book.

At this point there was some demurring. Anne and Clare said that they hadn’t enjoyed the book at all, finding the relentless violence quite off-putting. Clare said she dealt with people like this in her work, which was quite enough thank you, she went to books for light relief from all that, and, frankly, for more enjoyment. How on earth could you enjoy a book like this? I said, But the book is so brilliantly written: it is this, precisely, which I enjoyed - no, actually, found thrilling - the prose. With an amazing facility, Selby captures the differing linguistic registers of all of the characters and operates a unique narrative technique of switching between indirect speech and direct all within one sentence, the effect of which is to create a fluid movement between more objective observation of the characters and dynamic dramatic effects which draw you into their experience:
The cop stepped up to the soldier and told him if he didn’t shut up right now he’d lock him up, and your friend along with you.
(In an introduction to our Bloomsbury edition, Selby writes of the care and time he took to develop his narrative techniques, which, designed to make the language of his characters live, are often mistaken for simplistic and untutored replication.)

Clare said, But she didn’t read books in the writerly way I did and that she hadn’t been able to get through the violence to appreciate the prose, and Anne nodded. I felt pretty frustrated by this but I was even more frustrated when Doug, whom I can usually rely on to agree with me in general, supported them. He said he had been able to appreciate the quality and cleverness of the prose, but he too could not cope with the lack of redemption in the book, every character ending up degraded or even dead, with no hope ever of happiness for any of them. Jenny said, but this is the truth about many lives, that there’s no redemption (and indeed, in his introduction, Selby makes clear the efforts he went to to be true to this fact and not to impose any writerly desires or choices on the story). Clare reiterated: she knew it was a truth in life, but she didn’t need to get it from books, and she wanted books to give her something else in compensation. I said, But isn’t the compensation, and the redemption, in the author’s stance of compassion: the way he makes us see that the characters are indeed longing for exactly that, compassion and love? There was more arguing: Doug felt that we didn’t understand enough about what had made the characters what they were for this to be so, which left me too gob-smacked to argue. In view of this, I was even more frustrated by the fact that every other person in the room said they had found the longest section of the book, dealing with a strike, boring and skippable, and that frankly they didn’t see why it was in the book at all - since this was the piece which I felt really did give you social underpinning, and the section which I thus found perhaps the most compelling (the others cried out in amazement). And anyway, Doug said, these characters are just so unremittingly immoral and cruel, and Jenny said, yes, what about that group of housewives watching a baby on a high window ledge and hoping it would fall? (Jenny and I did have to admit that this was the one moment we didn't find psychologically convincing.) Doug said, We are just presented with the callousness, we’re not given any sense of its psychological effect on others. I said, But what about the fact that we see inside the mind of the old woman those housewives laugh at, and into the minds of women downtrodden by the men (which in fact makes the book feminist way before its time), and the others did then say, Oh yes.

Clare then said that actually she could see now that the book was something different from what she’d thought: it was observation with compassion. I cried Yes! But Jenny (who also really liked the book) said: Well, I don’t think much of that, observation with compassion, that’s just patronising, isn’t it just observation full stop, and what’s wrong with that? And we ended up having a long discussion about what you mean by compassion.

But then Doug said: as for the language, it had become too commonplace in American gangster films to appreciate its freshness, and he’d therefore even been a bit irritated by it at times, and even Trevor agreed with him, at which point I gave up and poured myself a big glass of wine.

At which point also though Clare said suddenly that she was really glad she had read this book, and that what our discussion this evening had made her realise was that there are other things to read novels for besides enjoyment.

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December 2006
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

Doug had a beautiful huge Christmas tree, tastefully decorated wth red baubles and tiny white lights, which made everyone exclaim as they entered, and people brought Christmas food, mince pies and chocolates, and Jenny had a bag of samosas left over from her other reading group at Didsbury library which had had a Christmas gathering earlier in the day. And no one was much inclined to get down to business and discuss the book.

In the middle of all the hilarity I asked everyone if they minded my writing about our meetings on my blog, and everyone said it was fine. But then Doug said suddenly that that reminded him: he had a good mind to start a rival web report because my last one (on Hugh Selby Jr's Last Exit to Brooklyn) was totally biased (towards my own view of the book) and ended on a yah-boo-sucks note. (Trevor added that he's always shocked by how different my memories of the discussion are from his.) Quite right! I retorted, refusing to be chastened.

Anyway, this is my memory of our discussion this time:

Anne had chosen this 1938 novel in which, in a classic case of mistaken identity, a naive aristocratic nature-features writer, Boot, gets sent as a war reporter to the fictional African Republic of Ishmaelia, and in which journalistic contempt for the truth is famously satirised. Having read other Waugh novels and enjoyed them, she said she had chosen it as a civilised and urbane antidote to the linguistic grimness of Selby Jr. However, having expected to enjoy it without reservation, she now wasn't so sure, finding it on the whole to be in fact more of a farce than a satire. Everyone readily and strongly agreed, although most had enjoyed it - though Sarah said she had given up after the first seventy pages, for the very reason that she hates farce.

John pointed out that, while the overriding trope of mistaken identity and that of the innocent abroad were in the realm of farce, there was true satire in the treatment of the activities of the journalists and their newspapers, and most people agreed that the telegrams passing between them were very funny. Most were agreed too that the book was in any case very clever, but John and Anne weren't so sure since it wavered between satire and farce. Trevor said that, having previously avoided Waugh because of his right-wing reputation, he had been amazed to find how even-handedly Waugh had poked fun, representing the aristocratic Boot family as dodderers mainly confined to their beds. At which point Jenny expressed her oft-stated opinion that aristocrats are anything but duffers, it just suits them to have people think they are, and Waugh (who was not in fact aristocratic) had fallen for that.

John also noted that Boot is something of a psychological blank, and he said that while this is part of the satirical or farcical point, he found that it created a sense of something incomplete. We discussed this - the fact that in a satire you don't really need psychological complexity but that somehow here it seemed like a flaw - without coming to much conclusion as to why this should be. I said it was particularly noticeable in the 'love' interest (Boot falls innocently in love with a young German woman who is quite cheerfully taking him for a ride), and Trevor, who'd had quite a bit to drink by then, explained to me their relationship. I said I understood what their relationship was, I was talking about the treatment of it, and he explained it to me again.

Anne wondered how much more impact the book might have had in its day, as we are now so much more used to the idea of not trusting the press, but Doug said, haven't there always been satirical cartoons?

And that was about it. A very short discussion (as far as I remember it), and by the time Mark arrived, late from putting his kids to bed, we'd long gone onto other topics which we stayed late discussing, even though Doug had to go to London next day...

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January 2007
The Sea by John Banville

Several members couldn't make it to this meeting, so it was a small group which gathered at Jenny's.

This novel takes the form of a diary-cum-memoir written by an art historian who has retired, after the death of his wife, to the seaside town where he once holidayed as a child, one year becoming fascinated and entangled with another holidaying family: Connie and Carlo Grace and their twins Chloe and mute Myles, and an older girl Rose. It is in the house once occupied by the Graces, now a boarding house, that he has decided to settle.

Doug had chosen the book because, he said, he thought it might provoke some interesting controversy. For his own part, he had mixed feelings about the book. There was much he admired about it, in particular the prose with its poetic flow and vivid descriptions, although he felt there were moments when the prose went over the top and wasn't so good after all, and the book was in fact flawed.

Jenny then said with great contempt that she thought it a 'typical Booker type novel'. What did she mean by that? Well, she said she had found the prose really pretentious and there were at least fifteen words she had never come across before in her life, the meaning of which she couldn't tell from the context. I said yes, I had had to look in the dictionary several times, often to discover that the unfamilar words referred to obscure trades or professions, eg 'deckle' (papermaking) and 'anabasis' (military). Usually these words were being used metaphorically to describe something else. I said, to strong agreement from John, that the point of a metaphor is to make things more vivid, but here the opposite effect was created. Not only that, there were several occasions when I came across words I thought I had known the meaning of, only to be thrown into doubt by the context, then to discover in the dictionary that they had been used in the book in an archaic sense. More generally we found the language over-formal or inflated (eg fingernails described as 'sanguineous red' rather than 'blood-red', 'refection' for 'meal', and the somewhat laughable 'At times the image of her would spring up in me unbidden, an interior succubus, and a surge of yearning would engorge the very root of my being'). While we accepted in theory that these linguistic characteristics are those of a narrator who has consciously and defensively created for himself a formal persona, we nevertheless found them alienating, and people said that as a result they found it very difficult to care about the characters. Ann, who had been nodding away but had been quiet up till now, said that she had given up on the book without finishing it.

Doug now grinned and said he knew that I in particular would have this reaction to the language, and this was why he'd chosen the book. As he'd said, he agreed, but there were also wonderfully vivid passages, and the book was brilliantly crafted and the story was stunning.

The rest of us agreed that the observations were often vivid and acute - Clare had been pulled up in amazement by the accuracy of a description of 'the way women used to smoke', and I by one of a woman leaning on a till, among others. Jenny said that the portrayal of the narrator's childhood yearning to better himself (and be like the Graces) reminded her of her own similar childhood feelings. We all thought the memories of the illness and death of the narrator's wife moving and the aspect of the book which rang most true. However, we didn't at all agree with Doug about the way the book was shaped.

Ann said that she found really irritating and confusing, and lacking in true connections, the shifts between the various time levels. There were situations and characters - the narrator's relationship with his daughter, a visit with her to a local farm, the shocking photographs taken by the dying wife - which were made to seem significant but their precise nature or significance either never became clear to us or indeed fizzled away. As for the story, John said, there is none for most of the book, but then the story is packed in towards the end in a way which he found contrived. Most of us were dissatisfied by the revelation of the identity of the narrator's present-day landlady. Looking back through this at the earlier representation of their relationship, we found that earlier representation both tricksy and psychologically unconvincing. None of us (apart from Doug) was convinced, in the final analysis, by the final denouement, the tragedy at the novel's heart, although it is most emotively described, and, as Jenny and Ann said, although we were clearly meant to accept that this was the narrator's formative experience, there was no real sense of how it had made him what he was or informed his other relationships.

And Jenny said that she found the narrator's sexual attraction as a boy to the mother of the Grace family 'disgusting', which made us all hoot with laughter.

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