The Fiction Faction - Archive - January-June 2005
Elizabeth Baines
 

January 2005
Double Vision by Pat Barker

Jeanne had suggested this book by an author whom, interestingly, she had known before she became famous, and which she had already enjoyed.
She began her introduction by saying that although she had been unable to work out why the book had been given its title - Double Vision - she admired its concern with the way that political violence overshadows personal lives, and found engrossing its cast of damaged characters: sculptor Kate grieving the death in Afghanistan of her war-photographer husband Ben and also herself suffering a major accident at the start of the novel, war-traumatised reporter Stephen Starkey who has come to her North-east village to work on a book using Ben’s photographs, Stephen’s brother and sister-in-law and their crumbling marriage and autistic son, vicar’s daughter Justine whose mother abandoned her at an early age – many of them touched by the sinister figure of Peter, a local handyman with a mysterious past.
Jeanne found the air of menace in the book brilliantly managed and thought the book exceptionally well written, quoting in illustration from the passage preceding Kate’s accident at the beginning, with its presaging hints of physicality: ‘pale trunks of beech trees, muscled like athletes stripped off for a race.’ She thought that the prose, while atmospheric, also had a beautiful ease which made the whole book very easy to read.
She said that she’d had a moment of worrying that the book was going to turn out as some kind of aga-saga romance, but had been relieved that Barker had done something much more interesting. She felt that ultimately the book was about redemption, each character being redeemed in their own particular way.

Sarah, absent, had rung to say that she too had enjoyed the book, and Trevor and Doug now said that so had they, and that they had found it a very easy read, but Trevor said that he thought it lightweight – Mark, arriving later, would say the same - and although Doug too had been engrossed by the characters, he’d been left confused as to what or who it was all meant to be about.
I agreed: beforehand I had commented to Madeleine (returned to the group after a long absence) that Double Vision was an apt title as the book seemed to have no focus. While the blurb on the paperback edition implies that the novel is purely about Stephen, the novel begins very much with Kate, shifts to focus on Stephen and then on again to focus on Justine.
Jeanne countered this objection by referring to a final passage in the novel in which Stephen is spinning stones on water, creating ‘concentric rings that would meet and overlap … always spreading out’, and said that this exactly describes the structure and theme of the book.
Madeleine said while she too had found that the book carries you along, her problem with it was that, unlike Jeanne, she found the prose marred by a certain imprecision, and quoted in illustration from a passage in which the disturbed Kate wakes according to habit too early, in the dark: ‘If she went on like this night and day would be reversed.’
Don said there was nothing wrong with this sentence, but I said that I had found the novel peppered with such de-focussing and sometimes clichéd overstatements (‘apple crumble indistinguishable from cement’).
While I conceded that there were passages of powerful atmospheric description I had in fact found much of the prose unsuitably coy. There is, for instance, an episode in which Kate notes the violence of the Green-Man gargoyles on the church. They are clearly meant in the book to be a symbol of the ominous violence overshadowing the characters, but the author dissipates all sense of the sinister with the somewhat effete language of her statement: ‘[Kate] had been paying [the gargoyles] regular visits since.’ As a consequence of this coyness, unlike Jeanne, Don and Doug, I had found the characters unconvincing and the themes uninvolving.
I had found there to be lazinesses and inaccuracies which betrayed the novel as incompletely imagined and the author as not in complete control of her material. I pointed for instance to the fact that, while Barker makes elaborate, indeed insistent play on the ideas of dark and light and dawn and dusk – presumably linked to the concept of double vision – there are glaring continuity errors in the first, prolonged description of dusk: dusk fails to fall at a time of day in January when in fact it would have done so; then, after we have been told that the day is finally ‘fading fast’, have subsequently witnessed a family meal and been treated to an image of ‘a shoal of stars’, we are told that Stephen can see a detailed view of the garden through the window with a red sky in the distance, before the window slowly fades to dark.
Everyone said that they had noticed this too, including Don, but Don said this sort of thing didn’t matter. I said that it mattered to me, since it made me question the writer’s authority over her material, especially when the material involved the novel’s central metaphor, but Don insisted hotly that it didn’t matter to him.
I also quoted (to John’s groaning protest) a list of instances of formulaic or clichéd sentences which for me had made encounters between the characters less than vivid or convincing: ‘She greeted Fred and his son with pleasure’; ‘He was beginning to like her a lot.’ ‘The adults stood around chatting.’
In particular, I said, I found the dialogue poor – unheightened yet unrealistic with the characters undifferentiated, and often used to provide information to the reader in an unrealistic and stilted manner: ‘The Starkeys. You know them. The little boy.’ ‘Oh yes. Adam, isn’t it?’
However, I destroyed my own argument by quoting the above in the affected voice which it had suggested to me, and Don and Jeanne cried that anyone could put on a voice to misrepresent anything, and Don said pretty angrily that I was imposing my own prejudices on the book. Madeleine said, but isn’t that what anyone does on reading a book? Don began to respond to this, but I objected hotly that he was interrupting me and he agreed even more angrily that indeed he was, rightly, because I was imposing myself on the novel.
John then asked Anne, who had so far said nothing, her opinion of the novel, and she said that she too had found it sloppy, and Trevor added that he was unsatisfied by the sense of things unresolved, in particular the character of Peter and the way we never find out the real truth about him. There was then some general discussion about this character, and Anne pointed out that he operates as a catalyst for the other characters and is the novel’s bogeyman.
Don then brought the discussion back to the matter of the prose and after quoting, as an illustration of Barker’s narrative economy, the passage describing Kate’s accident - ‘The road dipped and rose, and then, no more than 400 yards from her home, where a stream overflowing in the recent heavy rain had run across the road forming a slick of black ice, the car left the road’ - said that in order to judge a book we ought to be doing just that, looking at the text.
John took great exception to what he saw as Don’s implication that our method of studying a book was inferior, and there was a heated altercation as Don defended himself from this accusation. I wanted to say that we had been looking at the text anyway, but things were already too heated to interject.

Then things calmed down and attention returned to the character of Peter. What some saw as a weakness in the representation of this character, Don and Jeanne saw as a strength: Don said that Barker handles brilliantly the sinister tension surrounding Peter, and that our inability to see him or indeed any of the characters in any clear moral light was a function of the personal moral ambiguity inevitable in a world of political violence, potently conveyed in the moral issue of Ben’s war photography and encapsulated in the title Double Vision.
However Madeleine then said that rather than asking the question, What can we know about the characters? we should perhaps be asking the question, How much does the author know about the characters? and that Barker didn’t give us quite enough about the characters to allow us to feel that she has a grip on them herself.
None of us beside Don and Jean felt that the Sarajevo and Hague trial sequences were convincing, but found them grafted on, and Madeleine said to general agreement that she thus didn’t find that the novel successfully conveyed any convincing or resonant links between the rural middle-class world of the characters and the background world violence.
Mark, who had very much enjoyed other novels by Pat Barker, said it read to him like an airport novel, and that it gave the impression of having been written in a rush. Trevor said that to him it read as though Barker had been unable to give it her full attention, as if, for instance, she’d been suffering a family crisis while writing it, and I said it read to me like a first draft.

Jeanne concluded by saying that she found it strangely heartening, but also as a writer quite frightening, that people could have such extremely differing reactions to the same book.

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February 2005
How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston

This time our group came up against an effect of the depressing phenomenon in British publishing and book marketing about which Mark is always railing: the concentration on the New.

Jennifer Johnston is an Irish and Booker-prize-winning author who has been publishing short and in my opinion stunning novels since the early seventies. John, a great admirer also, chose for this meeting her 1974 novel How Many Miles to Babylon? which is narrated by Alex, the son of landed Irish gentry, and concerns his forbidden friendship with local lad Jerry, from boyhood through to the first-world-war trenches in France.
Scandalously, although this book is in print, the group had great difficulty obtaining copies. Madeleine said that she had rung every bookshop in central and south Manchester and not one had had it in stock. All but one said that (perhaps because of Penguin’s recent warehousing problems) it would take two to three weeks to obtain. Only the tiny but famously efficient independent Chorlton Bookshop said that they could get it quickly, and did so. Mark and Sarah both failed altogether to get hold of copies, as a consequence of which Sarah, busy anyway with her job and baby, didn’t attend the meeting, and Mark had to sit through it without having read the book.
Of the rest of us present, all but Anne – John, Madeleine, Doug and me – admired this book immensely and were greatly moved by it. We thought it exceptionally well written and vivid. Madeleine commented that one function of the vividness was the author’s use of colour – the rich golds of the drawing room in Alex’s family home, the silvers of the Irish landscape, the pink of the dawn sky the morning that Alex is due to leave for the war, the encroaching greyness and brownness as the trench scenes take over – all achingly mirroring the state of mind of narrator Alex, caught between longing and the emotional repression resulting from his lonely and emotionally cold upbringing.
All of us found Alex’s relationship with his cold mother heart-wrenching, and we noted the subtle ways in which Johnston achieves this effect, such as this understated but vivid depiction of the mother’s passive manipulation: She walked slowly, leaning on me slightly, to keep my pace the same as hers.
Introducing the novel, John asked us what we thought it was about. This novel is very non-explicit and works very much on an emotive rather than intellectual level, prompting an emotional rather than analytical response from the reader. Therefore few of us had yet analysed the novel in this way - I for one felt unusually reluctant to do so - and, faced with John's question, we weren't quite sure of the answer. John now suggested that the novel was about the class system and its deleterious effects, both in Ireland and in the British army. Madeleine suggested cruelty as its theme – the cruelty of Alex’s mother and her social class, the cruelty of war.
Anne, who had said at the start that she had mixed feelings about the book, now gave her reason: unlike the rest of us she had found the section set in the trenches unconvincing. In particular, the whole thing had fallen apart for her at the point when Alex’s commanding officer tells him to ‘mix’, which she felt was unrealistic and anachronistic, too modern in concept and diction. She said now that she felt the war episode wasn’t even necessary, that the themes of cruelty and schism as played out in the relationship between Alex and Jerry might have been better served if, instead of enlisting in the British Army, they had remained in Ireland and Jerry in the Republican volunteer force.
This seemed plausible, and we all nodded, but I felt somehow that we hadn’t yet got to grips with the novel’s true meaning and intent.
Madeleine then asked us what we thought of a woman writing a book concerned with two men, in which the only woman was a cold one, and wondered, having not read any other books by Johnston, if Johnston perhaps had some difficulty writing from a woman’s point of view?
This reminded me of a connected point made by Zadie Smith (author of White Teeth) on a recent Radio Book Club programme: she said that she found it much easier to write from a man’s point of view, as women so often suffer from the burden of false consciousness which is very tricky to replicate in writing – a statement I found riveting, since this last, an anatomisation of female false consciousness, is one of the things I’m attempting in the novel I’m currently writing.
Mark asked in amazement and some derision how on earth it could be easier for a woman to write from a man’s point of view, and questioned whether a woman could write convincingly from a man’s point of view at all.
I said, Well, how do the men here who’ve read this book think Jennifer Johnston has done? and both John and Doug, the most unreservedly admiring of the book, said that they had been utterly convinced.

It was only after I got home that it occurred to me (perhaps because it’s a theme in my own current novel) that what this book is about is the eternal Irish theme of belonging or not-belonging, and that in this case the war episodes are absolutely necessary. Jerry and his people can’t truly belong in their own country, seized long ago by the settlers, Alex’s family among them; there's no belonging for Alex in his emotionally cold family; social and religious divisions in Ireland mean that Alex and Jerry can’t belong together as friends. Enlisting seems a way of belonging at last, to each other, to a joint cause. But their escape to the fabled Babylon of the title, so easily by candlelight, is doomed. It only brings them back again to the same divisions pursued more viciously and with tragic consequences in a mud-slicked field of division and death.

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March 2005
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor

This unusual, prize-winning and much-praised novel focuses on the normal life over one summer’s day of a residential street in a northern town, making clear from the start, however, that by the end of the day a momentous event will have shattered it, affecting for ever at least some of the residents.

Mark had chosen the novel because, he said, he had found it utterly engrossing - he had been unable to put it down - and had been immensely impressed by it. He admitted that he had found the numerous characters living in the street confusing and had had constantly to look back to check which character lived at which address, but said that he’d actually enjoyed being thus made to keep on his toes.
He was especially taken by the book’s unusual structure: omniscient present-tense chapters providing both an overview of the life of the street and delving intimately into the lives of some of the inhabitants, alternated with the first-person retrospective narration of one of them, a nameless young woman who is still emotionally affected by the catastrophe and living through its repercussions. This structure does indeed convey stunningly the way that the past lives in the present, as well as the book’s concern with the way that people fail to connect yet profoundly touch each other’s lives.
Mark thought the book brilliantly written, in moving and exceptionally insightful prose, and he had found the revelation of the catastrophe stunning.
Sarah agreed with Mark wholeheartedly. She had particularly loved the opening section, a sustained riff on the life of the city at night (the night which precedes the day in question). She had loved its evocation of the sounds of the night city, and in particular of the miracle of silence ... a hesitation as one day is left behind and a new one begins.

Doug too had loved this opening, but said to Mark’s great surprise that after this he got bogged down with all the characters and began to find the prose overblown and became really irritated with the book, and in the end hated it.
John went further: he said he had hated in particular the beginning so admired by Mark and Sarah, and hadn’t been able to bring himself to read much of the rest of the novel. He found it affected and highly derivative of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood (a play which also takes an omniscient view of a small society of disparate individuals), aping Thomas’s opening section down the actual wording: (Thomas: Listen. It is night moving in the streets … Listen. It is night in the chill… McGregor: So listen./ Listen, and there is more to hear.
I find it hard to believe that McGregor isn’t deliberately referencing Thomas, consciously providing a counterpoint to the silence of Thomas’s night-time rural town with the noise of his contemporary night-time city. However, as a teacher of Creative Writing I have read far too many Under Milk Wood pastiches not to have, like John, found this opening passage tedious, and did find it to have a ‘Creative Writing’ quality of description for description’s sake.
Sarah made clear that she for one was quite happy with description for description’s sake, but everyone did agree that the section was somewhat distinct from the rest of the novel in style and content and focus, and did read rather like a piece written separately from out of which the novel was later developed. People also expressed mild irritation with the idiosyncratic layout of the first-person sections - overhanging rather than indented paragraphs - seeming to find it somewhat affected. This was one point on which John later defended the novel, seeing the technique, as I do, as a useful typographical signal for change of viewpoint.

My experience of the book was quite opposite to Doug’s. Having had problems with the beginning, I later became on the whole almost as moved and involved as Sarah and Mark. However, I did agree with Doug about the ending. We both felt that the coming disaster had been built up to such an extent that we were expecting something more monumental than actually occurs, so that when it happened it seemed almost lame and disappointing.
Anne said, But isn’t that the point (pace the book’s title): that events which may not be deemed remarkable in the wider political scheme of things are in fact remarkable on the human scale in their power to affect people’s lives.
Doug said, but he didn’t believe that this event would have affected the young woman narrator to the extent it is meant to, particularly when she’s at present involved in her own crisis of having become accidentally pregnant, and I felt inclined to agree.
Mark and Sarah strongly protested: Mark said he felt that anyone would have been affected as the young woman is. I realised then that yes, in theory, the event could symbolise for the young woman her own vulnerability and the emotional damage caused by her childhood, as well as the vulnerability of her unborn child, and that the event would therefore be of emotional import to her, but the novel didn’t make me feel this at any gut level.
Mark said, but didn’t we think the actual disaster was brilliantly conveyed, especially the extended description of the mechanism by which it occurs? John said that he found this last psychopathic and self-indulgent and I said it was a narrative mistake, as by this time the reader, knowing the disaster is unfolding, should be far too keen to know the outcome in human terms to be reading slowly enough to take in the detailed technical description.

I was in fact more moved by some of the more peripheral emotional situations, in particular the relationship and history of the old couple living in the street, and everyone, even Doug, agreed that this was very touchingly done.
Sarah said she was most moved by the portrayal of the young woman’s reaction to seeing the first scan of her unborn baby: having not long ago had a baby herself, she had found it very accurate, and said that she was amazed that it could have been written by a man. I agreed, and said that I had found it so insightful that I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that Jon McGregor was really a woman.
Anne commented that this was interesting in the light of our discussion last time, and Mark now furthered that discussion by asking me if I thought it was easier for a woman to write from a man’s point of view than vice versa. I said I thought (like Zadie Smith; see our last discussion) that maybe it was, since there are indeed some remarkable areas of female experience which have been very much untold or unsaid, and that I myself might have found it difficult to write about childbirth (as I have) without experiencing it - which is what makes Jon McGregor’s achievement of insight (if he really is a man) all the more remarkable.
Though then Doug put in that he had found the whole scan scene unbelievable, because he just didn’t find it convincing that the character Michael would have accompanied the young woman there.

Michael is a twin, and there are two other sets of twins in the novel. This had struck me as affected and, on the plot level somewhat laboured and unconvincing. I now wondered about its thematic significance, and even as I did so it came to me that of course twins embody the novel’s theme of connectedness/unconnectedness, and it seems a measure of my fundamental lack of engagement with the novel that it had taken me so long to realise something so obvious.
Anne said she had a fundamental problem in that, in spite of the descriptions of the houses in the street being central and endlessly unfolding, she had had difficulty picturing them. Mark suggested that there is a burden of imagination on the reader to realise an author’s descriptions, but Anne pointed out that the descriptions are actually contradictory: back yards and the fact that people sit out on steps seemingly very close to the road imply a far humbler street than the one drawn and mused about by the architecture student, with trees and houses which he judges must once have been inhabited by gentry.

Nevertheless, Mark and Sarah found the book very clever, though John said that that was the trouble, it was clever-clever. Doug agreed with John, though he said that one thing he did find impressively striking was the way that most of the characters were not given names but distinguished according to their physical characteristics, most notably their hair. I said that that was precisely one of the things which had given the book a ‘Creative Writing’ feel for me. Distinguishing characters according to their physical characteristics rather than their names is a famous Creative Writing exercise, and I didn’t think that the novel took the technique far enough away from this dimension. While the objectification inherent in the technique might seem to serve the novel’s purpose of showing how unknowable the characters are to each other, it is psychologically incompatible with the omniscient narrator’s intimate depiction of the characters’ inner lives, and is thus in danger of seeming an affectation.
Mark said, Well, it may seem ‘Creative Writing’ and therefore familiar to you, but it’s not often you see this kind of writing published, and to us it’s refreshing and exciting - which was indeed a most interesting point, yet another comment on the limitations of a marketing philosophy whereby publishers believe that readers must be provided with what they think they want and therefore already know.
Even Mark, however, said that the very final twist of the book, after the disaster, was disappointing, and most of us agreed with Anne’s final conclusion that this was very much a curate’s egg of a book.

 

April 2005
The
Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

Sarah chose this book for its light, indeed gently satirical touch with a potentially sombre subject, that of grief and recovery. Middle-aged Baltimore protagonist Macon is an obsessive writer of businessmen’s travel guides that shield the traveller from the rest of the world. He is also trying to keep his personal tragedies at bay: the violent death of his twelve-year-old son Ethan, and the consequent breakdown of his marriage. Into this grim scenario steps much younger dog-trainer Muriel on her spiky heels, to tame the dog which Ethan left behind and which Macon can’t control, and to storm the barricades of Macon’s heart.

This book generated a thoughtful and evening-long discussion over a main single point: the fact that although all of us present found the book extremely well written and the characters and their dilemmas vividly and poignantly observed, we all also felt that there was something missing, some kind of ‘meat’, as Mark put it. At one extreme Madeleine disliked the book for this reason, and at the other Doug loved the book in spite of it, but we were all agreed on this basic point, and we spent the evening trying to work out why it was the case.
Trevor said he thought the problem was that the book was sentimental, but no one else agreed with this. We felt that the book precisely avoided sentimentality by dealing satirically with the characters: emotionally-repressed Macon and his sister and brothers, all of whom over-control their domestic world as a way of coping with the enormity of past grief and abandonment; Macon’s chaotic ‘old-boy’ publisher Julian who nevertheless yearns for domestic stability in the form of Macon’s sister; cooky, brave and managing Muriel who yet has her own insecurities, played out in her over-protectiveness of her puny son; and, notably and hilariously, the dog Edward in whom the tragedy of Ethan’s death and Macon’s subsequent stress have resulted in waywardness and aggression.

It was suggested that one key to the problem was a lack of clear or convincing motivation on the part of the characters: one or two people found the relationship between publisher Julian and Macon’s spinsterish sister unlikely and unconvincing; Madeleine pointed out that it is never made precisely clear why Macon at one point leaves Muriel to go back to his wife. Someone said that this vacillation on Macon’s part can be explained, in general terms, by his passivity, but Madeleine said that in the relevant scene the precise moment in which Macon has his change of heart is not clear, nor, more importantly, is the moment or event which precipitates it. We examined the passage together and found this to be so, and agreed that as a result Macon’s change of heart seems insubstantial and arbitrary. In the same way, the ending, Macon’s final ‘choice’ between the two women, also seems arbitrary rather than inevitable. Sarah then said that a less arbitrary-seeming ending would make her satisfied with the book, but the rest of us felt that the problem was more fundamental than that.

I wondered if it was a disjunction between style and matter.
While reading the book I had found it, like everyone else, very moving, but as soon as I broke off and when I finally finished it, the effect instantly faded – I was not in fact moved in any lasting way, and I began to realise that my emotional response to the book had been that of recognition rather than revelation. Perhaps the reason for this was the style: gentle – possibly even cosy - satire in which the characters are held at a certain distance. Indeed, they are in fact types, and are ultimately seen as quaint – which last, Trevor now said, was what he’d been getting at when he had said the book was sentimental. The minute observation of behaviour and manners is entrancing but fundamentally miniaturist, and indeed at odds with the substantial length of the book, 350 pages.

John suggested that the problem might also be one of viewpoint. While the tone of the book is gently satirical, it eschews the traditional satirical mode of omniscience and adheres throughout to Macon’s point of view. Tyler’s ability to do this while to some extent implying the viewpoints of the other characters is impressive as far as it goes, but we felt the stratagem had its limitations: Madeleine pointed out that the wife from whom Macon is estranged is thus seen in very one-dimensional terms, and I had found myself frustrated by the lack of attention paid to Muriel’s crisis over Macon’s abandonment of her son, precisely because it is given the scant attention which Macon allows it for himself.
Sarah now said that it was fair enough that we should be kept at a certain distance from characters and their dilemmas if they are viewed through a sensibility as autistic and lacking in self-knowledge as Macon's, but Madeleine said that it’s a novelist’s responsibility to transcend such a partial viewpoint and allow us to see further beyond it than this novel does.

By which time we had drunk all the wine and we were keeping Sarah up when she had an early start at work next day, so we terminated the discussion and the rest of us stood up to go.
Sarah said as we left that she was really glad she’d chosen this book, since we have rarely had so sustained and thoughtful a discussion without veering from the point.

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May 2005
Atomised by Michel Houellebecq

A very small meeting but a pretty noisy one as we tried to get to grips with this book of Trevor’s choosing, which caused a storm of controversy on publication in France in 1999.

An indictment of the materialism and individualism of late-twentieth-century Western civilisation, the book charts its putative dissolution through the lives of two half-brothers abandoned by their mother in infancy for the hedonistic hippy lifestyle prompted by the sixties sexual revolution. The two boys are brought up by different grandmothers, and in literal and symbolic illustration of the ‘atomisation’ of our society and the breakdown of the family, are for several years unaware of each other’s existence, leave alone the fact that they live nearby and eventually attend the same school. In their very different ways the half-brothers suffer severe emotional damage. Bruno, the elder, is a hedonist for whom the chief goal in life is sexual fulfilment which he is however unable to attain; Michel is a scientist with little sexual desire and without the capacity for love. Michel, however, has enough of an intimation of the possibility of love to envisage an alternative to our corrupt society, a vision which fuels his genetic research and gives rise finally to a superior, cloned species replacing mankind and capable of creating a cohesive society with echoes of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
At the end of the book it is revealed that the whole has in fact been narrated by a member of this cloned species, towards the end of the twenty-first century.

There was dispute in our group, or rather uncertainty, as to whether this latter-day society was intended by the author as a utopia or a dystopia. John and Doug were pretty certain that it was intended as dystopian. John felt that the depiction of its chief architect, Hubczejak, was ironic, revealing him as egotistic (searching, as he put it ‘for … not just a way of seeing the world but a way of situating myself in it’) and shortsighted (His unrelentingly positivist reading of Djerzinski [Michel] led him constantly to underestimate the extent of metaphysical change which would necessarily accompany such a biological revolution), and the fundamental character of his activities as those of a rarified PR (Whatever his failings, he understood how to communicate to the public the idea).
I pointed to a significant discussion in the book between Bruno and Michel about Aldous Huxley. Bruno notes that while Huxley’s Brave New World is generally considered a dystopia, it’s actually the world we are striving towards, with control of reproduction and the elimination of disease, old age and unhappiness. Michel then points out that writings by Aldous’s brother Julian indicate that in fact Huxley wrote the book as a utopia, and that it was only when it was taken as a ‘totalitarian nightmare’ that he affected a different authorial intention. However, as an early founder of the New Age centre in Atomised, (a chief acolyte of which ends up as a Satanic murderer), Huxley is aligned with its moral corruption or error.

If we are to take the narrator in an ironic light, then many of the objections to the book expressed in our group begin to dissipate. Doug and I had commented that the links between moral corruption and cell mutation are not successfully made, but perhaps this is the point: the new society is founded on a logical flaw, prefigured in Michel’s moment of scientific revelation after fasting: The impression of intellectual stimulation created by fasting is real. Presuming we can trust the translation, a close look at this sentence shows that it is only the impression and not the intellectual stimulation which is real. Anne was irritated by the frequent interjections of little scientific essays, and the dubious and sweeping parallels drawn between human behaviour and scientific phenomena: but again, perhaps the intention here is satirical and a comment on the narrator and his society.
Or is this special pleading for the novel? Certainly the depiction of the lives of Bruno and Michel seems heartfelt on the part of the author of Atomised (and it is known that their childhood mirrors Houellebecq’s own), and there are certain ambiguities which make it difficult to determine the moral stance of the novel. It could be said to be sexist: all women over forty are referred to as hags - but then that’s usually from Bruno’s viewpoint - and all the women end up dead, usually dying of cancer or commiting suicide because of it, unable to bear their own physical corruptibility - but then Michel and Bruno also self-destruct, Michel commiting suicide too and Bruno checking into a psychiatric hospital to end his days. On the other hand, the only altruism Michel can find in nature is the maternal instinct, and he concludes that only women are truly capable of love - though, as Madeleine said, that could be taken as sexist in itself, an abdication of love on behalf of men.
Most importantly, we felt that the very belated revelation of the identity of the narrator made it impossible for us to judge the book on one reading, indeed that we had been played with unfairly by the author, tricked into reading it in quite the wrong light.
Even that though, we thought, may have been the point: that Houellebecq is a master of literary provocation, and in the process a profound questioner of our late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century assumptions.

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June 2005
Frankie and Stankie by Barbara Trapido

We gathered on an aptly hot and sticky evening to discuss this novel about a girl’s white-middle-class South African childhood and coming of age, set in the fifties against the tightening of apartheid and interwoven lightly but slyly with an account of South Africa’s racial history.

Anne had chosen the book out of interest, understanding it to be very different from Trapido’s other novels which she had found very readable. In the event she had found it even more readable than the others and had completed it in one sitting.
Having spent her own childhood abroad, she had found extremely accurate the meticulous depiction of the tenor of colonial life, and thought the starkly contrasted political background a considerable revelation - with which last we all agreed. Most importantly, she felt that the book demonstrates more clearly than any other on the subject how oppressive regimes can be allowed to come to power and be tolerated once they do, cleverly implicating white middle-class readers identifying with the world of protagonist Dinah.
Madeleine strongly agreed with this last. She said that the portrayal of Dinah’s mother brought her up short and made her think. German and kindly and likeable and with, it is hinted, possible Jewish ancestry, Marianne is nevertheless utterly apolitical - she knows that where politics are concerned you should keep your head down - and has as a young woman worked as a secretary to the Nazi German Consul in Cape Town, without any conscience or even thought of the implications.
Dinah gets her greater political awareness from her father, the son of a Dutch Communist, and the book deals ironically with the contrast between the protected middle-class world in which she is growing up and the political situation it’s based on and of which she is increasingly aware.

Doug, John and I, however, had problems with the way this disjunction was handled. The fact is that in terms of plot and event Dinah’s comfort within this world is never seriously threatened, and while this may be the point, Trapido’s trademark light and cultivated irony seems too comfortable to provide any really savage critique. In addition, while the historical background is conveyed in mini-essays with a particularly detached irony, Dinah’s personal history is privileged by length and a vividness which reaches the reader on an emotional level. The emotional locus of this book - and in a novel it’s the emotional level that counts - is the white middle-class colonial world, and thus the book fails to be truly radical and could even be said to collude on a structural and linguistic level with that which it purports to critique.

I said that as a novel the book had disappointed me in many ways - that indeed it reads not as a novel but as an account or memoir, lacking the selectivity or cumulative narrative arc of a novel. While enlivened by Trapido’s characteristic style, it’s essentially a routine and predictable plod through infancy, primary school, secondary school, university and emergence into adulthood.
Doug and John agreed, but Madeleine said that she hadn’t been troubled by this as she had in fact read it as a memoir - that of Barbara Trapido - and had thus been able to inject her own shape into the narrative as she read.
I said that we have no right to assume the book is a factual memoir since it’s packaged and sold as a novel and uses obvious fictionalising techniques. One of these is the use throughout of the historic present tense - Lisa and Dinah go to High School in the same year - which in a novel usually has the effect of creating immediacy and allowing the reader to identify. However, both Doug and I found that here it created a kind of glazed distance, skirting as it does the issues raised by the other, memoir-like aspects of the book - those of historical perspective and the contingency and particularity of memory.
I found also that it led to occasional if not frequent uncertainties in the narrative voice. A passage near the beginning seems firmly established with the restricted viewpoint and language of the infant Dinah observing her parents and absorbing their anecdotes: Dinah who loves poking about finds that her mum periodically hoards dark Swiss chocolate and Nescafe and Lux flakes in her drawers alongside little bottles of 14711 cologne. The word periodically however, with its longer historical perspective, creates a defocusing shift of viewpoint, consolidated in the next observation which could not have formed in the infant Dinah's mind: She does this whenever there’s a whiff of further trouble in the world. Finally, with the examples that follow - Korea, Suez, Cyprus - which historically, in Dinah’s infancy, would not yet have occurred, the narration erupts disconcertingly into a wider, more authorial historical perspective which is indeed the mode of memoir.

We agreed that essentially the book hovers between memoir and novel, after which we could find no more to say, and the discussion, which had not been very lengthy, petered out - which Madeleine said testified perhaps to the book’s lack of novelistic depth.

 

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