Monday, 29 August 2016

Booker Longlist: The North Water

Booker Longlist: The North Water: Ian McGuire

My favourite so far of the books I’ve read on the longlist, Ian McGuire’s novel about a doomed C19 whaling expedition is a powerful, poetic and utterly compelling piece of work. McGuire’s undoubtedly extravagant appetite for gore is balanced brilliantly by the precision of his observations. There is nothing in this novel that seems lazy, or skimmed. Each insight is hard fought and worth having.
No-one on board this ‘unlucky’ ship is without flaw. From the corrupt and impotent Captain Brownlee through to the casual savagery of Henry Drax and the disgraced yet somehow decent Patrick Sumner, opium-addicted former surgeon in the British Army in Delhi, the characters are drawn into violence as if it were a climate. Violence is the flux of this novel, the medium in which it operates. And, if it is a climate, then it is aptly reflected in the scouring atmospheric layers of the novel’s environments: the harsh exactitude of being at sea is precisely matched by Arctic’s frozen indifference as the ship is stranded and its crew pitched onto the ice.
McGuire’s prose recalls Conrad, Melville, Hemingway and latterly Cormac McCarthy. This is a novel of masculinity, a novel of relentless action. There is no time for reflection, philosophy, nice consideration. Humanity is perforce as brutal and as harsh as the weather.
Among the many qualities that mark the novel out as original is the fact that the characters do not develop, and this is not perceived by the reader as a shortcoming, but rather an insight. There is no space for these men to develop. They remain resolutely themselves. However much we want to believe in the human capacity for change, for redemption, for forgiveness, in the end McGuire suggests, human beings have very little room for manoeuvre, either because of their character, their background, or their circumstances. And this is, at its heart, a merciful, quite tender observation. It seems Niezschean – indeed the novel begins: Behold the man - even melodramatic, but it emerges as a serious, subtle and even compassionate assessment of humanity. Drax and Sumner are pitched against each other, throughout the novel, but this is not a battle of good against evil, or the survival of the fittest. Their differences are as intransigent as their strangeness, as unique and particular as their histories. They are who they are: original, flawed, human.
The North Water is a book that had it merely been described to me, would have left me cold. But I loved it. It is a dark, sharp, beautiful novel, full of elemental potency. I recommend it to you with all my heart and deeply hope it makes the shortlist.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Booker Longlist: Eileen

Booker Longlist: Eileen: Otessa Moshfegh

It’s a dangerously risky strategy to make the eponymous protagonist of your novel someone deeply dislikeable, and in Moshfegh’s novel, Eileen doesn’t even like herself. The novel swivels between her interior and exterior life, daring us to find either of them appealing. Eileen lives with her father, an alcoholic sociopathic, paranoid ex-policeman, who carries a gun with him, even when he goes to the toilet. Externally, she is flat, wears a ‘death-mask’ works in a correction centre for boys, and observes herself and her co-workers with pitiless scrutiny. She constructs pointless yet curiously tender questionnaires for the mothers of these boys, stalks the most handsome of the guards, conducts a furtive sex life based on fantasy and reading her father’s pornography and seeks and finds a route out of her confinement.
The novel is told retrospectively, with Eileen reflecting on how she makes her escape. What does it take to release a woman in the 1960s from the torpor of a life of domesticity and secretarial work? asks Moshfegh. The answers are depressingly bleak: resistance – Eileen refuses to keep house for her father, they live in an antagonistic squalor exchanging only abuse, the possession of the gun and alcohol; violence – the moment for release comes 200 or so pages into this novel of 250 pages; and beauty – of a certain shiny variety that it seems almost impossible to place in this determinedly hostile novel.
Moshfegh creates a world that challenges our willingness to believe in it; a world so resolutely sordid that when glamour enters it in the form of Rebecca a psychologist at the centre, it enters in a form that seems cliched, disappointingly romantic, puzzlingly out of place. We keep expecting that Rebecca will be the catalyst for action, but in the end it is Eileen who navigates her own release, and Rebecca is no more potent than Randy the handsome guard (yes, really, Randy).
So what are its virtues? Whatever they are, I think they are slight and you have to be a very generous reader to find them. It’s a novel that seems, like its protagonist, addicted to its own repugnancy.  It is written with a sort of shimmering disgust similar to that Eileen feels at her own sexuality. Eileen’s relationship with her own body is violent: she fantasises rape (the 'soulful' kind) she starves herself, celebrates her ‘ugliness’ by wearing her dead mother’s clothing and is obsessed by her bowel. The trouble is, it all gets a bit boring, to be in the presence of someone who so consistently dislikes herself.
There is something brave about being so consistently desolate perhaps. And Moshfegh’s voice is distinctly her own. She brings to her writing an occasional lyricism, that lifts the novel from being entirely awful. There are moments of tenderness, and clarity, even moments of stark beauty. But, if I'm honest, they didn’t really do it for me, in the end.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Booker Longlist: All That Man Is

Booker Longlist: All That Man Is: David Szalay

David Szalay’s collection of short stories that announce themselves as depicting collectively all that man is, centres around the twin obsessions of sex and money, which would be merely tiresome and disappointing, were it not for the fact that Szalay is so bracingly fresh when it comes to social relationship. In each of these nine stories he manages to convey an impressively vivid array of shades of awkwardness. From a disgraced billionaire sharing a microwave TV dinner with his bodyguard to the cheerfully nuanced schadenfreude of the journalist charged with informing an eminent politician that news of his affair with a married woman is about to break, from the academic clumsily pressing his girlfriend to have an abortion, to the old man trying to reverse out of a one way street, Szalay suggests that if the Inuit have fifty words for snow, contemporary man must have at least that number for discomfiture. 
What Szalay’s men all share in common is a certain ennui, a lack of real agency. They are all dislocated, away from home, distanced from their own power, out in the uncertain world utterly exhausted by it. The men in these stories are European men in England, or English men in Europe, timely at this moment when we are trying to work out where we might belong and what masculinity and power look like, stripped back to the basics.
The title, taken from Yeats’s Byzantium, prompts us to look for themes like immortality, ‘death-in-life and life-in-death’, decadence, ambiguity, the artifice of eternity. And they are all here, lodged in the text like a kind of music. Roughed up with gratuitous violence, dulled through the filter of alcohol, but still recognisably here, sweetly offering a counterpoint to the futility of the present situation. They are here in the repeated conceits: the tarot cards, the linking of the first and last stories, stabs at suggesting repetition rather than unity between these lives. And they are here in the moments when the men take themselves out of their own stories and lose themselves, momentarily in insights gleaned from the world, or from beauty.
So in Szalay’s reckoning of all that man is, what are we invited to conclude? That he is lonely, in the sense that he is existentially alone. He cannot connect so he surrounds himself with the trappings of power, which even he sees as chimerical. He is deeply unspiritual, moved by instinct rather than genius. He is vulnerable, as surprised by his mercurial desires as by his misreadings. Here are men defined by the women they can bed, the drink they can take, the pain they can stand, the money they can make and lose. So far, so ho hum.
And yet the characters, for all their unsettling dispiritedness, are entirely believable. We know these men (we have endured their company too many times for it to be entirely pleasurable to meet them again) we recognise them, and yet in spite of their shortcomings, Szalay tactfully, gracefully, encourages in us a curious sympathy for them. They move through the present – the same indefinite days we must all pass through – apparently baffled by the endless possibilities that propose themselves to contemporary man.
We sympathise with them because, in spite of their jaded relationships, they are restless. In some simple, barely formulated way they all trying to understand their condition, and they understand it in distinctly cultural terms. They are variously reading Dante, JK Rowling, Henry James. The Russian oligarch’s bodyguard has a copy of Titian’s Allegory of Prudence upon his wall. Here they seek to supply for themselves what is missing in their lives: spiritual wisdom, a bit of magic, engagement, a past a present and a future.
All That Man Is is a book of scrupulous attention. The texture of experience, of the lives of these men is thoroughly and economically written. There is scarcely a word out of place. Its rhythms belie its energy. It seems lethargic, mired in disappointment, yet it is buoyant with its own sense of observation. Like Yeats’ poem, it looks haphazard, random, certainly not a novel, yet technically it is a feat to be admired. Would I recommend it? I’m not sure I liked it enough. Does it illuminate something larger than itself? It’s certainly clever, but in the end I think it might be more artifice than miracle.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele