Stefan Golaszewski’s BBC Series, Marriage

Marriage is the new BBC drama starring Sean Bean and Nicola Walker, playing Ian and Emma, a couple who have been married for many years. Ian has recently been made redundant, and is struggling for direction in his life. Emma is doing quite well at a firm of solicitors. She seems to have a complicated relationship with her boss, who is an odd combination of superficial macho postering, and deep emotional issues. Meanwhile, representing the younger generation, we have Ian and Emma’s adopted daughter Jessica, who is trying to make her way as a singer songwriter, whilst navigating the highs and lows of young love.

The tone is surprising for a mainstream TV drama. It’s like having a Harold Pinter play in the Bodyguard slot. Events, seemingly unremarkable in their outward appearance, hide great turbulence beneath. This produces uncomfortable drama characterised by fascinating contrasts. There’s the consideration of love for example and how it changes over the years. Superficially it looks like the youngsters get all the fun – all the passion and depth of feeling. There is an instant attraction between Jessica and Mark, a young man she meets in a restaurant. Experiencing the rush of love at first sight, they sit and talk for hours. At one point they discuss their parents’ relationships, which they see as having become dull and stale. Jessica has written songs about the intense feelings of young love, songs which have given rise to knowing chuckles from Ian and Emma after watching one of their daughter’s gigs.

But here’s the thing. For couples who remain together for many years, a long-term partner can become as vital and integral to an individual’s wellbeing as their leg, arm, hand, or if we are to use the usual language of romance, heart. Maybe you might not write love songs to your arm, but if you were to lose that arm, no love song would really be able to describe the resulting loss. Ian is terrified of losing Emma, in the sense that he is terrified of losing something so important to him that it has become part of himself.

And yet there is another contrast offered by Marriage. Jessica may love Mark, but for eight months she has been involved with a creepy and controlling young man called Adam. After a loved up day of talk, Jessica does not take Mark’s number because, she admits, Adam checks her phone.

“He shouldn’t do that,” says Mark, and of course he is right. Love does not come by controlling another person. They are not your arm to do your bidding in picking something up. Everything that keeps people at a measure of healthy distance from each other is part of what allows them to be happy together. Silly arguments, and anxieties about losing the other person become oddly part of being together. Ian can have a nervous breakdown over Emma going to a conference overnight with her boss, but after the crisis, they are happy in the garden again, Emma working at her laptop, Ian putting wood stain on the garden furniture.

Stefan Golaszewski has written a fascinating piece of drama, the acting matching the subtlety of the writing. I hope Marriage gets the recognition it deserves.

Small Things Like These By Claire Keegan – Getting The Christmas We Deserve

Small Things Like These is Claire Keegan’s 2021 novella, long-listed for the 2022 Booker Prize. It’s set in a small Irish town, during the build up to Christmas 1985. Bill Furlong, who runs a coal merchant business, faces his busiest time of year. Going about his duties, with characteristic diligence and friendliness, the daily round cannot stop him pondering on his wider situation and life direction. He recalls a childhood as the illegitimate child of a servant who worked in a big house in the area. Fortunately for Bill, the lady of the house, was a decent, kindly person who looked after both young mother and her child.

As Christmas approaches, Bill comes to realise that things could have been very different for him and his mother. He delivers coal to a convent where an order of nuns run a ‘Magdalen laundry’. Although it’s not exactly clear in the book what this institution is all about, it seems to be a place of confinement and forced labour for children and single mothers. I did some googling – discovering a tragic history of organisations originally set up in Britain in the eighteenth century as places of correction for ‘fallen women’ – that is prostitutes. In Ireland, the laundries, run by the Catholic Church, saw an increasing demand for their cheap service, and for the workers to provide it. This drove a widening of the original definition of ‘fallen women’. Eventually, any woman who might challenge Irish notions of religious morality was fair game. Single mothers and their children often ended up within the brutal, secretive confines of a Magdalen laundry. Thousands died. This was the situation as Bill delivers his coal to the convent, a few days before Christmas 1985.

Bill discovers a girl, in a terrible state, locked in a coal bunker, which the nuns explain as hide and seek gone wrong. It doesn’t take a genius to work out this is nonsense. The rest of the book deals with Bill’s dilemma: does he turn a blind eye – as the community wishes – or does he do something?

Small Things Like These exists in the tradition of novels designed to bring attention to social injustices. In that sense, my reading of the book worked just as it should, getting me to look up the history of Magdalen laundries, which I had not been aware of before. Simply casting light on this dark history is valuable in itself. But I felt the book was more than a kind of fictionalised investigative journalism. It’s real subject is the daily round, which carries people along, preventing them from seeing and thinking. Bill finds a hard comfort in humdrum duties which leave little time or energy for reflection on anything except work. However, Christmas is approaching, a time when for a few days at least, the daily round stops turning. The Church is the villain of this piece. However, it is poignant that the breaks in demanding routine, encouraging wider reflection, should be religious holidays. The Sunday before Christmas, a “threadbare and raw day” during which Bill longs for the routine of Monday, is a day of crisis for him. Then Christmas itself approaches, bringing with it Bill’s final reckoning. Undoubtedly, the holidays have their own demanding pattern – cake baking, midnight masses and the like. But even so, there remains at least a chink of light, that sense of a break in the daily drill of life, which provides a chance to see and do things differently.

The contrast between a truly corrupt Church, and a kind of counterbalancing opportunity offered by traditional holidays for thought and reflection on how we go about things, was, for me, the most interesting aspect of this beautifully written little book. It lent a quality which went beyond the specifics of the history it reveals.

Sister Carrie By Theodore Dreiser – Restlessly Seeking Peace

The classic American novel, Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, published in 1900, might not seem conducive to modern tastes. Stylistically it’s like a big, nineteenth century novel, which hasn’t caught on to the idea of showing. The author continually pops up to tell you stuff – which chemicals the body produces under stress, in one eyebrow-raising, and scientifically dubious instance. Point of view switches around frequently. On occasion we even see the action through the perspective of random policemen, or half-seen shop girls.

But in its preoccupations, the book actually felt very modern. In the wake of Origin of Species published forty years before, Dreiser uses Carrie’s story to explore evolutionary ideas applied to society. Carrie, a young woman from Wisconsin, moves to Chicago to try and make a better life for herself. We follow her efforts, living for a short period with dull relatives, conducting a relationship with two men, and falling into a career as an actress. Dreiser says at one point, with regard to his heroine’s struggle:

We have the consolation of knowing that evolution is ever in action, that the ideal is a light that cannot fail.

But don’t think this bold statement is Dreiser telling you how it is. Although he is a bit of a proclaimer, Dreiser’s proclamations are multifaceted. Often a consequence of telling rather than showing is loss of subtlety. A reader is told what to think rather than presented with a situation to explore for themselves. That’s not the case here. Dreiser looks at social and personal evolution from all angles, and allows you to draw your own conclusions. For example we see that Carrie’s new city life is in many ways a dark one, involving manufactured dissatisfaction, which forces people to continually chase material gain in an atmosphere of ruthless competition. And yet restlessness of spirit is not always portrayed as a bad thing. The boring relatives Carrie stays with on first reaching Chicago have no restlessness of spirit. That’s what makes them boring.

We then explore the ambivalent goals to which dissatisfied people aspire. People are better and happier when they have a goal to aim for. Leaving behind that stick-in-the mud sister and her zombie husband, Carrie flourishes when she discovers acting ambitions. Conversely, she also discovers that much-desired goals are less attractive in reality than in dreamy anticipation. This suggests the unfailing light of evolutionary development is not as unfailing as it seems. A brightly lit sign, advertising one of Carrie’s Broadway shows, switching off after show-time, might be a good analogy. You reach the destination you worked so hard to achieve, and find yourself not much further on.

An essay at the end of my Simon and Schuster Kindle edition, pointed out the importance of rocking chairs as an image in the book. People retreat to rocking chairs to reflect, in the aftermath of both triumph and disaster, or bewildering combinations of both. The rocking motion neatly describes moving back and forth between contradictions. Evolution is no simple journey to the light. Such a straightforward idea of progress is probably more in tune with the religious world-views that came before. The journey of evolution is presented as one of endless oscillation, which goes nowhere, continues endlessly, and yet on occasion still suggests peace.

So, this book presents a complex and modern scenario to explore in turn of the century America. I ended up really enjoying Sister Carrie.

A Visit From The Goon Squad – Time, Tide And Tenses

A Visit From The Goon Squad is a 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Jennifer Egan. It’s a novel that’s almost a collection of short stories, about a group of characters who are generally involved with the American music scene, either as fans, performers, producers, or tangential staff. Minor characters in one chapter became central in another; or we see characters as contrasting people at different stages in their lives.

The book isn’t really about music, which was my impression when I bought it. The real subject is time and change. Time is the ‘goon’ of the title, sneaking in to build people up and break them down, making them central to the action one moment, peripheral the next. There is interesting use of fiction technique to reflect this changeability. We get tenses shifting between past and present. Then there is the varied style of narration, in first person, third person, with one chapter even in second person, a very tricky perspective that puts ‘you’, the reader, as the central character. You are Rob, a troubled young man involved in a strained love-triangle. After a hectic night of partying, ‘you’ take the unfortunate decision to go for a swim in New York’s East River at dawn. As hypothermia sets in, Rob has an out of body experience, which is one of the book’s most powerful reflections on the way there is no stable, definitive viewpoint in life’s changing story. I was reminded of the ideas of Jung, where individuals might see things from an individual standpoint in their waking hours, only to enter a kind of shared unconscious in their dreams.

Anyway, if this all sounds deep and meaningful, that’s what this book is – an overtly clever reflection on shifting perspective. Obvious sophistication makes A Visit From The Goon Squad a good candidate for a big prize like the Pulitzer. You could easily use this book in a writing class. Impressive as its technical accomplishments might be, they were also the source of potential reservations I felt about the book. After all, some of the best novels are deceptive in their simplicity. Jennifer Egan’s writing, with all its clever fiction tricks, does not have deceptive simplicity.

That being said, I still enjoyed A Visit From The Goon Squad. There was much humanity in the writing – poignant, recognisable moments of seeing others, or ourselves, before and after time has done its work – and those moments made me think of life experience rather than some technical aspect of fiction writing.

This is not one of my favourite books of all time. Too much of the mechanism of writing is on display for that. But it is still a clever and compelling novel.

As I Lay Dying – A Crazy Odyssey

As I Lay Dying is the story of a poor farming family from Mississippi. The matriarch of the family, Addie Bundren, is very ill. Before she dies she asks to be buried amongst her relatives in Jefferson, a long journey from the farm where Addie lives with her feckless husband Anse and her children. Anse is not a man to honour promises or do the right thing, but his stubborn, unreasonable nature latches on to his wife’s final wish. Even though on the night of Addie’s death there is a massive storm which destroys all the bridges in the area, Anse is determined to make it to Jefferson. Against all reason he gathers up the family and they set off in a wagon, braving wild river crossings, burning barns, mental breakdown, and broken limbs treated with terrible, amateur first aid.

The story is told through the point of view of various family members, friends who try to help, and others who encounter the chaotic Bundren progress. A few seem to be what a court of law would call a reliable witness. Most are very much not. I’ve seen the word ‘stream of consciousness’ used to describe the book, which might be a fancy term for writing the first thing that comes into your head. It doesn’t really come over like that. Some of the accounts, particularly from the confused younger children, appear to be a splurge of thoughts. But there are also chapters which remind me of a member of the public speaking to camera about what they have witnessed after the disastrous Bundren show has passed through town.

I have no idea who is supposed to have put all these accounts together. There is no framing device to make sense of it all. You just have to take it as it comes. I think if you read it in that spirit, the book will be by turns bewildering, distasteful, beautiful, pretentious, annoying, tragic, and bizarrely funny. It will all add up to an unholy mess of a journey, which has to happen and is completely pointless at the same time. The book takes its name from a line in Homer’s Odyssey. Maybe the point is that there is no point, no tidy final destination, in Jefferson, Ithaca or otherwise, which is oddly reassuring, for a story where death is a major thing.

Reviews often give a rating to a book. Such a thing is difficult here. As I Lay Dying is indefinable, a quality which includes whether a reader actually enjoys it or not. Undoubtedly this is a tough journey, and some people might be quite reasonable in shouting their advice to give it up. But in the end I was glad I read it.

A Handful Of Dust by Evelyn Waugh – Deep Layers Of Dust

Pillars of space dust in the Eagle Nebula (NASA ESA/Hubble)

A Handful Of Dust by Evelyn Waugh, published in 1934, is the story of country squire Tony Last, who, after the collapse of his marriage, takes a trip into the South American jungle.

I found this a difficult book to get my head around, but it wasn’t hard work to read. Far from it. While there were many jumps in viewpoint, these shifts were so deft that the book read as easily as a country house comedy, which is where I suspected we were as the book opened. Then Tony’s son dies in a riding accident, and it becomes clear that country house comedy isn’t what we are dealing with. The humour takes a dark turn. For example, we have the dreadful Jenny Abdul Akbar getting muddled about the casualty’s name:

‘Quick,’ she whispered, ‘Tell me. I can’t bear it. Is it death?’

Jock nodded. ‘Their little boy … kicked by a horse.’

‘Little Jimmy.’

‘John.’

‘John … dead. It’s too horrible.’

So what to make of it. I had a look at what other people said about the book. There was much debate about Waugh’s conversion to Catholicism which was on-going at the time of writing. Apparently the critic Frank Kermode thought A Handful Of Dust portrayed the awful, frivolous world which exists without religion, specifically the Catholic religion. This seemed ridiculous. The idea that the characters in A Handful Of Dust might have avoided their collective disappointments if only they had converted to Catholicism, was far fetched to say the least.

Besides what good novel has ever been propaganda for a particular religion? So I forgot about Catholicism, and went back to A Handful Of Dust and my reaction to it.

A Handful Of Dust features polished lives hiding all kinds of depth, whether it’s depth of resentment, hurt and depravity on the one hand, or beauty, comfort and stability on the other. Sometimes superficiality is painful, and sometimes it’s light relief from pain. During Tony’s post break-up jungle trek, he falls ill with a fever, and discovers that both poisons and medicines are to be found amongst the tropical trees and flowers. Similarly, back in England, superficiality can be a medicine or a poison depending on how you prepare the raw material.

Although my reading about the background of A Handful Of Dust had mostly been a matter of wading through paragraphs debating Catholicism versus humanism and so on, there was one thing I did discover that interested me. Waugh was an admirer of his contemporary Anthony Powell, author of A Dance To The Music Of Time. Powell is one of my favourite writers. He had a great ability to take the surface elements of life – English life in particular – and plumb hidden depths. I realised that Waugh might be seen as a reluctant Powell, playing with the same themes whilst appearing more uneasy about them. Rather than seeking a religious shortcut to the apparently profound, Waugh might have done better to have gone all-in with the apparently superficial, embracing and enjoying it for good or ill, which is the secret of the wonderful A Dance To The Music Of Time.

Maybe Evelyn Waugh wrote a good novel despite himself. I much prefer Powell’s writing, but I still enjoyed A Handful of Dust, which remains primarily a novel rather than a demand that we look at the world through the lens of a particular religion.

Network Effect by Martha Wells – Human Meets Machine and Art Meets Science

Network Effect, by Martha Wells, is the story of a part human/part machine ‘SecUnit’, basically a futuristic body guard. SecUnit, unofficially known as Murderbot, has managed to disable the device which human controllers use to direct its actions. Now working freelance, Network Effect finds him in a kind of zombie scenario where planetary colonists have been infected by an alien virus. Murderbot, in an uneasy alliance with ART, the computer pilot of a large space ship, has to help out in a confused situation where it’s hard to tell friend from foe.

So, let’s deal with the less good things first.

I found the plot confusing.

Most of the peripheral characters in the book, of which there are many, are little more than names.

The writing style is what might be termed ‘workman-like’. Words tend to be repeated. As a quick example, what do you think about the word ‘before’ in the following sentence?

“I’d watched family dramas before, but I’d never spent much time around human families before coming to Preservation.”

Brackets are used so much they are distracting.

Now onto better things.

As far as the plot is concerned, I learned not to worry about it too much. It just sets up difficult situations, where our human/machine hero has to use human elements to deal with the unexpected, and machine elements to mitigate the consequences of humans doing stupid things. As for the characters, while the peripheral figures lack any real definition, the small, central group is well drawn – Murderbot, ART, and Amena, a teenage girl who likes to ask probing questions about her SecUnit’s ‘feelings’ in regard to a less than straightforward relationship with ART. The interest of this story comes down to this small group and its interactions, which develop in a way that sets you thinking about fate and destiny. Network Effect isn’t outwardly a heavy, philosophical novel. The upfront things are action and a wisecracking central character of souped-up masculinity trying to get in touch with a softer side. But there is something else going on when, for example, during an argument between Murderbot and ART, Murderbot says:

“You can either have an existential crisis or get your crew back, ART, pick one.”

Along with the ‘getting-the-crew-back’ elements of Network Effect, there is, it has to be said, existential crisis. Murderbot would probably react to such an idea in the same way he does to feelings. But, dammit, like feelings, existential crisis is one of the consequences of becoming sentient.

If we are compelled to follow a course, would that same course be different if we followed it through our own choice? Are we ironically more free when we don’t have to make decisions? While manipulation is never nice, some pointers along the way would be helpful; but where do pointers become direction, and where does direction become manipulation? Such questions run through the whole of Network Effect. And then there’s the ambivalent nature of the most powerful and central force in the book – ART, the spaceship computer. ART is a term of ‘affection’ used by Murderbot – meaning Arsehole Research Transport. But isn’t it ironic that a computer that’s all data feeds, analysis and scientific tech, should be called ART? Art is an activity people engage in, not to control the world in a strict scientific way, but to understand it in a vaguer, more intuitive sense. Actually, terms of affection aside, ART’s real name is Perihelion, an astronomical term referring to ‘the point nearest the sun in the path of an orbiting celestial body’. Now, recall the stuff where not being directed can allow an individual to find their own direction more fully. ART is very capable, protective of its crew, not above manipulation, and inclined to be bossy. But ART is not the sun at the centre of everything. ART, and the rest of the Network Effect cast, seem to be orbiting some other centre which, you might say, provides direction in not actually being present to point the way to go. It’s hard to explain. Maybe Murderbot, enjoying and enduring his new found freedom, would say it’s something you have to work out for yourself.

See what I mean? Existential questions.

Overall, Network Effect is a very interesting book. By the end, Murderbot was inclined to forgive ART’s transgressions. I was in a similarly forgiving mood.

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – A Reminder To Vote, Amongst Other Things

Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel, All The King’s Men, charts the rise and fall of fictional 1930s American politician Willie Stark. Narrated by reporter and writer Jack Burden, we begin by reading about the early days of Stark’s political career, when he values such things as truth and competence, and talks to voters about the technicalities of tax policy. Inevitably, this does not go well. Ruthless state governor, Joe Harrison sets up Stark as a candidate in an election campaign, not because of his sophisticated tax ideas, but as a means to split the opposition vote. After finding out about this plan, a humiliated and shattered Stark is only able to put himself back together again with the glue of cynicism. He vows to adopt the tactics that defeated him, while promising himself that such compromises will eventually be used to do good.

This beautifully written, often gripping, sometimes meandering novel, reminded me of a Greek tragedy where a great leader is brought down by a tragic flaw. But in this modern version it is very difficult to distinguish flaws from virtues. Is there any point being decent and honest if such qualities never get you into a position of power to make a difference? This is typical of the dilemmas Jack Burden ponders over as he watches Willie Stark’s career. Coming to terms with unpleasant compromise is a difficultly that many people face. Even writers like Jack Burden, are not immune. Try as he might to remain a neutral observer, the fact is Jack works for Stark, using his ivory-tower academic training in historical research, to ferret out damaging information on people who stand in his boss’s way. I don’t know what it says about me, but I resonated with the way Jack comes home from a rubbish day at work, doing stuff he does not want to do, and just wants to sleep for as long as possible. I found myself highlighting all the sleep passages.

At the end of the book, idealism and cynicism destroy each other – I won’t say how, out of respect for your reading pleasure. Suffice to say, extremes cancel each other out. But after a shocking denouement, there is a hint of a more moderate and reasonable future, in the shape of politician Hugh Miller. I’m not saying that All The King’s Men is any sort of manifesto for a particular brand of politics. In the usual way of a good novel, All The King’s Men presents problems to explore rather than supposed solutions to live by. But maybe this lack of prescription is all part of the book’s nuanced suggestion that maintaining our own personal involvement will give us the best chance. Robert Penn Warren based Willie Stark on real life politician, Huey Long, governor of Louisiana, who used the slogan ‘every man a king’. Ironically, while Huey Long, and his fictional counterpart Willie Stark were both vocal in proclaiming ‘power to the people’, their dictatorial actions and personalities tended to work in the opposite direction. They did not live up to the idea of making everyone a monarch. Perhaps that was their fatal flaw.

In real-world politics it can be generally said that high turnouts, and proportional representation – giving more weight to individual votes – increase the likelihood of politically moderate outcomes. And the middle is probably the best place to find reasonable government, of the sort Hugh Miller represents in All The King’s Men. This gives a bit of real-world support for the idea that it’s a good idea to haul ourselves out of bed and get involved, even if it’s only to vote – just as it is better to try to write a novel, or a review, even if you will never write the perfect one. That’s what “the responsibilities of time” mentioned in the last line probably involve.

All The President’s Men – The Writing Lessons Of Watergate

June 17th 1972, saw a break-in at the National Democratic Committee headquarters at the Watergate building, a sprawling office and apartment complex in Washington D.C. Over the next two years a number of journalists in New York, Los Angeles and Washington worked to reveal this event as part of a ruthless programme of political spying, sabotage and intimidation, directed by President Richard Nixon and his top White House aides. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post would be central to the press investigation. All The President’s Men is an account of their work during the Watergate period.

A number of things struck me about the book. First there were the similarities with political events of the 21st century. A ruthless cabal, interested in power for its own sake, elbows its way into government and then sets about portraying institutions that might hold it to account as arrogant “elites”. Departments of government and justice, are politicised, with the ruling group attempting to put their own people in charge, while systemically attacking anyone who gets in their way.

So far so similar. But the differences were also striking. Back in 1972, the investigation of conspiracy was very different. The media, as described in All The President’s Men, had tight control of editorial standards. We read a fascinating account of Woodward and Bernstein working day and night to make sure their reporting is accurate, gathering information from multiple, cross-checked sources. It is true that sometimes we see our reporter heroes bending the rules – trying to talk to members of a grand jury, for example. But the rules they bend are noticeably rigid. Washington Post editor Ben Crowninshield Bradlee is a formidable presence who will not accept sloppy reporting.

Today, by contrast, conspiracies flourish in a media environment that is a chaotic free for all. Watergate was a proper, no messing around, government conspiracy. It was exposed by diligent journalistic effort. But what do we get in the 2020s? We get conspiracies like Q-anon, mind control through vaccination or aircraft contrails, and a belief that the Earth is flat. Amateur Woodward and Bernsteins of social media generate misinformation rather than exposing it. Modern conspiracies are difficult to investigate rationally because their unreality pushes them into the realm of cult belief. The pesky ethic of accuracy no longer applies. Deception can be mass produced by disaffected individuals looking for a sense of importance. This gives the current equivalent of Nixon governments a chance to jump in and hide real corruption behind the prevailing barrage of nonsense. For example, consider the attempt to hide a staggeringly cack-handed conspiracy to manipulate the 2021 U.S. election, behind the fantasy that the Democrats were organising a sophisticated conspiracy to manipulate the election.

Reading All The President’s Men in the 2020s is a compelling and thought-provoking experience. The disciplined, conscientious writing process it describes is a salutary lesson for the world five decades later. The only reason I am able to share this review with you is because of new media freedoms. The contrast with the world of 1972, makes it clear that these freedoms have come at a price.