Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, published in 1969, is the story of Jewish American bachelor Alex Portnoy, as told in a long, intense monologue, apparently to a therapist. The therapist is effectively invisible, saying nothing, serving as a device to let Portnoy talk. Sometimes a book allows you to identify with a central character. Since, in this case, the reader is identified with a silent therapist, there’s a feeling of being separate from the narrative, listening to this intense individual talking in ruthless detail about his Jewish childhood and subsequent relationship history.
So what did I learn through my patient listening? There was some interesting stuff. Identity was a big thing. Much of the book is informed by what is to be Jewish, even though it’s also about trying to escape such labels. If I could get a word in edgeways I would have said that was interesting.
Even more interesting was the idea of guilt. Alex lives in a society which trains you to be obedient through arbitrary rules, often dietary. The idea is that when the time comes to follow rules that are really important, you’ll be ready. But by then you’ve been so confused by arbitrary regulations, and so bruised by capricious punishment, that it’s hard to tell the difference between valid and ridiculous restrictions.
So, that was thought-provoking. But why am I saying these things? This narrator wasn’t waiting for me to say anything. I was there to listen, not offer an opinion. That summed up a feeling around the book that I didn’t enjoy. Portnoy was so self involved. On one occasion he is amazed that a young woman is upset when he breaks up with her, because it’s really only his feelings that count. You can enjoy the quick-fire anecdotes, and laugh at the scandalous humour, but after a while you want to put the book down and talk to someone less self centred – someone who might actually ask your opinion:
“How’s that Philip Roth book you’re reading?”
“Well, thanks for asking. In my view, it’s funny, unsettling, sometimes nauseating, often interesting, and highly self regarding.”
This book is an account of the development and use of Germany’s V2 missiles during World War Two. The story is told through the eyes of a pair of fictional characters; Rudi Graf, a senior German engineer supervising V2 launches against London from forests in the Netherlands; and Kay Caton-Walsh, a young WAAF officer, involved in an effort to trace V2 launch sites by calculating the missiles’ trajectory. The book’s action only coincides with a few months towards the end of the war, but through Graf’s memories we witness the whole of V2’s history. His recollections begin poignantly with a group of 1930s, sci-fi loving students flying rockets from waste ground near Berlin. The fun ends when the military come calling. Money and facilities are on offer, because rockets could make missiles. The group’s leader Wernher Von Braun, judges that working with the military is a price worth paying as a stepping stone to eventually building a rocket that can reach the moon. The V2 is his reward. But the price is appalling, in terms of money, but more importantly in terms of lives lost – thousands of people died building the thing, twice as many in fact, as died because of the weapon’s use. The book continues to the war’s end, when the German V2 engineers give themselves up to the Allies, and negotiate their subsequent lives building rockets for the American military and NASA’s space program.
So this is a book about lost innocence and awful compromise, where decent people end up doing bad things. There are a lot of contradictions like that. We get the situation of Kay, for example, who as a woman can only observe the big world of major decisions and seemingly significant acts. Even though she is in the RAF, a bone shaking flight to Belgium where the Air Force has its V2 tracking operation, is her first time in an aircraft. And yet her quiet calculations are as vital as the firing of any gun.
A similar ambivalence surrounds the V2 itself, which cost so much in terms of money, lives and energy, and yet in some ways was not significant historically. At vast expense, it could only carry one ton of explosives, whereas a much cheaper British bomber could carry six tons – and thousands of those bombers flew over German cities every night in the latter part of the war. But just to add another layer of contradiction, the V2 did influence developments in weapons and space travel in a hugely significant way after the war.
This brings me to the most striking contrast in the book, the one between exact mathematics, which go into building or tracking V2s, and all the chaos surrounding them. Both Graf and Kay find relief from their wartime lives in the reassuringly exact numbers of their work. And yet in other circumstances numbers are not so comforting. There’s a mathematical-like ruthlessness to Von Braun’s calculations about what compromises he has to make to get his rocket built, for example.
Now I’m going to make a claim for this book, which I don’t make lightly, because fancy claims can easily crash to Earth in an embarrassing manner. But in my opinion this book is a fascinating argument for what novels have to contribute. A novelist cannot make a rocket fly, or track one in flight, but a novel is much better at accommodating contradiction than maths. Novels are good at ambivalence – a novel can even portray maths as ambivalent. In life things are rarely one thing or another, as we see at the end of the book when former combatants from different sides meet to talk. There’s even a hint of romance between Kay and Graf! A novel won’t offer the analytic geometry necessary to get to the moon, but it will offer a little moonlight, softening hard lines – and maybe we need more of that.
Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel, is also the name of an autobiographical poem the book contains, by fictional academic and poet John Shade – a moving and humorous piece, which sets reflections on mortality alongside riffs about such topics as Gillette razor advertising. Following John Shade’s death, Pale Fire, the poem, falls into the hands of Charles Kimbote, the unfortunate poet’s neighbour, who has arrived from an imaginary east European country, called Zembla, to teach at the local university. Kimbote holes up in a motel where he works on an annotated version of Pale Fire. Through a series of bizarre and misguided factual associations, he attempts to show how the poem reflects much of his own life.
I read Pale Fire as a Kindle edition, and I’m not the first to see that the book is similar to a web document. Taking the form of a commentary, there are naturally many links jumping between poem and explanatory notes. Kimbote careers around his own self-centred web of crazy connections. His thought process is reminiscent of one of those internet algorithmic cul-de-sacs that can take personal quirks and prejudices and turn them into a firm belief in a flat Earth or the evils of 5G.
Using an older analogy you could say that Pale Fire is like a hall of mirrors. But we shouldn’t forget that both internet and hall of mirrors can be a source of fun. So it is fitting that Pale Fire has some very funny sections – such as the account of an assassination attempt where an incompetent hit-man has to keep interrupting the business of assassination to deal with severe diarrhoea.
If you want to have fun, and learn a few things about truth and delusion, I highly recommend Pale Fire. It’s beautifully written, whether dealing with the common place or the elevated. It’s also strangely modern, seemingly waiting for the internet to really show its potential.
The Porpoise by Mark Haddon is a reworking of an ancient myth, which involves a king, who after his wife dies, starts an incestuous relationship with his daughter. To keep up appearances the king offers his daughter to suitors who are challenged with a riddle, the answer to which reveals the king’s crime. If a suitor can’t work out the riddle, he dies: if he does work it out, he will also die, at the hands of the king’s henchmen. After many suitors fail and pay the price, a young man – variously known in different versions of the story as Appolinus, Appolonius or Pericles – comes along to try his luck. At the same time as working out the correct answer, he also realises the consequences of revealing it. Asking for time to think, our hero makes his escape. This kick-starts a series of adventures around the Mediterranean, during which, in most versions of the tale, the unfortunate daughter who started it all, is forgotten.
In The Porpoise, this tale is reworked in the modern setting of super wealth. Taking its cue from an unusual variant of the traditional tale where the daughter becomes the central character, Angelica, daughter of a billionaire, survives the death of her mother, but is then preyed upon by her father. Angelica reacts to her awful situation by retreating into the Pericles myth in her head. Within this dream it is women who take control, often in a supernatural way.
So what to make of it?
This book has ambitions to explore the nature of storytelling itself, with all its back and forth between modern story and ancient myth. I was reminded of Joseph Campbell and his famous book The Hero of a Thousand Faces, beloved of Hollywood screen writers. The myths explored by Campbell involve people going out into the world. They prepare, prevaricate, set out on their journey, are helped by mentors, opposed by enemies, end up in a tight spot and make their escape. It all seems to go back to prehistoric fireside training of people getting ready for dangerous trips outside the safety of camp. In The Porpoise, our hero does not go anywhere. In a hopeless situation, she retreats into serious self harm, and escapes in her imagination. The story seems to be a hallucination brought on by stress, loneliness and self starvation.
The heroes in the Campbell mode tend to be young men, rather than young women. So perhaps The Porpoise is a commentary on the way women are more trapped than men, and historically do not typically have that freedom to leave the camp fire and go off on adventures. They have to stay where they are and escape in other ways. This is what Angelica, the rich man’s daughter, does. And then in her dream state she appears to find consolation in discovering that women have supernatural powers that will take their revenge on men in the afterlife, or the mythic realm…. I wasn’t convinced by that. Maybe I’m just a simple fellow, but I have my doubts about the consolations of the supernatural. I would rather Angelica went on an actual journey, and made an actual escape. It is true that the hero of a thousand faces is typically a young man, but I don’t know if it’s satisfying to portray the only option for Angelica as retreat into half starved fever dreams where women take supernatural revenge on bad men.
The Porpoise is cruel and extremely violent, sometimes coming over like a posh horror movie. The detached author voice adds to a feeling of heartlessness. We don’t tend to stick with anyone’s point of view for long, and will often take omniscient authorial detours, into storm clouds for example, or the blood vessels of a man having a heart attack. It was like reading a book written by a pitiless deity rather than a person. This pitiless deity was a very accomplished writer, with a remarkable ability to create a scene in a reader’s mind. But it’s hard to warm to a ruthless writer-god. I can appreciate that the book has qualities, but I was still glad to escape it, as in physically escape it, shut the thing on my iPad and resolve never to open it again.
The political and social state of the world in 2020 is such that it is tempting to retreat into books. That would be the approach of Gail Hightower, a character in William Faulkner’s 1932 novel, Light In August. He is a former Church minister, forced to resign after the upstanding people of Jefferson Mississippi found out that his wife was an adulterer and had committed suicide. He retreats from the 1930s American South into monastic seclusion, where he tries to find consolation in books.
From the stand-point of wishing to find consolation, reading Light In August can be a demoralising experience. Unpleasant as the world might be, retreat is not presented as an attractive option – Hightower’s house is oppressive, seedy and lonely. But if you do venture outside the four walls, then you face, on the one hand, criminals who care for nothing but themselves, or upstanding folks who are just as bad, since they have gained their position on the basis of a skewed set of values. The police, for example… If you ever wanted a sense of the historical background behind the Black Lives Matter movement, then this book is required reading.
Neither cutting yourself off, nor getting involved, are presented as the answer – which seems to leave a reader without much scope for finding something hopeful. However, by the end I did feel that there was some comfort to be had in this harsh book. It lies with a character called Lena, a sweet, trusting young woman who, whilst in a state of advanced pregnancy, travels on foot across the South in search of her child’s father. The father promised that he was only leaving to find work and would send for Lena once he had set up a nice home for her. Lena is ridiculously naive in believing that her boyfriend’s letter must have got lost in the post, and he is out there somewhere choosing soft furnishings and curtains. She goes looking for him, putting herself in an extremely hazardous position. But even though she has no idea where she might eat or sleep next, help materialises from people wherever she goes, even from people who despise her. Lena gets by, her faith in people seemingly abused, while it is also repaid.
Light in August is not the easiest of reads. There is a lot of chopping and changing of viewpoint, with some characters only introduced to tell a part of the story, which can feel forced. I also found sections of various interior monologues hard work. But I admired Light In August for its modern-feeling exploration of race, religion and morality; and for its own clear eyed, unsentimental sense that things will work out.
In the TV show Schitt’s Creek – now showing on Netflix after a six year run on Canadian and U.S. television – the wealthy Rose family are left destitute when their business manager is charged with embezzlement. They end up moving to a small American town, called Schitt’s Creek, where they live in the local motel. Despite a rocky start to their new life, the Roses soon find the town’s folk accept them for who they are, rather than for how much money they might, or might not, have. This acceptance extends to the Rose’s bisexual son David, who finds love in Schitt’s Creek, when he couldn’t find it in New York.
I loved the show, but there was something about it that puzzled me. Why was this small American town so liberal and tolerant? In reality, rural America was a generous source of votes for Donald Trump. Election maps show a stark divide between liberal, densely populated cities and conservative, sparsely populated countryside. Social scientist, Jonathan Rodden of Stanford University has recently published a book, called Why Cities Lose, trying to explain this split. There are various theories – some going back into history: one idea suggests that people with personalities more open to new experience headed for the nineteenth century’s emerging industrial towns, while those of a more cautious, conservative bent tended to stay on the farm.
This urban rural divide has become increasingly deep in recent times, exacerbated by voting systems which give too much weight to physical size of voting area. The fact that liberal-voting city dwellers are packed into small areas, can give them less electoral clout compared to fewer rural voters spread out in larger spaces. This is a particular problem in the United States, where Democrat candidates can win with massive majorities in urban areas, but lose by slim margins in many rural locations. With a first past the post system, the result is fewer seats for Democrats than their individual votes would actually represent, which is how Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, even though more people voted for her. So you end up with a gulf between conservative people using electoral advantages to hold onto their world view, resentful of city dwellers becoming wealthy due to urban economic advantages, who in turn feel they are unfairly represented politically.
How to overcome this divide? Schitt’s Creek has a go by disguising a racially diverse, culturally tolerant city, as a small town. Despite frequent linking shots of out-of-the-way grain silos and quiet railway crossings, there is much of the nature of a densely packed city existence in Schitt’s Creek. The Rose family are thrown together physically, in two neighbouring motel rooms, when up until now they have led isolated lives in luxury apartments. They are also obliged to live and work closely with various different sorts of people around them.
So, is this city-like town just a delightful fantasy? Is it a way of escaping the painful realities that are dividing many countries, America especially? Partly I think the answer is yes, but it’s not quite as simple as that. After all, urban life has pitfalls. The economic advantages of a city can create great wealth, and there is nothing like money for cutting people off in an entitled bubble. The Roses are not bad people, but they did fall into the isolating money trap during their glory days. A small town is a good place to strip away the wall of wealthy sophistication, and get back to relating to people in a more real, down-to-earth way. Johnny Rose, former head of the massive Rose Video chain, takes an interest in the dilapidated motel that has become his home, and starts working with its manager to try to make improvements. This means cleaning rooms, and workin g on the reception desk. Johnny’s son, David, opens a shop where he learns that you have to welcome customers, rather than keeping them away in the interests of exclusivity. Johnny’s daughter, Alexis, finds herself in a real relationship with the local vet, in contrast to her wealthy life, which had her moving through a series of high-profile but empty liaisons. Johnny’s wife, Moira, once a TV soap star, finds herself working with locals in singing groups and amateur drama productions.
In the end, understanding and acceptance of others is the key, and Schitt’s Creek suggests that aspects of both city and rural life can help us with that. The trick is to combine the best, and limit the downsides, of both.
If you haven’t seen the show I won’t give away the outcome, other than to say that if the Roses learnt a few things living in Schitt’s Creek, I learnt a few things watching them. Bravo, Dan and Eugene Levy, and their great cast. You made a show for our times.
Two Caravans by Maria Lewycka is about the experience of immigrant workers in the UK. It starts out as a kind of people-trafficking gangster story, before evolving into a romance about two young people from different sides of the Ukrainian train tracks. Overall though, Two Caravans is what you might call a political novel, in the sense that it describes social injustices.
This being a novel, rather than a political tract, we see issues from many angles. As the story unfolds, we learn that people from overseas coming to find work in the UK are much safer and less vulnerable to exploitation if they are in the country legally. Then we learn that if people are working legally they are more expensive to employ. Legislation regarding minimum wage, or health and welfare, will apply to them. By contrast, illegal workers have no such costly protections. This leaves them defenceless and expendable, which in turn makes them attractive to some employers – because they are cheap and easy to get rid of if necessary. The employers of the cockle pickers who died at Morecombe Bay in 2004 are an example. So you end up in a situation where making people illegal, produces a job market for them, which might come as a shock for those of a nationalist bent. The desire to “keep immigrants out” in a twisted sort of way, makes a country more likely to attract desperate migrants seeking work. There are some unfortunate people who actually want to be illegal, dangerous as that might be, because it gives them a better chance of finding a job.
Two Caravans does not provide an easy answer to such conundrums. Novels are not usually a good place to find straightforward solutions to social problems. They are, however, very good at allowing us to experience the world as someone else might see it. There is something about the way a character voice sounds in our head that makes it very immediate. To some degree, we become, for example, a Ukrainian strawberry picker toiling in a Kent field. In the end, a capacity for empathy is the best way to encourage people to act compassionately. You can have rules and regulations, but the union reps and social warriors depicted in Two Caravans do not have all the answers. On top of legislation, or idealistic, progressive efforts, you must have fellow feeling, a sense that I could be in that person’s shoes. This understanding will make us treat each other better. The way in which a novel can cultivate this empathy is an important part of what makes it valuable as an art form.
So, I admired Two Caravans. Point of view does jump around a lot, which can occasionally be confusing. I have to admit to not being convinced by the dog’s point of view. So the dog doesn’t know punctuation, or lower case letters, but does know capitals? Even as a kind of shorthand for a non-human viewpoint, this was a bit odd for me. But that detail aside, by the end of the book I was glad to have seen things from so many angles; yes, even the dog’s. The book is funny, shocking, depressing, intelligent, and is a contribution to people’s understanding of each other in our divided times.
I first read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road at university, and dutifully wrote an essay about its exploration of the idea of freedom. Now, decades later in 2020, I reread the book, wondering how the old road would look after all these years.
Once again I met up with struggling writer, Sal Paradise, who describes a series of trips around America in the late 1940s. Sal travels, and hangs out with, a changing cast of characters, none more important to him than Dean Moriarty, a charismatic, hyperactive young man, who lives a chaotic life, moving from place to place, job to job and woman to woman. Reading the book a second time it became clear to me that Dean is a charming sociopath, who serves as a natural focus of a story about freedom, because rules do not apply to him, whether those are rules of the road, or of social behaviour in general. For a while a quiet fellow like Sal Paradise, feeling trapped and frustrated with life, can happily follow in a sociopath’s turbulent wake, experiencing a sense of, what appears to be, liberation. But eventually there is a reckoning. There is a reckoning for an individual who lives this way, and for a society which idealises his “virtues”.
At one point in their travels, Sal and Dean visit their friend, Old Bull Lee – a character based on the real life writer William Burroughs. Sal and Dean do not get political in their road-trip philosophising, but Old Bull Lee takes the idea of freedom and makes it an explicitly political thing.
“His chief hate was Washington bureaucracy; second to that, liberals.”
I found myself thinking that if Old Bull Lee were around today, he would be a gun-toting, NRA supporting, red baseball cap-wearing old man, complaining about government overreach in asking him to wear a mask to protect himself and others from coronavirus.
In 2020, the Dean Moriarty/Old Bull Lee idea of freedom, has truly reached the end of the road. For the long haul, you cannot rely on Dean Moriarty or Old Bull Lee. They act only for themselves. The road has changed, and now more than ever, it requires people to support each other and work together. The world’s most powerful country has always had a tendency to downplay such values. Individualistic American society seemed exciting for a while, just as travelling with Dean seemed exciting, right up until that moment when he abandons you when you need him most.
This read through of On The Road was poignant for me. It clarified how much the world has changed since my university days. Even as I turned Kerouac’s pages, the America he describes so vividly, fell away in the rear view mirror.
In June 2020 a newspaper survey – conducted by the Singapore Sunday Times – asked respondents to rank the importance of various jobs during a pandemic. Medical practitioners came out on top, which was to be expected. But right at the bottom came the job of “artist”, a word which covered the whole gamut of creative industries.
This caused a stir. After all, Neilson Books research quoted in the Guardian suggests that people doubled their time spent reading during lockdown. Spotify saw a 31% rise in paid subscribers in the first three months of 2020. Netflix increased its subscribers by over 15 million during the same period. Given these figures it might seem that artists played an important role in getting people through the lockdowns of 2020.
Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, published in 2014, is a book describing the time before during and after a devastating fictional flu pandemic, which wipes out 99% of the world’s population. The battle for survival portrayed in the book is far more stark than the one we face in the real world of 2020. But if there’s a source of hope amidst this trauma, it comes from art, specifically a peripatetic band of musicians and Shakespearean actors called The Travelling Symphony. Their motto is: “survival is insufficient”.
While the members of The Travelling Symphony are portrayed as humble heroes, the book is not a simple-minded presentation of art as a panacea for life’s problems. Such an easy answer does not exist, just as a cure for the book’s devastating Georgia Flu does not exist. In scenes depicting the Hollywood smart set of pre-pandemic Los Angeles, there’s not exactly a feeling of people living deep and meaningful lives. And yet, in the post-pandemic world, with all celebrity froth stripped away, the Travelling Symphony really is a beacon of hope. This troupe brings music and Shakespeare to people who have nothing except a grinding fight for survival. There are parallels with the life of Shakespeare himself, who had to take his company on a tour of the provinces in 1603, when plague closed all of London’s theatres for a year.
So finally, we have to ask: what exactly does a troupe of travelling players bring to people struggling to survive? It’s with this question that Station Eleven gets really interesting. You could say The Travelling Symphony brings meaning to people. But meaning is a tricky thing. After all, there are deeply unpleasant cult leaders in Station Eleven who find clear meaning in the pandemic, seeing it as divine judgement on sinners, no less. All those who died in the pandemic apparently did so for a reason. By contrast, The Travelling Symphony is staffed by sensible souls who realise that sometimes bad things just happen. They do not try to explain what happened in terms of supernatural purpose. They perform the plays of an artist who is known for presenting conundrums rather than giving easy answers. This is the humane approach of art, the sharing of experience and questions; and if people share their experience, and ask questions together, they are more likely to find answers and meaning as they continue into an uncertain future.
Station Eleven is a gripping, traumatic, ultimately reassuring read. And I’m sure if you gave a copy of the book to the respondents of that 2020 newspaper survey, their answers would have been rather different.
The Maltese Falcon is a detective novel by Dashiell Hammett, published in 1930. Its central character is private detective, Sam Spade, whose version of morality sits somewhere between bureaucratic, box-ticking police procedure, and criminal illegality. The writing style reflects the Spades’s personality, the whole book narrated in dispassionate third person. We are never told about anyone’s thoughts, only seeing what people do, what they look like, and various precise details of their surroundings. If you have ever heard that piece of writers’ advice about showing and not telling, then The Maltese Falcon demonstrates how it’s done. It’s all showing. There is no telling.
With no fancy philosophising of any kind, The Maltese Falcon appears very straight forward, very “hard-boiled” to use the term usually applied to this kind of detective writing. But the thing is, the spare, unfussy nature of the book gives rise to all kinds of thoughtful ambiguities. After all there is nothing in the book to tell you what to think. You are left to draw your own conclusions. Whether it’s the difference between right and wrong, or between what’s important or unimportant, the book unobtrusively leaves you to challenge yourself on these matters.
This sums up why novels are valuable in describing human experience, and why they have a place up there with scientific studies and text books. With their characteristic quality of showing, they tend to open questions up rather than shutting them down, allowing the reader to explore conundrums that are, by their nature, difficult to pin down to final answers.