Partita for 8 Voices by Caroline Shaw is a vocal composition which I came across as theme music in the recent BBC drama Marriage. Immediately I went hunting for both the complete piece, and background information, discovering it was created over a number of years and released in 2012 by Caroline Shaw’s vocal group, A Roomful of Teeth. Partita won a Grammy, and 2013’s Pulitzer Prize for Music.
It was the opening of the piece that sent me off on my search – a snatch of apparently random and disconnected spoken words all resolving into many-voiced harmony. It soon became apparent that the opening words are not as random as they seemed. They are actually a combination of square dance calls and technical instructions given by artist Sol LeWitt to a draughtsman for completing one of his wall drawings. So there is order in those broken words which is soon reflected in the music of the arresting opening chord as the choir all come together. Part of Caroline Shaw’s inspiration for her Partita came from singing a Christmas Eve midnight mass at St Mary the Virgin on New York’s 45th Street, and then emerging into the lively chaos of the night-time city. That combination characterises Partita for 8 Voices. My first impression was of a collision of aimless chat, modern jazz and Gregorian chant, and that’s really what it is. It’s a coming together of the particular and the general, precise line drawing instructions alongside vague musical echoes from all over the world – moments of throat singing for example, as practised by ethnic groups in Russia, Japan, Canada, Mongolia, Italy and China. There’s old and new, lasting and transient, sacred and profane. Partita is like a big city, where so many people and influences combine in brightly lit, highly organised chaos.
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 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.
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 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.