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In Joaquín Pérez Azaústre’s The Swimmers, a separation from his wife and stalling career send protagonist Jonás Ager into a kind of tense disconnect from his world and so he takes solace in swimming; this is not a Zen process or other spiritual journey but a connection between body and mind that he cannot find out of the water. Here he can “reduce himself to a pulse.”

Jonás is usually joined by a friend, Sergio, although their lives follow different trajectories, as Sergio is settled with a family and successful job, but when together…

They discussed where they saw themselves in the future, discovering that the same attitudes and behaviors could occasion the same auspicious results in apparently unrelated occupations: photographer and executive at a major insurance company.

This is not to say that Jonás is striving, or envious of his friend’s success, nor is the novel about the development of their relationship, even though that relationship consequently does. If anything, these sentences work to express Jonás’s further detachment from the sort of life the two men previously dreamed about. Interestingly, his detachment does not remain a figurative matter, but is dealt with again and again by Azaústre. It infiltrates the novel’s construction and prose rhythms, creating a kind of recursion that mirrors the movement of swimming as phrases accumulate and gather a steady pace, sometimes turning laps over the pages.

Since Jonás’s career has stalled, the reasons for which are only hinted at, an opportunity arises for a way back into photography. Jonás summons a name for his work – Reality Without Actors – which the inspirations and implications of become hazy: How much do we draw inspiration from life in art and how much does art influence our view on life? Jonás’s thoughts tumble and accumulate and he decides to:

…try to capture the settings separated from the cast: when the performance is done the stage so often continues on, defiantly, still bearing the traces of its protagonists.

It is not just a question of photographic art, but the art of the novel, and indeed the boundaries of artifice. Azaústre implies that the novel could be read as a meditation on photography; Barthes’s Camera Lucida is mentioned as a book on one of his mother’s bookshelves, and indeed Barthes is an influence. The point of view is strictly Jonás’s, and the fictional world is in control of Jonás and his detachment. But his art gives him back some level of control as the world starts to depopulate, like the premise (or hypothesis?) of his exhibition.

Things come to a head when his mother disappears (it is also worth mentioning that Camera Lucida was also a personal eulogy to Barthes’s mother), which is where the questions of metafiction interject. In Zadie Smith’s essay “Two Directions for the Novel” she says of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, a book immediately drawing parallels, that,

…it forces us to recognise the space as a non-neutral thing – unlike realism which often ignores the specificities of space. Realism’s obsession is convincing us that time has passed. It fills space with time.

How then does Azaústre fill his pool of the novel; who are the swimmers and what are they swimming in?

Searching for his mother, Jonás investigates her apartment, where the usual family relics are not, in this case, given any emotional symbolism but instead revolve around water. Barthes’s influence is obvious from his work in mythologies. As Jonás comes across the television stand, “out of habit,” he opens the door and finds a video inside that is “the first sign of life he has encountered… there is another life on this tape, the possibility of another existence” (psychoanalysts might be inclined to read into this more).

So what is the remainder in this case? Other reviews have likened Azaústre to Murikami, and there is something of Camus, but as mentioned earlier, Tom McCarthy’s brilliant but under-appreciated Remainder draws a lot comparisons. The geography of The Swimmers is not as important as it is in Remainder, but they both question the environment of the novel and the world, and also ask when does our act of everyday living stop, and if so how do we carry out that act? It is best said here by Jonas, “it’s not a ghost town – but rather a theatre where the actors have disappeared or vanished into thin air.”

This idea is perhaps best elucidated by Marius the doorman. We do not know anything about him, at least for the majority of the novel apart from his ceaseless reading of novels that are “typically about voyages or sometimes mysteries or detective stories, although he much prefers science fiction.” And Jonás and Marius’s interactions are always the same; Marius never reciprocates Jonás’s questions because:

…his only concern is that such interruptions last more or less thirty seconds, or a minute if Jonás stops to check his mail; that’s the time it typically takes Jonás to cross the foyer and leave the doorman behind, once again absorbed in an alternate universe.

In this way, the minutiae of Marius’s life is deconstructed and made subjective like every other actor, but we as the reader become aware of him, and aware of the Mariuses in our lives, and our own subjective existence to others.

Jonás seems to find power in the collective; of water and seemingly, people. His dad tells him he “was on the wrong side” in the protests, and for whatever reason he lost his job at the newspaper. It is that detachment though; how much of it is willed by Jonas, or even can it be willed? Is it only through swimming that Jonás can reduce himself to the pure self to which he has either descended or willed? Indeed, to the pulse he desires at the start of the novel. What are the waters that we as swimmers swim with and against? This is the beauty of how Jonás uses swimming, not as a physical act, but an internal, psychological act.

Toward the end, however, The Swimmers loses some focus. Because of the way in which Azaústre chooses to “fill” his novelistic space, and drive his point home, the style does become slightly laboured in the final parts; whilst it is wonderfully weighted and pleasing, it can also slow the pace in places where it doesn’t need to. And even once borders on the absurd as Jonás, in a tense situation, finds time to disseminate, with detail, the notes of the whisky he is drinking. Along with this, the metaphors about water and an over-reliance on the colour blue, become strained and tired toward the close; “sky blue” for instance pops up noticeably often in the final pages.

So we are left with The Swimmers as a title. Deceptively mainstream looking, but it tells everything; it is not possessive, it is not the swimmer attaining something, like a novel of realism would fulfil. Zadie Smith said of Remainder’s antithesis, the lyrically realist, contemporary novels (she was specifically talking about Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, but I generalise) which are only ‘‘partially aware of the ideas that underpin them and always want to comfort us, to assure us of our beautiful plenitude.’‘ The Swimmers, like Remainder, is fully aware of its own ideas.

Ironically, The Swimmers is listed under Amazon’s “Thrillers and Mysteries” section; those seeking that type of novel in the strictest sense will be disappointed, but so will those seeking the lyrical realist novel, despite the prose being very pleasing and “arty.” Instead, Azaústre chooses to fulfil us, not with emotion, but with essential metafictional questions of the novel, and essential questions of life. This is not a novel that will make you feel good about yourself along those lines of “beautiful plenitude,” nor will it solve any superficial mystery, but it is undoubtedly a novel of essential fulfilment.

The Swimmers by Joaquin Pérez Azaústre is published by Frisch & Co, and is out now. This review originally featured on Necessary Fiction

The literary cinema of Peirene rumbles on with The Dead Lake, part of it’s new 2014 series ‘Coming of Age: Towards Identity’. The first in the series, The Dead Lake  begins in a way that rings bells with the a growing trend in modern cinema; the based on a true story epitaph. Postmodern cinematic trends aside, the movies rely on these epitaphs in ways that the novel does not because we are expecting to be suspended in fictional reality with a novel. The movie increasingly needs to add credibility to it’s tired Hollywood vehicle. However two non-fictions here are the brief paragraph at the beginning that details the history of Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site; 468 nuclear explosions were carried out there, and that Kyrgyzstan born Hamid Ismailov is exiled from Uzbekistan. As you continue to read, another pertinent truth of sorts emerges.

They add another arc to this self-conscious, fable-esque novella (exquisitely translated by Andrew Bromfeld) that is as much a story as it is a mediation on the art ofnarrative and story-telling. An immediate referential opening sets this in motion with the opening line; ‘The story began in the most prosaic fashion possible.’ Once upon a time there was a story, another story in the world of stories. Our principle, first-person narrator is on a train journey. Into his fourth day on the train a ‘ten or twelve year old boy’ appears in the carriage playing Brahms on his violin. Speaking to him it transpires that the boy is a twenty-seven year old man who sets out to tell his story.

Yerzhan was born in a barren outlet on the East Kazakhstan Railway line that consists of two families; Yerzhan’s and his childhood love Aisulu’s family. Nobody seems to know how Yerzhan was conceived – nobody knows his father, no-one perhaps ‘except God’, which summons Granny Sholpan to invent stories about his arrival. but he was found in ‘The Zone’, which is also where Uncle Shaken works carrying out nuclear tests. Intermittent booms, which are test bombs (on most occassions) persist through the story, like all the other noises that awaken Yerzhan, like the ear for the violin he has that awakens the narrator to him. He associates a gadfly ‘that became the droning word: Zone…And the word began buzzing around in the child’s imagination’. The fly gets stuck in Yerzan’s dreams, and with it so does his fear of the Zone. The transfer of language to noise to crystallized experience.

One day Yerzhan is finally taken to the zone that torments his childhood, “and the gullies and ravines brought them to the zone that had tormented Yerzhan’s boyish curiosity like a gadfly for all these years”. This is Uncle Shaken’s workplace and the nuclear testing site is being used in case of an imminent war with America, where the point is constantly battered home by patriotic Shaken. This is the moment Yerzhan arrives in the zone “Has Aisulu seen this?” he asked Uncle Shaken fearfully. The man shook his head. ‘If we don’t simply catch up with the americans and then overtake them,’ he added in his usual manner, ‘the whole world will look like this’. The prophetic visions of war resemble the earth’s terminus, but Shaken, is unshaken in his duty to serve the government by working at the site.

One blast, distinctly more powerful than the others interrupts school lessons that Yerzhan and Aisulu are in. As a result, their class is taken on a school trip to where Shaken works and they are explained about Nuclear testing site. Finally toward the evening they are shown, what the novella lends it’s title to, the dead lake; a crater as a result of a bomb filled with unhealthy, unnatural water. In a daring moment of bravado by Yerzhan, which it is difficult to surmise why he does it, he takes off his shirt and walks into the lake. It isn’t just dead in appearance, but it is dead in the sense that it kills any kind of growth in Yerzhan (there is a vicious irony when Yerzhan is taken to a doctor and told that the growth zones in his body are dead) and why the narrator knows Yerzhan as the dwarfed talented violin player.

This pivotal moment is also where Ismailov’s writing is showcased. It is in these moments that the complex political nature of the test site is laid out for the school children in it’s basic terms, and the ‘chain reaction’ of the events that would set in motion a world war, and where they are expected to abide by it.The children are shown a video about nuclear war, but how Yerzhan cannot understand the greater meaning of the demonstration , ”They were shown a film about the peaceful use of nuclear power. Some of the children had never watched a film before and the rustling of the sound and the quick scene changes frightened them and they cried”. Brilliant writing of the highest quality: The blend of irony with an overwhelming, belated sadness.

The implications of Yerzhan’s stumped growth as he watches other children and Aisulu grow up quite literally as Yerzhan does not, retaining the consciousness of an older person but not fulfilling it in height. It’s a question that not only Yerzhan deals with, but is enveloped in the greater one that the likes of Uncle Shaken are trying to answer and justify in their pursuit of America. It is one that has particular resonance at the moment, and one that Ismailov has commented on, with the Winter Olympics in Russia. If the financial crash has taught us anything it has taught us nothing. Instead it has strengthened leaders egotism on the world stage. They are more willing to show that cost does not effect their treasuries, and at the same time more than willing to gloss over the clear fact, denies those who really need the money. The Winter Olympics has cost Russia £30 billion. How much of this will go to the workers, migrants and Russians building these in hideous labour conditions for a paltry sum? Not as much as is likely to go to the corporate companies, and sponsors on all levels of the corruption spectrum. Let us not forget the scandal over LGBT persons rights in Russia in the sense that they don’t have any. Talks of boycotting by other nations are quickly quelled as they go on the pursuit to, once again, strengthen their countries credentials by the pursuit gold medals. They’re all playing the same games on a sporting but also political level. Great Britain for one has an embarrassing presence at Winter games, yet still feel the need to go and compete for the three medals it is aiming for, when a boycott may just show it’s regard, for once, it’s recognition of human value over the egotistical assumption of sporting and national glory. Could we not go 4 year’s without 3 gold medals? We’re all caught up in these games of ideology whether we like it or not as citizens. As is most often in these cases, and as Ismailov openly admits, it is not the elites who pay the price, it is those at the bottom, like in the case of Yerzhan. He is the chain reaction as he admits at one point.  Interchange any world leader saying ‘One day we will take over America’ for Uncle Shaken. And this is not just something that happens to those behind the old iron curtain. This is something all our countries are responsible for, but sport is a great source of monetary capital, a great big advertising vehicle. This is not just something refined to the old iron curtain as the west would have us believe.Britain shoddily treated it’s security staff expecting voluntary work, then giving the best seats to corporate sponsors who failed to show up on most occasions, and Britain has an unrelenting belief in itself as a powerful nation. And look at the continuing scandal of IDS: Iain Duncan-Smith.

Towards the end, Ismailov finds time to ask metafictional questions in a more blatant manner, as the first person narrators intrusion becomes problematic. There are stories within stories in here, but they all seem to emanate when characters get bored, like the narrator on the long train journey. And to return to that opening, ‘the story began in the most prosaic fashion possible’; is that not just the modern day debunking of ‘Once upon a time’? It’s the stories that we tell ourselves of our own existence but also the stories that nations tell themselves, and we’re all expected to go with it and be patriotic citizens. The overwhelming point Ismailov seems to be getting across then is to deconstruct these stories, the ‘beautiful lies’ as Althusser might call it, and uncover real truth’s behind narratives. This is why writers like Ismailov are exiled from nations, because the governments cannot bear these truths being exposed.  Ismailov’s writing draws parallels with that other famous exile, Salman Rushdie.

In this fable of sorts, the moral if we are to assume one is clear: the cost of human life is so often less regarded than the cost of pursuing and building our nations. But if Ismailov is demonstrating to us the strength of storytelling, he has done it an almost implausible manner; maybe a lot of it is down to the timing of this review, but the overriding moral of it is timeless.

All this in the novella. But this is not a championing, or surpassing of one form over the other, it is rather just the brilliant and powerful art of fiction In whatever length or form and it’s ability to illuminate truth’s like no other medium can. These really are beautiful lies.

If you’re wanting justification for novels, stories and writers in the modern day technological, capitalist world, here is one of them.

The Dead Lake (122pp) by Hamid Ismailov, translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield is published by Peirene Press (£12.00 rrp) and is released on the 27th February 2014.  Hamid Ismailov is also the BBC’s Writer in Residence and works for the World Service.

Thank you to Peirene Press for providing a review copy.

Having The Spirit.

The ideology of a piece can be determined in some cases more obvious than others. Newspapers are easy because we’re already accustomed and know what to expect when we pick up a certain paper, and is usually the reason we pick up that newspaper. And I am sure you will be able to detect my beliefs in some of the reviews and longer posts. Indeed, as Orwell said, everything is political, even saying that you are not political.

The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone by Richard Wilkinson, and Kate Pickett, book argues, as the title suggests, that instead of living in a society where inequality is better for a few, live in a society where equality is better for all. Since it’s release, it has generated a wide range of controversy, support and criticism. I’m not going to go into a full discussion of the book, it’s there to be read, and there to challenge or support whatever views you have. Their central thesis is obvious though, that rising inequalities in ‘developed’ western nations is responsible for a whole range of demographic problems, from teenage pregnancies to mental illness. Wilkinson and Pickett use a wide range of statistics to demonstrate their point.

These statistics have come under the fiercest scrutiny, as is standard for statistical support for anything. Statistics are there to be disputed. Predictably it has also come under fierce opposition from the right. Christopher Snowdon, from the Washington based think-tank Democracy Institute, published a book The Spirit Level Delusion: Fact-checking the Left’s New Theory of Everything, and also produces a blog which regularly tries to disseminate Wilkinson’s and Pickett’s findings.

Another notable critic is Charles Moore, who, in the Daily Telegraph declared it ‘a more socialist tract than an objective analysis of poverty’. This is the Charles Moore who published an 896 page biography of Margaret Thatcher (that’s just the first volume). You know, that Margaret Thatcher of Thatcherism.

There is a famous quote attributed to Twain and Disraeli, that Is overused but it rings pertinently true; ‘there are lies, damned lies, and statistics’. Numbers boost arguments, because numbers can’t lie. I did an undergraduate degree in Psychology, a subject that is over-reliant on statistics to support it’s claims. Now, I am studying a postgraduate course that is basically a criticism of the whole mainstream approach of psychology, because we claim, it is embedded in a paradigm of individualism that does nothing to empower those who need empowering. It is served by it’s statistical methods which dehumanise it’s population samples:  it is ‘critical psychology’ and in doing so we are explicit about our ideology, whereas mainstream psychology isn’t. By exposing one ideology can expose another.

Not that I am trying to generalise the left’s position to say that statistics are not required, but instead shows that they can be manipulated to satisfy our own ends on either side of the spectrum. Nor am I saying this is what Wilkinson and Pickett do, because they demonstrate that inequality is bad for the majority of people.

Do we really need statistics to show that inequality is bad? A conscientious observer of the world just needs to look around them, and think. Think for themselves. It’s not a matter of academic bickering which important social issues, or often did in psychology, become most of the time; taken away from the real world to be fought over technicalities in academic journals.

Wilkinson and Pickett have set up the Equality Trust that campaigns to reduce income inequality, and in turn improve the quality of life for all. Why would we need statistics to prove this? People in the lowest rung of society are constantly lambasted and told that is there fault (you might want to see Zoe Williams piece in the Guardian about what the ban on smoking in cars really means. This is exactly it though; laws that seem to be universally good, are shrouded in rhetoric, when in effect it is more prejudice against the lowest earners of society). Channel 4 broadcasts a programme called Benefits Street which justifies peoples assumptions that all people on benefits are of no use to society and are scrounging off it. There are people that exploit the benefit system, but the overwhelming majority of them do not. It seems that even by taking benefits, by ‘accepting them’ you are exploiting the system, and then what else do you accept? Have you seen all those people in benefits In their council built ivory towers? The term benefits itself is a derogatory and patronising word. We can even go as far to say that if Channel 4 were to do a second series of Benefits Street, they could set it in Buckingham Palace.

The world didn’t wake up after the financial crash. It went back into it’s shocked lumber of believing that growth is the only way (Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom puts it nicely in that In most cases, growths are thought of as bad; cancer, the population, yet capital growth is not). There seems to be no alternative for the left anymore. Labour wasn’t responsible for the financial crash, but it sure enjoyed the free-market ride. I could try and put it into my words, but i am going to borrow off Gore Vidal, the American essayist; when he was covering the Blair election campaign was asked, how similar is British politics to America’s, he replied that ‘well you do resemble us in that you now have a single party with two right wings’. Blair’s ‘New Labour’ was the third way championed by Anthony Giddens. Blair himself in that election was a man who had gone to public school and cavorted with the elites that we often deride for being out of touch with the ‘real world’.

The Conservative leader, John Major, was the one with the humbler background. So Blair shrouded policies in a left-wing rhetoric of equality. Look at education; by getting more young people in higher education in middle ground institutions, he created fodder for the middle-classes. The middle income ones sat at a desk earning a ‘respectable salary’, that as a collective whole will reap a lot of taxes and keep in line the idea that the only way is up. This is something I did. A steady degree, at a steady institution (I am not criticising any of these institutions. The ones that have served me are both brilliant environments to study and educate, and brilliant places to experience and live), but when the crash came, there was no jobs for all these degrees. These degrees, suddenly did not look that prestigious.

So here are some of my reasons for supporting the Equality Trust. And don’t be mistaken, i’m not donating masses of sums to it because i cannot afford to. It’s minimal, and frees up lots of other charitable money that you might reserve for other causes. I am sure, and hope, that there are plenty more trusts and groups supporting this kind of cause, or even a genuine political party, it is just that I picked up this book and swayed my beliefs, like effective political arguments are meant to do. They are not political party, but I believe it is certainly political.

As Gore Vidal finished in his essay, simply titled Blair, he wrote: “Question I never got answered by anyone: You are an offshore island. But off whose shore? Europe’s or ours?”

The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (2009) by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett is published by Allen Lane (£10.99 rrp). The Equality Trust website can be found here:http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/

Gore Vidal’s essay ‘Blair’  was originally published in The Nation (27th May, 1997), and retrieved from the collection of essays ‘The Last Empire’ published by Vintage.

Ulysses 2.0

There are several books that are a hallmark on any readers shelf, and I mean any readers in the sense of every reader. No matter how educated, number of degrees, languages spoken, there are a select roster of books that people boast about having read, where many others have fallen at numerous hurdles. A lot of  the time this comes either down to style, like William Faulkner’s, The Sound and The Fury, only 336 pages, or even something like Pynchon’s The Crying Lot of 49 at 129 pages which sets you up for the mind bending Gravity’s Rainbow. Or it can just be length like the eponymous War & Peace. More often than not, it is a combination of the two, and you probably know what I am building up to. Yes, Yes I am.Yes.

That will give it away if you have read It all or just the last page, – Ulysses – what else. Joyce’s masterpiece. Finnegan’s Wake is arguably harder to read, incomprehensible in some quarters, and you would probably be forgiven for not completing it, but Ulysses for any serious fiction lover, is something that has to be done, and has to be conquered. One thing that unites all these is that seem to define periods of style, and in this case Ulyssesis a text that defines modernism.

I’m not going to embark on a critical appreciation of Ulysses like a twat that i sometimes think i am, because it is irrefutably brilliant. But I am going to boast a bit. One of the most enriching reading experiences that you will ever have: Joyce produces feats of language via parody, allegory, alluding to the Greek epic of the The Odyssey. The great journey for man Joyce believed in the modern era was accomplished in one day. One day is spanned over 900 pages (Penguin modern classics edition), and not One Day in the sense of that trashy romance novel.

Kevin Jackson in
The Consellation’s of Genius(2012)provides an interesting perspective, In the format of a diary of the year 1922, and how Ulysses challenged every convention in the aesthetic, thematic, and religious sense, with critics branding him a ‘pornographer’ and ‘blasphemer’ amongst other things. Virginia Woolf famously did not take to Ulysses before emulating the modernist style. Of course time is one of the best judges of quality, and Ulysses and Joyce’s name remains today synonymous not just with modernism but with great literature. Ulysses being pornographic in this day in age just looks utterly ludicrous and perhaps a testament to if something is genuinely good, no matter how much the critics maul it, whoever the critic maybe, the work will last longer than the critic, which is evidently the case here.

Or at least, that is the case for the 20th century. 2014 is a different world where time and money are inextricably linked. People are only willing to invest their time into something short, or something technological. Everybody now is a critic via the medium of social networking. So am i via this pithy, pretentious blog. People can issue death threats with the click of 140 registered taps of a keypad to something or someone they truly do not like. It’s old news that the book is dying out like the news that oil is going away, but they both seem to keep on coming from somewhere. What Is dying out though? The novel, or the book form. Let us consider these two.

Well actually, I will refrain from that for one moment. Because there is something else I did for the first time over the christmas holidays – I viewed It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). The film makes an appearance every holiday season. Unlike other critically acclaimed classic films (sentimentality seems to be the most pervasive reason to show a film at Christmas, so much sentimentality, it makes me sick) it continually reappears on screens. ‘Critically acclaimed’ films don’t get so frequent run outs. When was the last time you saw Citizen Kane get prime time showing? Actually i can remember one instance, but that’s beside the point.

It’s a Wonderful Life in line with the running theme, did not do well on it’s release. The FBI also did not like the film . To prepare for the McCarthyism that would follow, they interpreted it as having Marxist undertones, and this essay on Salon perhaps justifies (the most terrifying movie ever!) whilst also elucidating the brilliance of the film. Despite what seems a cliché title, is perhaps more ironic than people believe, the ‘real world’, as the Salon article echoes is the one that George Bailey sees without his influence. Potterville is the real world – the one of corruption, and George resumes his fantasy where he believes he is having a benevolent influence on the world. Maybe it’s over cynical, but the uplifting feeling that we receive at the end of the film is only through several ‘transactions’ that George has to make. That sentimental feeling at the end comes at a price. Capra could even be accused of trading our feelings as a commentary on the movie business and what it expects of us. We pay money to see a film to get whatever feeling that genre promises. As the Salon article says, as a result of helping George, Clarence gets his wings: would the angel have done it otherwise?

This was 1947 when the world was recovering from the second world war. Any reader of George Orwell’s essays will know that some were hoping for an economically fairer world during the war, which could have been what Capra was hoping for. Instead Hollywood became a driving force for individualism and money making. Looking at it now, maybe the bubble is bursting with it’s continuous action-hero and franchise spinning. Alan Moore the famous comic-book creator who has seen his works adapted, warned of this, and now recently has sought to distance himself from the public eye. Arguably he is on left, looking at V for Vendatta as an example, illuminates his position.

The dream continued. Britain got the NHS, but now that anagram looks more suited to a lower case ‘nhs’. It’s an odd, and subjective synthesis I find with these two. If it wasn’t such a short period of time between experiencing them, I doubt there would be any way I would conjoin them in this post, but like some commercial existentialism hanging over it was the Christmas period. A time of the year where we are overtly told to buy, buy, buy or you are not providing a good Christmas for people you love. Emotional bribery, which is imbued in a transaction, like poor George Bailey.

The challenge i endured in December, to complete Ulysses is about to get harder; books dying; people getting ipads and tablets, and other technology for Christmas over the simple, weighty book. It’s nothing new. And Ulysses is weighty. That one day in Dublin transpiring over 900 pages.

Ironically, books are probably being bought more than ever, as ipads, and kindles are stocked with cheaper books, but now books involve electricity, and are not just dead trees. Dead trees were once technology, and were conceived as the ultimate form to carry the story. Publishing houses can explore the book in new ways, and the book, instead of art, or simply just a novel, will become a production. It will be interactive and it will be credited to a team of producers. A team of people can produce it, like they produce video games and movies. Along with this, the online, computer technology will allow marketing companies to invade the book with promotional material.

Value is a distorted concept – value only means cheapness. Time is money, and cheap thrills can be obtained by apps now, as opposed to the longevity and weightiness of a book. Public spaces are filled with people nose down in illuminated portals of light. We’re happy to allow our governments invade our privacy without letting us know, and then we’re happy to let the man who brought all this to our attention, to be sent into exile. We mock the Occupy movement and call them nuisances when they’re standing against poverty and inequality gaps in our supposed wealthiest nations. We accept the status quo as non-political, when it is overtly political.

And I suppose there is a tenuous link I am making here between the physical presence of a book, and it’s cultural value, to it’s disappearance by the replacement of expensive, technological value, but it is my tenuous link, my subjective experience. We’re moving into a new age, where the grand narratives are to return, perhaps signposted by the likes of Jonathan Franzen and more recently Rachel Kushner. I am sure, and hope there are many more. The big themes abandoned in postmodernism appear to be coming back. This is welcoming, because more than ever, in the neoliberal society, where there was only the right way (the hideous euphemism of New Labour) needs to be shown as the wrong way. That’s not to say Joyce is not concerned with ideology, and his various imitations and parodies show the ideologies of language. We’re living in the free world, but nothing is free. We get told to donate money to foreign countries when, even at home, here in the UK, people are in poverty. But do we here anything about them (not that i’m saying don’t donate abroad)?

How do I conclude this? Ulysses is a hard and rewarding read and it is going to get harder, in fact impossible. People will have less time. Society will move on further from modernism, and it will become a more antiquated style. But above all this, you will not be able to get beyond the first 100 pages of this 700-900 page book because you will be disturbed by incessant fucking adverts, telling you what to buy next. Ulysses 2.0, here is the next odyssey. And when you realise, the physical book will be gone, incomprehensible to your technologised hands and vision. And now we’re all George Baileys, wondering what we are anymore, what influence we really have. Occupy Pottersville?

Who knows though Ulysses might become an app. Topple those words with birds, and the 900 pages will be gone in no time. Now we come to think of it, they really could make Ulysses pornographic.

Rudyard Kipling, one of the most prominent, pro-Empire poets in his poem Recessional (1897) warned the nation about the complacency of Imperialism.


If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,

Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the law,
Lord of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – Lest we forget.

Britain set it’s sights on India in the 1800′s and it became one of the most recognized aspects of the British Empire. The Empire now is something that splits the for side, backed by the likes of Jeremy Clarkson type figures, and then those who believe it is a hypocritical, blood thirsty regime. The former camp try and preserve and go as far as arguing it still lives on.

Debut novelist Srikumar Sen, deals with this backdrop in his novel The Skinning Tree. Already published with some prestige by Picador India, after it won the 2012 Tibor Jones South Asia Prize, open specifically to unsolicited novels, and now Alma have brought it to the UK.
Set in 1940′s Calcutta, and steeping that precarious line of autobiographical fiction. Sen is 81, and for some reason other reviewers are finding this a key point in their reviews to make. Indeed it Is not the norm for a debut, but Sen has clearly found reason to publish his first novel, because he has something to say (there is also an odd Youtube promotional video detailing the novel and Sen’s life if you’re into that sort of thing). He might also be a familiar name to some after working for the Guardian and The Times as a boxing correspondent.

It with a spoiler pf sorts“Murder was the plaything of us kids…Then one day it happened. Sister Man was found on the rocks below.” Nicely disorienting at first. You know that when Sister Man comes onto the scene her fate is secured. But Sen obviously sets it up as retrospect, and unfortunately means that after the first 9 pages, shrouded in sombre and moodiness settle into something a lot more innocent, taking the reader on a journey as to how Sabby got to that point. Shifting from the first person to the third, which creates an interesting detachment between Sabby’s old and new self from ‘the child that I was’ being ‘shaped by the forces the surround me’.

The environment in question is Calcutta, or ‘Cal’ referred by him and his friend Henry Douxsaint (a conspicuously non-Indian name). From here onwards, death exisentially overhangs the novel; there is the advances of the Japanese on Calcutta which is referred to loosely by Sabby, the remnants of the British Empire, and the aforementioned death of Sister Manning.

Sabby has an odd way of looking at Calcutta though; he believes India to be in England “India was in England, and India and England were in Cal…He didn’t know where he got that name England, from. He must have read it somewhere, or heard about it somewhere or someone told him about it, or perhaps it was because in reality he was living in England all the time.” It becomes clear that this is an imperialised world;  in the schools they are taught about the great British ‘explorers’ like Livingstone. England is mythical to him, as mythical as the people he reads about in his comic books like Captain Marvel which provide him with the only genuine moments of escapism.

War creeps into Sabby’s existence, through the impending Japanese invasion. Sabby must be sent off to a boarding school. Sabby’s worlds are ruptured and himself as the central aspect of them is a folly “That was when Sabby realised he wasn’t as important as he believed himself to be in the world. He wasn’t in England anymore. In England he made all the decisions…”. What follows is his expulsion from Cal, his England, to the boarding school, and the transition to the boarding school in Northern India. In between that there is a slightly over-symbolic, sentimental train journey, where Sabby is caught between being depicted as a war-torn evacuee, and then as a person still in control of his worlds despite it falling all around him.

At the boarding school, the action, and themes begin to develop. When the train stops in Ajmer ‘Sabby became aware of being very far away from home, because Ajmer was a very Indian city’, and ironically it is very unfamiliar to Sabby with it being very Indian. One of the few untouched parts of the British Empire in India. Sabby is exposed to authority, in the form of the Brothers. The Brothers of the boarding school are teachers, disciplinarians and priests; they are the ultimate form of authority in his world, which also means the ultimate form of rebellion.

Sabby becomes exposed to the ‘real world’, his coming of age. The reality of the Empire that was something that made Britain, Great – that is reality. The phrase ‘That is the reality of it…’ is a powerful discursive device. Sen shows in The Skinning Tree reality for some is a lot more unrealistic for others and reality isn’t always fair.

Likenesses have been made with William Golding. It’s ironic that for me that it evoked several British writers prominent at the time of the British Empire.  The increasingly macabre images that build up become more noticeable until the explicable act, but with the constant reminder that these are children trying to operate in a world, not just of adults, but that has been corrupted by adults and they are on their own to an extent. There was certainly an evocation of George Orwell’s Burmese Days for me in highlighting the contradictions of the Empire, and when Sabby is removed from the town, it could be the school in Kyauktada. There is also a Dickensian element in the early stages, when Sabby is in Cal,
“The customers of the stall stood around outside drinking tea out of earthen cups, lighting their biris and cigarettes from the smouldering rope coil the shop man put there and throwing their cups to the edge of the pavement where dogs and crows sniffed around ; the customers of the bigger shop were served inside”.
Sen, in an interview, with British newspaper
The Independent, stated that when he started writing it, it was much too long “His wife and their two sons cut it down to 64,000 words” which is interesting, because there are a couple of moments where it appears slightly hurried and one particular point when Sabby is beginning to settle in, and then forget about home, his epiphany, could have done with more elucidation.

Still, Sen’s prose rarely strays into the hyperbolic; it refrains from trying to be too complex, at times could be criticized for being slightly journalistic. This is minor this Sen, like the greats and conscientious of Great British authors at that time, it captures the hypocrisy of the Empire, but also the act of coming of age in such times, and the great contradictions of world power.

The Skinning Tree (248pp) is published by Alma and is out now (£7.99)

Rudyard Kipling’s poem Recessional taken from Lawrence James’ (1994), The Rise and Fall of the British Empire published by Abacus.

Amended several times.

Question Time, that stablemate of political Thursday nights on British television can be said to have several purposes. No doubt in its original radio format (which still exists as Any Questions) it was devised as a ‘method’ of democracy; a way to get politicians from the broad strata in front an audience of ordinary people. And I use ordinary in a very loose term ( a study on the demographics of an audience might be interesting). The problem though is when that transition to television happened. It gave politicians more air time, more time to get their face in prime time slots to promote their party. Plus, in the transition to television, a fifth member of the panel was added from four, which now usually comes in the form of a devil’s advocate, somebody not aligned to any political party: Famous examples include Ian Hislop, Jarvis Cocker, John Lydon, and a recurring figure in recent times, making his most recent appearance on last nights show (26/09/2013),Will Self.

Will Self, a writer, named on Granta’s list of 20 ‘Best Young Novelists’, also has journalistic roots. Infamously, he was caught taking heroin on John Major’s jet whilst covering the 1997 election campaign, and now claims to clean. Most recently he was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012 for his novel Umbrella, and is Professor of Contemporary Though at Brunel University, where last nights Question Time, in Uxbridge was broadcasted. Joining him, or who Self was joining was, Michael Gove (Con), Douglas Alexander (Lab) standard, and then Patrick O’Flynn (an abhorrent mix of Express columnist and UKIP member) and Louise Cooper (Journalist of CooperCity, her own enterprise, on financial news).

Will Self was in typical, contrarian mood, best encapsulated on Newsnight when he ripped into Tessa Jowell about the expense of the Olympics, likening Ed Milliband to something from ‘Aardman Creations’ after being asked whether he would vote for them, and lamenting politicians finding it ‘physically painful to listen to discussions dragging it down to this domestic, political battlefield’ on the subject of the recent terrorist attacks in Kenya. Michael Gove was on particular form who was actually crediting opposition policies and being positive about Ed Milliband, which Will Self played right into his hands because Gove was trying to play the good politician all night.

Will Self was being overtly cynical about politicians. In the end it became Self himself against Gove like a unionist leader of good politicians; Michael Gove was standing up for all politicians. Gove in an audience winning outburst to Self said “Will, well you’re well known for playing to the gallery, populist position taking and for trying to denigrate politicians. I’m standing up for a politician from a different party, against the sort of cynicism that you pedal in the hope that will make you popular with this audience who will buy your books…” to which the audience, after siding with the advocate in the form of Self were now persuaded to side with Gove. Self’s applauses now were reduced to something like an avant-garde of breakaway clappers, the minimalist opposition. And this is what Self was warning the audience about. The politicians essentially owned the debate and rhetoric. Gove was extremely clever and won the argument becoming this owner of the rhetoric which reflects western society today.

Now, this Is the problem with ‘democracy in action’ masqueraded on shows like Question Time, because it gives the politicians more time to perform. Self was representing a portion of society that has had enough with the carefully controlled discourse and speech that politicians use. Question Time Is a format in front of an audience that politicians struggle to receive, 2.7 million viewers is a lot in a society that reluctantly admits to engaging with politicians, and in doing so, they are performing. Granted, Self is performing in a way to distance himself from the politicians. His trademark sesquipedalinism apparent with ironic humour, but it is not done in such manner like Gove says it is. The inadvertent affect would be that people search on Google, find out he is a writer, read some of his columns, and buy some of his books like Gove says, but it is not in a manner that the politician does to promote himself and his party. Self is openly a writer, but the politicians like Gove or conceited, and devious to conceal their true purpose, using their rhetoric to hide the true meaning of their policies and ultimate self-promotion, and promotion of their party’s leader. Gove’s job is on the line by appearing on these shows where Self’s isn’t. A great example is how the Tories use the economic debate as showing that the deficit has gone down and there does seem to a recovery for our economy, but living standards are going down. The rich are rich and the poor are poorer. We are not better off as a result of the economy and we are indeed worse off.

It all came to a head in the aforementioned terrorism debate. Self was essentially saying that he, and we should have, had enough of politicians using the terrorism debate as a way to promote their party and colonialist desires to invade other countries. Patrick O’Flynn audaciously said ‘The birds are coming home to roost” about warnings of Londonistan”. UKIP viciously anti-immigration, and adding the suffix of ‘-istan’ to London, implies that countries that end in ‘istan’ are the source of terrorism. If London was flooded with people from Pakistan then it would be a source of terrorism is what he seems to be saying. The politicians reinforced their arguments by referring all terrorist activity to Islam and talked of the policy that centred on targeting and implicitly surveying Islamic communities to find sources of terrorism, which Self rightly said is wrong, we already live in a heavily surveyed and monitored society. When Self said this, Gove then imbued his argument with extreme, fear inducement in the form of 9/11; how can Self talk about terrorism in such a way that he seems to dismiss 9/11/? Its the oldest rhetorical trick in the book; a strong emotional point to add guilt to the opposing speaker and completely undercut his argument. When Gove told Self that they had all had enough of him, the audience rapturously clapped to which Self remarked in a Wild-West accent “well lets take this outside then”.

Louise Cooper conforming to typical journalistic devices said that she ‘wouldn’t want her child dying’ as a result of not believing the governments measures to stop terrorism. It is nausea inducing and its another old, used trick. Self – ‘lets not speak from the high moral ground of your anticipated future loss’ in an effort to debunk Cooper’s inflated, unneeded claims. Her speech was comical, full of dramatic pauses, coming across like a red top journalist as opposed to an intelligent financial commentator.

To encapsulate the hypocrisy on show, a member from the audience, of Kenyan nationality said that ‘these people [terrorists] are evil, they don’t represent any faith on this earth’, and i must clarify that he was on about the terrorists. This inspired in a weird reversal of roles the politicians clapping to his response. The audacity and ludicrousness of it all; Where the politicians and the journalists had claiming that Islam was a source of terrorism were now clapping a man saying that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam and is pure evil.

It all comes down to this horrid debate of race which is shaping up to be the key debate at the next election. UKIP are anti-immigration, claiming that a crime wave will hit us at the expense of a Romanian/Bulgarian invasion when they join the EU.The Conservatives are sending vans around London telling people of ethnic origins to ‘go home’. The Labour party however is using the slogan ‘One Nation’ which they took from the Tories favourite Tory Benjamin Disraeli, which rather than a clever piece of political rebranding, just reflects the parties occupying the centreground . One Nation, now, implies one homogenous mass of peoples prescribing to the same values and beliefs, the belief in being British. A lovely piece of implicit nationalism.

It shows the extent to which our politicians ‘own’ rhetoric, jostling for the centreground, despite many commentators claiming that Ed Milliband was trying to take the party back down the left. But what is more homogenising than being ‘one’? Question Time does nothing but to give them more time to spew their image and policies and buff up their image. Audience participation is reduced to pre-selected, usual banal, open ended questions that allow the politicians to talk at the length and try and diminish the other parties on the panel. T.V is celebrity world; it is heavily edited and regulated, as the producers select the questions before the show, and there is some time raising hands, and the audience gets to add its input by either clapping or not clapping. That is all they are reduced to. The origins of the quote ‘Politics is show business for ugly people’ is disputed, but Self borrowed last night, and it encases the argument.

So the likes of Self are reduced to jesters, people who fool around and play jokes, wind up the politicians, which often, can put the politician in a bad light. But in the case of last nights show, it can put the politician in a good light. I’m not saying that all politicians are bad, what i’m saying is that in shows like Question Time which hides behind a façade of democracy is anything but that. It is a T.V show hinged on entertainment and allows the politicians to influence the rhetoric and discourse on how we view them and ourselves and other people like the immigration and race debate, because the audience are not clapping when something Is right, they’re clapping when something sounds good, when somebody seems to be taking a moral high ground, like in the case of Gove vs Self.

In the end we all come away feeling nothing like ourselves, warped into this world of propaganda, protecting a dangerous, concealed truth. Completely Self-less.

How a child constructs narrative of their lives is a hotbed for developmental psychologists, but in the literary sense Andrew Lovett gives us a curious example of storytelling and narration.

Lovett gives us clues as to what he is letting the reader in for with the first part of the book titled ‘A Game of the Imagination’. What ensues is a game; a game constructed by the narrator “I was nine years old the night my father died. Or ten. I don’t remember”, and these are the rules. His father is dead, and he is one of those ages, but that little ounce of doubt or question sets the tone for the rest of the story. And story is the operative word; a part mystery and part bildungsromman as Peter must come to terms with his father’s death, the mystery identity of ‘Alice’ and his own identity. Adding to this it is quoted by Lovett that it is partly based on his childhood which adds the sense of Lovett reconstructing that childhood adding more doubt and unreliability into the equation.

Peter’s mother decides to take her and Peter back to Amberley; a place where she apparently grew up in, that Peter has faint memories of. Peter’s mother also now becomes Aunt Kat with a ‘K’ that Peter at first struggles to comprehend. Anna-Marie Liddell, a resident of Amberley soon becomes a sidekick, or more so, Peter becomes the sidekick of the brazen and remarkably articulate girl. Their relationship constantly intrigues and something about it never seems to be realised. Her dominance over the male figure extends once Tommie starts to make up this triumvirate.

Their activities centre around a conspicuously named street, also lending itself to the title of the novel, Everlasting Lane. Despite claiming to be centred around Lovett’s childhood experiences, the name Everlasting Lane was surely intentionally and poetically named. Not necessarily the central metaphor for the characters choices they are required to make ( the predictable two paths they must choose to go down, left or right, does happen). There seems to be an underlying quest to get to the end of it, which they don’t seem to be able to do.

Behind the facade of sweetness and innocence, Peter’s unreliability is a devilishly brilliant piece of narrative device. This is not to say he is corruptibility bad in any way, but like behind the sepia tinge of a Polaroid photo lies the reality of being a child. The unnoticed and noticed dilemma’s, moral choices when you don’t even realise as moral and the mastery of an imagination; when to infer from reality and the need to lose all reality. When the mystery of trying to find out who Alice is, like an adult Enid Blyton Famous Five escapade, Peter’s world is full of narrative and fiction blurring his reality. Peter constantly visualises  that moment of been half awake and half asleep as “Half-awake, half-asleep. ‘what is it? Like the moon: half sunlight, half midnight. All moon” like this splits his worlds. Still early in the novel, Peter then looks at the sun on the way back from Everlasting Lane “I felt as if i’d woken in one world and crossed into another and never even noticed the two meeting at the border”.

As a result, his worlds (worlds that he has ultimately constructed) become mixed up. Peter’s actions suddenly become embellished in famous fictional worlds but he still is controlling with constant references to famous fictional characters (Robin Hood and Columbo to name an eclectic two). If stabilising his imagination which the story is essentially reliant on – Peters imagination – emphasised when Peter looks at the tree’s and the physical world “There was something frightful about those woods: but it wasn’t the trees, threatening though they were. It was the shadows squeezed between them.” Peter goes onto to describe himself stumbling over the branches like ‘Frank Spencer’. But regardless of that irony, it is not the physical objects Peter is scared of, the trees which Anna-Marie warns to him as being ‘vicious’, but the non-physical elements – the shadows that the physical world creates. Peter’s fears, as if in a Freudian sense, what leaks through. Those shadows could be made to be anything at the power of his imagination.

With moments of bathos, and pathos in equal measure Peter continues to operate behind a veneer of naivety. War and death ultimately overhangs the whole novel with the death of Peter’s father and the games that Peter likes to play. Peter manages to construct a rather vivid scenario of a war game with Tommie, complete with other characters and dialogue
“Tommie and I had long suspected that Monsier Merdeux was nothing but a Nazi stooge and whilst we knew that Marianne was both brave and resourceful (and resourceful and brave) we had sworn to prevent her from walking into a fiendish –
‘What the hell are you doing?’ inquired Mademoiselle Le Dell In flawless English ‘Creeping up on me!’”.
Mademoiselle Le Dell transpires to be Anna-Marie, and their game descends into a genuine fight between Tommie and Peter. There seems to be a fine line between war as fun and war as war, shown here where they actually begin to physically fight, and the ever increasing want of the child to have a mastery of that adult world, because war is where they get their heroes and villains from which in turn informs their actions.

With Peter being ten years old, language plays a big part in the novel. Peter seems to have a grasp of an internal language ‘And yet, something of them remains, for sometimes when i’m drying I think i’m awake; and although my eyes are closed I believe them open’ and then in relaying his thoughts to Anna-Marie ‘The best I could was a kind of grunt.’ This dialectic between the inner and the outer language, like the Wittgenstein maxim of ‘the limits of my language are the limits of my world.’ is one of many dichotomies. Peter is in a world of people who have a greater mastery of language over him, and thanks to some interesting cameos from the many adult figures in his world (interestingly a lack of individual children apart from him, Anna-Marie and Tommie, and even Tommie comes across as an one dimensional) who shape Peter’s world. Two interesting cases exist in the form of Mr Merridrew and Mrs Carpenter.

Mr Merridrew is the Dawkins type figure of evolutionary reductionism, “In brief, although the concepts certainly exist there are no such things as good or bad in a Godless universe. There are merely shades of moral ambiguity…He looked at me, his eyes cold dark craters ‘You are so cock-sure that you are right and I am wrong, yet without God neither even exists. There is only chaos.” The antithesis of him, Mrs Carpenter, the domineering head teacher inspired with Christian doctrine, an evangelical who uses religion as a means of scaremongering children into order. In a fierce reprimanding for Anna-Marie “Your destination is not in doubt. I am confident’ she spluttered, fingering the crisp stitching of the leather strap, ‘that Lucifer is already sharpening his pitchfork” because without apparent faith as the religious like to tell us, “How can you live, child? Spluttered Mrs Carpenter. ‘How can you bear a life so…devoid of meaning?’” No wonder Peter and Anna-Marie struggle to make sense of this world. Narrative guides our lives, and we proscribe narrative to our life events but Mrs Carpenter represents the problems with religious narrative as a form of social order and why it deserves to fail as such

These dichotomies, plus the other characters thoughts and ways leave Peter in a kind of an abyss. With WWII what emerged was a world of extremes, and it essentially comes down to the relation between Lovett and Peter, like in a Spinozan kind of dualism. The narration allows Lovett to get away with things that wouldn’t have worked in third person, like using the abhorrent word ‘guesstimate’ which also might be an example of anachronism in the text.

At the other end of the novel Alice in Wonderland seems to inform the text. The unreliability of Peter comes to a head as the world he is constructing for the reader takes on an edge that I didn’t think was fully convicted and Lovett backed out of – almost a failed twist. There is also a lot of moralising. As Peter continually tries to make sense of the world, there are a lot of conversations that use lots of similes and metaphors to conceptualise the world for Peter, that do become slightly tiresome. I also didn’t particularly get the ending.

However it should not detract from a very good piece of fiction, handled with maturity and precision and another addition to the intriguing roster of Galley Beggar Press. The world is chaos, and as Everlasting Lane shows us, narrative and fiction helps us to add order to this chaos especially in the developing mind of a child. It keeps our brimming worlds in order, as long as we keep a foot In the real world. This is Peter’s world, and it is his world that you enter, finally,  on his terms.

Everlasting Lane by Andrew Lovett, published by Galley Beggar Press is out now (£11). Thank you to them for providing a review copy.

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