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With the surge in the short story’s popularity, a current trend is for all the stories to be embedded in a unifying theme. Graham Swift, as the title suggests is tackling one big old subject. As we emerge out of the postmodern age, conceptions of British society, affected by more wars, multiculturalism, capitalism, nostalgic notions of dear Blighty have never looked so fractured. And let’s not forget UKIP’s emergence on the scene, as they capitalise on this.  Swift, instead of trying to answer any questions is, if anything, admitting that he doesn’t know himself, after watching the England he has written about over the years change and alter irrevocably.

The works span the length and breadth of England from Yorkshire to Yeovil. But it’s not the glorious England, nor is it necessarily the ugly England, it’s just the unexceptional England. Most of the characters are older, approaching retirement, with a consciousness of their declining years, not really having got anywhere. They’re usually confronting death or trauma, something that has carried on from his recent novels Last Orders and Wish You Were Here.

In under 300 pages,  there are 21 stories, which leaves them inconclusive and unresolved. Opening with ‘Going Up In The World’ , mundane England, or at least the mundane middle class lives of England that Swift wishes to capture, is laid out here. It’s an account imbued with irony as ‘going up in the world’ doesn’t refer to the meteoric success of the capitalist years in Britain but rather a window cleaning empire of the new skyscraper buildings that have left the ‘ordinary’ people behind.  Charlie is reminiscing the development of his relationship with Don, and how they ended up going up in the world physically and metaphorically, and as window cleaning business might allude to, they are looking from the outside in on this new world.

But to say it’s about the mundane lives of ordinary people, it’s not on the back of mundane events, because British history is hardly mundane. War existentially hangs over the stories; like Wish You Were Here which prominently addressed grief in the Iraq war and had that element of both the fascination and celebration of war and imperialism, it is also ultimately about it’s futile and mortal effects on ordinary lives. Prominently middle-class lives like in ‘Fusili’ as a man shops in Waitrose after the death of his son in Afghanistan.

If there’s one thing the British do generally, unequivocally celebrate, it’s the monarchy. In ‘Haematology’ William Harvey, Doctor of Physic writes to his cousin Colonel Edward Francis, The Council of Officers in the year 1649. William is exiled, and although the reasons are not made clear, it’s due to some kind of heresy against the King, in the name of science “there is heresy and heresy, there is dogma and dogma.” ‘Haematology’ is not there as a wildcard, or an experimentation of form; as all the stories hint toward being written recently under the agenda of ‘England’ (there’s a disconcerting semblance in ‘Yorkshire’ to the recent Jimmy Savile scandal),  it’s not there to make us aware of how England has developed, and become more liberal – it’s the opposite. This isn’t realism or a chronicle of British history, “We have no civility but a confusion of godliness and war. Such our new world,” says the exiled physician.

This slight disdain to authority permeates the stories.  It’s like a rejection of their older selves, that the young people didn’t want to become, but ultimately did, when their youth had no boundaries, no preconceptions . In ‘Ajax’, the naivete of a young person, it is assumed leads him into an almost deathly, juvenile trap because of the ‘weirdo’ next door. “”I was the undoing” the narrator said.” Mr Wilkinson does unconventional activities in his underpants, unconventional for a middle class suburb in the seventies at least. I don’t want to spoil the end of ‘Ajax’, but Mr Wilkinson is effectively guilty of being a weirdo in a rigid thinking society.

It seems the small act of communication that the protagonist tries to instigate in ‘Ajax’, which he is restricted from doing, carrying it out through his fence, an obvious symbol, is something that Swift is trying to urge throughout: if only we could communicate, and cultivate our community, wouldn’t understanding and a shared history be achieved? Indeed it breaks down borders, which England certainly has a problem in coming to terms with. Weather features often, highlighting this subject; obviously England’s cliche obsession with, but captures Britain’s ‘small-island syndrome’, and it’s xenophobic fear of it’s shores been flooded. But then what is the weather but the most banal of conversation starters in England.

It’s as if all this comes to a head in ‘Tragedy, Tragedy’, this loss of meaning in modern day society. Two blokes (that is what they simply are – blokes- no other term seems fitting) discuss the way papers always relate everything to tragedy”Ever feel there’s too much tragedy about” Mick says in their blokeish, everyman wisdom, which Swift is so adept at conveying,

“Tragedy’s about acting too. It’s about stuff that’s happening on stage. Shakespeare and stuff. That’s the thing about it. It’s not real life.”

What is this real life? What is ‘stuff’? That word ‘stuff’ so perfect. The two blokes don’t know the answer, and nor does Swift. And tragedy is everywhere in apparently ‘real life’ these days. But if the novelists art is about language, and ultimately the communication of this language to his reader, Mick reflects on how he used to read the Beano as a child “Biff! Bam! Kerrzang! How I laughed” he says. This is not just another case of the kind of regression we see in other stories from the adult characters, but rather an example of how those onomatopoeic words are exactly that – words without meaning, yet they are the only ones that can or rather could invoke a genuine reaction in Mick, where words like ‘tragedy’ cannot.

Where his prose is not the wordy, or the overly figurative kind seen in his contemporaries, he constantly seems to be trying to understand the limits of language in the text; there are the accents, the double entrendre’s and Freudian slips , and playing with the sounds of words (the futility of war in ‘Fusili’, or is it the Fusility of war?). Swift’s attempts at regional  accents do (maybe a slight Yorkshire bias here) sometimes descend into that Dickensian mawkishness. But again, this could just be playing with limits of language, because the stories are not just stories as shown in ‘Haematology’, or the pure dialogue of ‘Mrs Kaminski’.

But one only needs to read the epitaph from Laurence Sterne at the start (Lord, still, appropriately censored out); indeed, what is all about? Swift doesn’t deliver answers and doesn’t expect to. Instead all we can do is reflect and remember, and ultimately fictionalise like the person says at the end of ‘England’ – “He really knew, he thought, as brought his car to a halt again, nothing about it all.”

If there’s one lesson crying out from it though, it’s the lack of faith in community and communication; if we just talked, if we just communicated with one another, and opened up our own personal borders and limits we would be a great deal nearer to understanding what it is all about. These stories are, if anything, utterly humane.

England And Other Stories  (274pp) by Graham Swift is out now, published by Simon & Schuster (Hardback: £16.99 ). Thank you to them for providing a review copy.

Never has the landscape, on which you and I inhabit, looked so rocky and unsettled in this beleaguering land. Never has it’s national identity been so  confused and split since the Thatcher era. As if rising over yonder on a sturdy steed finally come UKIP, the saviors for all Brits, promising to make Britain Great again.

Slightly unfair may be, because that is what all the parties ultimately aim to do. Offsetting and reflecting this though,  is a series of issues regarding the identity of Britain and the British, and consequently will boil down to your own subjectivity. Lets for a start, Scotland; this issue has all sides of the political strata pledging their allegiances to the stay or go camp. No wonder patriots are so worried to see Scotland go, with this once great empire, now nothing but an annoying younger brother to the big old neoliberal land of America. This is slightly ironic given the New York Times has published an article saying that the irony in Britain wanting to leave Europe is that it has become more European. What is Britain without Scotland? England and Wales which looks pathetically small compared to it’s all old Empire status. There is still the commonwealth though, which in all reality is just an excuse for the Queen to get out of the house.

On a larger scale, is Europe. In trying to persuade Scotland to stay, parties are considering whether they want to stay in Europe. There is a lovely irony to all this that no matter how much Britain stays or goes in whatever union or constitution, it will remain locked in it’s geographical location, with it’s bordered lands. Indeed  it is this sovereignty and dividing lines are where the problems manifest . This of course is where UKIP come in, who have seen their popularity rising, and for a party that is so vehemently opposed to Europe, it seems to enjoy spending it’s time in it’s parliament. I don’t understand Europe, and how it’s laws work, and what it’s effect on Britain is, so I struggle to understand how the majority of the nation think they know how Europe works and would be able to judge so at a referendum. UKIP and other Europe nay-sayers direct their rhetoric towards the fact that our laws are mostly constituted  in Europe or that the European Union is just a bunch of bureaucrats. Is that not what our Government is? Are we honestly going to try and depict and glorify our own politicians as a bunch of down-to-earth humanists who understand our concerns, or are at least trying to and that’s why they want to pull out of Europe?

The main thrust of their argument though is not issues of paperwork, it’s a historical one, centuries old. It’s a desperate clinging onto the fact that once Britain was a great imperialistic world power, and still could be one, albeit imperilisation s likely to work on a lot more implicit terms, but what is the point of the army? The British Empire might be dead but it’s values aren’t. Look over to  Putin and his invasion of Ukraine; he is only being condemned by leaders because he threatens to become what the rest of the leaders condemning him are – world figures who want to police the world and dominate it. The main thrust though of these issues comes down to what UKIP is so unafraid of exposing: that any other nationality apart from Britain that threatens to challenge  it’s archaic view of Britishness.

It’s exemplified on a much more domestic level with the furor over the emergence that several well known food chains either use Halal or are switching to Halal meat (Pizza Express the former, Subway the latter). Fostered by the right wing press like the Express and the Mail (who else), it has generated fevered nationalist rhetoric that this is an example of Islamist ideology creeping into the shores of Britain, surely playing into the widening arms of UKIP who are ready to embrace you in their cosy nationalism.

Is it really Islamist ideology, or is it more likely down to the fact that these food chains need to widen their market share to cater for all types, to  be able sell more to more people, as it now emerges that more companies are remaining subversive about using Halal meat. And no wonder. But whilst the debate is largely depressing because of it’s racial connotations, what is also, perhaps more depressing, is that how people feel so betrayed by these companies because of their use of halal meat. People write on social media sites how they are ‘boycotting’ Subway, not out of a rejection of their unethical capitalist ideology that obliterates local, green alternatives for the global demand and supply, but an ill-conceived conviction that Subway is succumbing to Islamist ideology. It is just, as usual,  what has been channelled into them via outlets like The Mail, that their/your cherished Britain  is undergoing an Islamist, foreign invasion..

When it comes down to it though, it’s not Subway succumbing to Islam: are we suggesting that a huge corporate, global giant like Subway could be seen giving into Islamic demands ? No, it’s the agenda to make more, and sell more to more people. Did rafts of Muslims take to social networking sites to protest they were not buying at Subway unless they sold halal meat? The depressing reality is that rather than see this as evidence that Subway wants to open up an outlet, two even, on every high street in Britain, diminishing and destroying the chance of any kind of local investment and competition that we apparently all so desperately want to see again, it’s rather seen as the fact that there is going to be, not a Subway on every high street, but a mosque. They’re not that different when you look at it; both have you believing in their holiness, and like a mosque, Subway would happily have you coming to their services five times a day, but at least the mosque is honest about this and does not reap you of every penny in a false, non-nutritional product.

Everybody wants homegrown. The mass companies where we buy our products distort and create the lie that we’re buying British, you’re buying more than a product; we can be safe in the knowledge that buying this beef, or this carrot with it’s small Union Jack on it’s packaging that it has come from some cherished field in Blighty. Do you feel better for that, buying this from your local supermarket, that relative monolith compared to the extortionate butcher’s or greengrocers? And why would you go to the local butchers or greengrocer, that is if you still have one on your high street, if you live in a comfortable middle class area, when they’re so expensive compared to the supermarket.

Another issue that bubbles away, that initially seems unrelated but can  exemplify a few absurdities, is be found from that other, crazy, ‘working-man’s’ game – football. With the World Cup impending, England’s chances of success look so remote that even the press, where they’re usually generating a frenzy of England’s chances (this year! this year!) are going a long with the common consensus that they are not even assured of exiting the group stage. And the reason for this? There are not enough – that word again – home-grown English players playing in it’s top league, the Premier League. It’s almost universally agreed that the Premier League is the most exciting league in the world, but this does not translate into success, and never has done. That is the truth; there are not enough high quality English players playing in the highest quality league in the world for England to win a World Cup; there are too many foreign players that impede the chances of English exposure. These clubs are of course mostly owned by rich, foreign owners who view football teams and players as commodities and assets. But the fans and the spectators in all this have no choice but  to desire and ultimately expect immediate success, like they want success for their national team, and are toys to their teams prevailing need for more capital to make this happen. Success at the domestic level usually translates into investing in the best players world wide, and it’s finally coming into realisation that the two cannot go hand in hand.

Thankfully this is not being blamed on Islamist ideology, although xenophobia  threatens to permeate the debate. The term home-grown, when applied to a human, is so inferring of the fact that they belong to a certain land and location, that their bones and blood came from the land they were born in. And there is the greatest lesson; it’s not the people at the bottom, like the fans who want their team to be the best in the land, like there are those who want their meat killed in a certain way, but it’s those at the top who generate the money and the services who need to keep generating the money and the services by whatever means, so they need as many people spending as much money as possible to keep generating their lies and pretensions, to stop the bubble from bursting. Something comes a long though,that threatens these poor consumers to stop them buying into the dream and the illusion, and this hurts the consumer, this piercing insight to what’s really happening and they can’t handle it, and as has been shown, it turns to hate to another unwitting toy of the market, whilst those at the top, have to go back to the drawing board and reconfigure their tactics.

So, if all this is  question of honesty, UKIP probably are the most ‘honest party'; for example when Nigel Farage says they do not oppose immigration, in the strict sense they don’t,  because they promote privatisation (of the NHS for example) , and capitalism is reliant on migration and a mobile labor pool. But they want what is best for British people whoever they are, which could mean you, yes you. We’re led to believe  dividing lines and borders are set in stone, but as is clear, they’re easily moved when they need to be.

You have to be ready for Jessica Null Vealitzek’s debut. You have to be ready for the brutal humanity of it, because if the title of the takes lends itself from the biblical proverb, there is no relief from any kind of religious belief.

Starting off in rural Minnesota, Michael and his mother move to Chicago after the death of his father, and as much as young Michael may see his dead father, there is no miracle of him ever coming back. Whilst not filled with people, Minnesota is filled with symbolism, particularly wolves, which sustain with Michael throughout the novel. The ‘Grandmother wolf’ for instance which must be killed in ‘the white and red snow’, as Michael reminisces about a hunting trip he had with his father.

When they move to Ackerman, Chicago, now surrounded by people rather than animals, Michael and his mother Anne, must adapt to this. Anne takes a job at her brother’s diner, and Michael struggles to fit in at school (lone wolf), as he inadvertently challenges the playground hierachies that already exist there. He is then further admonished  when they learn he is adopted. All this happens early on, along with a miscarriage; a lot of the early pages you do find yourself just wishing these people could get a break. Regardless, the school does unite the two central story arcs, that of Julia Parnell’s and Michael’s. We’re first introduced to Julia in alternate chapters, which at first appear as a series of  letters to a woman called Rose.

Typically, these two outcasts begin to forge a relationship. The teacher – loner pupil relationship is not new, but the story that Vealitzek renders it as is something original, because Julia’s sexuality and begins to take precedent in the novel’s events. They’re not just outcasts in a new town; they are outcasts when the eighties AIDS paranoia in swirling around them. Although Michael is not gay, or  as far as we know is not, people see his adoption as a reason for him being homosexual.

Michael does make one acquaintance in Tina, a neighbour. She is worldly, and beyond her years, frustrated by Michael’s naivety and innocence, which irritated me as well at times.  Tina , the ‘whatever’ saying pre-teen girl with a greater understanding of sex (another example i reviewed in Andrew Lovett’s novel, last year) she is not entirely original. But she asks more questions about the conflicts of sexuality and introduces one of the most interesting characters in the book, her father, Jim. He is a self-congratulatory, violent mysoginist with authoritarian  power, or as Vealitzek wryly describes him, ‘a man’s man’, and his ego takes a beating when his advances on Julia are spurned.

On that note psychoanalysts might take some pleasure (ho-ho!) from their interpretation of Vealitzek’s work. A key moment, specifically related to Jim, but encapsulates the novel’s main themes, is when he is on his last job in Milwaukee, before he also moved to Ackerman. Jim is sent out to a neighborhood area because of a noise complaint. There he encounters,

“Masked faces appeared, whirling about him as he stepped inside…The masks laughed at him as they rushed by, Frankenstein, John Wayne, Ronald Regan. As his eyes adjusted, Jim noticed the people, male and female, were naked.

This idea of masks and, indeed being a character is something that troubles all of the characters  and challenges the modern notion of whether a mask really is hiding something, or rather if we’re always  masking ourselves, just changing and shifting person over times and instances, particularly here with the key debate of sexuality. Look at the characters of Julia and Rose, with Julia acting as the straight–laced teacher, but finds herself struggling to act as ‘what she really is’, that horrible phrase that to indicate there is some kind of essential truth about us. What she is, is a homosexual, but that is precisely what she also not is. She wants to be accepted as a homosexual but not defined by it. It is that essential truth that people see as justifications for vilification. To be what she really is would be to signify her exclusion as an outcast from society. Although set in the eighties, even now in our apparently free and modern times, there is still loathsome opposition to gay people, with the old orders reproducing archaic, old arguments.

The above episode is not over for Jim when his remembers,

he turned to step outside and call for backup, but a hand grabbed his shoulder and pulled him around. Marilyn Monroe pouted back at him inches from his face,and her painted fingers rubbed his chest. Another body closed the door behind him and pushed up against his backside, hands sliding down his waist. He felt a stirring as Marilyn’s fingers brushed down, down, down until they played on his lower adbomen…that’s when Jim saw that Marilyn was a man’

This seems to ignite and explain his projectile rage throughout the rest of novel and his masochistic quest. Vealitzek may be making a pertinent comment about the authorities and the reaffirmations of status quo, but it’s also about man, he is a man’s man.

Vealitzek is playing with the greater themes whilst remaining hands length away; feminist/criticism of the rigidity of authority and power/ sexuality, but producing a story to go with it, which i’m sure people will be happy to read without the subtexts.  Some of the character’s are slightly overused stocks, and some of the phrasing skirts cliché and the overly hyperbole; a plate for instance ‘smashes into a hundred pieces’. Does it really? And you can imagine the kind of typical rage and frustration that led to that. And as already mentioned, Michael, who witnesses several early trauma’s remains ridiculously composed throughout the novel, and it’s no wonder Tina get’s frustrated with him. There is also quite a bit of reminiscing that serves as exposition. But, there is still plenty to take away from The Rooms Are Filled.

The Rooms Are Filled by Jessica Null Vealitzek is out now published by She Writes Press. Thanks to them for providing a review copy.

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.

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