Ode To Remembering.

We’ve seen the documentaries. We’ve seen the murals. We have seen the poppies on the lapels of the news presenters (unless you’re Jon Snow). WWI still causes fascination and repugnance on equally absurd levels in humanity’s continual quest to comprehend events like war. As we search for meaning in all our daily happenings and ultimately life, war is one that stumps us, because of its apparent inhumanity. Fundamentally we ask, like in most things – what is the point and why? And we do this, we’re lost and left to the cliche account.

Why. We know why things start and the ‘chain of events'; Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated for a start, but this does not bring us closer to the knowing of why, the italicised why. Now, we can apply certain interpretations, that war is good for capitalism and modernisation and that kind of thing, but it still does not answer why, and what the true meaning is if such a thing exists.To the postmodernist it doesn’t: Hannah Arendt famously said of the Holocaust that the word ‘Evil’ is absolute and that acts like the Holocaust were carried out by people by acts not born of a particular ideology, but out of careerism and obedience. Despite Arendt specifically talking about the events of WWII and the holocaust, one can imagine the notoriously young soldiers caught under the wave of nationalism and heroism as they went to do battle for their country, but the second  world war – as in the second war of the world – became post-reason and war makes exemptions of reason.

The banality of evil might satisfy a postmodern Martin Amis novel, but it is the writers whom we go to help us interpret the meaning of such acts. Pure banality leaves us now unfulfilled; the pure banality of some-thing, like the participants of a Stanley Milgram experiment. WWI was famous for its poets (look how the war claims them and their destiny– the war poets); Owen, Sassoon, Brooke, famous names, and sometimes famous victims of the war. The WWI literature, in the days of realism and reason, of heroes and villains is a search for meaning, without the atrocious act of the holocaust which blew all other acts of evil out of the water.


Matthew Hollis in Now All The Roads Lead To France (2012) charts the life of Edward Thomas before his death in WWI and his development from full-time critic to canonised poet. As the title insinuates, Hollis rests a lot of the narrative on his relationship with Robert Frost.

Edward Thomas emerges as a not particularly likeable character. He is a tragic person before the times became tragic. He comes across as clinically, and continually depressed which mediates the relationship he has with his wife, and repressed loves he has for other women. To give the man credit, he never had affairs, but this lack of commitment to do anything seems to transcend his life. You almost want him to do it (in a narrative sense), to have an affair. Indeed, for most of Thomas’ life, he was known for his criticism that he churned out for his reputation and for his income.

It was the meeting with Robert Frost that as the blurb states, where the roads taken and the roads not taken were chosen. Under Frost, Thomas began to write verse, and Hollis is brilliant in giving an account of the creation of poetry (a poet himself) as he is of the details of Thomas’ life. That is what Hollis’ account is about – the art – and what makes Now All The Roads a special, and rightly successful piece of work. It is not just an account about the war; war is a daily occurrence, historically and presently, whether it is relied on as a literal or a metaphorical basis, and accounts like Hollis’ don’t necessarily give meaning to it, but give meaning to the life of some of those within it.

Hollis also isn’t guilty of straying into what biographers can sometimes tend to do – a caricature of the subject, overemphasizing a particular trait, action or motive. Maybe the depressive aspect is maximised, but the portrayal is sympathetic, and questioning all at the same time. He does however apply a literary trait of attributing a particular incident to the rest of Thomas’ life – a subconscious motivation, that is more a projection than anything else. Hollis seems to impose, or enforce, the idea that when the war comes around, through this explicit encounter whilst out on a walk with Frost, Thomas questions his levels of bravery and cowardice, mediated by an implicit encounter with an advance copy of Frost’s famous poem ‘The Road Not Taken’. They seem more devices of the autobiographer than autobiography itself.

There is a continual irony within Now All The Roads… though and Thomas’ life. Thomas persistently comes across as a man afraid to commit to an idea; to commit to the idea of becoming a poet; to commit to another woman; to commit to going to America; to commit to the idea of going to war, and it’s through all this that bitter, sad irony of Thomas’ death happens. He died on the first day of the battle of Arras shortly after arriving in France. But he was killed almost, indirectly – his heart stopping by the blast wave of one of the last shells fired. He had survived the battle. He was lighting his pipe after a successful day of not dying. A man who lived by the pen, but died by the sword, hardly seems fair, but one thing we know about war is that it isn’t fair.

Frost went onto to become one of the most successful poets of all time, winning many accolades, and becoming loved by his nation. Thomas instead is left to posthumous fame. A postscript at the end included by Hollis how Thomas is not just ‘willow-herb and meadowsweet and haydocks-dry’, and how Ted Hughes called him ‘the father of us all’. Why is that? At a time when Ezra Pound was proclaiming ‘make it new’, and the war poets depicting the atrocities of warfare, a clash between as Hollis puts it, the Georgians and the Imagists in Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop. Thomas was a poet in transition in a world in transition. His whole life seems to be embedded within a transition, which his poetry reflects. The famous critic FR Leavis described him as ‘on the edge of consciousness'; he is on the edge of the intrusion of the consciousness and the edge of the era of the likes of Eliot, Joyce, Woolf who would succeed and respond to the war In ways that Thomas could not.

How the world changed during those wars. You only have to look at the difference of those two wars because of the rampant modernisation WWI preceded. And it was as if Thomas’ work was a precedent to that and all those modernist artists who would succeed him. There is something about a poet and poetry that allows it be ripped out of its context and used for purposes other than what the poets original context may have been. This can’t be done with a novel, probably due to its longevity. “Lest we forget” is taken from he ‘Ode to Rememberance’ by Laurence Binyon, and immediately conjures the poppy symbol, but can even further invoke horrid nationalist images that justify war and England. Frost became synonymous with America, despite being able to read ‘The Road Not Taken’ as a ironic account of individualism and freedom. This arguably fails to work on Thomas; yes we can imagine the haydocks dry of rural England, even Keats talked about England often in his poetry, but it is hardly the Jerusalem syndrome, as when poets and poems become synonymous with the national, and sometimes nationalist cause.

So – why? The postmodernists would reject any ideological purpose to war and evil, but in this age, it does not do anybody justice. We will never know why. We will never find that kernel of truth, the reason and the reality, but we cannot be satisfied with the utter banality of it all. All we have our those who can try and help us construct meaning – the artists, or the humans. And so, Hollis does the exceptional: in a world where meaning can be attributed, contexts altered, words dropped in and out of mouths not knowing where they’ve been before; in this warring, fighting world, dignity and significance is given to a form that now is so often overlooked. It is art for art’s sake, for the artist’s, and for humanity’s sake. Lest we ever forget them.

Now All The Roads Lead To France (389pp) by Matthew Hollis is published by Faber and Faber

A version of this article also featured on http://www.inkwellarts.org.uk

The ‘well researched’ novel, sounds a serious, humorless thing. Alessandro Gallenzi, clearly draws on inspiration from his time in publishing, like he did in his previous novel Bestseller, and also on some meticulous research of a time gone by for his new novel, The Tower.

Principally, it is the late fifteen hundreds. Giordano Bruno, revolutionary thinker, inspired by the Copernican revolution thinking about the world and the Universe outside the  dominant paradigm of creationism, is being pursued for being a heretic. Alternating between the seven years of Giordano’s trial, and the present day story of Peter Simm’s and assistant Giulia Ripetti, they search for one of Giordano’s missing documents in Amman, Jordan.

Not that the two narrative arcs mirror each other completely, but mirroring the construction of St Peter’s Basilica in the 1590’s , is that of the ‘The Tower’ in the present day. It is going to be the tallest building in the world and Gallenzi describes it’s come to existence as “it [money] flowed from banks, from hedge funds, from private equities and from shareholders’ pockets all over the globe. That was the invisible sap pushing up this rootless, preposterous tree in the middle of the desert.” Here, a vast digitization project is being undertaken, where they plan to scan every text in the world in a digital library. Although, Google is referenced once as a potential rival, it sounds a lot like Google, but with a conspicuous sounding name (Biblia).

One of Bruno’s texts goes missing, along with priest sent by the Vatican to study them, and Peter and Giulia are plunged into this mystery. It sounds slightly Dan Brown, and even more Dan Brown, when Giulia finds a conspiratorial ‘message’ left in her Bible
“There was a dead earthworm cut in half. Either side of it, the words BOOK and WORM were scrawled in what appeared to be blood.” A literary illuminati.

But the book, thankfully is not Dan Brown, although Peter and Giulia’s relationship is at times an underdeveloped cliché. If anything, it’s a satire of the Dan Brown inflicted publishing world, marketed (maybe jokingly) as a thriller, because that would be to undermine it. What the two towers represent, if anything, is the imposing ideologies of the two worlds Peter, and Giordano represent. For Giordano, it’s obviously religion. But for the present world, although slightly insinuative that religion has a part to play in it, it is the wealth, the internet, the mega-corporations. So it would be crass to call it all Orwellian, but the present day scenario Gallenzi constructs certainly is. It is essentially ludicrous, but that is some of the beauty of it, “Our ambition is to have all the world’s books, magazines, newspapers, manuscripts digitized by the year 2020.” Implausible sounding but all too real, and sounded off by a mawkish American, Gallenzi uses the tower to make visible what we cannot see – the invisible, operating in cyberspace, or the deep bowels of government to keep information free from access.

It is a grand caricature. It might be slightly thrilling for you, in this world of metaphor. Giordano’s great theory is built on this idea of pictures and images “he simply thought that human language is weak limited. He believed in the power of images.” Bruno, the great mnemonic sounding early Wittgenstein. Because, although it might not necessarily be a thriller, Gallenzi does have a tendency to unnecessarily kill the pace. There are the paragraphs of rhetorical questioning, some pushing a page, that become as frustrating as they do stultifying. For the two narrative arcs as well, due to the length, they feel slightly undercooked (it has to be noted that there is a twelve page historical end note which cuts the fiction off at 299 pages). But as a suspected terrorist climbs the tower, you’re forced to ask yourself, who is the terrorist. Where are the freedom of information fighters?

There are many different ways you can read the whole novel. I saw it as a satire; a satire of Christianity; a satire of the internet age; a satire of google; a satire of publishing; even a satire of the Dan Brown novel. And as Freud said, a joke is a serious thing, and within The Tower, the well-researched novel, there is a serious message that deserves to be read.

The Tower by Alessandro Gallenzi (311 pp.) is published by Alma Books and is out now (£12.99 rrp.). Thank you to them for providing a review copy.

Tom Barbash’s  first collection of short stories comes adorned in  the superlatives that Nathan Filer recently admonished. Not to say that no other book does, but Barbash’s jacket space are lucky to have two big David’s names on them (Eggers and Mitchell). The times we are unsatisfied by the work even with notable names endorsing them, but thankfully for Stay Up With Me, this is not the case. In all fairness, Barbash is skirting a precarious line with his characters. As Eggers states, it is a universe where all the characters might know each other as they all have some level of middle-class wealth, a degree of privilege, mostly suburbanites. As some other reviewers have noted, this could lead to instances of schadenfreude, but gratefully this doesn’t happen, although you would be forgiven for a slight joy about your own situation.

‘Balloon Night’ and ‘How To Fall’ skirt this precarious line. Whilst the world around the two central characters is alive and thriving, people wanting to be in their environmen, they two characters want nobody but themselves and a past partner. Timkin’s wife (his name seems to invite pity) in the prior story has left him on the night of their annual party in his New York apartment. Whilst everybody is convivial, Timkin can only reflect on how his party and New York ” would be a good place for a terrorist to strike, how many prosperous lives could go up in flames.”

On the back of another break up in ‘How To Fall’, the central character is conscripted into a singles, skiing weekend by her friend. Typically she is no good at skiing. Talking to two men, Roland and Kevin, with Roland taking an interest in her,she cannot stop thinking about her ex.

I couldn’t have been much fun, as I drifted more than once on our chairlift rides into a private theatre wherein I was screening a movie of me and Mitchell in Cape May, when we stared at the sky until five and then slept together in our bathing suits on a lounge chair, next to a pitcher of daquiris.

Your heart bleeds.

As a British reviewer (and psychology postgraduate student), these seem like prime candidates for the psychoanalytic scene, much more prevalent in America. You can see these Betty Draper style, bourgeois types, in the midst of an existential crisis, enjoying the riches and promises of individualism, but encountering the disillusionment that their chronic self-fulfillment has inevitably brought. All our material things have ultimately become immaterial you can hear them say. Although most of the stories feature relationships on a sexual level, there are also maternal and paternal ones which also struggle with this, as the son in ‘The Women’, watches his bereaving father now ‘back on the market’ as a singleton.

Alluded to in the quote above from ‘How To Fall’, the characters are constantly creating narratives for themselves, watching, or likening themselves to the movies. In ‘Letters From The Academy’, this takes on an extreme form. Comically appearing as a series of letters from a young tennis player, Lee Wilcox’s coach, to his father, telling him how good his son is, they slowly turn into a creepy exposition of hero-worship of Lee’s dad.

I wonder how much of you is in Lee, and whether in your early days with the All-City Orchestra and later with Stan Kenton and Lionel Hampton you were equally intense and abstracted. I must say i’ve always loved your work.

The devotion to improving Lee, give way to a jealousy as the letters become obsessive, and are then intruded by an account of Pete Sampras as he takes Lee under his wing from his stalking coach (“I do not know if it is in your wishes for your son to be the hitting partner of a washed up balding husband of a second-rate Hollywood starlet”). It almost becomes Lolita-esque with the crude name of the coach, Maximillian Gross (more grotesque sounding than Humbert Humbert), when his new young, female pupil Vivi makes a move to kiss him (according to Maximillian).

This sinister darkness presides over the stories, and is perhaps something we should expect when in the first story, ‘The Break'; a mother watches her son returning home for the Christmas break talk about the people in his class.

He was talking about someone in school who had lost her mind, a pale, pretty girl, who’d been institutionalised and who sent a scrawled-over copy of The Great Gatsby to a friend of the boy’s. In the margins, she had pointed out all the similarities between the character’s situation and what she believed to be hers and that of the boy’s friend. She had earmarked pages and scrawled messages. YOU ARE GATSBY, she wrote on the back of the book. I AM DAISY.

Just look what happened to those poor blighters. Like the book that charted the dawn of the modern age, there’s that continual feeling of being a witness, and despite being part of them, we are unable to stop them reaching a fateful conclusion, like Nick Carraway was in Gatsby. There’s the foreboding and Thanatos overriding the stories, which really comes out in ‘Spectator’,  a second person account of a car crash. Lacking that self-conscious irony, they have the modern feel, which is why they invite the joy and the pity, and nearly the schadenfreude.

Although the big themes are hinted toward (‘Paris’ perhaps the story that tackles these the most, and very enjoyably escapes the neurotic nature of the others) they are not divulged. We are aware that they are living in a capitalist, materialist society, but that is as they are, and these stories are merely within it. To explicate the big themes would be to take away the simplicity of the stories characters just trying to navigate this world and their self, rather than change it. Because at the heart of these meticulously crafted stories is a potent, yet simple, but often forgotten truth: stop thinking about yourself all the time.

If anything, we’re still looking at a society that still looks to those modern authors,  like Fitzgerald nearly a century ago, to teach us how to write, and more importantly, how to live.

Stay Up With Me  (212pp) by Tom Barbash is released on 14/08/2014 published by Simon & Schuster. Thank you to them for providing a review copy.

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


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