First Class

The Underground
Hamid Ismailov (translated from the Russian by Carol Ermakova)
Restless Books: 272 pp.: £11.20

There is a growing consensus that Hamid Ismailov is going to be regarded in the pantheon of one of the greatest literary traditions that there has ever been – The Russians. There are not many languages that have had a  ‘golden age’ and a ‘silver age’, before the complex political issues that arose after the Revolution, and oppressive Stalinism with it. Even though the authorities tried to keep it so, the twentieth century was hardly a quiet one.

Ismailov has good pedigree for the Russian canon. Firstly, he has been exiled and secondly, like his predecessors, he seems to have this enrapturing with the train. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky both relied on the locomotive as a metaphor and prop in some of their most famous scenes. Dostoyevsky though had a particular fascination with it and what it represented in the ensuing modern times; migration, power and trade were all changed or multiplied by the use of locomotion.

The Underground throws a nod to Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, but this also isn’t the first time Ismailov has had the train central to his narrative. There was The Railway (1997) and more recently, The Dead Lake (2014), where the narrator travelling on a train meets Yerzhan, a child-looking (deformed through contamination by a nearby atomic testing site) man who like the narrator here, was born at a train station. Again, like Yerzhan we have two characters who are physically, but not psychologically, stumped in growth, with their mind outliving their body. The narrator here is a dead orphan child telling his story from beyond the grave, who, if he was alive, would have been twenty six.

It’s 1986 and Mbobo (Kirill at birth) was born at Oktyrbrskaya station.  Mbobo is later nicknamed Little Pushkin by a stepfather, and those who haven’t got the reference yet must do now because Mbobo is a bastard of African heritage. He’s stuck in a late Soviet society just before its downfall, and this is his posthumous novel. Why serve in Heaven when you can rein in Hell asked Milton, and even though he doesn’t rule down there, the underground pretty much seems to be he limits of his world. It is the outside and above that is hell for him. A flaneur of the underground he is, but he almost is the Underground: “Sometimes the maggots get bored of digging into my decaying body, and they abandon me, burrowing tunnels to the surface to take a breather after it rains. Then within the cavities of my body I feel an emptiness, into which water sometimes gushes like metro trains…”

Throughout, the body is confused with the structure of the underground as Mbobo travels from station to station. ‘Skeletal’ and ‘intestinal’ which in other works might be rather unimaginative adjectives for depicting structure, take on an underlined meaning here. There is also constant imagery of the decaying body, regularly evoked by the image of maggots. Rather than this being a dying world, it is post-death: Sokol station for instance is ‘amid the maggoty darkness’. One can imagine that somebody speaking from the grave is familiar with maggots.

Another man who had this much fascination with death was Charles Baudelaire. This passage from ‘To the Reader’ could have been Mbobo’s address: “Close swarming, like a million worms/A demon nation riots in our brains/ And when we breathe, death flows into our lungs/ A secret stream of dull, lamenting cries”.
The millions of worms feasting on Mbobo’s body and the demon nation that could be Soviet Russia, and like Baudelaire, Ismailov’s vice is modern. Filtering in and out of Mbobo’s consciousness are the things he comprehends and the things he doesn’t. Skillfully, Ismailov in the way that the great moderns did, creates this idea of perceptions and thoughts filtering into the mind, digressing down paths and avenues both wilful and unwillingly. It creates this striking paradox of the train uniformly moving forward and routinely whilst Mbobo’s mind leaps forward, backward and sideways. And when he breaks a mirror, there is that reflection that the consciousness has been looking for, “each half reflecting a snapshot of my brief terror”. Like the broken mirror his thoughts refract and splinter like the distorted reflections of the world that imbue his conscious mind. Whilst the world might be crumbling and his body decaying, the mind is wilfully alive.

To be a great writer you have to be assured that you can be at one with the greatest. Dostoyevsky, as already mentioned, is an obvious influence. More than anything, there is that existentialist despair that Dostoyevsky was one of the first to capture in fiction.  In The Idiot Prince Myshkin, the naive, benign Prince arrives (on a train) into a St. Petersburg society where he cannot comprehend the corruptive influences of it.  Rather than a good man in a bad world, it’s an absurdly good man, just in the world. The idiot is one word for it, but what would another great existentialist say of this passage:
““My stepfather came around the table to me and whispered: “Your Grandpa died…” I didn’t know what to do. What do people do when their Grandpas die? Cry? Howl? Scream? I looked over at Mommy, at a loss, wondering what people do when their fathers die , but Mommy’s face was still stony.”
Stranger? Outsider not registering the shock of death? Mbobo is both the Dostoyevskian idiot and Camus’ outsider trying to make sense in a senseless world. He is not a naive child, but he is still, symbolically at least, a child. Like Yerzhan he is immediately physically and socially un-ready for this world.

Later on, whilst there is an obvious intuition and mention to Nabokov’s Lolita, there is a more subtle nod to the text. To Nabokov, reading was a big game, and although The Underground is much more nihilistic, is the child narrator playing games the way children do? Less spuriously, Nabokov played with the elements of light and dark in Lolita, and there is something similar to that used by Ismailov. Observe how the black and white, light and dark are never compatible and are always in battle. Chess was Humbert Humbert’s muse – game of blacks versus whites.

And of course Nabokov was the immigrant. This story ends in 1992, much the same time as Ismailov’s story in Russia ended before his exile. There are many ways too and not too read into this, but Nabokov’s afterword in Lolita  – “everybody should know I detest symbols and allegories” – due to his “old feud with Freudian voodooism”, shows a man conscious of the spectre of Freud that can hang over the work when we’re trying to infer meaning. It is a difficult theory to dispel; especially when you’re talking about trains and children.

Is Hamid Ismailov a great or on the way to being a great? Well, the greatest do have to tend with being banned for a while it seems. Luckily for Ismailov he will probably live to see the fulfilment of his reputation. It was 1949 by the time the ban on six poems of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs De Mal were lifted. One of his lesser, more restrained works however – ‘The Albatross’ – is unlikely to have received as much attention as the six infamous ones did at the time. Simply, it symbolises the bird with its ridiculous wings “comic and oncomely” being toyed with by the crew of ship after they capture it for fun to relieve their boredom.  Baudelaire reflects how  like an albatross, “the poet resembles the prince of the clouds” and how “his wings , those of a giant, hinder him from walking”. While Ismailov may have read some of Baudelaire’s more charged work in preparation The Underground, he might have read or might have been inclined to read ‘The Albatross’ for a more personal solace.

Thank you to Restless Books for providing a review copy

Structural Work

The Story of My Teeth
Valeria Luiselli
Granta: 188pp. : £12.99

“Whilst conceding that I might need money (there was the divorce and the costs involved in having my ‘teeth fixed’) she said she didn’t see why she should subisidise my greed. Later, in her note of apology, she said she’d had a toothache when the journalist rang.”

This is from Martin Amis’ memoirs –  Experience – and the ‘she’ in question is A.S Byatt. It’s interesting that I’ve used a footnote from the book because Amis devotes a lot of his memoir, and indeed portions of his fiction (Money for instance) to teeth. This quote is referring to the publication of The Information and the friendship – ending advance he attained for it, by leaving then agent Pat Kavanagh, and wife of friend Julian Barnes, for the famously ruthless Andrew ‘The Jackal’ Wylie.  The press coverage, as the quote suggests, implied that Amis had sought the higher advance to pay for his subsequent dental work. The literary world, as we know, sometimes appears like its art, and certainly Amis could probably envisage himself writing such a ludicrous, self-conscious event in his fiction.

Throughout fiction though there are names of characters and people that are sometimes explicitly obvious, and sometimes impossibly uncanny. James Wood in How Fiction Works asks “Am I the only reader addicted to the utterly foolish pastime of amassing instances in which minor characters in books happen to have the same names as writers? Thus Camus the chemist in Proust…” and goes on to name several more.  Of course, you realise the names Valeria Luiselli gives to her characters are intentional:  there is Uncle Solon Sanchez Fuentes, Juan Sanchez Baudrillard and Uncle Fredo Sanchez Dostoyevsky to name a few.  But one of the unmentioned acknowledgements Luiselli may make is to Martin Amis:  “I read a story that day in the newspaper about a certain local writer who had all his teeth replaced. This writer apparently was able to afford the new dentures and the expensive operation because he’d written a novel” says her main character.

Whether Luiselli is referring to Amis or not she is making a wider point about the art of the novel and its value today and such is the theme of her book. Her quixotic, short novel focuses on Gustavo Sanchez Sanchez, referred to by his much more succinct nickname ‘Highway’  (another stranger than true reference to Amis some might be able to infer here). This is the story of Highway’s teeth and his “treatise on collectibles and the variable value of objects”.

At an auction he acquires a set of Marilyn Monroe’s teeth. He then sells off his old teeth after being mastered in the four types of auction; hyperbolic, parabolic, circular and allegoric – which are also names of sections in the books – claiming the teeth to be those of dead, famous writers. He meets Jacobo de Voragine who he tasks with writing his ‘Dental Autobiography’, and who he collaborates with in an allegoric auction to raise funds, after he finds his home ransacked and all his precious objects stolen.  Amongst this is Highway’s relationship with his estranged son Siddhartha but there is not a huge amount of plot. Instead the book’s wholesomeness comes out by the feeling that every bit of black on white is part of the whole text. Meta-fiction, coming out of the postmodern age, has been derided at times, and as the likes of Jonathan Franzen return to the thick, social novels, Luiselli’s slim piece, whilst obviously meta, is about much more than deconstructing the novel – it is about deconstructing the whole concept of narrative.

As the titles of the sections suggest these refer to the way in which the events are narrated. As a result the book is questioning the way in which we relate narrative to reality, which at the moment seems to be in a kind of paradigm crisis. There seems to be transition and movement in the current cultural zeitgeist where the space opened up by the times we’ve been living in, to the times we’re going to be living in, is shifting. Narrative and how we narrate is intertwined with this and like Amis’ dental work, Luiselli is trying to come to terms with the relationship between the structure and the aesthetics, the cosmetic and the necessary, how essential and how reliant they are on one another at a timely juncture. Luiselli’s mastery of narrative is combined with a concern of what narrative implicates. Ultimately, she asks rather than what is the cost and fate of books, but what is the cost of a medium that is a carrier of narrative, in an age where everything uses narrative to add or enhance that value.

It’s a question of modernity. The ‘Parabolics’ section grapples with this most head-on in a kind of Freudian lucid manner, as Highway in a dream-like world has a dialogue with Fancioulle the clown. It opens with a quote from Highway’s Uncle Marcelo Sanchez Proust (“When a man is asleep, he has in a circle around him, the chain of hours…”) and he bounces on in an energetic, at times restrained, but other times excited prose, to a mediation on morning erections: “As a consequence, many men wake up with a powerful, proud erection, the intensity of which also acts as a first anchor to the world during the transition from sleep to wakefulness.”  The mirror of reality and modernity long ago displaced by the constructionism of postmodernity seems to be returning.

However: it is fragile. David Foster-Wallace in ‘Suicide as a Sort of Present’ describes a depressed woman looking into a mirror (“each time she fell short of perfection she was with an unbearable plunging despair that threatened to shatter her like a cheap mirror”) and as Highway continues to talk to the clown he says, “For me, there’s no more ominous than a human being dressed up as a clown, probably because I’ve always been being scared as being perceived as one.” There is the cheap mirror of modernity that Highway is confronting and is vaguely becoming aware of. By believing now that if we are to live and abide by some kind of reality that isn’t a linguistic construction, but is a mirrored definable aspect of living that reflects some kind of truth, then the truth appears to be as tangible as that cheap mirror.

In the ‘Allegorics’ section Highway begins to dictate his dental autobiography. Here it is noticeable that there is a trajectory throughout the novel and it’s worth noticing that the ‘Allegorics’ is just before the ‘Elliptics’ which is solely in the hands of Voragine. It is just before this that Highway questions his own self in a Kundera-esque manner:  “I am not sure if this should be in the story, because it’s a part that seems to start folding over on itself, so that I become confused agitated and lose my way.” And on finding his trashed  home he says: “I first felt a tremendous relief. Then, a little sadness. Then, disbelief, and anger. Then, again, a deeper form of sadness and relief fused together, almost a weightlessness.” A real crisis of character.

In a sense, The Story of My Teeth’s world is an inverted one. Luiselli asks the question, what, if instead of the object that the advertisement advertises, we’re only actually buying the story that sells it. There’s nothing to say that we don’t, and the book as a format, is in essence an example of the thing that leads this paradoxical existence: it is something that we buy and consume, not for its physical qualities, but the ethereal experience of the narrative within it that lives further than the physical page. In ‘the garbage can of history’ as Highway calls it books are some of the things worth saving.

As you come to the end of the book, past the ‘Chronologic’ section compiled by translator Christian McSweeney (who has done a fabulous job) there is the author’s afterword. Luiselli provides a rationale in a way here. I’m not going to elaborate on this too much because it is somewhat of a surprise and frames the book in a different light. What The Story of My Teeth then becomes is a kind of Brechtian play, the Godard film that uses non-professional or unknown actors .Now, thanks to the proliferation of advertising, we live in a world full of narrative. But what this book reminds you is that there was once a time when books reached an audience to those traditionally unaccustomed to fiction reading, and that they were written and serialised for this very purpose, by the Balzacs, and the Eliots, and the Dickens, and would leave readers waiting for that next instalment.  Although this is a supremely intelligent book it is also great fun, and Luiselli reminds us that fiction should and can be made for all and can be read by all.

Thank you to Granta for providing a review copy.

On one day in September, this year, a seventh of the world’s population logged onto Facebook, which means that one billion people logged into Facebook on one solitary day. Where those have tried before (eg.Myspace), nobody knows what the formula is that has made Facebook connect with one billion people, not forgetting the rest that didn’t choose to go on the internet that day. Maybe Facebook entered the world at the right time, away from the juvenility of Myspace, the chaviness of Bebo, the middle-classness of twitter.

However, If you’ve logged out of Facebook from your device or computer, you’re greeted  by  the image of generic depersonalised male and female heads like you see on public toilet doors, situated around a picture of the flat-world, with dotted lines connecting them. It is here you realise that Facebook is the true global product. It hides behind its plainness and simplicity, where inevitably, ridiculous, complex computer systems developed by ridiculously intelligent Harvard students, who perhaps mirroring their site, and a potential pioneer of the technology-fetishisation culture (think: turtleneck), do not dress like the billionaires they are, and wear simple, unbranded garments.

It is something that has either helped or has actually has globalised the world, the final cog in the system.  There may be McDonald’s and Coca-Cola on offer in the remotest parts of the world now, but these are anybody’s McDonald’s, or anybody’s Coca-Cola can that has been dispensed on the ground after consumption. This is unlike Facebook, because if you leave Facebook behind in the meta-garbage of the internet, everybody knows that it is yours. Unlike other social networking sites, you have no choice over what you call yourself –  you are merely you. Or at least, you are a representative of the name you were given at birth, unless you eschew this and generate a weird pseudonym for yourself. But even if you were to do that, who would you end up ‘friending ’ anyway? Undoubtedly you would only be wanting to look at the people you know, or people who don’t want you to know who you are, so you can look into their lives for your own conceited purposes. Facebook has completely re-altered the way we think about our private and public selves, and the fact that it promises you with the possibility of looking at somebody else’s private-self it has one hell of a USP.

A modern, hard kernel of identity is a thing of the past coming out of the postmodern era, giving way to the notion that it is something that we’re continually constructing. Of course, Facebook does not allow us to peer into the deep and dark of somebody’s private life, but lets us believe we are. No, the fact we use our ‘real’ names doesn’t hide the fact that we’re not really being ourselves. We’re still trying to make people laugh and  cry. We’re still striving desperately to be liked. The old modern notion that if we take the mask off of somebody we can therefore reveal the truth is not so simple now. We’re wearing more masks than ever, endlessly constructing ourselves in endless situations, and sites like Facebook make this an even more complicated process. Perhaps coming on the back of the wave of reality T.V, where actors are playing ‘themselves’, where is the real of person in all this? We’re wearing masks in private now, so maybe as Žižek suggests, there is now more truth in the mask.

This kind of paradoxical falsity, where the private is not really the private, the social networking site is anti-social is like the global world that is not really global. We still have borders and boundaries, fences and patrols, and nobody is experiencing this lie right now, more than the Syrian refugees. As I write, they’re being tear-gassed and water-cannoned on the Hungarian border. All around Europe, countries and communities are proudly claiming that they welcome refugees. Here, in the United Kingdom however, it is as usual displaying its pandering centre-ground liberal tone of we will let some in but not all of them. Britain is apparently quite full and cannot afford any more nationalities or immigrants. Originally, David Cameron said that the UK would take in 3000 refugees; this is about the size of Framlingham, a tiny town in Sussex. And before you think that the United Kingdom is responsible for taking in more refugees and immigrants than anybody else in the past, think again. It is the developing countries as a whole, that hold the most refugees. Yes, developing, because migration, cheap, circulation of labour, is fundamental to the process of capitalism. And it is perhaps no surprise that two of the biggest economies in the world (America and Germany) are first and second in holding immigrants and refugees.

What the social media world allows you to do of course, is give an immediate opinion on this event. Or, what might be more appropriate, social media allows you to give an immediate reaction. The immigrant crisis is one of the many topics that could be used as an example of the point that is trying to be made here:  that the social media world highlights the contradictions that must be abided by in the globalised world. The image most synonymous with the crisis is that of the dead, three year old being carried away from the shores by officials.  It’s harrowing and defining and it will persist in the collective memory, in the way the protester in Tiananmen square does. There is moral outrage from the liberals saying that this is a result of the rich countries not helping, and the right claim absurdities like, that the majority of these migrants are men, cowardly abandoning their wives and their children, to carry on the jihadist war abroad .  Unfortunately, Katie Hopkins at the UKIP conference, who seemed to be on the cusp of making a pertinent point about the reproduction of the image in the media age (long after the liberals had jumped on her case), bypassed this with her usual, narcissistic, egotistical fame-seeking desperation. The image had served its purpose – it had shocked.  Yet can the left-liberals use it as a wholesale justification?  Surely this is as reactionary as the right claiming that it is sensationalised.

Now let’s remember the collective term for the likes of Facebook, Twitter, etc. Social – media. It is the media effectively created and dictated by its users. Twitter trends become the news.  And what this new form of media has is many thousands, millions of critics and voices with their apparently ‘real’ personas (in the case of Facebook) dictating their ‘real’ or perceived, genuine  voices.  And because we’re behind the veil of our real name, we think that we’re actually embodying our real self on there, yet the correlation between the thoughts and displays of thoughts on social media and the actual living, moving act are unlikely to be the same. The hardline anti-immigrationist Britain First sharing person on Facebook is very unlikely to proclaim these views in real, living life apart from with those they are very comfortable with. Like most people, they will be that liberal, polite, job-going or seeking, tolerant citizen of society.

And here is the paradox: slacktivism became a common term several years ago to describe those who vociferously expound their political views on social media, yet do not replicate this action in real life; yet hey are active, extremely active,  in the generating of the media and news by which others watch and contribute now.

Usually it is the people expounding the right-wing views that are leaped upon by the moral liberals. But it is not something just restricted to the right with its memes that try to justify in its bold type, anti-immigration and wars in the Middle East, at the sake of British troops. This is something that those on the left, or those who believe themselves to be on the left also revel in doing. Curiously, what you might observe is that, those before the election, who would try and situate themselves on the left, would display this by attacking those on the right. This I reasoned in a recent blog post, was because nobody knows what the left is anymore in the United Kingdom. Older voters have long abandoned the notion, for the security of their white collar jobs, and the young barely know what it means. Since then, something cataclysmic has happened in the face of politics, by the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn.  Now those who were leapfrogging from Labour, to the Greens, to other minority parties, now seem to have come back to the red-masted Labour party. You can even change your profile picture, so that it has a banner saying “I’ve voted Corbyn”, which is a curious thing to see considering there were many propounding not to be Labour voters before the election.

Politics is fickle and in doing so, we’ve learnt to be fickle with it. Corbyn’s credentials certainly appear to be left, and indeed it does point to a fissure in party politics that hasn’t been seen in decades. However what kind of left is it? In Baudrillard’s America (1986) he asked: “what situation will result from this progressive disenfranchisement (which is already taking a violent turn under a Reagan and Thatcher)?”  Now we know the answer to that – this world we live in now. “In Reagan, a system of values that was formerly effective turns into something ideal and imaginary”: on Facebook we believe we are endorsing, connecting, doing, when in fact we are doing the complete opposite. And this is not some kind of false consciousness, because we know we are not doing anything. Corbyn is left, but the sweeping tide of disillusioned liberal lefties that have heralded his uprising, have done so without any level of scrutiny by those on the left, because there is not a left, and only those wishing they knew how to be. Instead they have  seized upon the first opportunity that has presented itself. The left was a movement formed out of action, and the empowerment to mobilise the working classes; nobody is going to be able to do that sat behind a computer.

This isn’t one of those Franzen-esque, grumbling Luddite posts about the totalitarianism of the internet. And it is also not a statement that the internet will lead to nothing, because things have happened through the use of the far-reaching implications that the internet can offer. The internet appears to give you a voice, and it does, but only a very small one, and that voice is usually just the echo of somebody else’s (yes, just like this blog-post). Behind the veneer of the online radical lies an office worker, and in reading this blog, how do you know that I’m not sat at my desk-job now, when I should be selling insurance? The mask may be taken away to reveal another mask, that like the rest of them, claims to be the real you.

What happens to the Labour party in the run-up to the next election is now anybody’s guess. There is a light sneaking through the cracks suggesting that the centre-liberal politics that has dominated in recent times, is being broken apart. I don’t think Corbyn is the man (also, anybody who is behind Corbyn owes an unacknowledged debt to Ed Milliband), because Labour isn’t necessarily the party to revive the left anymore, and looks a more Harold Wilson/Tony Benn left. What it requires, is a reformulation of the left as the likes of Žižek continually suggest, and how Fredric Jameson does here, coming out of this neoliberal age: “No future is conceivable however, from which the deeper ideological commitment to politics – that is to say, left politics – is absent…and even a fully postmodernised First World society will not lack young people whose temperament and values are genuinely left ones and embrace visions of radical social change repressed by the norms of a business society” (taken from, Late Marxism… 1990).

To exemplify the liberal – centre position, and how the reactionary, populist media is not just restricted to those on the right, just look how the liberal-lefties, usually ready to pounce on the moral high-ground, took great pleasure in the David Cameron and the Pig scandal; something that has no bearing on the political debate whatsoever, regardless of whether it actually happened or not. Gutter press for one is gutter press for all (and they clearly did not realise that by endorsing the story they were endorsing Lord Ashcroft, a major donor to the Tory Party, so rather than weaken the Tories, in the long-run it would probably have strengthened them).

Žižek, uses the example of Horkheimer’s dictum, and as I’ve used in past, should perhaps follow the reasoning that, those who don’t want to talk critically about being on the liberal-left, should also keep quiet about those on the right. “Then they came for me…” begins the eponymous last line of Martin Niemöller’s famous poem, but now, there’s nobody left to speak for me, because I’m not on Facebook.

The Ecliptic
Benjamin Wood
SImon & Schuster: 480pp: £14.99 rrp.

Robert Southey and Samuel Coleridge in the late 18th century, devised a utopian scheme called the Pantisocracy. A long with other Romantic poets and philosophers, they envisioned an egalitarian community and set about to make it happen.Practically, it never formalised, but one begins to enquire whether this is more of a psychological possibility. Art is about movements, communities, labels whether these be self-imposed or imposed by the critics. Benjamin Wood’s second novel, multifarious in themes and levels, is at least concerned with art, or the conditions that produce art, and who and what influences us.

After the successful debut, The Bellwether Revivals (2012), with critics baring it with the hallmark of Evelyn Waugh, this one immediately strikes a resonance with Kazuo Ishiguro. Like Wood’s debut, there are psychologists, prodigy’s, and parallels, but from the first sentence, it has an Ishiguro-esque tone to it, close to something from Never Let Me Go (2005). There’s the feeling that it is set in our world, yet a parallel one, similar but different, with a narrator who seems confidently in control of it, but unconscious of something lurking beneath the uniform looking reality. Wood is concerned about influence, because as the Pantisocrats sought influence from Plato, Wood is perhaps playing with another Platonic term – mimesis: where do the lines of imitation and representation cross?

The layered novel opens in Portmantle, a refuge for uninspired, but talented artists, off of the coast of Istanbul. Elspeth ‘Knell’ Conroy is in residence there, a painter who found fame in the Sixties. It jumps between then and now in four alternate sections. As it opens, Elspeth, and some of the other artists, with their pseudonymous names, are awaiting the arrival of another beleaguered talent – Fullerton. At Portmantle, the artists in their respected disciplines set about in the effort of creating their masterpiece, at the aid of ‘sponsors’, who are loosely alluded to as other artists who have been there in the past. Initially, Portmantle is depicted as a Utopic refuge for artists to reacquaint themselves with their mojo, but the arrival of the errant Fullerton begins to contaminate and catalyse Elspeth’s stability, the stability of her internal world and the world outside her. It comes to question, like in the Pantisocracy, whether these realms are best constructed mentally, a place for us to escape and create.

In the seclusion of the grounds, artists could work outside the straitjacket of the world and its pressures…finally work, without intrusion or the steering influence of another living soul. ‘Creative freedom’, ‘originality’, ‘true expression’ – these terms were spoken like commandments at Portmantle, even if they were scarcely realised, or just phantom ideals to begin with.

Wood in the Ishiguro sense again, Is not so much restrained, but selective. He constructs his worlds with precision in the choice of each word, as shown in the above passage, setting some interesting binaries relating to Portmantle and its possibility; can a place, or is it possible for a place to exist in the modern day or the artist to solely work? Like the Pantisocratics, can we create them, or are they impractical as physical, gaited communities? We maybe need to take them with us wherever we go.

It is something that must concern every artist – where can they find that vestige and that escape. Again, the Romantics were trying to wrest back that sublime natural world from the mechanisations of the industrial revolution. Here is Wordsworth in the ‘The Excursion’, who could perhaps inform Knell and the other Portmantle artists in The Ecliptic: “my voice proclaims/ How exquisitely the individual mind…to the external World/is fitted:-and how exquisitely, too,/Theme this but little heard of among men/ The external world is fitted to the mind.” Wood is continually questioning not just where is the place for art in this modern-day society, but what is the place for art, and it’s a vital question. If the Industrial Revolution was the antagonist for the Romantics, is the rampant commercialist 21st century world our artists prime conflict? Often we see artists working in it or for it now, as Barthes said “the bastard form of mass culture is humilated repititon”, and that mimesis just becomes imitation and inauthenticity.

Knell begins to work with a mysterious pigment she finds in the woods, whilst she tries to learn about the presence of Fullerton, and with the novel split into four sections the first part rattles to its disturbing denouement. After this, the novel travels back to the early days of Knell’s career under the tutelage of Jim Culvert. This world is a familiar one full of sniping critics, wealthy investors, and hard, dogged work. Because its such a cerebral setting, so involved in Knell’s cogitations, not just a tough world for Knell but for the reader as well. Unfortunately, until it transpires at the end, these 190 pages of events that seemed to happen twenty/thirty years before do feel wedged in, being way too long to be a flashback. Belatedly it makes sense at the end but has the potential to frustrate some readers. Unlike with Never Let Me Go, the slimness of that novel was almost paradoxical, as if hiding away the Iceberg of unconsciousness. It would be trite to say this is primarily about psychology and art, even though a psychologist becomes a key aspect of Knell’s life, but it is about the conscious and unconsciousness of producing art.

With enough thought and industry, you can paint a room that has no visible joins…Only by painting it this way – grinding it to power and rebuilding it, particle by particle – can you fully understand what a room means to you. But sometimes, all this does is reconstitute a whole that would be better left in fragments, like fixing up a shredded letter just to read your old bad news. If you construct a room in paint, you haunt it. Your life rests in every stroke. So paint only the rooms that you can bear to occupy for-ever. Or paint the stars instead.”

This is one of the passages that takes another meaning on the second reading. It’s not asking questions so much, but toying, a novel that it is not conscious of itself, but conscious of its unconsciousness that quotes like the above are loaded in a more telling manner on the re-read. I think Hustvedt’s What I Loved (2003; and whether Wood does it intentionally or not, I surprised myself when I was reminded that this was a female narrator) touched on these themes brilliantly, long before the likes of Knausgaard had to devolve their explicit biographies, where the difference between banal and meaningful are mixed in a potent cocktail of obvious autobiography and dismissive fiction. The Ecliptic thankfully veers away from this current mania.

No doubt, The Ecliptic will be mined for autobiographical details. Wood, a creative writing lecturer, writing a novel about whether we can learn the craft, or we can learn and breed the talent will no doubt invite this, and there are some very meta-sounding lines that lose poignancy on re-read. “Pure abstraction, I think. No obvious representations of reality, just gesture,” Elspeth remarks at one point, or in the commentary she gives on her work to Victor, “I was aiming to show lines that were not really there, and felt limited by the tools at my disposal….I want something to make my lines look more imaginary.”

In an interview with the French director Francois Ozon in Sight and Sound he referred to the surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel in how he depicted reality like dreams and dreams like reality. This is perhaps what is happening in here, when Wood arrives at the truth of the novel. Some may feel short-changed, may find it slightly gimmicky after being so enveloped in this extremely interesting, daring novel for so long. Some may also read it as a more provocative gesture by Wood, aimed at critics, genre, and biography hunters, but look beyond this as Wood surely did. It’s odd that a novel full of ideas is so hooked on a twist. But all good novels deserve a re-read, it’s a mark of their quality, and The Ecliptic certainly warrants that. This is an important novel, from an important young writer, asking important questions. Like the Pantisocrats probably failed to realise, we can still escape into other worlds without leaving our seats, and often we need to.

The Summer of Broken Stories
James Wilson
Alma: 316pp: £12.99 rrp.

Happy is England, Keats opines in his seventeenth sonnet, and after James Wilson’s novel you may ask yourself whether you would be as content to see no other verdure than its own. The Summer of Broken Stories Is his fourth novel, and a very English novel it is. And indeed, when he posts the question in his opening sentence “Its as if for years you’ve had a picture on your wall” (clunky as it is), the picture on Wilson’s wall is one of those idyll British villages, disturbed only by the sound of the postman delivering the Daily Telegraph, or the church bells tolling a quaint, sunday bank-holiday wedding.
Of course, Wilson’s story about “the cusp between innocence and knowledge, set in a long-lost English summer” does give way to something more subversive; a tale of a young nine/ten year old boy encountering the seal of his boyish, summery innocence threatened and disturbed.

It’s a coming-of-age story; a man, presumably the protagonist Mark, looking back on a summer in 50’s England. For the most part, Wilson seems to be restraining himself, and upholding the pleasant veneer, but at some points, this threatens to crack, as if the person framing the story leaks in. Here is Wilson early, on going back to fifties England,(the novel is framed in the present) where he introduces another trope of life in England – Class.

“That old chestnut Class, for instance. Yes, it’s a conscious presence here, discernible (if you know what to look for) in clothes, haircuts, posture – above all, in the way people speak. And yes, it can be mean and ugly, stunting lives. But lived, rather than seen from the outside, it isn’t straightforward: money despises poverty; poverty despises trade; spinsters in decayed country houses, and displaced ex-public schoolboys struggling to make ends meet in cottages.” (Wilson’s italics).

This is the story of Mark who in one summer encounters Aubrey Hillyard, a conspicuous presence, living inside an abandoned railway carriage, on the outskirts of the village. Aubrey is treated with suspicion by other residents, and Mark is warned away from him by his parents, and other authoritative sources such as the police. Aubrey, his parents, a long with a new-found friendship in a girl – Lou – all appear to unsettle Mark’s little childhood bubble. Mark’s hometown could be renamed the ‘Macrosystem’, threatened to be pierced, as a small, yet formidable cast of characters, in a minimalist setting, Mark’s movements (and the camera rarely diverts from Mark), centre around his home, his village. The furthest he strays is Aubrey’s hideout, which is forbidden.

On meeting Aubrey, It becomes a process of exchange; the stories in the title is plural, and the notion of being broken and fragmented recurs, as Aubrey and Mark tell each other of their inventions. Aubrey is engaged in a novel about ‘The Brain’, an omniscient, omnipresent network, that spies on citizens through the imminent invention of the television. Who knew the extent that screens and televisions would pervade our lives, and it is of course, the great benefit of setting a story in the past that we can moralise on it. “All this moving around at breakneck speed. Sending messages, images, words, more and more of them, into every corner of the globe.” And indeed, how they do (and to call The Brain Orwellian would be a disservice to Orwell and to Wilson). Aubrey is typically castigated and warned away from, but in exchange for this, he wants Mark’s stories, which Mark has readily available thanks to his train-set; a world where Mark is in charge of, where he escapes any chaos in his living world, by projecting order into his make-believe world of ‘Peveril on the Swift’ and his Dickensian sound characters (‘Mr and Mrs Makepeace).

The story is about stories, and not in self-referential, postmodern sense. What is Mark doing with his stories? Escaping, but also restoring order, and it seems that it’s the only salvage Mark has as he battles the burgeoning world of feelings and responsibilities. The metaphors imposed in childhood that become metaphysical die hard, no matter how old and learned we get, and the need to conform,and obey laws, threatens to override all of our decisions.
““So,” says Hillyard. “What’s the consensus?”
“What’s the what?” says Lou.
She shakes her head.
“It means the agreed opinion about something.””
The consensus is so overriding we don’t know what it is, we’re unconscious of it, and this naturally is passed down from generations above, by those who never broke from it themselves. And here is Aubrey, seemingly trying to liberate them from that. Aubrey is not necessarily as prophetic as he seems to be, and the fate of Aubrey however is suitable. Not to give anything away, fans of Mad Men, may recognise a contemporary in him, and Mark may feel like one of the short-changed clients, or even consumers.

In terms of contemporaries to Wilson, there are similarities in a book reviewed on here a couple of years ago by Andrew Lovett (Everlasting Lane, 2013), dealing with that passageway in childhood, to teenhood. And I mean this as a sincere compliment, but the Lego Movie (2014), has discernible parallels for those who’ve seen it (and if you haven’t – do) in terms of how we deal from top-down influences in our own worlds that we never realise the power of. Wilson does have a neat turn of phrase, evocative of Graham Swift, but there are too many exclamatives; too many italics for emphasis that disrupt the rhythm, and that force you to tax over. Wilson could be forgiven for imparting Mark with qualifiers, because Mark is, qualifying and evaluating his reality, but I did lose count of the amount of times a part of Mark’s body ‘tingled’. Nevertheless, there is a charm to the story, which is layering over a subversive undertone, which the title of the novel enmeshes.

Don’t be carried away by the story of the Brain, but listen to the story of Mark, and listen to your own stories. Like Keats, you “may sometimes feel a languishment/for skies Italian, and an inward groan/ To sit upon an Alp as on a throne,” but often we cannot escape in the physical sense, so we have to make-do and we make-believe – it is the essence of art and of life.

The Summer of Broken Stories is out now. Thanks to Alma for providing a review copy.

Hopes of waking up to a bright new world have been abandoned, at least for some, as implausibly the Conservative Party gained a small majority to become the ruling party of the United Kingdom. As soon as the exit polls were released shortly after ten o’clock, bafflement, and promises of hat-eating were aired live, and no doubt In private quarters, as polls before the election had predicted the closest one in decades. If anything, they were pointing toward a Labour-coalition, because of the number of anti-tory parties that made up the opposition, but they slowly dissipated into a fleeting, pathetic impossibility.

As the night rolled on, as numerous high profile Labour and Lib-Dem MP’s saw their seats go, either to the SNP or to the Conservatives, the dire prediction at the start of the night began to look like a formality. And indeed, it was worse than predicted – there was a majority for the Tories. Initial shock and surprise has now given way to, what could be described as, ‘broadsheet soul-searching’, and woodwork creaking. There was a chasm in the Labour party between the Blairites, and the direction that Miliband was trying to take the party already, but now this division is more obvious than ever. Keyboard warriors on social networking sites resort to the only weapon they know, – right bashing.

We shouldn’t really be surprised that Labour lost, and that the Lib-Dems were wiped out. All through the coalition years this was increasingly looking like it was going to happen. Of course it is easy to say this now, but lets look at the reasons why this happened, and why it will continue to happen, unless a genuine left is engineered in Britain.

I wrote a few weeks ago questioning what was really left any more in Britain, and Ed Miliband potentially represented that. However he came into lead the party at a time the party was so unsure of its direction after 13 years of New Labour, the centre-ground politics that liberalism, and neoliberalism promises. No, the reason that the Labour party is lost, not because the country is viciously right wing and austerity promoting, it is because the apparent opposition is so disarrayed that nobody on either its centre right, centre-left, or even further left trusts it in power. We know what the Tories are going to do now they don’t have the Liberals, but if Labour were in power can we honestly assume and lay hope in the they would take. It can be argued that there hasn’t been a Conservative majority (until now obviously), but since Major won in ’92, but more depressingly, it can be argued that there wasn’t a genuine left government since Harold Wilson.

The right are pulling away from the centre, liberal ground, so now its up to the left to do the same. The next 5 years for the Conservative majority maybe even more tough than their coalition days, with their small majority. Here are several issues that I believe led to the situation we’re In now, and why there is more hope, or at least daylight than there ever has been.

All probably mourning very different things

1. The Same People Vote.

Voter turnout was up this year, and is rising again after a low of 59.4% in 2001. Since then it has steadily grown and up to 66.1% this year (notably highest in Scotland at 71.1%), but is relatively nowhere near 77.7% of 1992, and 83.9% of immediately postwar, 1950. The same people will usually vote for the same parties, and there is only ever usually a 100 seats of the 650 that ever change. The apathism that still pervades the country as regards voting and seemingly in younger people is one of the factors that leads to the same results. One can hardly blame them, as they’re brought up in this neoliberal passivity, where politics is so ‘professionalised’. But by not participating, regardless of the technicalities of the first-past-the-post system (FPTP), you can not have a say. If anything spoil your card; send a message that way that you’re voting against the voting system.

It can only ever go two ways; everybody votes, and a large percentage spoil their card, send a message that they either do not believe in the voting system, or the political parties;  secondly that, the same apathetic people do not vote listening to Russell Brand types about not voting. But the same people will always vote, which is why we get 60-70% turnouts each year. There is no third way: there is probably close to 0% chance of 0% of the population voting. Which leads us to…

2. The Voting System and Farage.

FPTP obviously benefits the two main parties, but it is also why the polls are so misleading. It sends shockwaves when big names like Ed Balls lose their seats and means that, you can vote for a particular candidate if you want them, but not necessarily endorsing their party. And here is one of the double-edged positives about Farage not getting in – the same can be said for the Greens – but Farage holds much more media power. He is a fervent opponent of the voting system, and with UKIP’s popularity growing, he will be more intolerable and detestable as ever, but the rhetoric of the votes they amassed related to the amount of MPs they got in power will persist.

Farage though was depicted as the enemy for this election by those on the left, which was completely wrong – Labour was its own enemy.  They watched UKIP take some of the working-class white voters, further showing the dissolution of Labour’s message. This wasn’t Miliband’s primary fault, when the only glory Labour can remember is the New Labour years, and now, whoever the new leader of the party is, is going to have to contend and subdue these factions.

3. The I-word.

There are two words you could be thinking of here, in a schematic fashion at least. Immigration, and also identity of the national persuasion. Immigration again, Labour saw itself taking the ‘capping’ route in line with parties on the right. The problem with immigration is, and I’ve said this before, is that it is the perfect theory for capitalism to exist; immigration and free labour movement is required for capitalism, but it also provides a perfect ‘other’ of people ready to blame when capitalism ultimately fails us, like now.

Liberalism again, doesn’t allow immigration to be talked about. The petty non-pc that affects the centre, means that its an issue that the liberals can’t talk about. The right, naturally do not want immigration and anything affecting the nation state, where in a Marxist world ‘the proletariat have no country’; national identity is exposed as  fallacy that assists in the capitalist game. Conservatives now will have freer reign on how they control immigration, and play the European Union card further going toward the UKIP position, reclaiming some of those defected voters.

4. The Other I

Feeding into the question of national-identity, this is going to be the most prominent question in the next five years. The United Kingdom, its parliament, has never looked so contentious, down to an inevitable referendum on the EU, but due to the emerging prominence of a particular party in Scotland. The SNP are the ones that have changed the face of politics in the United Kingdom, not the Tories, UKIP, Lib-Dems or Greens. No longer do the Tories have the Lib-Dems to support them in parliament and what they now have is a stronger, lefter opposition thanks to the SNP, who are also calling for more power in Scotland. But this is to overstate the national issue, which is what has been done by the media. The SNP did not emerge because of independence (and Nicola Sturgeon remained very coy on the question), but because they are primarily an anti-austerity party. The newspapers would prefer the emergence of this strong, left party to be down to the fickle matter of nationality, but it is down to the fact that the dominant party in Scotland ie.Labour had no assurances on their economic policy and anti-austerity. Sturgeon is a progressive looking leader of the left, and that is what the Scottish voters saw, and why Labour was ultimately wiped out.

5. Again – What’s Left.

Like a post I did a few weeks ago, the question is what is left? Russell Bland is as effective as flatulence; he proclaims not to vote, and then suddenly endorses Ed Miliband as soon as he gets him in his kitchen, perhaps reflective of his stance on women. Any person on the left must realise that change does not come from a matyristic figure like Brand or Owen Jones – it comes from the collective . Brand is immersed in celebrity world, and his ability to engage with the young, hipsters, via youtube and social media is typically symptomatic of celebrity led politics. People also still blame newspapers and the Murdoch outlet for the result; this is about as fulfilling as saying that a facebook status can influence voter habits. If anything, they antagonise. In the same way that the same people read a facebook status, the same people read the same newspapers and cast the same vote.

This is the problem with the left – nobody has a clue which way to turn. The left has been absent for so long that they’re satisfied with this idea of liberalism, and celebrity voices like Brand’s and Martin Freeman’s telling them which way to vote or not vote. Politics is showbusiness for ugly people, or so It was, now it looks like its showbusiness for good-looking people as well. This is why there are constant swathes of ‘right-bashing’ on social media outlets, because it covers up for what those who do not know their own position. The left, or the liberal-centre left, are their own enemy.

I evoked Žižek in my recent blog post when he inverted Max Horkheimer’s quote about facism and capitalism talking about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, “those who who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism”. Well here’s one for British politics – those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy, should also keep quiet about conservative austerity. If you do not, and cannot talk critically about your own position, you are in no position to talk about anybody else’s. To echo Žižek further, liberalism itself is not strong enough to save itself against fundamentalism, facism or anything remotely ideological. The right know what they want, and the left don’t, it is the simple fact of the matter. What’s more worrying is that the next five years may not solve the problem for Labour at least. The only answer is a renewed, revived, and progressive left. And there is nothing to suggest that this will be Labour who do it…

6. What next.

John Ashbery, far from anything that could be described as protest poet wrote in his 2013 poem, ‘Suburban Burma’ “Those who remember the past are doomed to repeat it/Plus its part of history.” Liberalism is dead, or in fact is death and stasis. If Labour go back to their New-Labour days, they are doomed to repeat history. This does not necessarily mean that it will not get in power again, but it will further ostracise the voters who defected to UKIP, anti-austerity voters in Scotland, England and Wales, and the youth who have witnessed the aftermath and empty promises of neoliberal governments.

Protests have already sparked, however they seem too immediately reactionary, and a physical embodiment and projection of the vitriol that swamps social networking sites. The reaction needs to be thought out and structured so that when it does happen it will persist in the memory as a movement of the left. Understand that the media will always try and diminish its affect, depicting it as hooliganism (like the 2011 riots). And to invoke Žižek again (from his 2012 work, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Verso), these riots and protests are not proletarian protests, they are protests against being reduced to proletarian status, which is seemingly what the anti-austerity riots since the election have been (and which is why they will die away without any substance).

Clouds and silver linings? There is a very thin one. The centre-ground is being abandoned, and politics again is becoming political, or so early signs seem to show. All that can save voters who want an alternative is a renewed left. If you want the right then that is fair enough, accept this. Be wary of depiction of the SNP as primarily about nationalism, because those who want European independence realise that Scottish independence already undermines this argument.

To finish with a wordsmith much closer to home, politics is becoming exposed. Politics is a fickle game as will the likes of Ed Balls and Simon Hughes know, their hour of strutting and fretting upon the stage is over for now and for too long the lies weaved in with banal narratives that are being told by them are being exposed as “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” For too long the promises have been empty, the rhetoric misleading, and now it is time for the left to rise again.

As we drive out of the city and into the suburban village of Orient, it might be that cool, clinical score that Thomas Newman provided for American Beauty (1999) that provides a soundtrack for the opening of Orient. Mills Chevern, a nineteen year old foster ‘child’, is arriving into Orient village on Long Island ‘mostly innocent’. Whatever your standing on prologues, a 10 page first-person prologue is the only time Mills gives his own account of what precedes in the next 590 pages. Mills is an outsider, outlier, a suspect before he is suspected as he asks in the prologue “what seems lost, In he growing storm of blame, is how I got there in the first place.” In a post, a couple of weeks ago, a precedent of this review in a way, I asked what is happening to the now not-so-comfortable lives of the suburban middle classes. There seems to be a return to a post-war kind of realism. We know who they are, but we don’t know what they mean in this post-recessional, post-postmodern age.

Mill is adopted by Paul Benchley, a long-time bachelor and resident of Orient. You wonder if anybody can be technically fostered at the age of nineteen, which the Orient community greets with a whispering frenzy on the day of Pam Muldoon’s garden party. The Muldoons are established Orientites, and In our close-knit villages we all know these locals who seem to hold a powerful nexus in their communities.

Not long after Mills’ arrival, deaths happen. It’s a foreboding atmosphere for Mills and the reader, and he is immediately one of the suspects. Who’s America is this? There are certainly elements of realism, where early modern Fitzgerald meets hypermodern Franzen. If, at the end of Franzen’s prologue to Freedom (2010), as the neighbours watch the dissolution of the afflicted Berglunds, “they just don’t know how to live yet,” Orient’s answer would be a much more cynical one than Freedom eventually offers. Like Freedom it is a long book, and although Orient has been eschewed by some as a thriller, there are a steady succession of ‘gripping’ events, but it would be unfair to linchpin it as a thriller. Instead Bollen builds up the drama at a sustained rate, increasing the suspicion and intensity. Mills is already in too deep in a world that is not made for him; the family world, the constant of Orient that is family, and as Mills is drawn into it, it’s apparent that he is bringing the unsettling storm with him from the city. There is a threat underlying the gleaming facade of American family life, and they’re desperately trying to eradicate it before they get eradicated. Away from the thrilling aspect, this is the real subject of Orient – ­ family.

Bollen uses Paul Virilio’s quote “The invention of a ship is also the invention of the shipwreck” as an epigraph. I’ve not read many books where the epigraph seems to frame the book so aptly, and the ensuing chaos that follows as Orient begins to fall apart. Orientation is ironically central to Orient; maps, geography and the conflict within it. Where does the conflict come from? Typically, everything points toward the nineteen year old orphan, and all his differences to the rigid straitlaced Orientites. At first, and echoing those films of the late nineties, there are homoerotic undercurrents, as Mills makes an advance on the Muldoon’s son Tommy. In the way that American Beauty did, it becomes something like the fantasy of the other that these rigid structures do not allow, the object of blame, and Mills is that. He is not just the hatred and the phobia, he is also the desire and the wonder of the other. “Tommy had taken him for some kind of street hustler, with his earring and his city background, and his trip out here under the charitable wing of an upstanding neighbour like Paul Benchley.” But then there is the disappointment, that these people we so firmly believe are different, are the reasons for our downfalls, are more similar than different, regardless of skin colour, background, affluence. It’s as if hate is the stock response. Mills is the provocateur without being provocative, a catalyst against everything that Orient is trying to preserve – “He felt suffocated by the mother in front of him and embarrassed by Paul’s display of protection,” as he himself is uncomfortable in this stable environment, one of the few times Bollen lets us inside Mills’ head.

Western liberalism seems to have a tag-line: how could this ever happen to us,and that’s what the murders on Orient do. As Bollen continues to dismantle Orient and many western myths as they search for the reason why (artists, terrorists, gays are all part of the blame), it is not the enemy within, but the enemy we create ourselves to cover up own fallacies. No matter what the derivation of the word ‘homicide’ is, it certainly sounds like it features the word ‘home’. As our western nations continue their wars of imperalisation, this seeps down into the psyche as the problem abroad covers up the one at home. As Tommy observes, America must be a superpower if, even when it loses its wars, it still remains a superpower.

Bollen asks Virilio-esque questions from his characters, “When do the defense measures of a paranoid country become their own agents of self-destruction?” The answer to that question would be that it seems to be happening. Beth, a one-time artist, and some-time mother strikes up a kinship with Mills as they investigate the murders, is married to a Romanian-emigre artist. By looking online, she diagnoses herself with Neurasthenia:
“At the bottom of the entry, a donning footnote: Americans were said to be particularly prone to neurasthenia, which resulted in the nickname Americanitis.” We self-diagnose ourselves with our own problems – we are creating the diseases we are trying to battle, like poverty and terorism. Beth is pregnant at the start of the novel, and is still pregnant at the end of it. Bollen seems slightly cynical of motherhood, but it is as if Beth is trying to delay the gestation and the arrival of a child into this world.

For all our beliefs in technology, how it is enhancing the world, for all our myths of connectedness that it brings, globalisation is the creator and the antithesis of it all, despite what its name implies. Beth is overriden by her motherly and creative instincts to Mills, how she wants to connect in a natural way but can’t,

One was to mother him, to buy him lunch or simply press her palms to his forehead. The other was to paint him…It had been so long since she had felt this way – inspired. She sped east on Main Road, racing toward the tip, afraid at any minute that she’d lose the sensation, this happiness for the company of a stranger who reminded her why she’d once enjoyed painting strangers in the first place. To love them, to – that horrible technological term now ruined for all time – connect (Bollen’s italics).

Only connect, which was of course central to Forster’s (1910) novel about the contrasting lives of social classes, it is ratcheted up from Howards End  and the homage to it by Zadie Smith (On Beauty, 2008). There is the sense of the new and the old in Orient, the conflicts of the city and its outskirts, art and the technological, and ironically in Bollen’s style, the conflict of the literary and the genre. His multi-layered narratives are as if to try and make these characters ‘live in fragments no longer’.

If the invention of the ship also means the invention of the shipwreck it also means the invention of a lot of similes and metaphors for Bollen to use. His prose really is enviable at times with a skill both for the polemical and the poetical: take this from the prologue “Each window was flooded with the reflection of water,” – superb. Yes, Orient is surrounded by water, and although geography is more important to Orient to any other book i’ve read this year, you can sometimes feel yourself drowning in the constant imagery of water and the elements that seem to occur on every other page. With this diverse cast of characters and subplots, you do sometimes feel that it is what is holding it together. But only rarely does the structure keep, and Bollen, to his own skill keeps it going.

This is a remarkable achievement though; an immensely satisfying experience by an immensely skilful writer. As there are elements of genre fiction, Bollen typically uses certain tropes of it, and maybe Bollen should be wary of not becoming a Joyce Carol Oates mash-up of the literary and the genre fictions, because he is an artist with potential for great successes. Many will not begrudge him though if he does.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since, said Nick Carraway, the eponymous narrator of The Great Gatsby (1925). How the residents of Orient need that old fashioned, parental advice now.

Orient (609 pp.) by Christopher Bollen is released in April 2015 (£16.99 rrp.). Thank you to Simon & Schuster for providing a review copy

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