I Confess: Leslie Jamison at the London Review Bookshop

Leslie Jamison

You might recognise the following scenario: a photo or video appears on a social media site – say, Facebook or Twitter – and catches your eye as you scroll through a blur of familiar faces. It shows an atrocity, someone or something full of pain, and it asks that you pay it attention. You, naturally, are horrified and hurt by this other being’s suffering, so you click “like” or you retweet, and you feel a bit better. You have done your part and a vague sense of self-satisfaction settles over you.

This, says Leslie Jamison, is one of the perils of empathy: the “concluding note of self-satisfaction” that comes after a response to another’s pain, a kind of emotional hollowness. For, she argues, what is the use of empathetic pats on the back if there is no real investment behind the feeling? But if this sounds like Leslie Jamison has a negative attitude towards empathy – and its sisters sentimentality, vulnerability, self-exposure, confession, guilt and self-examination – then nothing could be further from the truth. In both her new title The Empathy Exams and in conversation with Olivia Laing on July 8 at the London Review Book Shop, she eloquently, intelligently and convincingly puts forward the case for empathy in most of its guises.

Her first essay, and easily the most personal and self-exposing, is one in which she examines, unnervingly honestly, the abortion she had while she was working as a medical actor playing out other people’s pain – a moment of extreme vulnerability and pain making her think how she wanted other people to regard her in that moment. How we react to other people’s pain and how we hope people react to our pain is never more complex, she points out, than in women, who are overly self-conscious of the image of “the suffering woman” as an outmoded model for female pain. In particular, women, she argues, are inclined to use irony to distance themselves from feeling – a “post-wounded” ironic relationship of sorts.

Why is it that people shy away from pain – from confessing it, sharing it, viewing it – and consider many of empathy’s traits to be vulgar, voyeuristic or overly sentimental? There is no doubt that this is writing and talk that is easy to attack as solipsistic or feel squeamish about, about which it is easy to say “what’s the point?” – but Leslie Jamison and Olivia Laing deftly undercut these arguments with a bold assertion of the value of empathy. And not just empathy in the broad sense that most of us see as valuable – an understanding of other people’s suffering – but also empathy in its less attractive guises: sentimentality, for example.

In what Oscar Wilde deemed “the luxury of an emotion without paying for it”, there is a kind of shallowness – all the uncomplicated sweetness of an instant feeling without any cost. Leslie Jamison sees value in sentimentality, however, if it provokes awareness – if it, so to speak, sets off a chain of emotions, a kind of “chronology of experience” that leads to better understanding. She has an admirable faith in the process of feelings, that one feeling, not necessary “useful” in itself can take you to another, valuable emotion.

And it was here that Jamison and Laing’s conversation took on an unexpected angle – and began to consider the potential social and moral payoff of witnessing a pain. One of Jamison’s essays concerns the case of the West Memphis Three and the Paradise Lost documentaries that presented multiple and challenging claims to the viewer’s empathy – whether for the victims or the defendants – but which, by drawing attention to the case, played a part in the defendants’ eventual release from prison. In the same way that empathy can be used as a tool to raise awareness, so too can confessional writing be used to increase understanding of experiences, both personal and alien. A book, a piece of writing, is not an autonomous unit, Jamison argues – and, as such, a confessional piece of writing can spark a conversation with a reader, it can make someone feel less alone, it can comfort. There is value, here, again.

It is hard to accept all of Jamison’s arguments – not least because our own, deeply entrenched, prudishness might dismiss them as self-indulgent. It’s a fine line to tread, but Jamison treads it well, showing an impressive and scrupulous commitment to self-examination. Warm, humorous, eloquent, intelligent and precise, Leslie Jamison offers both complexity of thinking and accessibility of expression – it’s the kind of conversation and knowledge that demands more attention than a simple click and pat on the back.

Feature Film: The Grand Budapest Hotel

A film from a director that needs little introduction, Wes Anderson returns with “his eighth and best film yet”.


Rich red carpets, purple-liveried staff, ornate gold-gilded staircases and a vast, sumptuous lobby that oozes nostalgic decadence – The Grand Budapest Hotel is a visual feast akin to gazing through the glass of a Viennese patisserie at an extravagant and elaborate confection that is as ingenious as it is intricate. Every detail is considered, every whim explored, and a fantastical world takes flight, fully formed, and bearing all the distinctive hallmarks of a Wes Anderson film.

This is his eighth film and best yet. A departure from American shores, yet retaining all the eccentricities of The Royal Tenenbaums and warmth of Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s first foray into Europe, and his first film to directly reference and credit an author, Stefan Zweig, a Jewish writer who fled Nazism and committed suicide in 1942, and whose stories revealed their characters’ inner workings within multi-layered structures.

And it is a literary structure that frames this narrative. In the present day, a girl clutches a copy of a book entitled “The Grand Budapest Hotel” as she visits a statue of its author. But this is just the outer layer of our story, our first Russian doll, which Anderson opens to reveal another story; this time, we are in 1985, and the same author begins to describe the time he spent at the hotel years ago. Another Russian doll is produced; we return to 1968, and see the writer, younger, staying in the dilapidated hotel, where he meets the hotel’s owner, Mr Zero Moustafa. Over supper in the cavernous dining room, Mr Moustafa tells the writer the story – the final, solid, Russian doll – of how he came to the hotel in its heyday as a lobby boy in 1932 and was taken under the wing of fastidious and charming concierge Monsieur Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes.

Gustave steals the show. In equal parts pernickety, suave, foppish and elegant, he exudes old-world opulence and poise but surprises with random outbursts of profanity, jumpiness and a sexual proclivity that extends to satisfying eighty-five-year-old Madame D, one of the hotel’s many rich old ladies. Really, though, it’s Ralph Fiennes who steals the show, not least because he plays this highly idiosyncratic character with brilliant deadpan but eccentric humour that is in itself completely unexpected – he liberally peppers his speech with a dandified daaarling – but also because he brings an emotional kindness to the film that steers it firmly away from the brittle tension of some of Anderson’s previous offerings.

This sweetness is encapsulated in the friendship between Gustave and young orphan Zero, which blossoms when, dashing across the country to attend Madame D’s wake, the duo’s train is stopped by menacing soldiers who threaten Zero. Gustave leaps to his defence and the two become firm, if unlikely, friends. And when Gustave is bequeathed a priceless painting in Madame D’s will, only to be accused of her murder by her scheming family, apprentice Zero returns the favour by sticking by his master. Hilariously preposterous scenes ensue: a jailbreak, a mountain chase on skis and a very nasty incident involving the loss of fingers.

The success of such an outlandish story is in its telling. Anderson is a master of bathos, and there is absurdity in many of his scenes – jerky little movements within a wide, still frame; a camera shot lingering for a second too long; an unexpected zooming in on a ludicrous setup. Most noticeable of all is the impression of a doll’s house he cultivates, wherein characters are either too big for their surroundings, or dwarfed by madcap proportions of grandeur. The effect is one of watching a miniature theatre or an intricate wind-up toy – and it is a curious feeling. Enthralled by its workings and minutiae, you nevertheless remain aware that, should the camera move an inch or two to the left, the illusion would shatter. Anderson’s poise and control ensure that the illusion is unbroken, but the suggestion is there – intentionally, it would seem.

The suggestion of a wider world outside this wonderful box of delights is one of the more intriguing aspects of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson has been accused of making the same, self-indulgent, film again and again, but here he broadens his lens to take in the fear and darkness of 1930s Europe, when a continent peered into the abyss of fascism. While Anderson broadens his outlook, though, his plot loses some of its dramatic pull and, in places, feels a little baggy. Despite its authorial tone and structure, this is not a film of narrative strength; instead, the emotional resonance and visual brilliance sustain us.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is in cinemas from March 7th and as a Secret Cinema Experience, read our review of the immersive theatre and film performance.

Book Review: Ballistics by D W Wilson

ballisticsA title can wrong-foot you, have you expecting something that never comes, or surprise you with its frankness, its willingness to give away so easily the heart of the novel it conceals. The title of D W Wilson’s debut novel, Ballistics, does both, acting as a multi-layered, if occasionally forced, metaphor that straddles small town machoism and high-reaching philosophy. Guns, and their inevitable bullets, are splintered into the wood of the narrative from the first page; but so too is a probing of how anything ever begins, and how a life’s trajectory is decided upon, if decided at all. When Alan West looks back on the summer he spent ‘in a scour across the Kootenays’, he wonders, while firing pot shots at tin cans, how it all began. ‘That’s a good question. That’s a philosophical question. It’s like asking when a bullet starts towards the beer can.’

These short sentences – taut phrases are a hallmark of Wilson’s pared back writing – encapsulate the whole novel: the feel of your grandfather’s .22 calibre in your hand, the small town aimlessness of popping shots in the backyard, the finality of a bullet and the wonderment at the Gunsmith’s Paradox, which states that ‘to reach its target, a bullet must first travel halfway, and to travel halfway it must first travel a quarter, an eight, a sixteenth, smaller and smaller, such that it will never reach its destination, such that it won’t even start to move. This means nobody can ever be shot. This means no journey can ever end.’

This particular journey begins when Alan West’s grandfather, Gramps, has a heart attack and, with the resolve of a dying man, asks Alan to find Jack West, the father Alan never knew and the son Gramps hasn’t spoken to in decades. Alan sets out on a road trip that takes him through the Kootenay mountains, through eerie towns ‘evac’d’ from the wildfires raging in the hills around them, and into his family’s past – he’ll learn, finally, why he never knew his mother and why his father upped and left more than two decades ago.

Pillow clouds swirled above the Rockies, and I smelled the pinprick sensation of lightning on the horizon. The sky had turned the colour of clay. Woodsmoke loitered in the air like breath – it clung to clothes and furniture, a scent like chimney filth, or hiking trips along the riverbeds, or the charcoal that remains on a campground after the campers have moved on. The province was in flames.

With Alan is Archer, an ageing American soldier who went AWOL during the Vietnam War, slipping over the border into Canada where he met Cecil West – Gramps to Alan – and forged a friendship that would later burn to ashes in a furious blaze of treachery. Together Alan and Archer, and in tugs and starts, narrate the knotty story of Jack, Cecil, Archer, Archer’s daughter Linnea, an elusive American nicknamed Crib, and Nora, who begins the tale as Cecil’s fiancée and ends it as Archer’s wife – even if time has pulled some knots too tight to ever unpick.

It is Archer’s voice that controls the emotional pitch of the story, as he peels back the bitter layers of guilt and broken friendship to get to the truth of what went wrong all those years ago in a small town where bullets, drinking and fights were more effective than words and reason. And there is nuance to Archer’s story, a pain and loneliness that find their way through the Macho blue-collar exterior to reveal a haunted man. There is a cleverness, too, in the narrative structure, and Wilson holds back information, shifts perspective and changes gears to control tension in the way a top-rate short story writer can – Wilson won the 2011 BBC National Short Story Award with ‘The Dead Roads’ and found acclaim with his first collection Once You Break a Knuckle.

Alan’s voice, on the other hand, lacks intensity and complexity and his story – he’s a Philosophy PhD who winds up in his hometown after fleeing an unwieldy thesis and failing relationship – feels like an artificial (if necessary) framework to the main plot. But if Alan’s tale is underdeveloped and unconvincing, then the women in Ballistics are hardly allowed a side to their own stories, and are instead narrated through Alan and Archer’s eyes. Though much has been made of the apparent ‘macho’ character of this novel, it is not a macho book. The men, outwardly detached, are just struggling single fathers trying to make good, or sons trying to impress their fathers. It is unfortunate, though, that the women of this novel are not given a voice other than that filtered by Archer or Alan; but the same could be said of Jack West – Alan’s absent father, a man who is afforded little compassion, but who only ever wanted to love and be loved – or Crib, the angry young American whose motives are never really explained, and even Cecil West, Gramps, who is described through the prism of Archer’s guilt and anger.

Uneven characters, male focus, an unconvincing set-up and an occasionally pretentious contrast between high and low nonetheless become insignificant against the quiet ferocity of unarticulated emotion, an intensity of feelings and thoughts left unsaid but keenly felt over decades, and powerful, taut, mesmerizing writing. The plot and pace might stutter and falter, like dying gunfire, but the impact of three generations of misunderstandings, reserve and stifled feelings will echo and reverberate around your mind, as if against the mountains which loom over each character.

. . . the landscape, the mere presence of it, as large as imagination and possibility, as large as forgiveness, that should – but doesn’t, truly doesn’t – make insignificance of the worries of men.

The Author as Translator: Juan Pablo Villalobos and Stefan Tobler at the LRB Bookshop

The Brazilian translator spoke to the Mexican novelist on Friday September 6.
Mexican novelist Juan Pablo Villalobos (left) in conversation with Brazilian translator Stefan Tobler (right). Photo courtesy of the London Review Bookshop.

Halfway through last week’s talk about translation at the London Review Bookshop – a floor-to-ceiling book nirvana – publisher Stefan Tobler said something that would make many book reviewers squirm guiltily. “Reads smoothly,” he pointed out, is one of those phrases that critics use to describe a translation without actually saying anything about it, a bit like “needed editing”. After all, should the mark of a good translation be that it “reads smoothly” when not all literature is neat and tidy in its original form? I squirmed in my seat, guilty of casually dropping into a review a line about the “smoothness” of a translated novel without really thinking – about the intricacies, complexities and impossibilities associated with translating a piece of writing from one language to another – despite being a keen reader of foreign fiction and a dabbler in translation.

There to get me thinking properly were Brazilian translator Tobler, who founded publishing house And Other Stories in 2010, and Mexican novelist Juan Pablo Villalobos, author of Down the Rabbit Hole and the recently released Quesadillas, both translated into English by Rosalind Harvey and published by And Other Stories. Tobler and Villalobos have also both translated new title All Dogs Are Blue, a novel set in a mental asylum, from the original Brazilian Portuguese – Tobler into English and Villalobos into Spanish. It was this “dirty, unpolished” novel and Villalobos’s open-ended Quesadillas that provided much of the material for discussion: from the thorny issue of what makes a “good” translation to the difficulties of moving from one literary tradition into another, to the slippery notion of how to capture the “spirit” of a book, not just the words, and on to the nitty-gritty of whether to include a glossary of terms or to translate every single word, and “lose” something in the process.

Because, it becomes apparent, there is an inexhaustible supply of hazards, hurdles and decisions for the translator to avoid, leap over and carefully consider – and that is before he finds that, unfortunately, not everybody is that interested in reading translated literature, that some people view it with suspicion or believe that you can’t ever truly translate “losing” – there’s that word again – something. Indeed, it has become something of a cliché to say that there is something “lost in translation”. Only last month, an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row featured a handful of writers who expressed a disregard for translated literature – a disregard that Edith Grossman deftly dismantled on the And Other Stories blog.

Alas, there wasn’t time to get to the heart of the issue of disdain – and the oft-cited fact that only 3% of titles published in English-speaking territories are translations – at this short but sweet talk, but it hovered temptingly near the edges. In fact, Villalobos echoed Edith Grossman’s assertion that “every competent translator has to be a writer, because that is what we do” when he declared that “translators are writers, and they create new versions of a novel”. This is a bold claim, and one with as many detractors as supporters. Can a translator ever create anything wholly original, given that he is working within the parameters established by somebody else? On the other hand, surely a translator proves his inventiveness by knowing, crafting and using both his own language and the target language?

It’s a tricky question, which is why we were lucky to hear from a man who has seen both sides of the argument. Villalobos is a novelist, but he is also an author who has experienced being translated – he works closely with his translator Harvey – and a translator in his own right. The enjoyable thing about translating, he says, is that the hard novelistic decisions – the ones he struggles with as a writer – have already been made for him. Nonetheless, both he and Tobler conceded that there are numerous pitfalls to navigate when it comes to a translation, including being aware that by removing a text from its cultural tradition, as you might when you place a Brazilian novel in an English reader’s mind, you risk a different interpretation to that originally intended. Some things, it seems, are unavoidable – though, Villalobos added, all readers read differently, no matter their cultural and literary traditions.

This might have been a rather woolly answer to an (admittedly complicated) question, but what can you expect when you are dealing with an art that is capable of both incredible precision and ambiguity, that can create infinite different versions of one text and which is as much concerned with capturing an elusive “spirit” as it is with pinning down individual words? And even if Tobler and Villalobos didn’t reach any concrete conclusions as to the relationships between translator and text, translator and writer and reader and translated text, they shone a brief but revelatory light on the complex but subtle nature of these relationships and on the infinite intricacies of translation.

“Reads smoothly” doesn’t begin to cover it.

Feature Film: Frances Ha

Blending humour, melancholy and sharp insight into complex relationships, Noam Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s collaboration is a wonderfully uplifting tale that is as beautifully shot as it is acted.


“What do you do?” is not an easy question to answer if, like Frances Ha, your dance company doesn’t want to keep you on, you’ve split up with your partner, your best friend has moved out and the generosity of your friends wanes as you hop between their flats. Halfway through Frances Ha, this skittish, endearing twenty-seven-year-old is asked just that at a swanky dinner-party. There’s a jittery pause before she confesses, to a room of success stories, “it’s kind of hard to explain . . . because I don’t really do it”.

What Frances wants to do is carry on living with best friend Sophie – all irony and barbed comments, played by Sting’s daughter Mickey Summer – become a professional dancer and generally have a whale of a time without anything ever changing. The first twenty minutes grant Frances exactly this in gorgeously shot scenes that capture female friendship at its most ferociously tender; Frances and Sophie fall asleep watching a film together and joke that they’re “like the lesbian couple who don’t have sex any more”. So when Sophie decides to move out to a better neighbourhood and on with her life, Frances is left with nowhere to live and the realisation that, minus a credit card, “I’m not a real person yet”.

Beautifully shot in a strangely luminous and luxurious digital black and white, Frances Ha delivers more than a few nods to Lena Dunham’s Girls, Woody Allen and French New Wave. The film delivers director Noam Baumbach’s customary clutch of tropes – the offbeat characters of Greenberg and the compassion of The Squid and Whale come together here – but always wears its influences lightly, rarely tipping over into sickly homage or awkward pastiche. For despite the well-trodden indie ground that Frances walks – or, frequently, dances – over, there is a wonderful mix of timelessness and timeliness in its modern use of black and white and its focus on female relationships. Colourless, Frances Ha is cast dreamily adrift in time, but its focus on the complexities of female friendships and identity firmly sets this in 2013.

And if viewers don’t fall in love with the Woody Allen-esque New York with its Girls twist, here hilariously epitomised by Adam Driver and Michael Zegen as two flat-sharing trust-fund artists, they’ll surely fall in love with Frances herself. Tall, gauche and filled with such giddy joie de vivre that she dusts herself off from every knock-back, Frances shines through the hipster drivel that surrounds her. Much has been written about Baumbach and Grewig’s off-screen relationship, and it’s hard to know where Grewig ends and Frances begins. But this ambiguity only heightens Frances’ appeal. There’s a brilliant scene that sees her dancing down the street to a Bowie soundtrack with a huge grin on her face; another shows her saying goodbye to her parents (played by Grewig’s actual parents) after Christmas at home, her face aching with sadness.

It is this mix of melancholy and joy that makes Frances Ha feel weightier than its 85-minute running time. Its soft grey tones echo the strange in-between land of your mid-twenties, and tinge Frances’ story of a crumbling friendship and a failing career with sadness. But it is precisely this sense of sadness that will irritate many people. What does a privileged young girl who lives in New York really have to complain about? Even I, completely smitten by Frances, felt a twinge of annoyance when she flew to Paris for an impromptu weekend on a through-the-post credit card (a twinge that was quickly dispelled by a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek homage to French New Wave that sees Frances all alone in Paris, a short story on screen). And as many people who are bewitched by Frances’ dizzying smile and unfailingly positive outlook, many others will find her naiveté and self-absorption an infuriating and pretentious combination.

I am not one of them. I adored Frances Ha. For all its narrow, New York focus, its hipster facade and its self-aware pretentions to nostalgic cinema, this is a touching, charming film that grapples with female friendships, growing up and the difficulties of life when every one around you seems to be moving on. Whatever it is you’re doing Frances, just keep doing it.

Feature Film: I’m So Excited!

Still from trailer for Pedro Almodovar's film I'm So Excited

It is good of Pedro Almodovar to make it clear, right from the beginning, that we shouldn’t expect much in the way of seriousness during his most recent film, I’m So Excited! We definitely shouldn’t expect the kind of disturbing and darkly comic film he has won plaudits for in the past decade. If you’re hoping to relive the creepy thrill of The Skin I Live In or the rich tragicomedy of Volver, you’ll have to adjust your expectations – and sharpish. Instead, Almodovar takes us back to the 1980s and to the colourful, wonderfully kitsch, irreverence of early films like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Bright, jangling graphics adorn the opening credits, and provide us with the first clue that Almodovar is here to have to fun. We just have to cross our fingers and hope we will, too.

Peninsula Flight 2459 is in trouble. The chocks – no, me neither – weren’t removed before take-off (blame a high-vis-jacket-sporting Antonio Banderas, who was distracted by a baggage-truck-driving Penelope Cruz), and the landing gear has failed. Instead of flying to Mexico as intended, the plane is forced to circle Toledo, desperately waiting for a landing strip to become available. The economy-class passengers have been delivered a drug that renders them unconscious for the entire flight, so it’s left to the first-class passengers, three gay male stewards and the two pilots to fear for their lives, drink themselves silly, join the mile-high club and generally ignore every aircraft-safety rule in the book.

Meanwhile, back on the ground, Spain is also in trouble, only this time it’s not fiction. Government fraud, a mortgage crisis, swindling bankers and the worst unemployment rate in modern history make for pretty grim reading in the on-board newspapers. The metaphor is obvious, but no less important for being so: the powerful few have chosen to live it up in merry abandon rather than tackle the fast-approaching disaster; their passengers, meanwhile, sleep unknowingly, with no say in their own fates. Almodovar, an outspoken critic of Spain’s right-wing government, has declared this his “most political film” yet, and beneath the gaudy, alcohol-drenched exterior is a satirical attack on embezzling banks, the royal family and corrupt politicians.

Which all makes I’m So Excited! sound much cleverer than it actually is. In reality, the satire lacks bite, and as neat as the metaphor is, it never develops to its full potential. Of course, none of this would matter if the comedy were as funny as the zany trailer promises, or if the plot didn’t feel as thin as it does, or even if the characters were half as nuanced as Almodovar’s usual cast. As it is, though, I’m So Excited! is a mildly amusing but ultimately flimsy screwball comedy.

The problem is, nothing really happens here. Yes, there’s high jinks and more double entendres than you can actually entendre; yes, the characters bond and chat and generally get things off their chest (pun intended); and, yes, the story comes to a coherent conclusion and everybody had some fun along the way. But the plot is so basic that at times it feels as if you’re watching a ninety-minute-long music video. Bizarrely, too, only one of the character’s stories is developed outside the plane – the others are not granted these coveted on-ground shots. In a film that is nearly exclusively set on board a plane, a sub-plot needs to be very special to warrant those extra on-ground moments. These moments may be sumptuously shot and full of rich colour, but they add very little to the film.

Noticeable, too, is the lack of female characters in a film by a director known for his strong portrayal of women. Why must the stewardesses slumber in economy class for the entire flight, giving the three stewards and two pilots centre stage? And of the three female characters in first class, one is a society dominatrix, one a virgin and the other is . . . asleep. It is not just the women who are half-drawn versions of clumsy stereotypes; the rest of the cast barely function outside their categories: camp stewards, mysterious Mexican, swindling banker, womanizing actor, party-mad newly wed.

Nonetheless, Almodovar fans will still find plenty to like here. His recurring themes of sexual identity, transgression, family life and desire all feature, even if they are not developed much beyond easy laughs, and the hedonistic, farcical style is infectiously charming – you can’t help but laugh at the ridiculously camp rendition of “I’m So Excited” by the Pointer Sisters. Bright, over-the-top and outrageous, this is entertainment at its silliest, and it’s certainly fun enough.

But that’s all I’m So Excited! can be. The sparse plot, stock characters and underexploited satire clip the wings of this light-hearted comedy and prevent it from ever really taking off.

Novel: Filght Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

flight behaviourGlobal warming. Now, there’s a phrase that can divide opinion, stir up controversy and shine a spotlight on apathy (“I’m just tired of hearing about it”, “There’s nothing I can do anyway”, etc. etc.) It’s nearly impossible to discuss without resorting to well-trodden rhetorical ground and, no matter how virtuous your audience, there’s usually something more exciting, shiny and new to think about instead. It is a brave novelist who decides to write about global warming.

Barbara Kingsolver is exactly that. A bold and ambitious writer, she is undaunted by scope and magnitude, and delights in teasing a simple story out of nothing before gathering it into something elegant, grand and sweeping. Bestselling The Poisonwood Bible, for example, is a daring, impressive work that reveals a cultural context through a sustained focus on a group of characters.

Her latest novel, Flight Behaviour, has similarly modest beginnings: flame-haired Dellarobia, a stay-at-home mother of two in small-town Tennessee who gave up her own dreams when she married a farmer at seventeen, is disillusioned by her life of domestic drudgery and one dollar stores – and she is going to throw it all away on an affair. But, striding up a muddy hill to meet her lover, she is stopped short by a writhing forest of orange flames blazing before her. “It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, an ethereal wind. It had to mean something.”

Beneath this beautiful, fierce and biblical language quivers the anxious figure of climate change. In a dirt-poor, god-fearing community, such “unearthly beauty” can mean all sorts of things – a religious vision, a majestic natural event, a money-making opportunity – but to the on-site scientists, led by handsome, intelligent Ovid, this is a disaster. For Dellarobia did not see a lake of burning fire, but a colony of orange, fluttering Monarch butterflies – butterflies, more importantly, that should not be on a Tennessean mountain-side, and whose presence there can only signify profound ecological discord.

If we care deeply about the butterflies’ plight – and I did – it is only because we care deeply for our protagonist. Kingsolver has created a spiky, intelligent yet fragile character, who is struggling against the confines of her circumstances. 17 and pregnant, Dellarobia gave up her dreams of escape and a better life to marry mild-mannered but ineffectual Cub. 11 years later, and living in the shadow of her domineering parents-in-law, Bear and Hester, she is resigned to the sad tangle of her life: a loveless marriage, two children, loneliness, affairs, buried memories, arguments, dirty carpets, Sunday church, too many cigarettes, ambitions never realized, a future never lived.

When it comes to characters, Kingsolver is a patient writer, one who won’t deliver sparkling creations you’ll immediately fall in love with. Instead, she works in small details, slowly coaxing into being a delicately woven portrayal of somebody else’s life, complete with small-town, every-day concerns and flaws and contradictions aplenty. This slow, deliberate and incremental writing is crucial to the success of the Flight Behaviour. We are introduced to characters and a setting and we are made to care for them, despite – or because of – their limitations. Only then does Kingsolver let us know what Flight Behaviour is about: the damning effect of global warming on our world. But if global warming is the issue at the heart of the novel, Kingsolver rarely lets it become bigger than her characters. Indeed, its huge, terrifying scope is tempered – and brought into sharper focus – by the daily grind of life in a recession-hit rural community. As much as this is about environmental concerns, it is also about a woman who is struggling with the confines of a life she didn’t choose to live. It is at once humbling and uplifting.

Unfortunately, the problem with such a gradually woven story is that tugging on a stray thread can reveal unseemly holes. Repetition might be part of the structure of this ambitious novel, but there are times when even the most sedate of readers might be irritated to learn, for the sixth time, that Cub likes to channel hop, that Ovid has a strong accent and that Dellarobia is not very tall. A brave novelist Kingsolver might be, but even she cannot avoid a little heavy-handedness in her approach to such a controversial topic. The onslaught of scientific information in the latter half of the novel, for example, is particularly difficult to digest, and the issue at its heart – while so subtly introduced and handled in general – no longer shimmers shrewdly in the background but struts in the foreground.

It would be a mistake, though, to fall into the trap of disregarding this intelligent and accomplished novel because of a little clumsy repetition. It would be even more of a mistake to ignore the importance of Kingsolver’s message, simply because it is sometimes delivered a little hot-headedly – the message that global warming is happening and it’s happening now. It’s lucky, then, that Flight Behaviour only rarely falters. For the most part, this is an elegantly conceived novel filled with believable characters, who, for all their faults, are drawn with respect and compassion. Kingsolver might have a lot to say about peoples’ reticent attitude to climate change, but she never scorns their narrow logic and everyday failures.

And if the idea of global warming still gets you hot under your opinionated collar, Kingsolver’s masterly use of language and beautifully sustained characterisation should be enough of a draw. She crafts sentences that would leave other writers stumbling, and binds together the humble and the majestic in such a way that both sadness and splendour are deeply moving. As Dellarobia works with the scientists to help save the butterflies, she experiences her own metamorphosis, and must shed her old life to recover her dreams. It is Kingsolver’s sensitive portrayal of Dellarobia that allows this novel to soar above the mud-slinging that characterizes the global warming debate. We could learn much from Dellarobia when, near the end of Flight Behaviour, she thinks to herself, “Things look impossible when you’ve not done them”.

Feature Film: Cloud Atlas

Doona Bae as Sonmi-451 and Jim Sturgess as Hae-Joo Chang in Cloud Atlas.
Doona Bae as Sonmi-451 and Jim Sturgess as Hae-Joo Chang in Cloud Atlas.

It was never going to be easy. A critically acclaimed novel with a complex Russian doll structure that links characters as far ranging as a nineteenth-century abolitionist and a futuristic clone worker, while playing with concepts as lofty as Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, Cloud Atlas has long been confined to a dusty box marked “unfilmable: don’t go there”.

Unsurprisingly, then, many greeted the news that David Mitchell’s novel was going to be made into a film with a degree of scepticism. And when it was announced that there would be not one, not two, but three directors working on the film (Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer), our scepticism couldn’t help but sharpen. How on earth were three directors going to take 500-plus pages of complex, intricate and unashamedly difficult novel and make sense of it in two-and-a-bit hours’ worth of film?

The answer is, admirably so. Even if it does stumble as often as it soars, Cloud Atlas nonetheless does an incredibly good job of a difficult task, skilfully reshaping the book’s six short stories and interweaving them into an intoxicating film that throbs with energy, sound, colour and – above all – humanity. The film follows concurrently the nineteenth-century story of a young lawyer and a stowaway black slave in the South Pacific, the pre-war tale of a disinherited but ambitious gay musician employed as assistant to an elderly composer, a seventies political thriller featuring a plucky young journalist who exposes the dangerous dealings of a power magnate, and a present-day Kafkaesque farce in which a haphazard and money-short publisher is tricked into self-incarceration in an old people’s home. There is also a jump of 130-odd years to a future dystopia – recognizably sci-fi in its neon lights, genetically modified clones and Blade Runner-esque cityscapes – in Seoul and, further still, to a post-apocalyptic future that sees language reduced to pidgin and white-eyed cannibals stalk a Pacific island. Time is folded, stretched, twanged and knotted into a cat’s cradle that distorts past and present so much that, for a long time, the post-apocalyptic future could be mistaken for a primitive past. Fans of the Wachowski twins and Tykwer might recognize similar tricks from films like The Matrix and Run, Lola, Run, not least these challenges to our perception of conventional time.

Each strand of this multi-threaded story is distinct in genre and form, giving the viewer what could be described as the dubious thrill of romance, crime, comedy, politics and sci-fi all in one go. Each could probab work as a self-contained, satisfying piece of cinema. While some ooze majesty in stunning backdrops and haunting music, others cut through this extravagance with unexpected comedy or intense but unexpressed emotion. But this is not a jumble of disconnected half-films. Scenes leak into one another through carefully opened cracks in time and place, each story is somehow linked, even through the most insignificant of looks, phrases or objects. As viewers, we are charged with finding the echoes, nuances and connections between these six stories, and there is a kind of joyful satisfaction in joining the dots, in following the trail of crumbs: journalist Luisa Rey comes across musician Robert Frobisher’s love letters to Sixsmith; in turn, we glimpse the manuscript of Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery on publisher Timothy Cavendish’s desk; hundreds of years later, genetically modified ‘fabricant’ Sonmi will watch the film ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’; and on and on and on until the last jagged-edged pieces of an elaborate jigsaw puzzle begin to take shape.

And it is not just images and objects that link these stories. One of the aspects of this film that has attracted most criticism is its use of the same actors for multiple roles, especially the use of white actors for Asian characters or vice versa. Hugh Grant, for example, takes a break from playing Mr Bumbling to tackle the roles of cannibal, Korean restaurant manager, immoral nuclear magnate, cuckolded brother and nineteenth-century plantation owner. Half the fun – for all its conceptual musings, this isn’t a po-faced film – is in realizing, hours after leaving the cinema, ‘God, that was Tom Hanks’, or in peering past the prosthetic noses and ageing make-up to see a bearded and one-eyed Hallie Berry. Trying to work out who plays whom, though, was probably not what the three directors intended, and Cloud Atlas does at times teeter rather perilously on the edge of ridiculousness. There may be method in the masked madness, but it isn’t always clear to see. We might look past each character’s get-up – a white-Jewish, blonde Hallie Berry or Hugo Weaving in drag – and through race, time and gender, to the eternally recurring soul beneath, but Cloud Atlas’s stunning visuals are more often than not too ambitious to support the conceptual and emotional needs of this complex narrative.

It is the lack of emotional connection that will bother most viewers. While not devoid of feeling – the fateful relationship between Robert and Sixsmith is heart-wrenching, and there is unbridled joy in the conclusion to Jim Broadbent’s refreshingly farcical tale of escape – the short amount of time lent to each story means that characters and relationships are not as fully realized as they might have been. In the same way, the Wachowskis and Tykwer are only ever able to hint at the concepts and ideas Mitchell’s novel explored in depth. The cuts between scenes happen so quickly that we are often left with a sense of incredible visual dexterity and complexity, but little substance underneath. One of the more experimental aspects of the novel is the dialectal language of the post-apocalyptic Sloosha’s Crossin’ – it might be a minor  sticking point, but the mumbled pidgin English in the cinematic version is barely audible and much of the linguistic fun subsequently lost. Similar clumsiness crops up in the over-use of obvious phrases or lingering shots, such as in the scene where Luisa Rey muses that she’s “trying to understand why we keep making the same mistakes over and over”.

If there was ever a film to divide critical opinion, then, this is it. Elaborate, ambitious, ridiculous, beautiful, clever, intricate, delirious, comic, tragic and excessive all at once, Cloud Atlas has reached for the stars and very nearly made it. And there’s something to be said for that.

 Cloud Atlas is still showing at selected cinemas across the UK.


New Voices: Gavin Extence on his debut novel The Universe Versus Alex Woods

From Hodder & Stoughton, Jan 2013.

Gavin Extence’s debut novel The Universe Versus Alex Woods was published in January this year and has since been picked as one of the Waterstones 11 for 2013.

Described as “one of the year’s most anticipated debuts” by TimeOut, it’s is a heartwarming story of friendship, morality and humanity, with an unforgettable 17-year-old at its centre. Drawing on the writings of Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving, Gavin blends humour and tragedy to take us to life’s darkest moments – and show us the light.

As part of Litro‘s New Voices series of interviews with newly published authors, Bella Whittington talks to Gavin about teenage narrators, why authors need to be market-savvy, and the surprises along the road to publication.

Gavin Extence, 30.

The first time we meet Alex Woods, he has an urn full of ashes and a stash of marijuana in his car. It’s a pretty bold beginning to a novel that goes on to address some tricky themes, not least assisted suicide. Did you have this dramatic opening in mind when you first conceived the novel?

By the time I started the book, I did, yes. It wasn’t the first thing I had in mind when I was plotting out the book, though – I had Alex’s voice very early on and Alex’s character followed from that. But I actually wrote the opening scene as a hook to attract an agent and a publisher, so it was a really useful focus. As soon as I hit upon the idea of starting almost at the end and working backwards, I could see how the whole structure of the book would work.

The hook obviously worked! It’s interesting that you were thinking about how to attract an agent and publisher so early on. Was publication always your goal?

Yes, it was. I knew writing would be a fairly serious hobby if nothing else, but I’d always hoped to get published. I read a lot of stuff on the internet about commissioning and how the whole publishing process works, which was a really valuable thing to do. I understood that you’ve got to make a pretty quick impact, especially when you’re dealing with agents who receive 10 or 20 manuscripts a day.

So, did you never consider self-publishing?

No, I wouldn’t have self-published. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do it – I need affirmation from someone else! And while there is self-published writing that does very well, that gets picked up and works, I still think it’s most aspiring authors’ ambition to be traditionally published.

Alex is such a memorable character, somewhere between child and adult, naïve and intelligent. Was his age a key factor?

Yes, absolutely. He had to be 17. That was what I always had in my head. He’s 18 by the end of the book, and I wanted him to be right on the cusp of adulthood at the point of narrating it, even though most of the story takes part as he’s going through adolescence. I’m a big fan of teenage narrators, too – I like what you can do in terms of exploring the large, adult ideas that most of us start to think about in adolescence. I think you can deal with very weighty things without them ever becoming overblown or pretentious, and that was really what attracted me to Alex as a 17-year-old narrator. I found Kurt Vonnegut a really useful springboard for talking about these kinds of things. I had the idea of a cross-generational friendship from early on, and Kurt Vonnegut became a part of that, because he is someone who can bridge the gap between young adults and older generations.

There’s a lot of humour in the book, but also a lot of darkness. Did you find it tricky to balance these two elements?

There were lots of tricky things about the book, but that wasn’t one of them. I always knew what the tone had to be and I wouldn’t have wanted to write a book that was bleak and black. A lot of writers I really love, like Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving, do tragicomedy really well – and that was basically my aspiration: to write the kind of book I like to read. Humour was a big part of that, but humour is also quite true to life. As humans, we can deal with tragedy by laughing or crying – they’re both equally valid responses.

So: you had your manuscript ready, you knew you wanted to be published traditionally… and suddenly Hodder & Stoughton pre-empted the world rights. Did you ever expect such a rapid response from publishers?

No, I didn’t. I had very modest ambitions. From my research, I knew how hard it is to get published, and how many manuscripts there are floating around, and this set me up to not except too much. The general message out there is that very few books get published and that, of those, very few will make any money. So, just getting published was my first ambition. Things went much better than I really could have hoped! It’s strange, though, as a debut writer – you have to have a mixture of realism and idealism. I don’t think anyone would undertake writing without that I-could-really-make-this-work element. It’s an odd double-think situation: you’re expecting the worst but there’s a small part of you hoping for the best.

By the sounds of it, you really did your research about getting published. Would “research” be your main piece of advice for other aspiring writers?

It’d certainly be high up on my list of advice. That and “practise a lot”. Practise is invaluable. I spent a year or so writing without really getting anywhere. During that time, I also researched publishing quite thoroughly. You need to know how the process works and how tough it is out there, but you then have to put it right to the back of your mind because it’s quite a daunting thing to research.

Once your novel had been acquired, how did you find the publishing process? What was it like being edited?

So far, it’s been a lovely, lovely experience. The editing didn’t take long at all. There was very little change from the advance copy, which was more or less the manuscript as I submitted it. The changes have been minimal – some sections have been tidied up and shortened and a few bits have been tinkered with. There have been very few significant changes, really.

Did you ever worry that by dealing with such controversial ideas, you might deter some publishers? Or that they might want to dilute some of the issues?

No, I don’t think that would have been an issue with UK publishers. I also didn’t intend to write something topical in the first place – I genuinely started with the characters and developed the story from there. I suppose the surprise for me was that it got picked up as a crossover. I conceived it as an adult book, but it’s been marketed as 14-plus. I’m really pleased with that, but because of the darkness of some of the material, that was a bit of a surprise for me.

Even before your novel was published, it received a lot of attention. Has the whole experience been a wonderful rollercoaster, or have you felt a certain pressure for it to perform well?

It has been amazing. I think it’s exceeded my expectations in almost every area. Also, a lot of what’s happened in terms of the Waterstones 11 and the buzz around the book has come from my publishers. They’ve been so behind the book, and so many people have been so enthusiastic, and I think that’s quite infectious. Inevitably, though, the pressure is on for Book Two! The wonderful thing about debut novelists is that there’s no pressure, no expectations – you have the freedom to do what you want. I don’t feel any pressure with The Universe of Alex Woods – it’s out of my hands now!

I’ve also heard rumours of a film… You have a PhD in Film Studies, did you write this book with cinematic appeal in mind?

Not at all, getting published was a big enough mountain to climb! The film rumour was strange. At the beginning it was just a rumour, but there has subsequently been interest, which I think the original rumour generated – a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Even so, it’s in very early stages. And it’s certainly not anything that I had considered… except only as an idle, late-at-night-before-falling-asleep fantasy. It wasn’t something I realistically expected and I’m still quite cautiously thinking, “Well, we’ll see what happens.”

One of my favourite aspects of the book is how in control of the narrative Alex is – he’s telling his story and the end is very much the end. Is this the last we’ll see of Alex, or might you revisit his story in a sequel?

It was always conceived as a standalone story, so there are no plans to revisit it in that way. Sometimes it is good to know when to leave something alone! I’m really pleased with how it’s turned out, and there’s always a danger you can take away some of that with unnecessary sequels. The only way I can envisage revisiting it is if there was a screenplay potential. Otherwise, that’s it for Alex. I’ll let him get on with his life without me now.

The Universe of Alex Woods is out now from Hodder & Stoughton in hardback and ebook.

The Universe vs. Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

universe-vs-alex-woodsMeet Alex Woods. He’s seventeen years old and sitting at the wheel of Mr Peterson’s car at Dover after a hasty round trip to Zurich. A customs controller has just shone a torch on the passenger seat, only to find an urn containing the remains of said car’s owner. Alex has a minor epileptic fit, declares himself unfit to drive, and then sits silently conjugating irregular Spanish verbs while he waits to be interrogated by the police. When he is called in for questioning, he calmly admits to cultivating the one hundred and thirteen grams of marijuana that have been found in the car’s glove pocket.

If it sounds like I’ve given too much away already, don’t worry. This might be the end of Alex’s story, but it’s also the beginning of the book. He then moves back in time to explain how and why he has ended up in such a sticky situation. The police just want “something that will fit neatly in a box on a police statement form”, but Alex wants to tell his full story, the way it should be told. The first chapter ends with a warning: “You might want to put the kettle on or fetch some more cushions. It’s not going to be brief.”

You certainly couldn’t describe The Universe vs. Alex Woods as brief, but Alex’s teenage voice is so brilliantly honest and effortless that this long coming-of-age tale feels strangely nimble. And, despite having a pretty good idea of what is going to happen, it’s hard not to be deeply affected by Gavin Extence’s warm, witty story of an odd teenager struggling with growing up, friendship, morality, and a heartbreaking dilemma.

From early on, it’s clear that Alex himself is in control of his story — no obscure first-person narrator here, thank you. And in this, Extence shines a light on the very nature of storytelling, the way that only one character can really guide the pace and direction of a story. Narrative pointers are scattered through the text, as are philosophical musings on life itself as a kind of story. There is nothing awkward, then, in Alex pointing out to the reader what they should pay particular attention to.

Pivotal moment no. 1 occurs when, aged ten, Alex is hit by a meteorite while standing in the bathroom of the house he shares with his tarot-card-reading mother. Unfortunately, he notes, “she didn’t realize that she’d foreseen the entire catastrophe until after it had happened”.

Pivotal moment no. 2 happens on his way to feed the ducklings. Carrying bread and the latest edition of the Sky at Night magazine, Alex is set upon by the school bullies. After hiding in a shed, he ends up taking the blame for the greenhouse the bullies smash in place of him. The greenhouse belongs to Mr Peterson, an irascible widower and Vietnam veteran, and an unlikely friendship develops that becomes both a source of great humour and sorrow.

Much of the wit of The Universe Versus Alex Woods derives from our protagonist’s deadpan narrative voice. Both logical and naive, Alex is inadvertently funny and, like the narrator of Mark Haddon’s A Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time, needs to explain everything in great detail. Appalled to think that his handshake might have been on the limp side when meeting the curator of the National History Museum, Alex grips him tightly on departing, so as not to “leave any doubt that the morning’s handshake had been an anomaly”. Likewise, it’s impossible to keep a straight face when he describes a conversation with an irritable Swiss hotel clerk in which Alex insists on speaking in his newly acquired German — “His slightly edgy disposition I put down to my over-zealous war-film accent.” Beneath this humour, though, lies unexpected emotional depth. So fluently entertaining and unflinching is Extence’s writing that it almost comes as a surprise to realise how moving Alex’s story really is.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods is built on brilliant characterisation, humour and emotional sincerity, cemented by philosophical mettle. Through his friendship with Mr Peterson, Alex learns about the importance of kindness, truth and humanity. The writings of Kurt Vonnegut provide a framework for these discussions of atheism, free will, humanism and politics, and the novel is peppered with extracts from his work. The detailed explanations of philosophical ideas might grate on some readers, but Extence never loses sight of the beating heart and raw emotions of his novel. He deals with a difficult, shadowy subject — one that lurks in the darkest corners of many people’s minds — and he does so thoughtfully and tenderly.

The novel is not without its faults. For all its witty phrasing and original characters, it sometimes feels a little aimless. We don’t arrive at the meat of the story for a long time, held back by a long preamble. But this is all splitting hairs. The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a very impressive debut novel. With writing that is logical yet lyrical, comic yet compassionate, Gavin Extence has revealed the simple beauty of laughter, friendship, love and reason.

‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’ by Taiye Selasi


The title of Taiye Selasi’s debut short story is as blunt as it is ironic, proclaiming bold content while quietly mocking Western anthropological theses of old. I first came upon ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’ in Granta’s The F Word edition, and cynically wondered whether the story would fulfil its titular promise. Too often, I have been deceived by intriguingly offbeat titles that conceal an average story. As is usually the case with such casual literary assumptions, I was wrong. The sustained tension and desperate sadness of this short story, the closed, heavy atmosphere, and the eerily prescient “you” narrator are even more keenly felt in the context of the stark, detached tone of the title.

Before I go any further, though, I’ll admit that I haven’t read much African literature—whether set in Africa or written by African writers. I’m not sure if this means I’m hopelessly unequipped to make any kind of comment on a story about Ghanaian women set in Ghana written by a British-Ghanaian writer, but what I do know is that ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’ caught me unaware. It is a beautifully sustained and subtly written story that swells with tension before breaking in a tragic series of realisations, gradually making sense of the strange dread I had felt from the beginning.

Eleven-year-old Edem is our protagonist, “rescued” by her uncle three years earlier and brought to live with his well-off family in Accra “for a while”. She longs to see her mother again, but “[n]o one has heard from her since”. Edem is now part of a new household, and initially, there is little to suggest anything other than a typical wealthy Ghanaian family. In between the beginning and the end, on the way from not knowing to knowing, we follow Edem as she moves between people and rooms: eating breakfast with the servants; helping her Auntie prepare for the Christmas party; borrowing books from her cousin, Comfort, who is studying at Oxford. But there are fractures in the smooth prose, which, though faint at first, spread and multiply as if across ice.

While helping with the preparations for the party, Edem stumbles onto this scene:

Uncle was in his chair, facing the window and drapes, gripping the edge of the desk with his fingertips. From your vantage behind him across the room in the doorway you could barely see Ruby between his knees. She was kneeling there neatly, skinny legs folded beneath her, her hands on his knees, heart-shaped face in his lap.

The “you” voice used here and throughout the story links Edem and the reader. I’ve often seen “you” narrators as little less than gimmick, an awkward attention-grabbing device, but this “you” voice is brilliantly devised and controlled, puts me in the shoes of this eleven-year-old girl, who only gradually becomes aware of the disturbing dynamics of her new household’s inhabitants.

In an interview with Granta magazine, author Selasi commented, “This ‘you’ voice appeared in my head from the beginning and guided me through the text, limiting my view of things to her view: I rarely looked where she wasn’t looking”. At the same time, though, I also felt strangely distanced from Edem, as if I were watching her through a pane of glass, unable to make a difference to her story. This is probably the saddest thing about ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’: there is a horrible sense of inevitability. Suffice to say, the opening lines “Begin, inevitably, with Uncle” is not as innocent or simple as it sounds.

This is dark, sad writing: women are whores, childless mothers or motherless children—submissive members of a patriarchy they reinforce daily. In the story, Selasi makes an interesting reference to Othello. Uncle has arranged an Othello reading group among the house staff, and the “best-looking houseboy” Yaw renames himself Iago. Like the stage directions peppered throughout the text, this Shakespearian reference adds to the sense that the women in this household are playing inescapable roles determined for them by men. Who, then, is Othello, who is Desdemona and who is Iago?

When we are asked about the first thing that comes to mind when we think about Africa, most of us might think: poverty, famine or war; indirectly, ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’ deals with what could be termed ‘African issues’—but this is not the point of it. When Selasi, in the same interview with Granta, was asked whether this depressing portrayal of women was intentional, she said, “It was only months and months after I’d finished editing—focusing narrowly on rhythm, image, pacing, form—that I noticed how dark the content was, how fundamentally damning the comment.” But, of course, this story is not a reinterpretation of Othello; it is more subtle and nuanced than that, and is not meant as a representation of all African women. In an interview with NPR, Selasi said, “I read recently that the problem with stereotypes isn’t that they are inaccurate, but that they’re incomplete. And this captures perfectly what I think about contemporary African literature. The problem isn’t that it’s inaccurate, it’s that it’s incomplete.”

Don’t let the darkness of this short story put you off. ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’ is exceptional. Controlled, darkly atmospheric and unexpectedly moving, it made me want to immediately rectify a certain omission in my reading repertoire. Any suggestions?

‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’ was published in Granta: 115: The F Word in 2011. Taiye Selasi’s debut novel Ghana Must Go will be published in 2013. You can read her interview with Granta here and her interview with NPR here. More at www.taiyeselasi.com.

The Architecture of Stories

“Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

So says the King of Hearts to the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, instructing him and a host of wide-eyed young readers on the magical art of storytelling. We learn that it couldn’t be simpler, really: every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. In fact, there’s very little magic involved at all. We just have to start at the right place, then tell the story until there is nothing left to say. What could be easier?

If the King of Hearts had paid a visit to the Free Word Centre last month, he might have had to rethink his stance. On show was an exhibition, Throwaway Lines, that had a pretty good go at tearing up the storytelling rulebook: fifteen pieces of art based on short stories that were in turn inspired by scraps of discarded writing found on the street, be they shopping lists, angry diatribes, letters or distracted musings. Multiple beginnings, middles and ends rearranged and reimagined across different mediums to create a new kind of storytelling experience—one that we might not even recognise and which demands that the reader fills in the gaps.

Call this pretentious hipster waffle or declare it inventive, avant-garde literature; either way it provokes a debate on what it means to write, how we tell stories, and what the intentions behind reading and writing a story are. For it is not just the White Rabbit who wanted to know how a story should be told; a fixed storytelling structure has informed the way we create and perceive writing for years.

Take the novel, for example: such is its preeminence (which belies its relative “novelty” in the history of literature) that its traditional structure and style have come to dominate the way we think about reading and writing. There’s always a story, of course: it starts somehow, any number of things may happen before, finally, it comes to a close. Countless variations can be achieved using this medium, and curious and original devices are often used to great effect; but it’s hard to escape the fact that by opening a book, we are accepting a beginning; and by reading its final words, we are acknowledging an end.

Is it ever possible, then, to write and read outside these traditional narrative structures? And do authors even bear them in mind when they write? Short story writer Jackie Kay has commented that she often starts a short story with a character or image, which she can then flesh out and develop, and therefore writes in a very different way to how we end up reading. If authors don’t necessarily write the beginning first and the end last, should we be reading in that order? Going one step further are books like Hopscotch (1966) by Julio Cortázar, which includes “expendable” chapters and multiple endings, and House of Leaves (2000) by Mark Z. Danielewski, which disorientates the reader with footnotes within footnotes and typographical mayhem, refusing us the reassuring beginning, middle and end we know so well. This kind of innovative reader-interaction is taken to its logical conclusion in this year’s wonderfully original Building Stories by cartoonist Chris Ware—a box full of books and pamphlets that can, theoretically, be read in any order, and which, by its own design, cedes control of the narrative to the reader.

Chris Ware’s Building Stories. Via the Telegraph. (c) Julian Andrews.

Building Stories is Kindle-proof. I can’t even begin to imagine how this would work digitally—and the kind of object technophobes might hold up as evidence that ebooks can never compete with the printed book. But, like our King of Hearts, modern-day Luddites shouldn’t speak too soon. The widespread digitisation of media—particularly the Internet and all that comes with it—has revolutionized the way we read, write and interact, for good and bad.

Right now, for example, I might be writing this but in the background there are six browser tabs open, I’m halfway through three different articles and I’m dipping in and out of Twitter, vaguely looking for something that might catch my eye. Distraction, then, is a bit of a problem—writer Kevin Barry recently admitted to checking his emails about 150 times a day—but the Internet is also an incredible source of literature, and one that is constantly expanding and developing.

Forums, blogs and fan fiction websites present us with an unimaginably wide selection of genres, forms and styles from which to choose. Interestingly, there is something of a revival of old “methods” in the way in which chapters are released one by one, echoing nineteenth-century serialisations. Twitter, often hailed for its immediacy and brevity, has also been used as a platform for serialised reading and writing: Jennifer Egan’s short story “Black Box” was released line by line on the social media site, and the #TwitterFiction Festival is currently underway. Enhanced ebooks and apps, too, invite us to interact with our books in a different way. Embedded videos and audio add an extra dimension to our reading experience, while interactive apps can entirely reimagine and reorder a book or series we thought was set in stone.

Writing practices are changing and, with them, reading practices. But does it make that much difference? Ebooks and digital content might change the way we like to receive our words, but as long as we still want to read, surely it doesn’t really matter? The current proliferation of new storytelling mediums is likely to hold firm for some time, but it’s also likely that we’ll gradually filter out the less successful examples to end up with a perfectly manageable, new kind of storytelling. All we can really do is wait and see.

What, then, of the beginning, middle and end? They are concepts that seem fixed within our storytelling experience, but they have in fact always been satisfyingly malleable—played with and adapted countless times over the years. After all, is an ending ever really fixed? What about the millions of other possible endings the writer sets off in the reader’s mind? Does a story have to end?

You decide.

Novel: Spilt Milk by Chico Buarque

UK Hardcover (Atlantic, 2012)

It’s not often I get to the end of a novel and realise I need to reread it straight away. Not just because I liked it—I did—but because I realised this isn’t the novel I had thought it was at the beginning, halfway through, or even near the end. At first glance, Spilt Milk by Brazilian author Chico Buarque doesn’t sound like it should be particularly complicated, intriguing, or moving, but it is.

Eulálio Assumpção is a pedantic centenarian who has taken it upon himself to relate his riches-to-rags tale from his hospital bed. A member of the crumbling Brazilian aristocracy, he tells his story in a wilfully rambling fashion in long, unparagraphed monologues, generously peppering them with mildly snobbish and racist language. No, thank you, you might think, not my kind of narrator. Hang on in there, though, and read on, because Eulálio will somehow charm you, and before you know it you’ll have gone and fallen in love with him, his story, and Brazil.

At first, his story begins slowly: “When I get out of here, we’ll get married on the farm where I spent my happy childhood,” he tells a nurse, grumbling that “she’s in a sulk.” His mind wanders back and forth, slowly and confusedly. Memories of his past—playing with the descendants of slaves on his family’s farm, his father’s sudden death, his time in France amongst prostitutes, the first time he saw Matilde—swell hopefully before breaking against his present situation: hospitalised, bedridden, and alone. But there’s no easy distinction between past and present here; the former bleeds sleepily into the latter, oozing a trail of sinuous, slippery memories that we revisit again and again, each time slightly different from before.

The effect of these wandering, accumulative recollections is confusing. Where is Matilde now? Did she run away? Did she die? What happened to Eulálio’s father? Didn’t Eulálio say he was murdered? Is his mother really still alive? Wasn’t it the other grandchild who lost the family’s money? From this narrative disorder eventually emerges a delicate portrait of an upper-class Brazilian family, complete with ancestral slave traders, colonial lords and corrupt politicians, whose socioeconomic demise is set against the backdrop of Brazil’s recent history. Eulálio may be a product of his own background—spoilt, pedantic, proud, snobbish and racist (he says things like, “It may well be a step forward for Negroes, who only the other day were sacrificing animals”)—but he is not just a symbol of the obsolete aristocracy. He is also warm, funny, brave and honest—an unintentionally likeable person whose subtleties we come to understand better the deeper we delve into his head.

It is the very nature of memory that lies at the heart of this novel. What does it mean to remember something? How do we order our memories? How can we trust them when they begin to falter? And how do we know if what we are remembering is a true memory, or just a “copy of a previous one”? Slivers of half-formed memories begin to take on significance as Eulálio repeats stories with new details each time, but the most mutable story of all is that of his relationship with Matilde: the girl who slipped into his life as quickly as she slipped out, like a cat.

It’s strange having memories of things that are yet to happen; I’ve just remembered Matilde’s going to disappear forever.

There is a deep melancholy in this crotchety old man’s recollections of his young, impulsive and beautiful wife. It seeps silently into the story, so that it is only at the close of the novel that you realise you have been reading a tragic love story all along. We never find out what happened to Matilde—whether she ran away, had an affair, died, or killed herself in a mental hospital—but the memory of the cinnamon-skinned girl with “Moorish eyes”, who stole his heart in church one day before disappearing forever, is one Eulálio cannot forget.

Despite this terrible sadness, Spilt Milk is very much a celebration of life and survival. Eulálio may be an unreliable, irritable and blinkered narrator, but he also tells his story with an affable matter-of-factness that imbues it with joy and humour, devoid of self-pity. The novel’s great strength is in its gradual, rhythmic development; it slowly builds a detailed, layered portrait of a unique man and country, memory by memory. Even if, like me, you don’t initially notice some of the detailing and patterns, it is hard not to appreciate the skilful English translation by Alison Entrekin; such an intricate novel could easily have lost something in the process.

Spilt Milk, however, isn’t the easiest of reads. Eulálio’s confused voice and tangled narrative initially make for slow, laboured reading. It is only after a good few chapters that you might begin to unpick parts of his story and make sense of what he remembers. Indeed, at first this threatens to be a dreary novel about nothing in particular, but read on. Look for clues and patterns, let the novel build up around you and establish its simple foundations. Only then can you appreciate its hidden, complex architecture. Read it and then reread it.

First published in English on 1 October 2012, Spilt Milk is currently available in hardback and ebook by Atlantic Books, UK and Grove Atlantic, US. The Portugese version, Leite Derramado, was published in 2009.
Thanks to Atlantic Books for our review copy.
You can find more of Chico Buarque at www.chicobuarque.com.br.

Short Stories: Reality, Reality  by Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay

The short story is a tricky creature. Of no fixed length, it finds itself nestling somewhere between the concise intensity of a poem and the pleasing fleshiness of a novel. Often under-read and undervalued next to its more famous literary siblings, the short story has always been a peculiarly difficult form to master. And that’s just the beginning. Deciding what a short story “is” and what it “should” do leads us down the thorny path of rules, limitations and exceptions that have tied many a writer in knots. No wonder, then, that V. S. Pritchett—one of the UK’s most celebrated short story writers—described his chosen form as “exquisitely difficult”.

And it was in V. S. Pritchett’s name that a prize was awarded to the year’s best unpublished short story, “Singing Dumb” by journalist and novelist Martina Devlin, last week at a ceremony in Somerset House. Also present to strike a satisfying balance with this focus on new writers was the acclaimed author Jackie Kay, a writer who has an impressive track record in poetry, short stories and novels alike. She has won the Somerset Maugham Award and the Guardian First Book Award for her novels Other Lovers and Trumpet, respectively, and her short story collections include Reality, Reality, Wish I Was Here and Why Don’t You Stop Talking. In 2012, her short story “These Are Not My Clothes” was longlisted for the international Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. So if someone can tell us—or try to tell us—what the short story is and what it does, it could well be Jackie Kay. Despite this, she dispensed with any strict rules of the form, and made no bold claims as to what the short story “should” be.

Talking about Reality, Reality, her most recent collection of short stories, Jackie Kay drew attention to the hybrid nature of their form—half poem, half novel, they “occupy a limbo space”, demanding a lot of their reader and refusing to spoon feed us in the way a comfortable, race-to-the-ending novel might do. Discomfort and unease feature strongly in Reality, Reality—be it the strange mix of self-delusion and self-awareness experienced by many of her female characters, a painful realization that bravado and humour mask a lonely heart, or an awkward distance between reader and character—but they are emotions cut through with humour and pathos. In “Doorstep”, Cheryl’s bluster unravels in the face of an aubergine for dinner: “Then I’ll slice my aubergine and salt it and leave that for a bit. It’s amazing watching the bitter juices come out of the aubergine. I’d like to do that with myself, just pour some salt.”

If the characters struggle to find the happiness they seek, it is not because their author doesn’t care about them. Jackie Kay emphasised to the audience that there was always the “possibility of comfort, of solace” in her stories. Cheryl might be faced with her own bitterness on a lonely Christmas morning, but there is a hint of hope in her friend Sharon, even though she might not be the friend she wants. One of the hardest stories to read in the collection is “These Are Not My Clothes”, set in an old people’s home and narrated by Margaret with heartbreaking clarity. Obsessed by the fact she is not allowed to wear her own clothes, Margaret is determined to buy and wear a cherry-red cardigan and blue slacks. There is a deep sadness in her frailty and solitude—a solitude broken only by the kindness of Vadnie, an occasional carer—that flickers and burns in the beautifully sustained narrative. “I sit and look out. What I see are the trees waving as if they are asking for help, or as if they are saying we surrender… And there is a blue pot with some flowers I used to know the name of, but I have forgotten, so I’ll call them forgotten flowers.”

We are generally accustomed to reading a short story as a single, discreet object, designed to inhabit its own space, not break free of its framework or seep into another story. Reality, Reality seems to confirm this notion—with a series of disconnected, individual stories—until near the end of the collection when Vadnie reappears in another story. Not only has she wandered from one story into another, but she is also not quite the character we had thought she was. In “These Are Not My Clothes” she is a kindly carer who promises to buy Margaret her cherry-red cardigan and regales her with tales of her family life. In “Mrs Vadnie Marlene Sevlon” she is revealed as a lonely fantasist: unmarried, alone and childless, though no less sympathetic for this. And, at last week’s award ceremony, Jackie Kay discussed this interaction between stories, pointing out that her stories often have conversations with each other, acting as mirrors, threads, shattered reflections and distant echoes.

Sometimes, it is the echo of something larger that is at the heart of a Jackie Kay short story: a distillation of sorts, whereby a brief, intense image or feeling is captured that hints at more but needs not say more. As she has said, “It’s like having a malt whisky really, a short story. You can have a wee malt but if you tried to drink a whole pint of whisky you’d be dead.” Brevity, power and focus are the hallmarks of her short story writing.

Reality, Reality was first published in May 2012 by Picador. Available in hardback and ebook.
Established in 1999, the V. S. Pritchett Memorial Prize focuses on unpublished short stories—meaning that writers with no publishing history may have a shot at a £1000 prize and publication in Prospect magazine.

Carlos Gamerro on his novel, The Islands, and writing alternative pasts.

Argentinian author Carlos Gamerro

The Islands by Carlos Gamerro had been hovering around my consciousness for a few months before I picked it up and finally realised what I had been missing. You can read my review for Litro here.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1962, just fourteen years before the beginning of a brutal and repressive dictatorship that would culminate in the Falklands conflict, Carlos Gamerro is an outspoken and celebrated contemporary writer who, in The Islands, explores the unsettling hold the Falklands conflict has over Argentine society. He has written five further novels, a collection of short stories and a range of literary criticism, and translates literature from English to Spanish. He also adapted The Islands for the stage.

As Carlos is based in Buenos Aires, we had to “meet” on Skype. I talk to him about The Islands, detectives, investigating Argentine society and writing about the ghosts of an alternative past.

I really enjoyed The Islands. It’s a surreal and exhilarating read, and though it’s a lot of fun it makes you work hard as a reader. Do you have a reader in mind when you write?

Yes, of course. I want to make difficult stuff as easy as possible for that reader, but what I’m not prepared to do is discard something because it will be hard to understand or stomach. In that sense, the beginning of The Islands is a bit of a warning. It begins with a guy who has preserved one of his turds and lives in a tower made of mirrors and buggers his own adult son. So if you don’t like it or cannot take it you might as well stop reading now—and don’t say I didn’t warn you!

The character you mention, Tamerlán, is extreme in many ways. Your work is often described as “political”, and here’s a power-mad psychopath in a mirrored tower. Do you think he represents a sort of corruption?

No, I wouldn’t call Tamerlán corrupt. Corruption means that something that was initially good has been degraded or debased or distorted. The political and economic power system of the 80s and 90s in Argentina—and I suppose the same could be said for most of the world—was monstrously healthy and sane. This is what economic and political power are all about when the moral fetters are removed. Tamerlán might be considered evil or monstrous in the same way Machiavelli was seen as evil or monstrous in, say, Shakespeare’s day—because they both give you the naked truth, without pretence.

That idea of pretence is found throughout The Islands and you’ve said before that you originally conceived this as a detective novel. Was the truth-seeking element always present for you?

Well, what I find interesting about the detective novel is precisely its truth-seeking element. This is why the genre has developed in so many directions and doesn’t seem to dry up. It is not because all of us are interested in the world of crime; this is part of its appeal but not the whole story. The genre is about human knowledge: how we attain it, what its limitations are, how we might prefer a dramatic narrative to the simple factual truth. On the other hand, a detective, whether a professional one or a circumstantial one, is practically the only figure in fiction today that can tie together the different strands of our divided societies—divided socially, racially, geographically, religiously, culturally.

A large metropolis like London or Buenos Aires cannot really be known by any of its inhabitants, unless he is forced to visit slum and palace alike in search of something. Now, because the idea of a private eye is impossible in Argentine fiction (all private eyes are ex-cops, all cops corrupt), a cop or ex-cop in search of the truth is for us a bad joke, a fictional implausibility. Because of this, I chose a hacker, a hacker who must turn detective against his will and better judgement.

(c) Buenos Aires Street Art

This hacker you mention, Felipe, is also a Falklands/Malvinas conflict veteran. So, as well as examining contemporary Buenos Aires, Felipe is also investigating his past, reopening old wounds, searching for a kind of truth there. 

For me, there was a challenge here. I am part of what’s known as the generation of ’82—the generation that got sent to war—and had I not asked for my military service to be deferred, my fate might have been that of Felipe’s. When I was writing the novel, I had a feeling of “There but for the grace of God go I”, so I invested Felipe—an individual, not just a symbol—with my own imaginary experience.

On the other hand, I met many ex-combatants and talked to them about their experiences. This was a time (some eight years after the war) when nobody wanted to listen to them; they were the symbol of defeat, and even the Left saw something fishy in them, since they had participated in a war conducted by war criminals. So they were eager to talk—only you could see they felt you wouldn’t understand. You realised they felt that all the words in the world would not make you see what they had seen, feel what they had felt. When they spoke with each other very few words were needed. There was a world of experience behind each word.

So this was the challenge: to make, through words, this experience that was not mine, mine, to believe in it, and to make others believe in it.

It sounds almost as though you were writing an account of the life you could have had…

Yes, the way I usually put it is that it is autobiography in reverse: the story of what might have happened, even of what should have happened, had fate not been so careless as to miss me. A lot of the best fiction is like this. I mean, if you’ve lived through it, why would you want to do it a second time in writing? Once is usually enough. Fiction does not only exist in literature—we’re creating fiction when we wonder what our life might have been like if, twenty years ago, we had left for Norway or Borneo as we had planned… or when we meet a person we like and in thirty seconds we have lived out a whole imaginary life with them, right down to our grandchildren. These ghostly selves are always with us, and sometimes one feels like writing about them. Much more interesting than writing about past selves or real people!

And in terms of national history, countries that feel they have failed, or which are not where they should be, are always agonising about the road not taken. They write their history in the conditional or the subjunctive.

That idea about writing about “alternative realities” is something that features heavily in Argentine literature. Which writers—Argentine or other—have most influenced you? 

I don’t tend to talk about “influence”—that is the task of the critic! A lot of the influence you receive is unconscious, anyway. I recently reread Moby Dick, which I had read a couple of times before getting started on The Islands and hadn’t read since, and I was shocked to see how many elements of Ahab’s mad quest had found their way into the “Malvinas obsession” some of my military characters—notably Major X—have.

But what I can talk about is about models I choose: authors to guide me through a specific novel. In the case of The Islands I definitely tried to learn from writers like William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon. I was writing a war novel and in Argentina we had no war literature to speak of. But as the Malvinas/Falklands war was so weird on so many levels, I knew I had no use for straight realism, so I went for Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin—and Apocalypse Now, of course.

You wrote The Islands fifteen years ago, and it’s set another six years before that. Then you adapted it for the stage in 2011 while working with translator Ian Barnett on an English edition. Has working in so many different formats and over a long period time made you see it in a different light at all? 

I always thought of Las Islas as an omnivorous novel, a protean novel, one that would never achieve a fixed form. This is not true of all my novels. An Open Secret, for example, is pretty fixed and definitive. I wouldn’t think of changing a word. Contingency dominates The Islands: it is the novel it is, but it could be many others. So every time I go back to it I try new things. I changed much of the plot—but not many of the scenes—for the play, and I cut the original version by some 100 pages when working with Ian Barnett on the English version.

Last question: Do you have a favourite novel, and if so, what?

God, that’s the hardest of them all! It depends on what I’m writing, I suppose, but I must admit that my three last novels—La Aventura de los Bustos de Eva, Un Yuppie en la Columna del Che Guevara and the one I’m working on at the moment, a story about Shakespeare and Fletcher’s lost play—are all variations on Don Quixote. So I guess you could say that Don Quixote has been my favourite novel for a while. Not very original, I’m afraid, but truthful!

The Islands was originally published in Spanish as Las Islas. This English version, translated by Ian Barnett, was published on 29 May 2012 by And Other Stories (UK) in paperback. Readers in the US can buy it via Amazon. More about the author at www.carlosgamerro.com.

Who is the Modern Writer?

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in Howl

So you want to be a writer? Picturing long, quiet days tapping away at a keyboard and sipping endless cups of tea? The odd walk in the park to clear your head? Weeks, months and years dedicated to writing and writing alone?

Well, you might have to adjust your expectations. After all, how much writing can you actually do? A writer is never just a writer anymore. What with publicity tours, signings, reading groups, book fairs, literary festivals and a whole host of other time-consuming activities, today’s writer has an awful lot on his plate. Not only is he very, very busy, he is also not necessarily a financial success (yet), so doing part-time jobs, writing book reviews and articles, and teaching creative writing all help keep the wolf from the door. Add the lure of social media to the mix and the growing need to establish some sort of authorial online presence in our increasingly crowded world, and you’re about as far away from the traditional image of a writer as you can get—which begs the question: does the modern writer have to be more adaptable than ever before?

To tackle this question, fifty or so people gathered one afternoon last weekend at the Senate House as part of the Bloomsbury Festival. There to shed some light on the issue were Joseph Brooker, Reader in Modern Literature at Birkbeck College; Lynne Truss, author of the punctuation guide Eats, Shoots and Leaves; John Sutherland, a columnist for the Guardian and author of Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives; and Alex Preston, author of two novels—This Bleeding City and The Revelations.

What was obvious is that money is key. It always has been. While six-figure advances and hotly contested book auctions continue to hog literary headlines, our panel argued that the vast majority of authors simply don’t earn all that much and that many cannot support themselves by writing alone. What to do, then? Well, journalism is a natural fit—writing reviews and features can earn a budding writer the crust his as-yet-unpublished novel can’t. Lynne Truss went as far to describe the novelist as a dual person: the paid journalist and the unpaid novelist.

But is this really a new phenomenon? Haven’t writers always done a bit here and there to top up their earnings? Sutherland aptly pointed out that even in 1890 there were only about 200 writers who could live solely by their books. Hemingway was a travelling journalist; T. S. Elliot a bank clerk—a more mundane profession, maybe, but as Alex Preston pointed out, everything you do, no matter how dull, feeds into your writing. The picture that emerges is that there is nothing new about supplementing your royalties with a little work on the side.

There is, however, something different about the contemporary writer. Sutherland said that writers nowadays are operating in an industry that has changed more in the past ten years than it has in about a century, and the writer has to follow suit and keep up with its demands. The biggest game changer has been the explosion of digital media, which has reshaped the way we read and write and communicate, and as a consequence, how writers and readers interact, and what they expect of each other.

The internet is, of course, the engine behind this, for good or bad—a bit of both, according to the panellists. The distractions of the internet are notorious and the pull of social media inescapable, so much so that Preston paid homage to an app called Freedom, which allows you to unplug yourself from the internet for a set amount of time and actually get on with some writing. After all, at least a degree of sustained attention is needed to write. But the internet and social media can also be a wonderful tool for a writer. It can be a platform from which to talk about your work with an interested global audience. Writers can thrive online, forge links and establish strong followings; likewise, readers can wield impressive influence over other readers.

As often happens in discussions about the book industry, it’s easy to slide into doom-and-gloom musings on the future and the hardships authors face. Last weekend’s discussion was no exception, and the focus of the talk was sometimes lost in sweeping comments that didn’t add much, even if they were peppered with amusing anecdotes. But even through glasses that were far from rose-tinted, it was obvious that the writers on the panel love being writers. More importantly, they emphasised how important it is that they can engage with readers directly today, whether on Twitter or at a literary festival.

Being adaptable to change as a writer today means a lot of things. It means being prepared to do more than just nurture your literary creation; it means engaging with readers in an ever-changing context; it means creating a palpable presence online. In short (and in job-speak), it means being an efficient multitasker in an increasingly demanding but rewarding career. Writers have never just been writers; they’ve just had to become even more adept at being good at many more things than one. Truss and Preston made a very telling point: they estimated that the average author spends 25% of his working time writing, and the rest is taken up by all the other aspects of being a writer.

So, the point of all this talk? If you want to be a writer, you’d better brush up on your juggling skills. And enjoy yourself while you’re at it.

Novel: The Islands by Carlos Gamerro

Paperback cover (And Other Stories, May 2012.)

The Islands was originally published in Spanish as Las Islas. This English version is translated by Ian Barnett.

It is 1992 in Buenos Aires and Felipe Félix, a hacker and coke addict, is invited into the topmost room of a business tycoon’s twin tower. It is a room made entirely of mirrors, and there, he finds a sinister psychologist, an acrylic prism containing the business tycoon’s faeces, and the magnate himself—who proceeds to rape his son in front of Felipe before informing him that his task (which he cannot refuse) is to track down the twenty-six witnesses to a crime committed by his son in this very room. Felipe must use his knowledge as a hacker to flush the witnesses from police files and deliver their names to his new boss, whilst navigating his own drug-induced paranoia and painful, buried memories from the Falkland/Malvinas conflict in what becomes a cyber thriller, detective novel and psychological experiment all in one.

You might be thinking that this sounds completely brilliant—a kind of surreal, Borgesian thriller; or you might be thinking that it sounds completely unreadable—a slippery, unrealistic plot in which nothing will stay still long enough for you to grasp what on earth is going on. You’d be right on both accounts. It’s a dizzyingly ingenious and maddeningly tricky narrative that thrills and shocks as much as it exhausts and frustrates. It is testament to the precision of the translator Ian Barnett, who worked in collaboration with the author Carlos Gamerro, that the English-language version is as inventive, dexterous and shocking as the Spanish original published over twelve years ago.

Computers, virtual realities, narcotics and cyberpunk may provide the backdrop and plot incentive to this modern novel, but we soon realise that it’s the past that’s really driving the story, whether our narrator Felipe knows it or not. The war, the political dictatorship, the freezing, miserable months in trenches on the islands, the self-serving, brutal commanders, the guilt, the horror, the death, the final loss—all these skulk silently in the background. The islands are the quiet, beating twin hearts of the novel, exposed when Felipe eventually confronts his wartime experiences in the penultimate chapter, which is a beautiful piece of dramatic writing that is honest, terrifying and deeply moving.

But this chapter comes after a good five hundred pages of prose that twists and turns with pyrotechnic wit, and creates a complex vision of a Buenos Aires in which reality melts, disintegrates and reforms before our eyes. It is a reality obsessed with the Falklands conflict; tellingly, one of Felipe’s fellow veterans of the Falklands conflict is writing a book called A Thousand Different Outcomes to the Malvinas War. As Felipe comments, “It’s us losers who are left to fret over the multiple possibilities of history.” Verraco, too, a sadistic and tyrannical commander now part of Argentina’s Intelligence Services, is another example of someone who has a demented obsession with the islands; he has commissioned Felipe to create a computer game of the Falklands conflict in which Argentina will emerge victorious. Virtual realities, it seems, are more comforting than actual reality.

If the Falklands conflict is the heart of this novel, it is through a distorted and kaleidoscopic viewing glass that we read and understand it. Mirrors, spiders webs, chaos, hierarchy, pyramids, order, disintegration, control and inversion are all images and concepts that are repeated over and over again, forming a labyrinth of illusion and deception. This is brilliantly introduced in the grotesque and despotic business magnate Fausto Tamerlán and his twin towers. “There were mirrors on the walls, mirrors on the ceilings, mirrors on the floor, mirrors on the mirrors… there was nothing but mirrors.” As Felipe travels up the tower he realizes that the mirrors are all one way, so that the floor above can always see the floor below (but not vice versa), and that the topmost floor can see everything below: the ultimate hierarchy. We wonder which is worse, “the towering chaos below, or this unbearable order into which it finally resolves itself”, and we come to understand that “this madness was order run rampant, unfettered to reality, the mania of purely mental order yearning for the perfection of the diamond.”

The Islands is shot through with a similar spectacular verve and manic surrealism; however, this novel is also a victim of its own inventiveness. Long and verbose—over five hundred pages, even after one hundred pages were cut from the original—The Islands sometimes buckles under its own weight of ideas and originality. Genre-bending it may be, but it is also trying rather hard to be too many different things—hundreds of different stories and styles crammed into one—and often demands a lot of the reader without giving much back. Gamerro will whip through a passage that you might want to linger on, before wading through a visceral and limp description you’d rather skip over.

Carlos Gamerro

Despite this uneven ground, The Islands is an electrifying novel that plunges us into a densely mirrored narrative so ingenious and layered it is hard to summarize. Its satirical, labyrinthine prose may be its obvious selling point, but it is the shattering and painful descriptions of war, post-traumatic stress disorder, memory and redemption that lift The Islands from madcap writing experiment to dramatic literary victory.

Published on 29 May 2012 by And Other Stories (UK). Available in paperback (with French flaps). Readers in the US can buy it via Amazon. More about the author at www.carlosgamerro.com.

Novel: Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

UK cover (2012)

Take a look at the reviews for Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner on Amazon UK and you might think the reviewers had read quite different novels. Their comments and ratings range from the one-star to the five-star, which reveal a lot about the kind of reaction this slim book provokes. It’s a bit like literary Marmite; you either love it or you hate it.

The reader’s first hurdle to enjoying this novel emerges in its first few pages, when we meet our protagonist and narrator. Adam is a young, middle-class American poet living in Madrid on a prestigious fellowship year abroad. Ostensibly, he is there to research and deliver a long poem on the Spanish Civil War’s literary legacy, something we quickly realize he knows—or cares to know—very little about. Instead, we see him stumble out of bed, peruse news websites, visit art galleries, smoke dope, compulsively lie, sleep with his girlfriends, read English literature, get blindingly drunk, pop prescription pills, and worry about his inability to feel a profound connection with art and poetry.

Presented thus, he is a spoiled and pretentious rich kid with very little to recommend him to the reader—just a very unsympathetic character. But it’s not all bad. Angst-ridden and self-obsessed he may be, but he is also a peculiarly introspective and self-aware young poet who, by painstakingly examining and dissecting his every thought, reaction and observation, offers a narrative essay of sorts on the nature of art, language, translation, poetry and relationships.

Indeed, far from abandoning academia altogether, he has devised his own “research” project. Divided into five phases, this takes the form of a diary of his time in Madrid, and serves as the only real structure in this novel. While the plot feels loose and baggy in its expansive time frame—Adam does very little in a year other than wander around Madrid, move from bar to bar, take drunken taxi rides to parties, and go on trips to Granada or Barcelona—there is an acuteness to many of his observations that lends the meandering prose immediacy and consequence.

Many of these insights are based on his overwhelming self-doubt and sense of fraudulence as an artist. What is art? Can anybody ever have a profound experience of art? Is all art artifice? In a dope-fuelled haze, he expounds on the limitations of his foreign tongue and language. One of the most intriguing aspects of his poetry—which he is unsure is genuine “art”—is the artificial nature of its creation. He opens a page of Lorca in Spanish, copies out the accompanying English translation, then scrambles or changes various words—so that “under the arc of the sky” becomes “under the arc of the cielo”, which is then “under the arc of the cello”. Is this the ultimate artifice or an intensely real analysis of language, poetry and translation? We don’t know any more than he does. Notably, he finds reading poetry in English no easier than reading in Spanish, as poetry is just as opaque and disjointed in both languages—“you could fall into the spaces between words as you tried to link them up.”

The same sense of uncertainty arises when we consider the way in which our narrator writes this diarised research. Despite the immediacy achieved through Adam’s observations, we always feel one step removed from his experience in Madrid—as does he—and occasional slips in the time frame, such as “I would later think”, remind us that this is a retrospective piece. Equally disconcerting are the times when Adam describes how he sees himself looking at himself from a different angle; this dislocated narrative acts as a deliberate distancing from actual experience. Tellingly, the only “real” event in the novel—a girl’s drowning in a Mexican river—is narrated over the internet by his friend; we, like Adam, are disassociated from the experience by the very nature of its telling. Near the end of the novel, Adam experiences the March 11 bombings in Atocha (though he notes that he was asleep in the Ritz at the time), but even when he is caught up in the subsequent anti-terrorist marches he is still unable to feel part of something. What does it mean to experience “history in the making” if you were asleep in the Ritz at the time?

Ben Lerner. Photo by Matt Lerner.

Some readers might find Adam’s relentless self-observation tiresome. It’s not all serious, though. His narrative is witty in its juxtaposition of the banal and literary—“so, after I’d dismissed the Quijote, eaten, jacked off, read some Tolstoy…”—and in its comic exposé of the fawning literati. In fact, one of the great surprises is that Adam might actually be, despite his doubts, an excellent poet and a fluent speaker, as attested by both his girlfriends. A realisation dawns that there is a middle ground between taking oneself too seriously and being able to take oneself seriously at all.

Readers who take Leaving the Atocha Station too seriously might see it as an Ulysses-inspired exploration of the poetic self and the meaning of experience in modern society; those who don’t might consider it a rambling and self-indulgent autobiography (Lerner is also a poet and spent a year in Madrid on a prestigious fellowship) about nothing in particular.

But there is a middle ground. This debut novel is a stylish, audacious and self-assured debut that mercilessly exposes the artistic ego and, in doing so, both ridicules and humanises it. Its wandering and plotless prose might put off some, but it captures something very real about the foibles and struggles of a young artist. For a novel about nothing in particular, it says an awful lot.

Published 5 July 2012 by Granta Books. Available in hardback, paperback, and trade paperback.