Book Review: The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online

There’s a certain aptness in reviewing a book entitled The Digital Critic for an online publication: although Litro isn’t explicitly cited in the book, this is exactly the sort of Internet community that many of its contributors explore. The book is a collection of essays—more or less; some are adapted versions of talks given elsewhere, like a Will Self lecture delivered at Brunel University—on the topic of the subtitle: literary culture online. Given that the Internet is the most wide-reaching communication technology ever developed, such consideration of its effect on the way we produce words now, and what we choose to produce them about, and why, is long overdue.

The editors—Houman Barekat, Robert Barry, and David Winters, all of whom are connected to Review 31 and/or 3:AM Magazine, two of the most significant players in the online literary journal scene—have chosen essays representing a wide array of subtopics. As a result, the collection feels like a sort of primer for people interested in this sort of thing: by reading it, you can get a sense of the major issues surrounding online literary debates, a feel for the landscape of the literary Internet as it currently is. Of course, since the book had to be commissioned, written, published, marketed, and produced as a physical object, it is not nearly as up-to-the-minute as it would be if it had appeared as a series of online columns. Louis Bury’s essay “Topical Criticism and the Cultural Logic of the Quick Take” (they’ve all got mouthful titles like that) makes virtually this same point. Dissecting the timeline of responses to Kenneth Goldsmith’s offensive performance poem, “The Body of Michael Brown”, he notes that the online quick take (a thread of tweets, a blogger’s essay, a reheated HuffPo editorial) and rigorous scholarship are innately opposed, and that scholarship might not always be the most relevant approach:

Writing [the full story] would require thorough research, deep background knowledge…[and] careful and nuanced argumentation… Indeed, by the time this hypothetical book was finished being researched, written, and published, the amount of careful attention it paid to recent Conceptualist controversies might well feel disproportionate to their import.

He argues that although the quick take can feel like a throwaway genre, at its best it provides a place to discuss issues that are worthy of attention, but maybe not that much attention.

Other essays examine topics that range from literary translators’ use of the Internet (in an excellent essay by Ellen Jones that foregrounds the online journal Asymptote and discusses how its editorial team works to place translation further to the front of readers’ brains), to working “for exposure” in the age of moribund print media (covered by Jonathan Sturgeon and Sara Veale), to a writer’s need for isolation and how that works when social media demands constant accessibility (the subject of Will Self’s abovementioned talk). Mostly these take a positive view, although several writers point out the limitations of the Internet in effecting change; Scott Esposito notes that although bookish communities can use the Internet to communicate more effectively amongst themselves, it has proven much harder to use it as a tool for evangelisation. In other words, you can’t use the Internet to convert non-readers into readers, or people who don’t care about books into people who do care about books. Social media networks promote the ghettoisation of ideas and interests, not their diffusion.

My favourite, from a standpoint of usefulness to me as a professional bookseller, is an essay on publishers. Michael Bhaskar makes a compelling argument for seeing publishers as the very first “critics” of a text, in the sense that the choices they make about a book—editorial but also, very significantly, in terms of marketing and cover design—create a foundational interpretation of that book that every other reader and critic builds on. His examples are clearly chosen to delight as well as to instruct: he writes about Lee Child, who is positioned by his publishers as a man who writes books that you buy in airports. Everything from the font of the title to the choice of blurbs to the price point is designed to support this basic interpretation. Yet Bhaskar also cites Andy Martin, a Cambridge critic who spent a year watching Child write a novel. After the project ended, Martin wrote a tongue-in-cheek mock Cambridge exam paper: “ENGLISH TRIPOS Part II; Paper 12 Lee Child Studies.” Bhaskar writes:

It’s a[n] exercise in re-assessing Lee Child…as a writer in a grand tradition, a fruitful discussion piece…alongside a George Eliot or even a James Joyce. This is an amusing, different kind of approach to criticism—perhaps weird, but not wholly implausible.

I’d add that it’s an approach that lends itself to the increasing visibility and legitimacy of readers and critics of genre fiction in particular. At least half of the bloggers and critics whose work I find most groundbreaking, edifying, and/or enjoyable are committed in one way or another to assessing genre works, and the reason these writers have the profiles that they do is in large part due to the levelling influence of the Internet.

Relatedly, and of particular interest to bloggers, are the several essays in the collection interested in the collapsing distinctions between “professional” or “elite” critics, and the criticism of the general public on forums like Goodreads, Amazon, and, of course, sites like this one. Jonathan Sturgeon and Sara Veale talk about literary hack work in a time when major publications are collapsing their book, film, music and dance coverage into all-purpose “arts” sections, and when some of the most interesting and exciting critical projects are being launched by small publications that can’t afford to pay their contributors. Veale argues for exposure as a good; she acknowledges that it’s often a fig leaf for exploitation by large companies, like the aforementioned Huffington Post, but also confesses that she has managed to find paying freelance work and even a few regular gigs by engaging in unpaid work and the networking opportunities that it opened up. Lauren Elkin introduces the concept of open access, which I’d have liked to see more of in this collection; the debate that rages around issues of copyright, academic writing, literary production, and accessibility is of utmost importance, and it’s a shame that only Elkin’s essay addresses that.

It would also have been nice to see at least one of the contributors explicitly acknowledge that the ability to participate in “professional” literary culture is in large part reliant on your ability to pay your rent whether there’s money coming in regularly or not, and that, therefore, the rise of “amateur” online literary critics might be a) representative of the fact that this is an increasingly difficult proposition, and b) a potentially fertile source of brilliant criticism that comes from people who happen not to be able to afford to play the game.

Still, this is a collection of essays that I would like every bookseller, book blogger, book reviewer, arts page editor, and minister for the arts to read. The Internet has revolutionised how we think, read, and write; for good or for ill, it’s a phenomenon to which readers and critics should be paying close attention. With consistently solid writing and argumentation, and a rich diversity of opinion and focus, The Digital Critic is illuminating at every turn.

 

The Digital Critic is published by OR Books.




Something Unspoken: Best British Short Stories 2017, ed. Nicholas Royle

This is the seventh Best British Short Stories anthology since the series was relaunched by Nicholas Royle in 2011.

Virtually every story in Best British Short Stories 2017 circles around something unspoken. This is not officially the theme of the collection, but it’s easy to read these pieces in dialogue with one another, as they explore what it means to be unspeakable

In the very best pieces, the inability to name or describe something is at the centre of the story’s meaning. Rosalind Brown’s beautiful story, “General Impression of Size and Shape”, charts the growth, blossoming, and sharp curtailment of an adulterous affair, enabled by a mutual passion for birdwatching. Brown skilfully weaves the idea of knowing, or not knowing, through her work; the affair is never talked about, and dialogue is minimal, our narrator preferring to speak in chopped observations that range from the poetic to the telegram-esque. When the adulterous couple stop seeing each other, our narrator’s pain is reflected in the smallest of incidents: out with her binoculars, alone this time, she spots a bird on the wing, too brief a glimpse for her to be able to identify it. Her sorrow and regret is that her ex-lover—quicker on the draw and with a wider range of knowledge, or at least so we’re given to believe—could have identified it for her, but he’s not here: “disappears, will never know, a fist tightens in the stomach… But it passes, it passes, the world settles again.”

Several stories take this unknowability right up to the boundary with magical realism and even the supernatural. These forces are rarely entirely positive. The protagonist of Krishan Coupland’s “The Sea In Me”, a gifted competitive swimmer, sees the anomaly of her body as proof of an inhuman inheritance. In the final scene of the story, she has driven out to the coast with her boyfriend Martin, who wants her to come back to shore with him. She asks him for ten more minutes, and the story closes as she watches him wading back to land. There is a deep sense of uncertainty—how far could she go if she tried? Will she bother coming back?—and we, too, are not as convinced of her powers as she seems to be. Perhaps she’s not half-fish or half-mermaid, but simply a talented teenager losing her mind under the weight of everyone else’s expectations. Meanwhile, both Andrew Michael Hurley and Daisy Johnson explore the hazards of raising the dead. With classically understated modern magical realism, their stories depict the slippage of the extraordinary into the everyday, Hurley’s small boy and his mother participating in a ritual involving a dead bird in an attempt to bring back the boy’s father, and Johnson’s gutsy, oddball teenaged bride trying to adapt to the reappearance of her prematurely dead husband. Neither of these stories, ultimately, accepts the possibility that the return of the dead is a good idea. In this way, if in no other, they are intensely old-fashioned. It is the ultimate taboo to go beyond the end, whether of a story or of life itself. These stories reflect a deep uneasiness about such narrative license-taking; the characters (they are mostly women) who try to do so are unambiguously punished.

As far as stories that circle a lacuna go, I have to mention, too, Sophie Wellstood’s “The First Hard Rain”, in which a woman attends the scattering of her ex-father-in-law’s ashes. It is perhaps the best of the bunch, since we know that the dead man is locally reviled for something, but never find out precisely what. The point is that people misbehave in such predictable ways: given contextual information, the reader can work out that the dead man was a driving instructor who taught teenagers, and that tells you everything, appalling and banal, that you need to know. Perhaps the same holds true for all such stories in the collection: information is withheld not only because withholding is thematically central, but because it isn’t necessary to convey it.

There are a few missteps, but these tend to be as illuminating in their own way as the more successful entries. Through Irenosen Okojie’s short story “Filamo”, for instance, I discovered that Okojie and I simply do not get on, that her uncompromising writing style clashes with my way of reading. “Filamo” is—I think—a story about a bunch of monks who end up time-traveling, but to be frank with you, this is only a guess on my part, because the story’s dedication to surrealness means it is long on detail and short on coherence. The sentence “When the saints arrived through their time cannon, continuing their ancient tradition as watchmen over the monks, the night was onyx-shaped” is representative. It sounds promising (time cannon!), but no attempt is made at deepening or exploring the world it gestures at, and what shape is an onyx, anyway?

In general, the pitfalls that Best British Short Stories sometimes falls into are opened up by the same characteristics that make it a very good collection in the first place: an unwillingness to explain or to talk down to a reader, a kind of skittish circling of the uncanny or unacceptable or simply awkward. Applied too liberally, this opacity baffles, as in Jay Barnett’s “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”, which, while an extremely well-crafted story, also feels a bit aimless: for long stretches of it, I assumed I was reading about a near-future post-apocalyptic environment, but nothing ever occurred to make this seem either more or less plausible. It is essentially a story about corruption, but a story about corruption that doesn’t clarify its context is going to be of limited use.

My favourite story in the collection, though, was Lara Williams’s “Treats”, which is about a late-middle-aged woman of the sort to whom Flannery O’Connor would have given a baroque disability, like a missing limb or enormous obesity. Williams, because she is more restrained, simply makes this character (Elaine) old before her time, nearly impervious to humiliation, and doggedly, almost perversely, cheerful. Her boss is a self-centered harpy, her husband a thoughtless lump, but Elaine makes her way through their lives, doing small nice anonymous things for people. Her hopefulness is both deeply touching and deeply distressing:

Upon finding an apple on her car bonnet, a Pink Lady, as yellow and red as the sun, beaming a smiling curve of white light, she thought: Who left this for me? What lovely person left me this? before noticing the rest of the car, a punnet of raspberries smeared across the windscreen…and a note, tucked and fluttering, beneath the wipers. Can you keep your fucking car out of the loading bay?

And yet, as Williams writes Elaine, there is a victory in not giving up anyway, in not letting “the slow drag of disappointment” pull you under. It’s a bruising, humane story, neither cruel nor kind, and I have no trouble at all in believing that it’s among the best British short stories of the year.

Best British Short Stories 2017, edited by Nicholas Royle, is published by Salt Publishing. It is available in paperback for £9.99.




Waking The Neighbours: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

A second novel is a tricky thing. If your first novel was a barnstorming global sensation that won the Booker Prize, doubly so. If you then take twenty years to produce that elusive follow-up, well. With the weight of all that expectation, you could sink. Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, does not sink. It is in many places gripping, moving, and fueled by a burning rage at India’s human rights record. If it doesn’t entirely float, either, that is due not so much to the inclusion of political material per se as to the sheer quantity that Roy is willing to include, a proliferation of detail that doesn’t always pull its weight within the framework of the story.

Roy opens with the birth of a Hijra: born as Aftab, our protagonist is quickly found to have two sets of genitals—one male, one female. Though Aftab’s parents attempt to raise their child as a boy, by the time Aftab is old enough to be aware of difference, he knows that he’s a she. A chance sighting of a famous Hijra who goes by the name of Bombay Silk sparks a series of reactions that finish with Aftab’s name change (to Anjum), a move out of her parents’ house and into the house known as the Khwabgah, or House of Dreams, where other Hijras live and work, mostly as specialist courtesans. For a while all is well: Anjum has a career, a chosen family, and adopts a small child whom she finds in the street one day, naming her Zainab. A visit to a shrine in Gujarat, however, coincides with the massacres being perpetrated upon Muslims in the area at the time, and results in trauma that Anjum, upon her return to Delhi, refuses to discuss. Her internalised distress forces her to move out of the Khwabgah and into a nearby graveyard, which she slowly sets about turning into a complex of rooms to which she refers as the Jannat (“Paradise”) Guest House.

Anjum’s story intertwines with the story of Tilottama, or Tilo, a trained architect who becomes a political activist, and the three men who love her: Musa, who takes advantage of the rumours of his death to become a major figure in the Kashmiri insurgency; Naga, a respectable official whom Tilo marries in order to ensure her own safety; and Bilqab, the least assuming of the three, who works in the Intelligence Bureau and engineers Tilo’s release when she is captured by the sadistic captain Amrik Singh. In this strand, too, an unclaimed child generates redemption: Tilo adopts a dark-skinned baby found on the street during a mass protest. The child is named Miss Jebeen the Second in honour of Musa’s daughter, shot by police while on the fringes of a Kashmiri martyr’s funeral.

There is a sense in which Roy’s inclusion of many characters and forms of oppression is generous, giving the reader many points of view from which to access the story. “How to tell a single story?” Roy muses near the end of the book, in a paragraph reproduced in its entirety on the back of the proof copy. “By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.” It is an admirable idea in theory, but there are pitfalls to that approach from which The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not exempt. It is extremely difficult, for example, to differentiate characters. Writing the previous paragraph, I had to pause and think, long and hard, about which lover was Musa, which was Naga, and what Bilqab had to do with it all. There are many minor characters so similar to each other that they might as well be the same person: Saeeda and Nimmo Gorakhpuri, for example, both of whom are flamboyant and confident young Hijras known to Anjum. Both appear, and are named, throughout the book, but there is no sense of each woman as a separate, rounded entity. There is a young man called Saddam Hussein who lives in Anjum’s graveyard and ends up marrying her daughter, but by the end of the book it’s a challenge to recall why he’s there, what narrative function he is fulfilling.

In a way, this might be precisely against the point. Questions of literary efficiency—of narrative function, of plot rationalisation, of what a given adjective or character or event is actually doing in the novel—are mostly absent. That kind of novel, one where every word is weighed carefully, every action accountable for, doesn’t seem to be the kind of novel that Roy is writing. She has said in interviews that she wants to “wake the neighbours”, and if your ultimate goal in writing a novel is to raise awareness, then indeed it can seem entirely right to leave in as much as possible. By following this strategy, Roy achieves inclusivity, but she also gives the novel the appearance of ticking a lot of boxes. Homelessness amongst Delhi’s transgender population? Tick. Drug addiction? Tick. Blameless (indeed, mentally disabled) martyr? Tick. Rape and torture? Tick.

I’m not leveling charges of gratuitousness at The Ministry of Utmost Happiness; quite the opposite. Roy treats these topics seriously and renders to her characters a level of dignity generally not afforded them by Western writers of atrocity porn. To write a good political novel, though—and it is more than possible to do that—you need an emotional core. Roy gives us plenty of personae and detail, but in opening up the focus of her story, she diffuses it. Perversely, an authorial choice that was clearly motivated by a desire to provoke empathy obstructs the fiction reader’s ability to empathise.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is published by Hamish Hamilton. RRP £14.99.




A Hell of a Punch: Where Do Little Birds Go? at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Jessica Butcher in Camilla Whitehill's Where Do Little Birds Go? at the Old Red Lion Theatre Photo courtesy of  the playwright.
Jessica Butcher in Camilla Whitehill’s Where Do Little Birds Go? at the Old Red Lion Theatre Photo courtesy of the playwright.

Camilla Whitehill’s play Where Do Little Birds Go? had a brilliantly-received run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015, and Londoners can now see it at the Old Red Lion Theatre, just above the Old Red Lion Pub near Angel tube. Half of the play is set in a pub, so the location of the black box space feels particularly apt for that reason; it’s also a production after which you may find yourself in need of a stiff drink. For, given how short it is—just an hour; I read the playscript in the fifteen minutes between arriving and being admitted upstairs—it packs a hell of a punch.

Jessica Butcher plays Lucy Fuller, narrating the whole drama as a one-woman show. It’s hard work: she’s the only person on stage the whole time, but she reacts physically to the presence of other people the audience can’t see, people who exist only in her memory. It’s an extremely effective way of making the past visible within the present moment. Butcher’s energy never flags. Even in her quieter, more reflective moments, she simply turns the volume dial down without losing the focus of the performance. The only moment during which she didn’t have my attention completely was the very beginning of the show. It opens with her singing, loudly, a number from “Charlie Girl”. It’s hard to sing loudly in a confined space to people only a few feet away from you, especially if you don’t have something like operatic training to carry you past the human instinct that tells you to lower your voice, scale it back. I wondered at moments whether that instinct was clamouring in Butcher’s head. But she very quickly enraptured the audience, who were smiling and applauding within minutes of the first note, and she got me too, by the end of the song.

Where Do Little Birds Go is not a light romp. It is partly about the Kray twins, and anyone who has seen the Tom Hardy film Legend, also about the Krays, and felt inclined to romanticise them, ought to be made to watch this play. Lucy’s terrible vulnerability—the only person she knows in London is her uncle Keith, who is a good man but who, without wishing to spoil the plot, isn’t always around—and her ambition to be a West End star combine to place her in a prime position for exploitation. When the Krays kidnap her from the job they’ve given her in a nightclub, and bring her to a flat containing the escaped murderer Frank Mitchell, she already knows that she might die there, and that she has no choice but to do her job.

Plays, much more than any art form I can think of, are about speech. This play is an hour-long monologue and Whitehall’s writing is impeccable: there are little touches of wit and dry sarcasm, and there are moments so hideous that they are conveyed in one sentence, then left to hang in the air. The combination of Whitehill’s words and Butcher’s interpretation is unbelievably powerful. Where Do Little Birds Go addresses enormous issues—sexism, cruelty, the balance of power—lightly but surely. Whitehill doesn’t belabour her points, but she makes sure that they are made. You should walk out of the performance with shaking hands.

Where Do Little Birds Go? continues at the Old Red Lion Theatre until November 26. Tickets are £15 (£12.50 concessions).




London Film Festival: The Handmaiden, Lady Macbeth and the Possibilities of Adaptation

Florence Pugh in William Oldroyd's Lady Macbeth, an adaptation of Nikolai Leskov's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
Florence Pugh in William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, an adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

It’s an old adage in the world of book lovers: the book is always better than the film. To suggest otherwise (as in the case of, for instance, Starship Troopers, the film of which is much more economically paced than the book) is to court controversy and possibly even denouncement as a heresiarch. But what about films that are only barely adaptations of books, films that become a quite separate piece of art in their own right? Is it even worth comparing them to their source material? How can we do that in a way that helps us to appreciate them for what they are, instead of condemning them for what they aren’t?

Lady Macbeth and The Handmaiden, two of the films shown at the London Film Festival this year, both fall into this category. Lady Macbeth, despite its title, has nothing (at least, nothing concrete) to do with the Shakespeare play; it’s an adaptation of the Russian novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov, which was also made into an opera by Shostakovich. The Handmaiden, meanwhile, is a Korean reimagining of Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith, a sort of Victorian heist thriller with a tender same-sex romance at its core and one of the top five best plot twists I’ve ever read.

Lady Macbeth is especially interesting because it has allusions to two separate works of literature folded into its core. As a film version of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, it sticks fairly closely to its source material, with the exception of some of the names: here, the horrible father-in-law is still named Boris, but characters such as Vinovy and Sergei become Alexander and Sebastian. Wherever we are—and the film is always coy on its precise geography—we’re not in Russia. Where the film does take a leap into new territory, though, is in its quiet acknowledgment of interracial history: Sebastian, the servant for whom our protagonist Katherine commits adultery and murder, is black, as is Katherine’s personal maid, Anna. There’s no mention of this in the film script; it’s just there, ever-present, unavoidably affecting the way a viewer interprets Katherine’s actions. Her struggle to find a way out of imprisonment, lovelessness and oppression engages our sympathies, but her exit strategy involves ruthlessly using the people of colour who surround her. The accusations commonly levelled at what’s referred to as “white feminism”—that it excludes and oppresses women of colour, poorer women, anyone who doesn’t fit a narrow band of criteria—draw their strength from the historical reality of behaviour like Katherine’s.

The second work to which Lady Macbeth refers is, of course, the notorious Scottish Play. It’s an oblique reference; Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is seemingly so called only because it involves a woman who plots murder. At first glance, this looks like a bit of a stretch. The original Lady M. kills in pursuit of power, and not even direct power, but the indirect thrill of being intimately connected to (and perhaps able to manipulate) a powerful man. Katherine’s motive looks very different: she kills more emotionally, to free herself from a loveless marriage. What Lady Macbeth does as a film is allow us to ask ourselves whether these motives are more similar than they appear: to liberate oneself into the life one wants is a power not to be underestimated.

Park Chan-Wook's The Handmaiden, adapted from Sarah Waters' Fingersmith</em?.
Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, adapted from Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith.

There are political undertones, too, in The Handmaiden. Park Chan-wook relocates the action from Victorian Britain to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. His “handmaiden”—the woman recruited to pose as a maid to a wealthy lady, while actually helping a con man to seduce her, steal her fortune, and have her committed—is Korean; the lady, and her rich uncle, are Japanese. But this kind of resistance and rebellion isn’t Park’s main focus. Instead, with great respect for the emotional and erotic intensity of his source material in Fingersmith, he gives us a story about two young women whose feelings for each other allow them to explore a world where the men who surround and menace them become irrelevant. The Guardian review of this film notes that it paints male physicality and sexuality as faintly distasteful: “Men are pathetic, unwanted voyeurs.” It’s a smart way of side-stepping the problem of a man making a movie about lesbian romance: render the male gaze silly, not worth noticing. The context of a piece of art—the question of who is making it, and what perspective they might be approaching the subject from—can change its meaning. Park ensures that his film doesn’t suffer from the fact that he is neither a woman nor gay, by privileging his characters’ experience instead of imposing his own ego onto the project.

Both Lady Macbeth and The Handmaiden are well worth seeing if you enjoyed their source material, but are equally accessible if you’re coming to these stories fresh. (I’ve never read Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; it didn’t matter.) The London Film Festival, once again, proves what an incredible resource it is for connoisseurs and novices alike to experience beautiful, thought-provoking works of cinematic art.




Communication Nation: Victorians Decoded: Art and Telegraphy at Guildhall Art Gallery

The Last Evening (1873) by London-based French painter James Tissot, one of the centrepieces of the new Victorians Decoded exhibition at Guildhall Art Gallery.
James Tissot’s The Last Evening (1873), on display as part of Guildhall Art Gallery’s Victorians Decoded exhibition, is all about “communication that cannot be decoded, glances that can’t be explained, eyelines that don’t line up”.

The curator in the pink dress is fielding my halting questions with aplomb. We have stopped in front of a medium-sized oil painting of a scene on board ship. It is a tangle of unnameable emotions and undefined relationships: a woman in a bath chair, perhaps an invalid, gazes into the middle distance as a sailor wearing a wedding ring addresses her from slightly behind and to the side, his arm curled around her chair in a manner that feels distinctly Mephistophelean. On a deckside bench nearby, another sailor—older and bearded—holds a newspaper, which he’s not reading, between his knees and looks disgruntled. His seat companion, an elderly gentleman with a top hat and watch chain, glances behind him with irritation at something out of view. Meanwhile, a little girl with a black velvet hair ribbon leans over the back of the bench: perhaps trying to read the newspaper that’s held out of her reach, perhaps importuning the elderly man (a grandfather? A guardian?). Behind them all, the riggings of this ship and a dozen others criss-cross the sky in whip-like lines of black paint. It is unspeakably claustrophobic. The curator is telling me that these lines are a direct allusion to the telegraph cables that had been placed under the Atlantic less than a decade before this painting was made, in 1873, by James Tissot. It is all about communication that cannot be decoded, glances that can’t be explained, eyelines that don’t line up. Everyone in this painting is trying to say something without saying it directly, and mostly, they are failing.

I ask her whether Tissot would have referred to telegraphy on purpose; her connection of the rigging lines with telegraph cables is ingenious but strikes me as a little tidy.

She is wary of using the word “zeitgeist”, but she ventures that the cultural climate of the 1860s and ‘70s was full of interest about precisely the issues—transmission, decoding, distance, resistance—that the widespread use of the telegraph embodied. Issues in our own day that artists and writers seem to have permanently lodged in their sub-conscious, she suggests, include privacy, surveillance, privilege.

It occurs to me that the way this exhibition is being presented taps into those interests and issues unashamedly: its name is Victorians Decoded, invoking the influence of technology on previous historical periods in language framed by our current fascination with technology in the form of computer programming. The exhibition catalogue isn’t all paintings. They surround artifacts including code books from telegraph and railway companies, and domestic cipher books by Charles Wheatstone, who made contributions to the development of telegraphy as a professional engineer at King’s College London.

(Herewith, a note: The exhibition texts don’t distinguish between encoding and encrypting, which is a shame, as they’re easy to confuse and fundamentally different. Encoding literally changes the message that you are sending, whereas encryption is merely a way of concealing your meaning without changing it. The police telegraph code book, for instance, used semi-random words to abbreviate the messages that coppers had to send; a plaque tells us that “FELONY FENCEFUL FETLOCK” decodes as “the subject has two teeth out in front, a slightly turned out nose, and is a smooth talker”. FELONY and FETLOCK aren’t encryptions of the actual words “subject is missing two teeth” and “subject has a turned out nose”; they’re literally different words that are understood to stand for those concepts. Encryptions, on the other hand, are direct translations into a different “language” of the text you want to send; they’re not always helpful for abbreviation.)

There is something really charming about the professional code books, particularly the ones used by the railways. Code words like “Skylark”, “Slug” and “Olive” indicate that Victorian industry remained connected to the land in ways we might not expect. Signalmen, after all, whether changing the points of a rail line or transmitting electric signals via telegraph, spent most of their time in observation boxes in the middle of the countryside.

The exhibition is divided into three rooms, each covering one or two general concepts: “distance”, “transmission”, “coding” and “resistance”. Distance and resistance are vaguer, more abstract ideas, especially as interpreted by paintings; it’s easy to see how the samples of transatlantic cable and the report from the Illustrated London News are relevant, but the paintings of ships at sea are less immediately obvious. The connection, it turns out, is in technique: distance was rendered more realistic and three-dimensional in this era by the addition of painstaking detail even to minute objects in the background, so that the ocean on which these painted ships sail is white-capped as far as the horizon. Whether you think this is a strong connection or not is probably down to your personality; I found it a fresh and interesting way of forcing visitors to the exhibition to look at an idea from the points of view of multiple different disciplines, though I suppose it could equally be seen as strained.

Still, the “resistance” room, although small, is fascinating for its particular juxtaposition of art and artifact: a Wheatstone bridge, designed to test the resistance of different lengths of telegraph wire to electrical currents, is displayed next to a series of paintings depicting landscapes that seem to be actively resisting the conquering actions of man. John Linnell’s The Timber Wagons (1872) is especially subtle with its message; the men cutting and loading felled trees are dwarfed by a rugged landscape of hills and sky, and clouds threaten. It is a reminder of the pushback against technology in every age: not only the opinion held by some humans that progress is against the laws of god and man, but also the intractability of wilderness landscapes. In this same room, a painting by Edwin Landseer posits the final fate of Ernest Shackleton’s polar expedition: crushed by ice, gnawed by bears.

But the painting most expressive of this weird collision between progress and tradition that characterizes the era is hung on the far corner of the wall that explores the idea of transmission. It is by William Logsdail, painted between 1888 and 1890, and entitled The Ninth of November. It depicts the Lord Mayor’s procession, an annual event in the City of London, passing before the Royal Exchange. This was the shortest such procession of the nineteenth century; it had been scaled down in accordance with the financial difficulties that were besetting the nation at the time. The proportions are strange: the Lord Mayor’s carriage and attendants appear to be processing out of the frame in the foreground; a boy in his early teens, dressed in ceremonial garb, stares inscrutably into the viewer’s eyes. Their audience is a crowd of everyday folk who look both wildly incongruous in this exalted environment and much more grounded in reality; if the Lord Mayor’s procession has the air of a Pre-Raphaelite retold fairytale about it, the onlookers have the jolting lifelikeness of a photograph. There are a few bobbies holding the crowd back, an old woman with loaves in a basket, girls in hats of which they’re obviously very proud, little boys climbing lampposts for a better view, older men with beards and moustaches and a squint. A woman holds her young daughter to prevent her from running into the street. Another little girl is hoisted on an unseen person’s shoulders. Their faces and clothing are all absolutely distinct. The message is stark: this is England now. The ancient traditions of pomp and circumstance and vast sums of public money spent on extravagances are fading. “The picture’s theme is the effort to maintain transmission,” a plaque tells me.

What this painting shows us is that such an effort has always been tricky; that advances in communication often result in a discarding of the past as inefficient, or embarrassing, or just plain wrong; and also that the nineteenth century was not nearly as far removed from the twenty-first as we might like to think. Victorians Decoded is by far the most thought-provoking exhibition I’ve been to in London, and could only possibly be improved by allowing visitors to use the Wheatstone bridge and galvanometer themselves (though I suspect this was considered too hazardous to even contemplate). It’s well worth your time.


Victorians Decoded: Art and Telegraphy is at the Guildhall Art Gallery from September 20 2016-Jan 22 2017. Entry is free.




On Culture: Why I’m Sceptical About Literary Festivals

Scenes from the Hay Literary Festival. Flickr photo via Katy Wrathall, Creative Commons licence CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Scenes from the Hay Literary Festival. Flickr photo via Katy Wrathall, Creative Commons licence CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

When we were about nine, my best friend and I were discussing our favourite singer, which, at the time, was Sheryl Crow. (Good Sheryl Crow, though. Tuesday Night Music Club-era Sheryl Crow, not the one who has highlights. Not that highlights are bad.) We couldn’t decide whether we would ever want to meet her or not, or rather, my best friend couldn’t decide. I was pretty sure that I would never want to meet her, despite adoring her eloquent, word-heavy songs, and the only explanation I could offer was that I thought she probably wouldn’t be very nice.

This has held true for basically all celebrities well into adulthood, and in “celebrities” I also include “authors”. (They all have Twitter now, and have you seen the way Zadie Smith and Jessie Burton dress? They’re rock stars.) Team that with an aversion to crowds and discomfort, and not only does Glastonbury start to look like the ninth circle of hell, so do almost all literary festivals.

About once a year, usually in early summer, someone says to me: “Have you ever been to the Hay Festival? Oh my God, you would love the Hay Festival.” This is, I know, well-meaning, but also untrue. I would not love the Hay Festival: I would be too hot or too cold, I would spend too much money, and, above all, I would have to sit in tents and listen to authors. Authors, I am firmly convinced, are to be read; some of them, it’s true, are great live, and some of them have interesting opinions or are capable of answering banal questions graciously, but by and large, we are interested in authors for what they say from a page, not a stage. Reading and writing are traditionally the preserves of people who are shy and awkward. Why on earth would you want to gather a large number of those people in one place and festoon the area with bunting?

It is difficult to feel as though you are having a personal connection with an author or their work when you are in a room full of other people listening to them. The fact that there are usually readings to accompany talks improves things slightly, but then again, one can read at home, and make oneself a cup of tea while doing it. I suspect the prevailing interest in literary festivals–maybe not traditionally, but certainly now–has to do with the rise of publicity. They’re so Instagrammable, aren’t they? They’re so cute, those tents and gin stalls and piles of books. At The Bookseller’s recent Marketing and Publicity Conference, one of the speakers (I now can’t find out who, despite searching the Bookseller site) pointed out that the rise of twee in trade publishing was something to be genuinely worried about. It reinforces the idea that reading is a leisure activity, for the moneyed classes: white, middle-class, middle-educated, middle-aged, mostly. And female, for a very given value of “female”.

A major quantitative reason to be unenchanted by literary festivals, of course, is that they are often grossly unfair on authors. Many writers are not paid appearance fees, which is frankly outrageous: in what other profession would you demand that someone give up time that could be employed in the fundamentals of that profession (the actual writing) without compensating them? Management strategists don’t attend conferences on their own dime; actors don’t turn up to parties for fun. (I mean, some of them probably do, but let’s be honest: almost all celebrity appearances are negotiated.) Philip Pullman pointed out, earlier this year, that the Oxford Literary Festival doesn’t pay the writers who appear there. (They are now said to be “considering it”. I will add only that the festival is sponsored by the Sunday Times, the Financial Times, and HSBC.) In a way, it’s heartening that the vicious “for exposure” bullshit that low-level creatives have to put up with extends to the highest echelons of the profession, but in a much larger way, it’s just depressing. It also makes me think twice about the moral defensibility of throwing money at those organizations.

It’s all the more surprising, therefore, that I went to my first literary festival last month. It was organized by Emerald Street, the email newsletter run by the team behind Stylist Magazine. I went with the gravest of trepidations, expecting it to be populated entirely by thin blondes with good hair, tastefully expensive handbags and Baileys Prize Book Club membership cards. There were some of those, it’s true, but what surprised me was how much I enjoyed it. The first panel I attended was, inevitably, on the Baileys Prize itself: are women-only spaces still necessary, the talk asked. The nuance of what the panelists, novelists short-listed for the Prize this year, had to say on the subject impressed me. Afterwards, I had Lisa McInerney sign my copy of The Glorious Heresies, and she was pleasant, not impersonal at all. I thought, This isn’t so bad. It was probably made better, of course, by the fact that I chose to remove myself to Kensington Gardens to eat lunch and wait for the next session to start; in London, you can always escape somewhere else if you feel like a billy-no-mates. But the second panel, too, was rather wonderful: Caroline Criado-Perez and Marina Lewycka on what the EU has done for women. (This was, of course, pre-referendum. Criado-Perez was so impassioned, so bright and spiky, on the benefits of EU legislation protecting women; I like to think about how furious and eloquent she must have been upon learning the country had collectively voted to leave.)

And the auditorium, both times, was full of all sorts of women: yes, beautiful skinnies with sundresses that I loved and would never be able to afford or fit into, but also, next to me, a vaguely awkward red-haired woman with whom I struck up a chat; a woman wearing a West African-style headwrap in the row in front of me; older women, women my age, women of indeterminable age. It was a show of diversity that I liked all the more for not having expected it. There were men, too, most of whom looked as though they were there voluntarily, instead of having the martyred air of a husband dragged someplace by his wife.

It still hasn’t inspired me to go to the Hay Festival, or to the Edinburgh Book Festival, or Cambridge or Wigtown or any of the others. I would rather, I think, go to Hay in the off-season, with someone whose company I enjoy, and browse on my own; gather two dozen volumes for pennies and read them in the pub. Reading can be a group activity, but only when you’re actually reading. I worry, still, that literary festivals are a distraction from the joy of the actual book, the words on the page, the complexity of ideas that only language can convey. But I have to confess that perhaps they’re not all that bad.




Unsentimental Compassion: The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre

Helen-McCrory-in-The-Deep-Blue-Sea.-Image-by-Richard-Hubert-Smith-620x413-min

For a play about a suicidal woman, Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea is remarkably funny. Or at least, the National Theatre’s current production of it is: not in a belly-laugh, slap-your-knees sort of way, but in the dry delivery of darkly ironic lines. The opening scene is of panic in a house of rented lodgings as Hester Collyer (played with elegant dishevelment by Helen McCrory) tries to gas herself; her upstairs neighbours, having noticed the smell of gas, manage to save her. Upon being told that she survived because the gas ran out – because she’d forgotten to put a shilling in the meter – she replies, with superb control: “Yes, wasn’t that lucky.”

Tom Burke, who plays her lover, Freddie Page, could easily have made his character a brainless buffoon or a heartless cad, and for a moment upon his entrance (toting a bag of golf clubs) I thought he was going to do exactly that. But he brings out a damaged-ness in Freddie that isn’t used to excuse him, but rather to explain him. “His life ended in 1940,” Hester says to another character, and we do get the sense of a man slightly adrift, a man who was capable of dedication to a higher cause when he didn’t have to think terribly hard about it, but who now finds that he doesn’t have the sort of personality that can love the woman who adores him in the same consuming, defining way.

And it really is consuming: there are some horrifying moments as Hester’s emotional extremes make it painfully clear how real this love is for her, and how dehumanizing that kind of passion can be. A telephone conversation begins calmly and sweetly, and descends through several layers of distress until ending with McCrory’s wrecked howl into the receiver: “Don’t hang up! Don’t hang up.” The man to whom she remains married, High Court judge Sir William Collyer, is played with sympathy and restraint by Peter Sullivan; he can’t love Hester in the way that she wants, either, though he can offer her solidity and comfort and a lack of malice. In some of their interactions, he comes close to tenderness, but Sullivan uses his body (and, perhaps, his costume; he never removes his heavy woollen overcoat) to suggest that tenderness isn’t exactly his metier.

The supporting cast, too, is excellent. Hubert Burton, playing a well-meaning but young and callow upstairs neighbour, does a cracking job of mansplaining Hester’s grief and agony to her, in a way that perfectly encapsulates the innocent entitlement of 1950s masculinity. Yolanda Kettle, as his pregnant wife, nails the self-conscious uneasiness of someone who has all the trappings of adulthood without the security of experience, which is no mean feat given that her character appears in only two scenes. Marion Bailey plays housekeeper Mrs. Elton mostly for laughs, but never for mockery, while Adetomiwa Edun as Jacky serves as a sort of conscience for Freddie, his friend. Their scenes together are excellent: men being convivial together, being emotional together, trying to support one another whilst painfully unequipped with the psychological or cultural tools to do so.

What makes The Deep Blue Sea brilliant is its ending: Dr. (“don’t call me doctor”) Miller, who’s been struck off for an unspecified offense (implied is that he’s homosexual), convinces Hester to live. Nick Fletcher, who plays Miller, is extraordinary: he never cracks a smile, delivers some of the funniest lines in the play, and conveys a sense of having experienced absolute brutality while also demonstrating the purest, most unsentimental compassion. When he leaves Hester in her flat, telling her she must choose, she waits for a moment, then gets up from the floor. She cracks an egg into a pan. She makes a fried egg on toast, and sits at her kitchen table as the lights go down, munching it and gazing out over the audience. Breakfast can be a good enough reason to live, and Rattigan’s acknowledgment of that –  while avoiding sentiment as adroitly as Miller does – is something to celebrate.

The Deep Blue Sea continues at the National Theatre until Sep 3. 




On Culture: All the Deaths are the Same

Photo courtesy of Paul the Counsellor.
Photo courtesy of Paul Cullen.

The last time I wrote, my uncle was dying. He died nearly a week to the day after I’d finished writing that column, early in the hours of a Tuesday morning. If I were in America, there would be some structure to what followed, determined by practicality: a visit to see my aunt and cousins again, arrangements for a memorial service. As it is, my parents are taking care of that, and family members are gathering to sorrow and to ensure that things go on. I can’t participate meaningfully in that. I’m over here.

Dealing with death and grief from afar isn’t new to me. I am actually rather good at it. I’ve been doing it since I was sixteen, when a family friend’s son (and my friend, too) killed himself in Nebraska. We couldn’t all go to the memorial; from Virginia, it was too far, too expensive, for four of us to fly. My parents went, to represent us and to help their friends; my brother and I stayed behind. It was the first grieving I ever did and I hadn’t yet learned that you can read consciously, around your emotions, that you can self-medicate with things other than wine and insomnia and daytime naps. To keep busy, I did all of the assigned summer reading for my junior year English and American history classes, and all of the five assigned chapters for next year’s AP Biology course. In between the school work, I read what was in front of me.

These were the books that I leaned on for the first few weeks, back when I was sixteen: Sons and Lovers, by DH Lawrence. Pontoon, by Garrison Keillor. The Puritan Dilemma, by Edward Morgan. The first three books in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet. The 39 Steps, by John Buchan. A Murder Is Announced, by Agatha Christie. Death In Holy Orders, by PD James. Black Boy, by Richard Wright. Moral Disorder, by Margaret Atwood. The Dogs of Babel, by Carolyn Parkhurst.

You’ll see from that list that after about a week, I found myself drawn, without quite realizing it, to cosy(-ish) crime, to thrillers. Buchan and Christie write from within an inter-war period often painted as a golden age. Their plots, despite featuring murder most foul and international espionage, felt entirely safe to me; you never forget, while reading Buchan, that it’s not real. PD James is less cuddly, but she wrote well, and the crimes still have the touch of humanity about them: no gory dismemberments or torture porn to be had in her books. James’s criminals are motivated by very simple, neighbourly passions: jealousy, greed, embarrassment. They’re not psychopathic masterminds; they’re ordinary, angry people. I don’t doubt that I was drawn to these books because they gave me a safe peephole onto death. They did not require the engagement of my emotions, but they normalized the thing that had happened.

If I could go back in time and give my teenaged self a reading list to absorb the blunt-force trauma of that first death, what would be on it? What would I choose to give a frightened, grieving, defensive, whip-smart kid with one foot over the border into adulthood?

I would start with Elizabeth Goudge: The Little White Horse, for its safety and gentleness and unobtrusive mysteriousness. Then Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway, for the quiet understanding with which it encompasses suicide, that feeling of being lost. Something really difficult and really beautiful, either Paradise Lost or The Faerie Queene, with plenty of annotations (she would have loved that, my sixteen-year-old self; she would have bitten off more than she could chew and been content.) Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, with its uncompromising love, the way it makes death a dignified choice. Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy, which teaches you that fearing death’s dark, dry country will only cripple you in the end. Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which sees glory and flame in every blade of grass. And I would give her Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, the literary version of hearty soup and a blanket and the repeated sentence “It will get better. It will get better.”

And what should I prescribe myself now? It’s still sorrow and hurt that I feel, but my uncle was an adult and he knew his time was up. It was too soon, but his family had the chance to make their farewells, and to think about life without him before they had to experience it. It is horrible and grossly unfair, but it is not really a shock.

He loved jazz; it’s one of the most esoteric musical genres, and he knew everything about it. When I was thirteen, I bought a Miles Davis CD and it filled him with delight. He wanted to talk about Freddie Freeloader, to rhapsodise about Kind of Blue. He was a professor of Russian and Slavic studies. When I was little I was told that he worked in particular on the phenomenon of Russian circuses. This seemed an impossibly exotic thing to do at work: to read and write about constant itinerance, folk ways of entertaining yourself with bears and bearded ladies before the winter set in. He loved comic books and superheroes with the fierce elitism of the true pop-culture devotee. He had a wicked wit: once he mocked my dad for full minutes, for pronouncing “Sinead O’Connor” just as it’s spelled. He was a passionate supporter of the Chicago Cubs, a baseball team famed for their incompetence. These things go on without him. The world still contains saxophones, and trapeze artists, and hot summer nights at Wrigley Field.

I would not say that there are circumstances under which reading will be no good to you–especially not in relation to my uncle–but I would say that there are circumstances under which you could do something else, and it would be just as good.

At present, sort of by accident, I’m reading Katie Roiphe’s new book, The Violet Hour. Its subtitle is Great Writers at the End. It examines the pre-deaths, and the attitudes towards their own deaths, of Susan Sontag, John Updike, Sigmund Freud, and other giants. An already-oft-quoted line from The Violet Hour is this one: “All the deaths were the same.” That is the thing it’s hardest to get your head around, really: details aside, all deaths are the same. It’s the greatest leveller in the world.

My mum sent me a text last week that said, “I am listening to the CD you gave me for Christmas while making oatmeal cranberry chocolate chip cookies. Have lit the beautiful candle you gave me. Grey afternoon following lots of rain. Thinking of Uncle Tom.” That was what she did. Me, I will continue to love music, and to be bored by baseball, and to listen to jazz when it rains; to watch superhero movies and not understand comic books and mispronounce names and be a snob. I will read murder mysteries and personal essays and stories about the circus. I will remember the Russian swear words he taught me.

What we do with the deaths will differ, though all the deaths are the same.




On Culture: Death Out of Season

Gravestones in Moonlight by Jaroslaw Grudzinski.
Gravestones in Moonlight by Jaroslaw Grudzinski.


My uncle is dying.

It’s an ongoing process. My mother sends me an email that says “We have no idea how long he will live”, and I start to write another email, one to send to him. My aunt will read it aloud to him. The not knowing is so strange. You hope for the best, or at least for the better (there is no best with aggressive multiple myeloma), and make your plans for the worst, gambling that it’s better to be prepared than to look slightly foolish if your preparations turn out to be premature.

The French have no word for this. They have the idea, of course, but there’s no way for them to distinguish between “[verb]s” and “is [verb]ing”. The difference of implication–that one is a discrete event while the other is continuous–is lost. One can say “il mort”–he dies–but not “he is dying”. You could say, perhaps, “il est en train de mourir”, he is in the middle of dying, as though death were a peach pie and he is up to his elbows rolling out its pastry. He is not French, but I think in French sometimes, and its peculiar characteristics are a good way to distract myself from the fact that he is dying.

*

I have just finished reading a book called Ruby, by an author called Cynthia Bond. It’s been shortlisted for the Baileys Prize, which is why I’ve got it. It is a harrowing, horrifying book, its 300 pages crammed with Satanism and the rape and murder of children. It’s like A Little Life, but condensed; with the former, you can go for several hundred pages without too graphic a description of the abuse that can be perpetrated upon a small body. I worried that Ruby would give me nightmares, but it has not.

What it has given me is a renewed consciousness of the fact that I could kill. Easily. I would not find it hard. I’ve known this for a while. I went to Inveraray Castle with my godmother and her husband last fall, and we wandered around its open rooms, including a two-storey hallway packed to the rafters with pikes as long as my arm span. Each one had a tuft of fabric at the top of its handle, like the fluffy ornamental ends of a curtain tie. They were all a sort of rusty brown-red. An informative note on the wall told us that they had functioned as sponges, to sop up the blood of the people you’d just speared as it ran down the shaft. I looked at them, from wicked blade-point to solid handgrip, and imagined wielding one in an electrifying rush of energy and terror and rage and determination. Sufficiently possessed by fear, I thought, I could slice through flesh like butter.

The same is true of anger. I read on the Tube, and walking to work, about the brutal and awful injustices visited upon little Black girls, and my hands shake. Faced with the men who do such things, I could kill them. I would slit their throats and let them bleed. I would not feel remorse.

It is spring, and there are cherry trees flowering in pink powderpuffs all over the churchyard by the Tube station, and I am walking through Tuesday morning dreaming of vengeance. It’s disturbing to find such wells of darkness in yourself.

*

It is spring, and the cherry trees are flowering. It’s the wrong time of year for dying. It’s the wrong time of year for darkness to blossom in my brain. I should be reading The Enchanted April, or The Secret Garden. I should be reading Gerard Manley Hopkins, with his “all things counter, original, spare, strange”, or Dylan Thomas talking about the green fuse and the flower.

Or maybe I should be thinking of Shakespeare, whose birthday it just was. I don’t go in much for the commemoration of authors’ centenaries. If they’re worth reading, they’re worth reading whenever you feel like it. But the birthday celebrations have reminded me, at least, that Shakespeare has plenty to say. He feels like a curiously present entity, whispering in my ear. Or maybe that’s just Prospero. I wouldn’t be the first to confuse the two. “We are such stuff,” he says, “as dreams are made of; And our little life is rounded with a sleep…”

It is the same sentiment, more or less, as the one in the Book of Common Prayer that has haunted me for years: “In the midst of life we are in death.” It is here among the flowering cherries. It is here in the warmer air. It is here at noon, as well as at midnight. And it is only sleep.

 




On Culture: Let's Talk About The Baileys Prize Shortlist

Baileys Prize
The shortlist for the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction: Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen (Fourth Estate); Cynthia Bond’s Ruby (Two Roads); Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies (John Murray); Hayah Yanagihara’s A Little Life (Picador); Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love (Bloomsbury); and Anne Enright’s The Green Road (Jonathan Cape). Photo courtesy of Simon Savidge at Savidge Reads.

It was announced on Monday, so there’s been plenty of time for the major news outlets to publish pieces outlining the list’s content. There’s been less, I notice, in the way of analysis, apart from the standard nationality count (only one British person on this list, two Irishwomen and three Americans). That’s curious, I think, given the amount of critical coverage that the Baileys Prize (formerly the Orange Prize) has received in past years. This shortlist in particular seems to encapsulate some of the controversies that have surrounded the prize as a whole, and it’s worth discussing that.

The first thing about this shortlist, of course, the thing that even the mostly impartial websites have noted, is that Kate Atkinson isn’t on it. This is beyond ridiculous. Atkinson has now been passed over for prizes and shortlists so many times that she’s this generation’s Beryl Bainbridge, but it’s no longer funny, if it ever was; instead, it’s alarming as hell, because Atkinson writes very, very good fiction. There are plenty of hypotheses floating around as to why she is so often overlooked, one of which is that she straddles the (thin, almost illusory in some places) line between popular and literary fiction in a way that confuses people (where, for “people”, read “literary judges”). For the Man Booker Prize, this may well be true, but what I don’t understand is how this can possibly be a problem for the judging panel of the Baileys Prize. This is a prize, after all, which has frequently been accused of representing “women’s fiction”, as opposed to “fiction by women”; the comments of judge Daisy Goodwin in 2010 about “misery lit” did nothing to dispel that public image. The intersection of the commercial and the meritorious is precisely where the Baileys Prize has historically positioned itself, regardless of whether its results have reflected both sides equally (we’ll get to that in a minute). Atkinson is the Platonic ideal of “writer who should be on the Baileys Prize shortlist”.

If it were merely that Atkinson fits the profile, I would understand her exclusion, but it is also the case that her longlisted novel, A God In Ruins, is excellent. Meticulously written, with a sweeping intergenerational focus and some of the best scene-setting I’ve read for a long time, it manages also to be a page-turner, the flow of its sentences uninterrupted by any rhythmic awkwardness or inauthentic dialogue. I was deeply reluctant to read it at first, because I am bored to death of WWII novels, but it is hardly a WWII novel at all; it’s a life novel, a half-century novel, a ruthless novel.

Many people who talk about it mention the twist at the end. I’m willing to admit that a single plot twist doesn’t make it a particularly innovative novel, intellectually or structurally. I’m not willing to admit, however, that all of the books on the shortlist as it currently stands are more challenging or creative. They are certainly not all written with anything like as thorough a grasp on language and plot as Atkinson demonstrates.

Before you ask: yes, I am targeting one book in particular. There is always one, I know, whose place on the shortlist seems completely random, compromise-driven. Perhaps that’s precisely the case; getting five people to unanimously agree on the merits of six books is incredibly difficult, and actual winners of literary prizes—let alone shortlists— have been compromises before now. But that is no excuse, no excuse at all, for a shortlist that implies that one of the best six books written by a woman in English this year was The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild.

For one thing, there are at least two books on the longlist—this, mind you, is only out of the selection that I’ve read—that used the medium of language in ways more fluid, more natural, and more genuinely impressive: Shirley Barrett’s Rush Oh! and Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Barrett’s protagonist, teenaged Mary Davidson, is a surrogate mother for her siblings, a surrogate housewife for her father, and far too dry and intelligent to be appreciated by the bachelors that surround her. Her narration is witty, never anachronistic or “feisty” (the worst descriptor for literary heroines), always tinged with the sorrow of hindsight. It’s Barrett’s debut novel; that she’s managed such subtlety in her prose the first time round is something worth celebrating. Chambers’s novel, also a debut, vividly imagines the settlement of space and the logistics of galactic government, as well as dealing with delicate emotional beats in a way that’s totally unforced and provokes a genuine emotional response in the reader. It’s also not afraid to go off-piste; I’m sure there are other love stories between an AI and a human with dwarfism, somewhere in the annals of science fiction, but I’ll bet this one is the most sensitively written.

Rothschild’s book, meanwhile, is—to put it politely—somewhat bland. It’s also a mess. You’d think that a novel featuring an exiled Russian gangster, the murder of an academic and the rediscovery of a long-lost painting would be able inherently to avoid blandness; you would be wrong. The protagonist, Annie McDee, never seems quite real, her personality swallowed up by the Eat-Pray-Love nature of her storyline (cruelly dumped by long-term boyfriend, she moves to London, learns to love herself by cooking huge, elaborate dinners, exchanges angsty psychobabble with her alcoholic mother and falls in love with a cute gallery tour guide and aspiring artist, who’s obviously better than her ex). Meanwhile, the story pings around half a dozen point-of-view characters, becoming increasingly ludicrous—even, I think, granted that it’s set in the larger-than-life art world. When one of your major plot points revolves around the existence of a secret Nazi hoard, whether it’s of gold or of paintings, you have jumped the shark.

I’d have been willing to give its narrative predictability a pass, even so, if it hadn’t been so appallingly under-proofed. Either out of a conviction that it creates tension and portentousness, or out of a genuine inability to recognise stilted dialogue, The Improbability of Love has been allowed to go to press with all of its characters eschewing contractions entirely, so that they say things like “You are not” and “I have never”, instead of “You’re not” and “I’ve never”. Lest you think this is nit-picking, try and think of the last time someone said “You are not” to you without implied italics on the negative. No one speaks like this; certainly not privileged twenty-first century Londoners. If it didn’t have this problem, it would be a fun, slightly over-long confection; with the errors, the whole book feels like an imposition.

There’s one possible reason for the weirdness of this shortlist, and shortlists in the past, that no one wants to talk about: what if the judges simply aren’t very well qualified? It’s not going to be a popular view, I know, and to an extent I agree that you don’t have to be a World Expert to have good judgement, but…I’m not sure this is the way to go either. Think for a moment about what literary judges are asked to do, and think about how much their day jobs have prepared them to do it. The Baileys Prize is this year being judged by a former advisor to Lord Alan Sugar, a journalist, a television presenter, a musician, and a novelist. All of them (hopefully) intelligent and thoughtful readers, but how many of them are accustomed to critically assessing a high volume of books on a regular basis? 150 books in a year is a huge demand to make of anyone, let alone very very busy people who may not be approaching the task with anything other than a gut feeling. And the worst part is that gut feelings have their place in criticism. It’s just that other things, like the quality of the writing and the originality of the project, do too–and I don’t always see those things getting the recognition they deserve.




On Culture: Let’s Talk About The Baileys Prize Shortlist

Baileys Prize
The shortlist for the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction: Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen (Fourth Estate); Cynthia Bond’s Ruby (Two Roads); Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies (John Murray); Hayah Yanagihara’s A Little Life (Picador); Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love (Bloomsbury); and Anne Enright’s The Green Road (Jonathan Cape). Photo courtesy of Simon Savidge at Savidge Reads.

It was announced on Monday, so there’s been plenty of time for the major news outlets to publish pieces outlining the list’s content. There’s been less, I notice, in the way of analysis, apart from the standard nationality count (only one British person on this list, two Irishwomen and three Americans). That’s curious, I think, given the amount of critical coverage that the Baileys Prize (formerly the Orange Prize) has received in past years. This shortlist in particular seems to encapsulate some of the controversies that have surrounded the prize as a whole, and it’s worth discussing that.

The first thing about this shortlist, of course, the thing that even the mostly impartial websites have noted, is that Kate Atkinson isn’t on it. This is beyond ridiculous. Atkinson has now been passed over for prizes and shortlists so many times that she’s this generation’s Beryl Bainbridge, but it’s no longer funny, if it ever was; instead, it’s alarming as hell, because Atkinson writes very, very good fiction. There are plenty of hypotheses floating around as to why she is so often overlooked, one of which is that she straddles the (thin, almost illusory in some places) line between popular and literary fiction in a way that confuses people (where, for “people”, read “literary judges”). For the Man Booker Prize, this may well be true, but what I don’t understand is how this can possibly be a problem for the judging panel of the Baileys Prize. This is a prize, after all, which has frequently been accused of representing “women’s fiction”, as opposed to “fiction by women”; the comments of judge Daisy Goodwin in 2010 about “misery lit” did nothing to dispel that public image. The intersection of the commercial and the meritorious is precisely where the Baileys Prize has historically positioned itself, regardless of whether its results have reflected both sides equally (we’ll get to that in a minute). Atkinson is the Platonic ideal of “writer who should be on the Baileys Prize shortlist”.

If it were merely that Atkinson fits the profile, I would understand her exclusion, but it is also the case that her longlisted novel, A God In Ruins, is excellent. Meticulously written, with a sweeping intergenerational focus and some of the best scene-setting I’ve read for a long time, it manages also to be a page-turner, the flow of its sentences uninterrupted by any rhythmic awkwardness or inauthentic dialogue. I was deeply reluctant to read it at first, because I am bored to death of WWII novels, but it is hardly a WWII novel at all; it’s a life novel, a half-century novel, a ruthless novel.

Many people who talk about it mention the twist at the end. I’m willing to admit that a single plot twist doesn’t make it a particularly innovative novel, intellectually or structurally. I’m not willing to admit, however, that all of the books on the shortlist as it currently stands are more challenging or creative. They are certainly not all written with anything like as thorough a grasp on language and plot as Atkinson demonstrates.

Before you ask: yes, I am targeting one book in particular. There is always one, I know, whose place on the shortlist seems completely random, compromise-driven. Perhaps that’s precisely the case; getting five people to unanimously agree on the merits of six books is incredibly difficult, and actual winners of literary prizes—let alone shortlists— have been compromises before now. But that is no excuse, no excuse at all, for a shortlist that implies that one of the best six books written by a woman in English this year was The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild.

For one thing, there are at least two books on the longlist—this, mind you, is only out of the selection that I’ve read—that used the medium of language in ways more fluid, more natural, and more genuinely impressive: Shirley Barrett’s Rush Oh! and Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Barrett’s protagonist, teenaged Mary Davidson, is a surrogate mother for her siblings, a surrogate housewife for her father, and far too dry and intelligent to be appreciated by the bachelors that surround her. Her narration is witty, never anachronistic or “feisty” (the worst descriptor for literary heroines), always tinged with the sorrow of hindsight. It’s Barrett’s debut novel; that she’s managed such subtlety in her prose the first time round is something worth celebrating. Chambers’s novel, also a debut, vividly imagines the settlement of space and the logistics of galactic government, as well as dealing with delicate emotional beats in a way that’s totally unforced and provokes a genuine emotional response in the reader. It’s also not afraid to go off-piste; I’m sure there are other love stories between an AI and a human with dwarfism, somewhere in the annals of science fiction, but I’ll bet this one is the most sensitively written.

Rothschild’s book, meanwhile, is—to put it politely—somewhat bland. It’s also a mess. You’d think that a novel featuring an exiled Russian gangster, the murder of an academic and the rediscovery of a long-lost painting would be able inherently to avoid blandness; you would be wrong. The protagonist, Annie McDee, never seems quite real, her personality swallowed up by the Eat-Pray-Love nature of her storyline (cruelly dumped by long-term boyfriend, she moves to London, learns to love herself by cooking huge, elaborate dinners, exchanges angsty psychobabble with her alcoholic mother and falls in love with a cute gallery tour guide and aspiring artist, who’s obviously better than her ex). Meanwhile, the story pings around half a dozen point-of-view characters, becoming increasingly ludicrous—even, I think, granted that it’s set in the larger-than-life art world. When one of your major plot points revolves around the existence of a secret Nazi hoard, whether it’s of gold or of paintings, you have jumped the shark.

I’d have been willing to give its narrative predictability a pass, even so, if it hadn’t been so appallingly under-proofed. Either out of a conviction that it creates tension and portentousness, or out of a genuine inability to recognise stilted dialogue, The Improbability of Love has been allowed to go to press with all of its characters eschewing contractions entirely, so that they say things like “You are not” and “I have never”, instead of “You’re not” and “I’ve never”. Lest you think this is nit-picking, try and think of the last time someone said “You are not” to you without implied italics on the negative. No one speaks like this; certainly not privileged twenty-first century Londoners. If it didn’t have this problem, it would be a fun, slightly over-long confection; with the errors, the whole book feels like an imposition.

There’s one possible reason for the weirdness of this shortlist, and shortlists in the past, that no one wants to talk about: what if the judges simply aren’t very well qualified? It’s not going to be a popular view, I know, and to an extent I agree that you don’t have to be a World Expert to have good judgement, but…I’m not sure this is the way to go either. Think for a moment about what literary judges are asked to do, and think about how much their day jobs have prepared them to do it. The Baileys Prize is this year being judged by a former advisor to Lord Alan Sugar, a journalist, a television presenter, a musician, and a novelist. All of them (hopefully) intelligent and thoughtful readers, but how many of them are accustomed to critically assessing a high volume of books on a regular basis? 150 books in a year is a huge demand to make of anyone, let alone very very busy people who may not be approaching the task with anything other than a gut feeling. And the worst part is that gut feelings have their place in criticism. It’s just that other things, like the quality of the writing and the originality of the project, do too–and I don’t always see those things getting the recognition they deserve.




On Culture: What a Belgian Graphic Novel Tells Us About Urban Isolation

Hubert
An excerpt from Hubert by Belgian graphic novelist Ben Gijsemans, published by Jonathan Cape.

A few weeks ago I acquired a graphic novel being published by Jonathan Cape, by a young Belgian artist named Ben Gijsemans. It’s unintentional, but apt, that this novel is set in Brussels, which was so violently attacked a few days ago. It’s also unintentional but apt that I should have read it after reviewing Olivia Laing’s new book, The Lonely City. Hubert functions as a case study for the phenomenon that Laing describes: isolation in an urban environment, a lonely human finding solace in art but unable to connect to another human, even one as lonely as he is.

Writing about graphic novels, assessing them, is something I find tricky, and it’s made harder when they don’t have very many words in them. Hubert was translated into English, but there’s so little dialogue that it could have stayed in Flemish and not very much would have been lost. What people say, in Hubert’s world, doesn’t matter very much; meaning is constructed out of glances, light, the shadows in the crooks of elbows and the backs of knees. He spends his time in art galleries, mostly the Royal Palace of the Arts in Brussels, although we also see him undertaking an excursion to the Musee d’Orsay to see the original of Manet’s Olympia. His neighbour tries to seduce him, but when he finds her arranged artfully (and naked) on her bed, his response is to fetch his mac from the coat hook and leave.

He’s drawn in such a way as to pull my heartstrings in the same way that Wall-E did in the Pixar movie of the same name: hunched back, beaky nose, thinning hair, huge ‘80s specs that make his eyes look simultaneously beetle-like and mammalian, vulnerable and unreachable. His clothes are a plain uniform of beige raincoat, dark red scarf, shirt, indeterminate trousers. It never changes. You want to hug him and tell him that everything’s going to be all right; at the same time, if you saw him on the subway, you’d probably find yourself looking away.

Are we right to feel such pity? Am I right? I used to work in a bookshop in downtown Charlottesville that served a broad cross-section of the city’s residents, from stoned teenagers to yuppie architects to the trustafarian children of old money. A man we saw often was one of the remaining descendants of Thomas Jefferson. He had been an actor; he’d played his illustrious forebear at events all over the state, even the East Coast, for decades. He’d looked a lot like him: red hair, hooked nose, tall, vaguely imperious. By the time I knew him, he’d aged and his mental health was deteriorating along with his body. He came into the shop every Saturday. He wanted to talk to us a lot. Once he tried to give me a candy bar. He lived in an apartment that his relatives paid for. He’s dead now.

He was desperately lonely. His name was Rob.

Hubert’s situation looks similar, but it’s not quite the same. You might think that he is a sad loner—he looks like one—but Gijsemans did an interview with Broken Frontier, an online zine about comics and graphic novels, and he doesn’t talk about his main character as a pitiable figure at all, really. “I never experienced it as a ‘dark’ book,” he comments. “On the contrary, Hubert lives his life the way it works best for him. It’s just that his introverted personality does not allow a lot of room for social contact.” It’s another way of looking at him, certainly. When he escapes the flat of his would-be seductress, we see several panels showing him in an armchair in his own room, staring into the middle distance. In the final panel on that page, he’s taken his glasses off;  he has his hand over his eyes. It’s the most self-aware gesture he’s made so far. Is it remorse? Does he feel guilty for turning the woman down? Can he understand her own loneliness and sorrow? Does he feel as though he’s unlike her—that his solitude is a choice where hers is not?

We don’t know; we never know, because this particular graphic novel works more like a film than like a conventional prose fiction story. Free indirect speech is nowhere in evidence. We do not get to find out what Hubert is thinking. We are not entitled to that privilege. The more I think about this, the more I like it. He is fictional, but he’s owed some dignity.

I didn’t know anything about Rob’s life either, but I felt sorry for him, that same combination of wanting to protect and wanting to flee that the uneven line of Hubert’s back evokes. He was asking for someone’s attention, though; he wanted to be loved, or at least cared about, or at least listened to. That was the problem: asking for attention so easily tips into neediness, persistence, pathology.

Hubert is not asking for anyone’s attention. When a hitchhiker from Paris comes back to Brussels with him, he is palpably uncomfortable, either unable or unwilling to have more than the most basic of conversations. The hitchhiker is a young man, and he babbles a little, either out of youthful ebullience or out of a need to fill the silence. Maybe both. Again, like Hubert, we don’t get to find out anything about this man’s inner life; we don’t even get a silent thought bubble.

The book’s crisis, such as it is, comes from Hubert taking a photograph of the young woman who lives in the building opposite his window. She sees him taking the snap—it’s nothing lewd, she’s just watering her flowers and wearing a sundress—and her face shuts down into self-protecting anger. I couldn’t say I blamed her. It’s an invasive act, to photograph someone without their permission. It violates something about their space, their very existence. It means that you can have a piece of them they know nothing about, a representation of them that they weren’t permitted to refine or curate or even prepare for. For several weeks afterwards, Hubert does none of his own painting at all. We know he’s turned a corner, as the book ends, because he begins to paint again; he’s painting the woman watering her flowers, the scene in that photograph.

This may not be the point of the graphic novel at all, but there is something deeply fascinating and uncomfortable about the statement being made there with regards to the creation of art. Up until now, Hubert has only painted reproductions of the canvases that he sees in museums; it is only when he connects with someone else—not in a moment of mutual understanding or joy, but in an act that causes shock and surprise and hurt—that he begins to be an artist in his own right. There’s an honesty in Gijseman’s acknowledgment of that. He never valorises the fact that Hubert has caused pain; the girl isn’t presented as irrational or wrong for being upset. But he doesn’t shy away from the fact that, to create art, you need to behave with a certain sort of entitlement: the belief that something you’ve seen or heard or thought deserves to be memorialized. That he’s made this point in a work that is in fact very mindful of its characters’ humanity, very respectful of their inner spaces, makes it doubly impressive.

Hubert is published by Jonathan Cape and available on Amazon for £14.99.




On Culture: Parenting, Reading, Emigrating, Love

Photo courtesy of Fezbook American Language Center.

Last night I took a train away from my mother. She had been visiting her parents in a village right on the Hampshire/West Sussex border, sheltering under the huge green curve of the South Downs. She came for ten days that coincided with Spring Break at the college where she teaches. I saw her on Mothering Sunday, I saw her this past weekend, and she flies home today.

For Mothering Sunday, I bought her a book. It was Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, a crime novel set in twelfth century Cambridge featuring a female anatomist whose knowledge of corpses must be concealed lest she be branded a witch. I’ve never read it, so to gift it to someone else was to break my own rule of book-giving (give nothing you haven’t sampled yourself), but it seemed to fit her perfectly: a meticulously researched historical thriller, for a professional academic historian whose current literary obsession is the Canadian crime novelist Louise Penny. I hope, in any case, that she likes it.

Mum and I spent a lot of time sparring about books when I was younger. As a teenager, I was determined to conquer the entirety of Western literature, beginning to end. The gory, the cruel, the experimental, the daring, I considered challenges to be overcome by the birthright of literacy and critical acuity that I possessed and, frankly, took for granted. I read violence in Cormac McCarthy, disturbing sexual power exchanges in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden; I read the beginnings of the novel in Tom Jones and theological disputation in Paradise Lost. I started to keep a reading log in June 2007, just before I turned fifteen; the first entries are On the Road, the Communist Manifesto, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, and the Book of Genesis. (It didn’t occur to me then to count how many women I was reading; my awareness of structural inequality in the world of publishing and high literature, of the canon wars, would come slowly, during my first year at university.) My mother wanted, understandably, to protect me. It was an instinct that tended to backfire. When I was nine, I became obsessed with Jude the Obscure, at least in part because I had been strictly forbidden to read it. This didn’t happen often in our house: I was prevented from checking out books from the Young Adult section of the school library until I reached the mature and reflective age of ten, but rarely if ever was a specific text prohibited. I got around the YA embargo by borrowing books from friends, which my mother knew all about and didn’t really mind. Jude the Obscure was on another level entirely, tempting mostly because of a plot point that was so horrifying, Mum wouldn’t even describe it to me. (Eleven years later, I read it, and had to admit that, although it’s relatively tame in comparison to, for instance, Outer Dark or Crash, my mother was almost certainly right at the time. I was, after all, a child capable of wailing with fear and mistrust at films as innocuous as Mr. Bean’s Holiday. Things bothered me.)

In contrast, my mother’s literary tastes through much of my adolescence adhered to a formula that she defiantly described as “heart-warming and life-affirming”. These were things like Jan Karon’s Mitford books, Alexander McCall Smith’s cozy mysteries set in Botswana (and, later, his Edinburgh-based Sunday Philosophy Club novels), and a whole parade of lesser writers whose efforts put them in the position of minor courtiers or hangers-on: they were accorded space on the shelf, but more because they weren’t actually awful than because of any particular virtue. With the arrogance and incredulity of adolescence, I was merciless about these books, and about the very idea of “heart-warming and life-affirming”. The phrase has become a running joke in my family; my brother and I like to deploy it, mockingly, about anything well-meaning and drippy.

It didn’t occur to me until last Christmas, as I hugged my family goodbye in Washington’s Dulles airport at the end of the holidays, that there might have been a better reason for my mother’s adherence to the cozy and non-threatening than mere weakness of will. She has, after all, got a Ph.D; half the reason that her reading choices used to bewilder us so was that she was entirely capable of tougher stuff. But I thought, as I shuffled through security trying not to cry, that perhaps there was something else. My mother and I have done a sort of delayed-response life-swap; she came to the US when she was twenty-three, and when I was eighteen, I went back and settled in the UK, not returning even when I graduated from uni, planning to make my career and my life happen here. That’s the sort of decision that you don’t really understand until you’ve already made it, and even so, I’ve been discovering over the past few years that the implications, the emotional fallout, from that choice keep happening. You don’t just move across the Atlantic and then everything carries on as normal. It’s oddly like grief; your feelings go round in circles, stagnate, make a great leap forward and then a great leap back.

No one tells you, that’s the thing. No one tells you that it’s going to hurt. No one tells you that you’re going to miss your little brother growing up. No one tells you that you’ll feel a strange sort of distance from these people who were once your whole world–a distance that means you can breathe and expand, but also one that makes your parents’ faces look oddly unfamiliar even in the photographs they send you. No one tells you that the choice you’ve made is bigger, broader, deeper, than you expected. Or if they do tell you, you don’t understand. You go away when you’re eighteen and you don’t come back and only after a couple of years do you start to realize that you have actually done it, you are doing it, you are separate and far away and that this entails loss, and fear, and loneliness, as well as joy, opportunity, thriving.

She did this. She went away, married my father and didn’t come back, and no one will have told her all the things you end up learning, and no one will have said you’ll worry about your parents as they age and your children as they grow and you’ll have to be a dutiful daughter from three thousand miles away. No one will have said the humour is different here and your syntax will change even though your accent will remain and some people will love you just for being English and you’ll be glad they like you but in a way it’ll feel like a freak show. She’ll have figured it all out for herself, and maybe even anticipated some of it, but you can’t anticipate it all. You can’t anticipate thirty years’ worth of expatriated feeling.

But you can read through it. You can read it away, and you can read to pull it towards you and understand it better. You can read things that comfort you by reminding you of your past, and you can read things that help you by parsing your present. You can draw a line in the sand to protect yourself, and label it “heart-warming and life-affirming”. You can also cross it, as she has increasingly been doing since I left home. I’m sure that my tumultuous adolescence did not lessen the pressure that she felt, and I’m equally sure that, although she worries about me and my brother both, things are a lot easier now.

On the train last night on the way back to London, I read The Unvanquished, William Faulkner’s collection of linked stories about a Confederate family in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. For a minute or two, as I turned the opening pages, something in my stomach flipped over and over, and my heart rate sped up in response. It was sadness; it was helplessness; it was determination; it was the expectation of missing someone. Then I plowed into the story of little Bayard Sartoris, and his slave and playmate Ringo–a story about adapting to a world whose parameters you don’t yet know, a story about tenacity, a story I’d last read in America.




Dancing On My Own: Eggs at the VAULT Festival

Florence Keith-Roach and Amarni Zardoe star in Eggs at the VAULT Festival. Photo courtesy of Simon Annand.

Every arts graduate—and the audience at the VAULT Festival last Friday night was almost certainly full of arts graduates—knows someone like Girl 1, the charismatic and infuriating character in Florence Keith-Roach’s new play (she wrote it and also stars in it, as Girl 1). A performance artist who rarely seems to exhibit, a party-goer, drug-taker and inveterate sponger of money for artisanal coffees she can’t afford herself, she hasn’t ever really recovered from her student days, and seems perfectly happy walking dogs for minimum wage and excoriating those of her friends who have chosen to sell out to corporate overlords. Her foil is Girl 2 (played in this production by Amani Zardoe), who takes a much more conventionally responsible approach to adulthood: job, boyfriend, promotion, dinner parties. Between them, they cover the major strategies that people straight out of university tend to adopt in order to survive: narcotics, denial, self-important professionalism.

The fact that they’re nameless suggests a universality to their experiences, and while it’s not exactly true that ketamine or neurotic exercising are everyone’s coping mechanisms of choice, there’s a broadness to the characterisation that allows you to see glimpses of yourself or people you know in the girls’ interactions. Some of this is delivered via brilliantly angsty dialogue, as when Girl 1, bewailing her dormant sex life, tells us that the demographic group most likely to commit a crime is sexually frustrated young men on a sugar-based diet: “I EAT A LOT OF MAOAMS!” she howls into the front row. You can just hear that she knows how ridiculous it is, and also that she’s still, despite her self-consciousness, utterly serious. It rings true for the breathtaking self-absorption of adolescence, and for the odd knowingness that often goes along with it.

The friendship between Girl 1 and Girl 2 is fraught, though. The play is structured as a sequence of chronologically isolated scenes, each one happening (we assume) several months after the last. As the scenes progress, we keep hearing the name “Rose” and eventually piece together enough information to gather that this is a mutual university friend, who died (we never know how) either just before they finished their degrees or just after. When the two girls finally have the showdown that constitutes the play’s climax, one of the accusations thrown about is that they’re only friends because they both knew Rose—when she died, the only thing they had in common disappeared.

And it is a hell of a showdown. It happens at a nightclub (it is, in fact, as we learn, a student night, which horrifies Girl 2) and when Amani Zardoe storms offstage, Florence Keith-Roach is left there, dancing on her own. It’s a truly painful moment, and it stretches and stretches and stretches. You have to keep looking at her: the set is bare, the stage small, there’s nothing else to see. Her face has a look of desperate hopefulness on it: that she’s still cool, that it’s all fine, that she can dance and get drunk alone in a room with these teenagers instead of feeling empty and lost. For a silent moment to be the most eloquent one in a play is impressive. Fortunately the plot doesn’t end there—there is a reconciliation, a tender and awkward and delicate one—but for that moment alone, Eggs is worth the price of admission, and Keith-Roach a playwright (and actress) worth keeping an eye on.

Eggs has finished its run at the VAULT Festival, but the play text is available as part of the Plays From VAULT anthology published by Nick Hern Books.




Bringing Up Baby: In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises) at the Gate Theatre

Alex Waldmann and Adelle Leonce as the couple in Nina Segal’s In the Night Time (Before The Sun Rises) at Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre. Photo courtesy of Bill Knight.

It took ten minutes—probably less—for In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises) to break my heart.

It happened on what is page nineteen of the play script, with these words:

WOMAN. He doesn’t dance and
neither does she but sometimes
when they’re in their house at night they do
a sort of two-step in the kitchen.

MAN.  They go to weddings,
first of family members and then,
all of a sudden,
of their own friends and
the weddings have open bars,

WOMAN.  (the drinks are free,
all the drinks are free)
so they do the two-step out in public there too.

At which point the music came up, and the lights darkened to red, and the two actors playing the Man and the Woman started to dance. It was easy-to-dance-to music, the sort of thing that comes on at clubs that don’t take themselves terribly seriously, a wash of strummed guitars and steady, heavy drumming. The couple danced, grinning at each other goofily; the audience (who up until now had been receiving some of the snarky asides of the dialogue) was forgotten. The man stepped forward, held the woman, rocked her from side to side. I felt something inside me tighten, and realized I was about to cry, and thought, “Oh, for God’s sake, not at something so obvious”—but there it was. They were immersed in a joy so perfect and complete that it could not possibly last for more than a few minutes, and I was crying because I knew it couldn’t last, and after that, wherever the play and its actors wanted me to go, I was willing to go with them.

In the Night Time excels at this sort of thing: an event or a statement that’s both completely mundane and highly significant because highly personal. Throughout the play, we hear about things that are happening, “not here, but somewhere”—a woman is stoned alive, a man commits suicide, someone drops a glass, someone Googles something, a child is born—and, we’re repeatedly told, “the two are not connected”. But, as we know, and as the play eventually acknowledges, things are connected, and can become connected so easily. The fear of the world outside is banal when someone else is expressing it, but real and true when the fear is yours.

That fear is what drives the play. The Man and the Woman have a child, the child cries at night, and through the course of one evening, anxiety and sleep deprivation force them to confront all of their fears about bringing an infant into the world. There are some marvelous moments where that sense of banality and profundity hang in balance. They compete to tell the child a bedtime story, and although the competition is funny in a way, it’s also unnerving. The Man interrupts too much; the Woman hates being interrupted; and the story, which started out as the fable of the lion and the mouse, becomes all about their own insecurities, all about their own feelings of marginalisation, failure, inadequacy, vulnerability. The baby, of course, doesn’t understand a word, because it’s a baby. Which makes you wonder: was telling the baby a story ever really about the baby? Are the sacrifices we make for our children and our lovers ever actually about them?

Fortunately, In the Night Time suggests, the sun does rise, usually. The Man and the Woman make up. The baby—no one knows how or why—stops crying. They make eggs for breakfast. I am sure that, if I were a parent, I would have watched this differently, perhaps felt some things more deeply and others less. But I wonder if the real point of the play is that your fear, although it feels necessary and maybe even is, won’t do you much practical good. What you have to do instead is hold on.

MAN. But the egg—

WOMAN.  The egg does not break.

MAN. And the child says, how?

WOMAN.  And the woman says—
you have to find the strongest part.

In The Night Time (Before The Sunrises) continues at the Gate Theatre until Feb 27. Tickets are £20, except on certain dates when they are £10.




On Culture: The Dark Side of Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter’s original illustration for 1905’s The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck. The encounter between the gentleman fox and Jemima Puddle-duck is infused with sexual threat.

The most thrilling and significant international news of this past fortnight has been not the Iowa caucuses or the alarming spread of the Zika virus but the announcement of a new Beatrix Potter book. An unfinished manuscript, The Tale of Kitty In Boots, was acquired by Penguin Books UK, and is set to publish in September of this year, with its missing illustrations supplied by the divine Quentin Blake (whose art adorned my youthful copies of Roald Dahl). It looks exceptional: the one plate of Potter’s which appears to have survived depicts Miss Kitty in hunting boots and khaki jacket, a rifle slung over her shoulder. It’s almost too feminist to be true, even if the blurb does promise some peril in the form of the sinister Mr. Tod.

That being said, peril is, in many ways, what Beatrix Potter is all about. Her books were the first that I read on my own as a child. I adored them with a ferocity matched only by my later love for Little House On the Prairie and Harriet the Spy, but even as a kid—especially as a kid—it was clear to me that there were some dark forces at work in those seemingly idyllic watercolour fells.

Let’s start with the big one: The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which has suffered a contemporary metamorphosis like another Edwardian children’s tale, Thomas the Tank Engine, and now exists in a bastardised version as an animated television programme. (I am aware that this makes me sound like a dour judge in an obscenity trial, but I do not care. There are some things that you ought not to fuck around with, and The Tale of Peter Rabbit is one of them.) It’s passed into national memory as a sort of soothing fable, Peter’s trademark sky-blue jacket instantly recognisable and Mr McGregor a cardboard villain. If you haven’t read the actual book in a while, you could easily airbrush out of recollection the fact that Peter is the child of a single-parent home, due solely to the fact that his father has already met a sticky, pastry-encrusted fate at the hands of the McGregors. (Mrs McGregor, to be precise, who has always struck me as the Lady Macbeth of the piece in any case.) The only reason it seems at all sweet or loveable is because the protagonists are bunnies; translate it into human terms, and suddenly Peter’s apparent lack of impulse control and strange obsession with the garden where his father died looks rather more sinister.

By no means are humans the only murderous creatures in this world. When I first read The Tale of Tom Kitten, I had nightmares, imagining myself in poor little Tom’s position: forced to climb up through the chimney of a house in order to escape the fire lit down below, then abducted by rats and very nearly eaten—again with the eating. There’s a good deal of interest in who’s eating and who’s being eaten, in Potter’s world. She lived on a farm and kept birds, mice, hedgehogs and other small creatures as pets, which she used as models; she’d have known quite enough about the red tooth and claws of nature, as well as about the circle of life. Look at her drawings: frantic Tom showing his needle-like but useless baby teeth, Samuel Whiskers the corpulent rat and Anna-Maria, his thin, ill-tempered wife, the simultaneous claustrophobia and vastness evoked by her pen-and-ink sketches of scenes behind walls or wainscots. They’re almost medically precise, those drawings, but one thing they’re not is sentimental.

The harder you look, the more you see. Jemima Puddle-Duck is a sweet but thoroughly naive character who only narrowly escapes being murdered by a “sandy-whiskered gentleman”. The reader is well aware that he is a fox, and that he only wants to eat her with sage and onion stuffing, but poor Jemima is just grateful for, and a little bowled over by, the attention. She also needs the help he offers, because she needs to find somewhere to lay her eggs. Translate it into human terms again: a vulnerable woman, on her own, about to become a mother, falls in with a manipulative, cold-blooded man. It’s a scary story. The Royal Ballet Company mounted a production, in 1971, called Tales of Beatrix Potter; you can get it on DVD now, and I watched it a lot when I was a kid. The slow, calculated seduction of Jemima Puddle-Duck onscreen was charged with something that I didn’t understand as a toddler, except to know that it made me feel uncomfortable and frightened. I know what it is now: it’s sexual threat.

Potter married at forty-seven, and by all accounts had a very happy thirty-year marriage. I mention this only because it seems to me that, although reading anything through a biographical lens is dubious, one might try to explain away her dark side by invoking an inability to maintain a romantic relationship. She did have a disastrous engagement with her publisher, Norman Warne, but the disaster was because her parents objected, not to mention because Warne died of leukemia a month after their engagement. She spent much of her young adulthood caring for aging parents (her mother seems to have been especially difficult and demanding); they didn’t discourage her studies, encouraging her interest in all the fields of science, especially botany and mycology. They do seem to have been fairly snobbish and cold, although this doesn’t explain much since it was a default parenting mode for many Edwardians. (Or perhaps, given this fact, it explains a good deal, and not just about Beatrix Potter.)

The reason Potter’s stories have endured, I think, is precisely because they’re strange, with a sense of insecurity that runs under them all. Life is unpredictable, doubly so if you’re small: you could get mauled by an owl, or eat so many acorns that you can’t get out of the door again, or be abandoned by your family. These “little books”, as Potter called them, with their bright, detailed illustrations, speak to the fears that small people have. Children are powerless in a world full of grownups, some of whom might be Mrs. Tiggy-Winkles, but some of whom are bound to be Samuel Whiskerses or Mr. Tods.

Bring on, then, The Tale of Kitty In Boots. Its publication date may be eight months away, but it’s thrilling to think that another Potter story is coming into the world, full of the quietly profound weirdness that made its predecessors so wonderful.




On Culture: Your Disclaimer Is Bullshit (And Other Irritating Book Review Habits)

If you read books, you almost certainly read book reviews. It’s more likely than not that you read them online, and not just The Guardian and the New York Times books pages, but individual, private reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads. You probably read at least a few bloggers, who are now such a significant corner of the reviewing market that publicists schedule blog tours for new hardback releases as a matter of course. You may even, God help you, read me.

I’m all for Internet book reviews, whether it’s on a semi-professional level or an actually professional level or just some dude or dudette in a T-shirt in their kitchen, scribbling down a couple of paragraphs per tome. I think that’s one of the glorious ways in which the republic of letters and the democracy of the Internet collide: as long as you’re literate, you can both read anything and write online about anything. No one is going to stop you, tell you you’re not good enough or not allowed. Or, rather, if anyone does, you can simply tell them to do one and then hop on over to Blogspot or WordPress or your own domain name. It’s brilliant. Readers are such an unexpected community; there are so many of us and we do so many different things and there is absolutely no prerequisite to being part of that community, except for your own interest in books.

But. (There is always a but.)

There are some things that, if you’ve clicked your way around the bookish corners of the Web for long enough, you will have encountered more than once; some reviewing tactics which need to be retired, not because they’re insufficiently highfalutin but because they’re vague, irritating and unhelpful.

Let us start with a repeat offender, encroaching on even the most perceptive reviews from time to time: any variation on “I loved this book, it had lots of interesting characters.” That’s good, for a third-grade book report. If you’re more advanced in years than that, you ought to be better able to describe your reasons for liking something. This isn’t literary snobbery; you don’t need a degree in English to be able to do this. All you need is recourse to some adjectives. You can decide which ones to use by consulting a thesaurus, or you can pull them out of your own brain. But “I liked it” or “it was interesting” (or “fascinating”, the marginally more creative cheat’s adjective) isn’t sufficient on its own. We want to know why.

Then there are the dangerously unbalanced (reviews, not reviewers). Three opening paragraphs of introduction and context are fine – they can even be conducive to better understanding – but not if they are followed by one and a half paragraphs of plot summary and a casual value judgment. No, no. Promise me meat, give me meat. Otherwise it’s false advertising; people read book reviews to get a sense not only of what the book is about, but of what the experience of reading it is like. If the review suggests to you that you would enjoy that experience, then you go out and reserve it at the library or borrow it from a friend or buy a copy. That’s how the book world goes round. It is the ultimate accolade to say that a review made you actually, physically, go find a book. I can think of a few circumstances under which a bare plot summary might do that for me (A.S. Byatt’s Possession, for instance), but not many. Books are more than the sums of their parts; a review should acknowledge that.

All of this pales, however, in comparison to the worst tactic of all, which is when anyone states that they “received a proof copy of this book from [insert publisher here] in exchange for an honest review”. First of all, that’s not how that exchange worked. The publicists gave you a copy of the book because they’re publicists, and their actual job is to get the book as much press as possible. Although most publicists are, in my experience, sincerely into the books that they’re marketing, let us not pretend that you had to go up in front of an ethics committee to get a proof copy. Secondly, I kind of assume that you’re going to write an honest review. Reviewers love books; that’s why we write about them. There’s no joy in puffing a book you hated, or (even worse) smearing a book you adored. And before anyone suggests that maybe these disclaimers are ways of asserting that you haven’t been paid for your opinion (unlike, say, Essena O’Neill on Instagram), think again: these are books we’re talking about, not designer swimsuits. Regardless of what you hear about £6 million bidding wars, most books don’t have that kind of money behind them – and those that do are certainly not spending that money on bribing Internet reviewers. What books have behind them is the passionate conviction of their readers. Telling me that you’ve written “an honest review” is sort of like Marco Pierre White telling me that he’s made me “an edible meal”: the correct response to both is I should fucking well hope so.

It should perhaps be noted here that I’m not quite as draconian as these prescriptions might make me seem: if you happen to write reviews and you’ve done one or more of the above, rest assured that I have too. It’s an occupational hazard when you spend hours a day reading and assessing texts. A reviewer is bound to repeat herself, or get tired and prefer explaining the plot to analysing its subtext. And some reviewers set themselves up explicitly as summary-and-recommendation machines, which is brilliant for readers who just want reasonable (spoiler-free) summaries and trustworthy recommendations.

What’s easy to forget, I think, is that reviews have intrinsic value. They’re not just tiny, easily digestible packets of information, crib sheets that you can skim instead of reading the book. They’re ways of understanding a text you’ve already read (I’ve often been enlightened by checking out a review of a book I found difficult); they’re guides to texts you have yet to discover. They’re worth so much more than they’re given credit for. Why bother just rewriting the jacket blurb if you could change someone’s life, instead?




On Culture: Why Publishers Love Lists

Literary lists - 2016
Clockwise from top-left: the 2016 preview lists by The Millions, Flavorwire, The Guardian and Bustle.

In the book world, very little can compete, for sheer excitement, with the end-of-year best-books retrospective lists. The entire month of December, give or take half a week at the beginning, is essentially devoted to this subgenre. You can hardly open your web browser before Christmas without coming across an esteemed critic (or several) listing their five or ten or fifty picks of the past twelve months’ releases. As a signal that the festive season and year’s end are upon us, it’s akin to all the lights going up on Oxford Street and the Salvation Army rolling out their brass bands.

The one thing that can and does compare is the frenzy over the beginning-of-year most-anticipated-books lists. This is, in its own way, a significantly weirder phenomenon because much of the selection process has the appearance of being a stab in the dark. In a best-of-year list, after all, you can ask people who have actually read the books, because the books have already been released. In a most-anticipated list, even well-connected publicity folk with access to six months’ worth of pre-publication copies probably won’t have read all of them.

And yet sites keep churning these things out. The Millions has made its New Year’s list a major feature; devotees celebrate its annual return. Bloggers, in particular, are good on lists, and often use them to generate buzz around a title or genre they’re especially keen on. People want to read them. I’m no exception. I spent a good forty-five minutes this morning zipping through The Millions, The Guardian, Flavorwire and Bustle, my mouth slightly agape, pausing occasionally to make note of a title that looked particularly good. They say books are an addiction; if that’s the case, lists like these provide an almost orgiastic sense of satisfaction, an itch scratched, a fix.

There are a few reasons for this, some more elevated than others. For one thing, there is the professional aspect of it all. Those of us who either make our livings in the book industry or are hopelessly enslaved to it through personal passion (or indeed both) can’t afford to not know about, or to promote, new titles as early as possible. The power of these lists comes from the advantage that they can provide to a proactive publicity department. I follow several dozen literary publicists on Twitter, and every one of them has, at some point in the last few days, tweeted some joyful variant on “One of my titles is on a books-to-look-out-for list [insert picture or link here]. Day made! [emoji]” They’re not wrong to be jubilant—it’s their job to get this work as widely noticed as possible. I suspect, however, that this imperative is a very large part of what drives editors to commission beginning-of-year lists: they can give a serious commercial boost to an industry that has learned, over the last decade and a half, to panic constantly about its chances of survival.

Less cynically, of course, lists are psychologically satisfying. For semi-professional readers, they are surveys of the territory ahead. Book blogs are booming, and you can’t write a serious book blog without a schedule. In order to request copies in time, you need to know what’s coming. These round-ups provide a way of doing so that doesn’t involve trawling through endless catalogues (although it’s likely that many bloggers will do that anyway.) For the casual reader, though, the celebrated man or woman in the street who likes to curl up in their armchair with a novel of a night, these lists primarily promise quality control. In this sense, they’re exactly like end-of-year bests, only without the underlying sense of smugness if you recognize a handful of titles that you’ve already read: they allow you to signpost titles and covers in your mind, so that when you see them in the shops several months later, you know you’re not taking quite such a big chance.

Or at least that’s the idea. In reality, of course, you’re taking a huge chance, but the list format makes it appear as though the real gambler is the books editor or columnist who has deemed the book worthy of anticipation. Lists like this trade on the presumption of trustworthiness. Believe us, is the subtext. This is what we do all day. We can sort the wheat from the chaff. Most readers, I think, know on some level that this promise is hollow. It’s only common sense: no one is going to like all of the books recommended to them. But the fiction of impartial judgment is so useful that we allow it to endure. We rather have to, otherwise we’d have to do every bit of the weeding-out ourselves.

And, quite frankly, long may it continue. The first news story I saw when I woke up this morning was about the child that the British press has dubbed (with questionable taste) “Jihadi Junior”; the next was about parental inability to monitor their offspring’s electronics usage; the third was about North Korea’s hydrogen-bomb test. We live—not unusually; humans have always lived thus—in an age of uncertainty and violence and, at times, despair. The books we anticipate at the beginning of the year, and the books we laud at the end of it, sometimes, in the in-between months, manage to unfold our state of being to us: our fear, our hypocrisy, our humour and our joy. Why shouldn’t we make lists of them?




A Sting In Her Tail: The Wasp at Trafalgar Studios

Photo courtesy of Ikin Yum.
Carla (MyAnna Buring) confronts Heather (Laura Donnelly) in Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s The Wasp. Photo courtesy of Ikin Yum.

The tarantula hawk is neither a tarantula nor a hawk; it’s a wasp, and tarantulas are its prey. It’s parasitic, one of the really nasty kinds that lays its eggs inside its victim, which remains (just about) alive until the eggs hatch, whereupon the young wasps devour the living spider as their first meal. One of those nature stories, in other words, that makes you really hope there isn’t a God. It’s also the titular metaphor of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s new play, a study of toxic girlhood friendships and—perhaps more interestingly—their repercussions later on in life.

The Wasp is a one-hour, two-woman play, and seeing it in Trafalgar Studios means a very intimate, black-box experience. MyAnna Buring, who plays Carla, is on stage from the moment you walk in as an audience member: heavily pregnant, chain-smoking, tapping a foot and checking a mobile phone semi-compulsively. She’s waiting for someone, and she’s not all that happy about it. The play begins as the woman she’s waiting for, Heather (played by Laura Donnelly) enters. It’s a classic mix-up, apparently—Carla’s been waiting out the back, but Heather’s been inside the tea shop all along—and it’s made even more awkward by the fact that although they clearly know each other, they’re equally clearly not close. There’s a power imbalance here already: Heather is flushed and embarrassed but self-consciously trying to be gracious; Carla is in no mood to be conciliatory. She takes control immediately: she’s smoking, so they’ll stay outside. Her hard stare just dares Heather to say something, and although Heather tries repeatedly to assert herself, there’s a middle-class weakness to her brittle cheer. She wants to be liked.

She also wants something out of Carla, and Laura Donnelly’s performance went back and forth brilliantly between an attempt at superiority and sheer grovelling. Her income bracket gives her just enough power to make a stab at being a mature adult (she repeatedly asserts that theirs is to be “a business transaction”), but every so often Donnelly would look up and there would be an old fear in her eyes. Something, we know, happened to Heather at school, and Carla was responsible for it. From the beginning, you suspect, the “business transaction” won’t stay strictly business.

Even so, the first turn that the plot takes is a bit of a shock. The second, and even the third, start to feel a bit melodramatic, and the scene of exposition—where we at last learn what happened between the two women at school—is only managed as a long monologue, which you could, if you were being uncharitable, call an info-dump. The way that Heather chooses to process her adolescent trauma, frankly, stretches credibility. It’s all the more impressive, then, that Donnelly and Buring keep up the audience’s sense of investment in the proceedings. They’re both magnetic, impossible to take your eyes off of; the staging no doubt helps, since even audience members in the back row are no more than three yards from the action. A magnificent tension keeps the second half of the play humming. Even when you know that the melodrama is ramping up, the unpredictability of it keeps you on your seat.

Equally to Lloyd Malcom’s credit, The Wasp is full of genuinely funny moments. Heather’s calm description of her husband, Simon, which turns inexorably into a full-on rant, is delivered with such virtuosic rage that it nearly brought the house down. When she has to lug an unconscious Carla into a chair, the long minutes of silence as she pants and gasps are both terrifying (what is she going to do?) and gloriously absurd physical comedy. The humour is dark and dry, but the fact that it’s punctuated with moments of real horror elevates it to a complex, disturbing experience. Expect to walk out of the theatre feeling drained, challenged—and oddly invigorated.

The Wasp continues at Trafalgar Studio 2 until Jan 16. Tickets are available from £15.