Category Archives: English Literature

Watching the wheels of the white bicycle fall off

Outside Looking In by TC Boyle – a review

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Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream in this psychedelic satire from TC Boyle...

American novelist TC Boyle is the master of the group dynamic and the pressure cooker scenario, and in his case study of early 60s psychonauts he makes excellent use of these strengths. The meticulously-researched and rendered (another Boyle trademark) novel dramatises Dr Timothy Leary’s early forays into psychotropics with his team of willing psychologists, wives, and hangers on. Initially supported as bona fide research within the hallowed halls of Harvard, Leary’s experiments quickly escalate into drug-fuelled binges last days. The inner circle relocate their Dionysian ‘scene’, a Hakim Bey like ‘Temporary-Autonomous-Zone’, or pirate-utopia, first to Mexico, and then to a sprawling mansion in Poughkeepsie, upstarts New York, attracting notoriety as they go. Our Everyman and woman into this inner circle is one of Leary’s academic acolytes, Fitz, and his wife Joanie. The novel is a kind of bildungsroman, a Hesse-ian Journey to the East, but instead of enlightenment (which is continually just out of reach, despite the increasing dosage) there is an anti-epiphany awaiting at the end of the road. As the Sixties really starts to crank it up, and Hoffman’s LSD or ‘acid’ hits the streets, Fitz and his fellow pioneer psychonauts start to experience the comedown – the disenchantment and ennui of endless hedonism, the dysfunctionality and derangement it causes, and the rapprochement of the mundane. Leary is a kind of Wizard of Oz figure, luring them up the lysergically-soaked yellow-brick road, but behind the hocus pocus of his personality cult there is little substance. All tomorrow’s parties seem like an abnegation of responsibility, a perpetual teenage rebellion by adults who should know better. The children of the psychonauts are allowed to run feral, and indeed, given a taste of the forbidden fairy fruit – so, the book is, among other things, a non-judgemental account of catastrophically bad parenting. And yet there is an exhilarating buzz about the picaresque misadventures of the squares – Fitz and Joanie – in Wonderland. Each scene is lucidly evoked with the loving attention to detail of a master craftsman. Yet combined with the importance of ‘Setting’ (in terms of the ‘trip’ of the book) is the ‘Set’ (the mindset of each of the players), which Boyle, as a shrewd observer of the human condition, does brilliantly. His characters are convincingly depicted in all their ticks, peccadilloes, and raging neuroses. The dialogue is razor-sharp, and there is never a dull chapter. Boyle both entertains and informs, while never preaching. The reader is left to judge the behaviour of these academics behaving badly for themselves – and the ‘rap sheet’ is rather impressive. It is a wild, technicolour ride.  Turn on, tune in, drop out and enjoy! But don’t expect to make it back to Kansas.

Kevan Manwaring, 21 Feb. 21

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again – Review

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again

M. John Harrison – a review

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Well, this was an interesting read. Harrison’s novel is a double portrait of Brexit Britain and the isolated lives within it. It explores epistemological uncertainty: the subsidence of identity and slippage of meaning in the everyday. The author refuses the comforts of closure. He jabs a stick at the disturbing folklore of the urban & the rural … the little myths and rituals we furnish our lives with. With surreal disquietude the population seem to be devolving into some kind of aquatic throwback – a deliquescent infantilism: Brexitanian water babies.

Harrison is the master of the memorable sentence – with exhaustive invention he continually fashions glittering shards of prose, like freshly unearthed microliths glinting in the sun. And yet the prose is rarely hard to follow – the obscurity is in the precise nature of things, which he continually destabilises. He offers a sharp-eyed portrait of contemporary life in a small, damp island off the Atlantic seaboard – isolated by its own cultural solipsism, living off former glories that long ago lost any kind of global cache beyond the tourist cash cow of ‘heritage’. But unlike the regulated, signposted trails that the characters come across in their almost somnambulistic wanderings, there is minimal signposting here. The reader, like the two main protagonists, are left to flounder in their own strange, twilight lives. Shaw, unstable and undermined by the unreliable narrations of his uncaring care-home bound mother, lives in London and ends up working for a purveyor of a curious aquatic conspiracy; his sometime lover, Victoria, relocates to the ‘sticks’, inheriting her mother’s house in the Welsh Marches – an ostensibly idyllic rural ‘escape’ that comes with its own set of problems. The anti-pastoral disenchantment is mirrored by the enchantment of the urban. Domestic and public spaces are destabilised by increasingly weird happenings. Nothing is quite what it seems, and it is almost impossible to grasp entirely what is going on – like the protagonists, we are left in the dark, refused admittance to the occult inner circles, and continually thrown by the disquieting tides around them. Harrison’s agenda seems to be to induce ontological anxiety: can we trust anything, even ourselves? Nothing and nobody is quite what is seems. Something chthonic emerges in the interstices of people’s atomised lives. The characters drift apart, missing each other’s calls or letters, or choosing to ignore them. And in the gaps the uncanny enters in – creating the unheimlich within the home, until what ‘should’ be native becomes alien, and vice versa. We become othered from our own lives.

From his long career in Fantasy and Science Fiction (in which he has gained many loyal fans), Harrison has ‘emerged’ as one of Britain’s most original writers. His hybrid writing refuses to play by the rules, and as a result it produces the very best kind of Fantastika – genre-fluid writing that is truly innovative. Winning the Goldsmiths Prize for experimental fiction, Harrison’s book reminds us what the novel form is truly for.

Kevan Manwaring

Sovereignty, Masculinity, and Hierarchy in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light.

Amazon.com: The Mirror and the Light (9780008366735): Hilary ...I have just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s magnificent conclusion to her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, and apart from feeling somewhat bereft (now that I no longer have the double Booker Prize winner’s exquisite evocation of Tudor England to immerse myself in during lockdown) I find myself reflecting upon some of its themes.

Sovereignty

The Wolf Hall Trilogy is dominated by two characters – Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s lad from Putney who through his own remarkable intelligence and tenacity, rises to become earl and the monarch’s right-hand man; and Henry Tudor. Their tense friendship I will deal with in the next section, but here I wanted to consider the portrait of sovereignty Henry VIII offers. Far more complex and nuanced than many portrayals of the king over the centuries (in paintings; plays – Shakespeare’s last; novels; films; comic books; ad infinitum, it seems) Mantel’s Henry is intelligent, painfully self-aware, conflicted, and dangerous. The ultimate alpha male in many ways, his unconscionable treatment of his unfortunate (though often equally formidable) wives, heretics, religious real estate, sacred icons, and any one who got in his way or in his bad books, still qualifies him as the villain of the piece. Mantel does not white wash him in the least. And yet Henry’s extreme solipsism and terminally inflated ego – what we might call today a narcissistic personality disorder – is the result of the whole ridiculous edifice of royalty: that is inherent privilege, entitlement, and so-called noble blood. The whole machinery of state, the oil of society, and the sweat of the commoners, supports this invented status – as fictional as anything devised by the best storyteller. For centuries the divine right of kings was a given – to question it was treason, and (very painful) death. Now we still have ‘royalty’, their power often diminished to tokenistic roles, but the creaking institution of monarchy continues. Henry Tudor is a portrait of a man with too much power, whose every capricious whim must be indulged – whose changing moods assail the nation he rules like a tempest. All of his ills are projected onto demonised enemies. Those in favour one week, find themselves anathema the next. Any institution in his way is dismantled. All is fuel to his pyre. In this respect Mantel’s Henry is a portrait with topical resonance. There are many demagogues and tyrants around the world but one in particular stands out. Mantel clearly didn’t write the trilogy as a critique of Trump, but it is hard not to draw a comparison – reading chapters in tandem with seeing the latest insane tweet or briefing from the American president shared all over the news and social media. It is a portrait of how not to be a king, of a kind of anti-sovereignty. Henry Tudor was not a great ruler, because he could not even rule himself. Born to ‘rule’, he is like the classic spoilt child who is never given firm boundaries. Nobody tells Henry what to do. It is ironic that his brother Arthur died young – symbolic in a way of a true portrait of sovereignty, King Arthur: the legendary king of Britain and the epitome of everything Henry was not. In truth, any leader will project our hopes and expectations onto will eventually disappoint. The real sovereignty is found within. Thomas Cromwell, the self-mastered man, found it – and I suspect that is what worried Henry more than anything. His talented servant was more kingly than he ever could dream to be. And Cromwell rose, through his own remarkable merits, to be the most powerful man in England. But of course alpha males cannot accept any competition. And so off with his head.

Masculinity

Although Mantel’s searing portrait of Henry VIII is a masterclass in toxic masculinity, the Wolf Hall Trilogy in its entirety offers many positive portraits of maleness – indeed, although the female characters are significant and often sympathetically wrought (although just as flawed and conflicted as the men), it is the men who dominate the proceedings in almost every way conceivable. The author delights in the company of her male characters and her best dialogue is often in their (private) company – in the intimate exchanges between friends, allies, and rivals behind closed doors. Cromwell’s coterie is lit up by the sparky exchanges between the bright wits and strong personalities of Rafe Sadler, Richard Riche, Gregory his son, Richard his nephew, Christophe, and Call-me-Wriothesley. There is an electrifying jousting of intellect, strategy, and diplomacy between Cromwell and Eustache Chapuys, the ambassador of Spain – one of the most touching friendships in the series (perhaps Cromwell’s only true equal or kindred spirit). Then there are the posturing and jockeying men of the Court – Charles Brandon, Norfolk, Thomas Wyatt; men of the cloth – Stephen Gardiner, Cranmer, Barnes, Cardinal Wolsey (Cromwell’s mentor and a ghostly presence in the last novel), Thomas More (gone but not forgotten); and then the various fathers and brothers, pushing their daughters and sisters forward under the King’s eye, into his bed, hoping for elevation of status. Cromwell is a great patron of the gutternsnipe, the chancer, the cocky lad, and the underdog. He ‘fathers’ them all, and in his way is a good a husband and father as circumstances would allow – until tragedy strikes. The appearance of an unexpected daughter shakes his world – and sense of self-worth – to its foundations. He cannot help but feel a failure, despite all his many triumphs. And yet it is because of this fallibility that we get a rounded, realistic, and affirming portrait of masculinity.  Cromwell is far from perfect, but he is a whole man. Over nearly two thousand pages Mantel limns in minutiae the consciousness of a single human being to a dizzying degree, reclaimed and rehabilitated from history.

Hierarchy

Finally, the Wolf Hall Trilogy explores various notions of hierarchy, of hegemonic power structures. These are ultimately what did for Cromwell. In the eyes of the aristocracy he could never quite shake the mud from his boots. Not that he tried to deny his humble origins. Indeed he wears it sometimes as a badge of honour. He is more in touch with the people than the court, certainly than the king. He experiences the full gamut of society. He rises from the open midden of Putney – his face pressed to the cobbles by his father’s boot – to the highest offices in the land. He accrues great wealth, land, titles, and power – but he never ‘lords’ it over anyone; he certainly doesn’t seem to abuse his power. Undoubtedly he had an excellent head for business and prospered accordingly, but one senses this isn’t what was motivating him. Cromwell did not seek to better himself for that reason – but for his own personal development perhaps. To see how far a man could go. And yet his extraordinary progress was ‘vaulting ambition’ to his enemies. The status quo, which maintained the power and wealth in the hands of the few, felt threatened by such advancement. If one commoner could rise so far – then, heaven forfend, others could as well. And that was the one crime the Tudor elite could to countenance. The multiple homicides of Henry VIII and the daily horrors of religious persecution, capital punishment, and extreme poverty, were acceptable. But not social mobility. Cromwell begins the trilogy being brutalised by his father, the thuggish Walter – and ends being crushed by his surrogate ‘bad father’: Henry Tudor. Throughout his time serving the king Cromwell is forced to endure continual threat of execution, unexpected punishment, passive aggression, mockery, and ingratitude. It could be argued that he ‘acts out’ his relationship with his father through his relationship with his king, to whom he becomes a whipping boy, however ‘favoured’. Cromwell is constantly reminded of his place in the pecking order – he is not born into privilege or power or wealth. Henry’s fool, Patch, rudely reminds Cromwell of this – in front of the whole court. When this no longer serves to put the Putney boy, nicknamed ‘Put-an-edge-on-it’, in his place, the machinery of the system grinds inexorably towards its doom: the reaper in the clock, present from the first page, can wait no longer to administer the coup-de-grace.

Ultimately, The Wolf Hall Trilogy offers an unflinching and deeply perceptive insight into human nature. Mantel’s Cromwell is a masterful instauration of one of history’s unflattering characters: Holbein’s ‘heavy’ turns out to be the prototype Rennaissance man. In its scintillating language, its glittering rhetoric, elegant statecraft, profound historicity, and life-affirming connoisseurship of civilisation it is a counterblast to the endemic vilification of the intellectual, the liberal, and the nuanced we face today in public discourse. It is a message in a bottle from four hundred years ago (via a 21st Century mind) of our rare and precious humanity. All that our mercurial human nature is capable of – the very worst and the very best.

 

© Kevan Manwaring 19 May 2020

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, 2020)

 

 

Time To Get Out the Shovels

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A Friend of the Earth by TC Boyle –

A  Retro Review

This novel feels eerily relevant even though it was published in 2000. Boyle tragic-comic novel imagines the world in 2025 – one of perpetual Climate Chaos, Biblical deluges, mass extinctions, resource stress, and an endemic breakdown of civilisation. Yet despite this bleak (and all too plausible) scenario, Boyle somehow manages to import some black humour into the situation. The central protagonist is the colourfully named Tyrone O’Shaughnessey Tierwater (mirroring the author’s own Celtic nomenclature), a septuagenarian environmental activist turned glorified zoo keeper for a Mick Jagger-esque super-rich rock star, who has a wish to preserve the unloved species of the planet – the hyenas and other scavengers – within the compounds of his West Coast estate.  We find Tierwater drolefully eking out his autumnal years, obsessed with his failing body and lack of sex life, when the arrival of his ex, the deadliest of species, Andrea – a formidable, and still attractive powerhouse – and an annoying tag along, April Wind, who wishes to write the story of Tierwater’s daughter, Sierra: a heroine of the protest movement. The narrative bifurcates at this point – between the dramatic present, told in first person, and the vivid flashbacks, related in close third person. The vignettes from the more reckless, seemingly resource plentiful past, provide an ironic counterpoint; and the accounts of Tierwater’s increasingly reckless direct actions offer a poignant thumb-in-the-dyke to the consequences of a world past tipping point, where the floodwaters rise and no Noah is going to save the animals. The monkeywrenching is comically related, and Boyle’s book consciously picks up the baton of Edward Abbey’s 70’s classic, The Monkey Wrench Gang – updating it with millennial sensibilities. Boyle’s book is filled with brilliantly rendered characters and a vividly-realised, convincingly researched world. Even in the chaotic cascade of it all, one still comes away with a crazy sense of hope, but one tempered by the reality checks of the severity of what we face, and the fallibility of those who must deal with it: the Augean Stables of it all. Time to get out the shovels.

Kevan Manwaring

Ecotopia – a review

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Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach

First published in 1975, but more relevant now than ever, this is a flawed but important book. Using an epistolary form the novel purports to be the ‘notebooks and reports of William Weston’, an American journalist who undertakes a long assignment in the country of Ecotopia – formerly the western states of the USA, which have broken off from the union to follow a Green agenda and achieve an aspirational ‘stable state’ eco-economy. Chapter by chapter, Weston’s despatches methodically chart Ecotopian society, technology, culture and morality – Callenbach’s expositional device for working through virtually aspect of modern life and reimagining it in an environmental, sustainable way. Although serious thought and research has clearly gone into the wide-ranging solutions, the ficto-critical framing device feels a bit thinly veiled and unconvincing at times – a creaky means for stringing together a series of essays. There is a character arc, though, and even a ‘shift’ – a moment of gnosis – when the professional cynical, ‘hard-nosed’ Weston finally sees the light. As the querulous everyman Weston articulates the scepticism of the average reader, circumventing any criticism. Yet the exhaustive listing of eco-techno life-style fixes comes across a bit like a Whole Earth Catalog more than a novel. The introduction of Marissa, a forthright Ecotopian woman, does help to create some emotion in an otherwise concept driven narrative. As the ‘object of desire’ she animates Weston and is instrumental in his Damascus-like experience. Weston’s dilated attempts to meet with the President of Ecotopia, and his desire to return home provide rather underpowered narrative traction otherwise. Yet one suspects a gripping thriller is not what Callenbach was attempting here – but without that quality, it makes the ‘novel’ less appealing to a wider audience. It is the kind of thing read by the ‘converted’. How persuasive it would be at winning over eco-sceptics (or these days, climate change deniers) is negligible. In terms of novels which successfully explore an ecological agenda in an effective narrative form, one would be better off with Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (also from 1975) – more fun, though less morally constructive. But this is the crux of the matter. Writing utopia is a challenge. It has produced some impressive, and certainly interesting (if not effective) novels: Erewhon by Samuel Butler, Thomas More’s Utopia, William Morris’ News from Nowhere, and Aldous Huxley’s Island among others. Perhaps the most accomplished eco-novel of recent years is The Overstorey by Richard Powers (although it’s bleak assessment of humanity is hardly utopian). In terms of the kind of interrogation of every aspect of society that Callenbach attempts Ursula K. Le Guin does it better – in The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness supremely so. But Callenbach’s ‘novel’ is undoubtedly a very timely book – one that dares to challenge (almost) every aspect of modern life in an accessible and practicable way (i.e. in its reimagining of the education system it seems to have devised the prototype of Forest Schools). In this sense it is ‘novel’ – it offers something new (for its time). Now over forty years ago, technology has obviously moved on, and the challenges that the Climate Emergency presents us are far more challenging. The tragedy is that we were aware of the danger signals, and knew what to do, all those decades ago and failed to act. And now it may be too late. Yet perhaps more than ever we stories of hope in the face of such a far-reaching crisis.

The Monkey Wrench Gang – a retro review

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey – a retro review

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This iconic, influential novel originally published in 1975 inspired a whole generation of environmental campaigners – in particular Earth First!,, but also the ‘Pixie’ road-protesters of the 90s – and in the light of the recent wave of protests by Extinction Rebellion, Culture Declares Emergency, and Climate Strikes/ #FridaysforFuture (started by the inspiring 16 year schoolgirl from Sweden, Greta Thunberg), and the whole schlew of forthcoming protests (e.g. Earth Strike on 27th September), it seems timely to revisit it. Although this recent activity is impressive and impactful, it is good to remember environmental campaigning has been going on for a long time. Yes, it may be argued that it hasn’t been effective enough/gone far enough; that it is imperative to declare a Climate Emergency and take immediate action – absolutely. But the awareness we have now is largely due to careful, time-consuming science, and the tireless campaigning of numerous NGOs, grassroots initiatives, and individuals – often unsung, under the radar, but all adding the long-term effort. This latest spike in activity and media coverage hasn’t come from nowhere, and current eco-protesters stand on the shoulders of giants: Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Annie Dillard, John Muir, Peter Scott, Roger Deakin, and many, many more. One of these, it could be argued, is Edward Abbey, whose book – a mere novel – has cast a long shadow. A rip-roaring anti-establishment satire and edgy eco-thriller, it seems wantonly disreputable in comparison to such esteemed company. It relates the triumphs, tribulations, and misadventures of a group of four self-elected eco-protesters (the wayward Dr Sarvis; his sometime companion, the Jewish New Yorker, Ms Azzbug; explosive Vietnam veteran George Hayduke; and wilderness guide and Jack Mormon, Seldom Seen Smith), who, over the course of a boat trip, hatch a (rough) plan to cause as much havoc as possible to disrupt the decimation of the epic canyon country of the American West. What begins as a series of relatively minor symbolic protests (the torching of billboards, the damaging of engines) quickly escalate into some spectacular destruction (the mass wrecking of whole road building operations; factories; and bridges). We may not condone any of the miscreant behaviour – it goes way beyond non-violent direct action when guns and bombs are deployed – but we can thrill to read of the colourful escapades of this modern day outlaw gang. Abbey clearly draws upon the Western genre, as well as the chase thriller (e.g. John Buchan; Geoffrey Houseshold), but his punchy, over-packed prose has more in common with Hunter S. Thompson and Chuck Palahniuk. Purists would no doubt dismiss the gang outright for, among other eco-crimes, littering – calling them hypocrites. But they are not meant to be E.C. (ecologically correct), but fully-rounded, deeply flawed characters. Abbey was not trying to write a manual for budding eco-warriors, signalling his virtue to the world – but write an entertaining novel which makes a point. It certainly crackles with an angry fire at the destruction of the remaining American wilderness, but it seems intent to be more provocative than coercive or corrective. It does not seek to offer a blueprint for a better way of living – but its wild energy and excoriating critique of the ‘System’, still can inspire to this day*. But don’t follow it literally. As Abbey, the sardonic trickster, himself warns: ‘Anyone who takes this book seriously will be shot. Anyone who does not take it seriously will be buried alive by a Mitsubishi bulldozer.’

Kevan Manwaring

 

*Abbey’s novel is a brilliant example of how the arts can engage with the environmental movement. FFI see Culture Declares Emergency: 

https://sites.google.com/view/culturedeclaresemergency/home

The Overstory – a review

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The Overstory by Richard Powers

This ambitious, arborescent novel is a towering achievement – I haven’t read prose fiction with such reach, depth, and impact for a long time. Powers’ Booker-short-listed magnum opus attempts the maximalist grand narrative of the classic Victorian novel, as the title, The Overstory, suggests. Shattered by Modernism, and scattered by Post-Modernism, perhaps it is time for its rehabilitation and return in an atomised age when people are seeking stories that make sense of the world around us (hence the popularity of high concept books like Sapiens that create a meaningful narrative for humankind in a time of increasing meaninglessness). What is radically refreshing about Powers’ book is that the grand narrative it offers is not an anthropocentric one. It is a sylvan one – for trees are at the heart of this book. The provide a thematic structure (Roots; Trunk; Crown; Seeds), are intrinsic to the novel’s thesis (in a nutshell: trees as a species are far older than us, contribute collaboratively to the ecosystem, and will probably outlast, even as we denude the priceless woods of the world at an unprecedented rate). Powers has a cast of 8 main characters – an outsider artist; a Chinese-American engineer; a property lawyer (and his restless wife); a veteran drifter; a games designer guru; a bioscientist; and back-from-the-dead undergrad who hears voices. Each of these initially disconnected lives are associated with a tree through upbringing, serendipity, or temperament. We watch these fictional birth trees grow, mature, flower, and fall, over several decades. Different paradigms, aptitudes, and agendas all intersect through the growing environmental crisis in some way. As the Earth’s resources are depleted and climates change, some of these characters will become radicalised through the concern for what we are doing to our irreplaceable home: the rapacious devastation of the very biodiversity which may save us; the resources that will sustain us; the species that we share our home with and possible sentience. Thus far, the novel could have still existed within the tradition of mimetic ‘realism’, but Powers boldly imagines a non-anthropocentric perspective, and an even a post-human future – one that destabilises our (imagined) pole position in the ecosystem, the hubristic apex-predator, but does not estrange us from the interlacement of nature. Rather, it restores us to – babes in the wood, still to learn the art of being, of mutuality, and respectful co-existence. As in the Transcendentalist tradition of American nature mystics and thinkers like Whitman, Thoreau and Muir, Powers sees beyond the petty concerns of man, finding renewal of meaning and purpose in nature. Yet the vision it offers it not naïve – the complex problems of the world are ever-present, and no one here gets out alive – but profoundly subtle, sophisticated, and sustaining. The novel looks to the future continually, often sending messages back as it leaps into full omniscience. The Overstory dares to shift emphasis and empathy beyond the brief lives of its protagonists, and ‘the real world’ (i.e. the finite, flawed human world) of the here and now. Temporality and spaciality are recalibrated to a different scale. It is a Promethean project, and perhaps one destined to be consumed by the fire it seeks to seize. Powers acknowledges the challenge:

To be human is to confuse a satisfying story for a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is falling precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.

And yet Powers achieves just that. The fully-realised lives of its human protagonists unfold in an engaging way, but just as gripping is the great drama unfolding on a trans-human scale: Nature becoming conscious of itself, or waiting for us to realise it has been so all along. The novel brings that compassionate act of attention to the minutest and vastest miracle of the natural world. To read its 502 pages is akin to the ‘forest-bathing’ popular in Japan, it provides fictional shirin-yoku. The Overstory is of a novel of vaulting ambition – it makes the forests walk (and talk). It manages to achieve what few novels even dare, these days – it makes us look beyond ourselves (increasingly rare in an Age of Selfie and the enforced narcissism of social media). It makes us look up, look down at the earth beneath our feet, breathe, and wonder. The Overstory casts a long shadow, and its story may outlive ‘the novel’ itself (and perhaps even the people who read them).

Kevan Manwaring 2019-01-10

Missionary Impossible

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng – a review

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There is much to commend in Ng’s ‘novel of the Fae’ about troubled sibling missionaries, Catherine and Laon Helstone, and their strange adventures in Elphane/Arcadia. Ng manages to evoke through her finely-wrought prose the claustrophobic atmosphere of a dense Victorian novel of morality and misadventure; and also the alien, quixotic climate of Faerie. By making her brother and sister protagonists missionaries seeking out to bring the Word of the Lord to the benighted ‘souls’ of this recently revealed Otherworld the novel both aligns with and subverts the colonial project – for the ‘too close’ missionaries are far from without sin, and their mission is futile at worst, at best a metaphysical challenge (do the Fae have souls? what is their place in God’s creation?). Access to the ‘inner lands’ for further proselytising is the main plot McGuffin, but the chief line of desire revolves around Catherine’s unhealthy obsession with her brother – who is a Branwell/Heathcliff/Rochester type. Dark, moody and (to some) irresistible. This is not surprising as Ng clearly riffs upon the Brontë family dynamic and legendarium (which the famous siblings of Haworth created in their younger years). Here, this juvenilia is given the full-bloodied treatment, as Ng feeds it into the mulch of her world-building. The mise-en-scène of each chapter is vividly imagined, but often this seems to be at the expense of narrative traction. Sometimes it is hard to know exactly what is happening – many of the scenes have the feverish intensity and illogic of a dream.  And although the minutiae of Elphane, in particular life in Gethsemane, the Pale Queen’s castle, is exquisitely imagined, the broader brushstrokes of this Secondary World are less convincing: the pendulum sun of the title, the fish of the moon swimming in the sky, and sea whales (which seem to be both made of rickety whicker, yet contain a microcosmic ocean). This no doubt is intended to deliberately subvert the verisimilitude and make the otherworldly realm lack naturalism – and such bold imagery may be original and memorable, it threatens to make the whole edifice a leaky vessel, which I could not fully buy into (rather like CS Lewis’ car-boot Narnia).  Another problem for me was reader-identification. Like a lot of modern fiction I find a lack of relatability – I cannot connect with the main characters, finding it difficult to emotionally invest in them. And narrative traction is missing (for me). I turned the pages out of professional curiosity, not out of urgency. Yet unlike a lot of (modern) fantasy, Ng’s prose aspires to a slightly elevated register, which successfully evokes the music of strangeness (‘a catch of the breath’, as Susan Cooper describes it). Ng’s depiction of Faerie is the best I have seen in contemporary fantasy. She lards each chapter with an epigraph, pastiches written wittily in the style of bombastic Victoriana, or stuffy exegeses. These often evoke the texture of an AS Byatt novel (notably Possession) but are convincingly done. Ng’s academic background and interests (MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies/medieval and missionary theology) clearly inform these, but I found them rather laborious after a while (one can always choose whether to read them or not). Perhaps too much salt, and not enough meat for my taste. Nevertheless, Ng’s first novel bodes well. She is evidently a talented writer with a vivid, and original imagination. I look forward to seeing what she conjures up next.

Kevan Manwaring 31 July 2018

Swimming in the River of Time

News from Nowhere, or An Epoch of Rest, Being Some Chapters from a Utopian Romance (1890) by William Morris

 

 

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Kelmscott Manor, the beautiful home of William Morris. K. Manwaring, 2018

 

News from Nowhere is an iconic ‘fantasy’ novel from the Arts and Crafts visionary and polymath William Morris. Although it is an important work for its lucid dramatisation of Morris’ Socialist ideals, on the surface it appears to be a work of the Fantastic (a timeslip narrative with a loose science fictional device): a man called William ‘Guest’ (a thinly-veiled alter ego of the author) goes for a swim in the river Thames in the late 19th Century and emerges in the early 21st Century, to see a vision of England transformed into a place of restored beauty, craftsmanship, and co-operation. Guest explores this land, with the Thames providing the common link, as he slowly wends his way upriver. The novel’s extent is demarcate by two of his homes: in Hammersmith and Kelmscott, and focuses on a stretch of the river that Morris knew well. In this sense the novel is geographically unambitious, but in many other ways, it was thinking big – certainly beyond the consensus reality of his day. Morris reimagines reality according to his principles, providing a blueprint to aspire to, for some at least.

Morris’ utopia is vividly imagined and alluring on the surface, as pleasant to dip into a wild swim in a glittering river on a summer’s day: an aesthetic and harmonious Arts and Crafts utopia, with an emphasis on ‘work for pleasure’, common ownership, co-operation, and liberty to choose where one lives, one’s profession, and one’s morality. The self-governing anarchists live in beautiful houses, wear beautiful clothes, and make beautiful things. It is perhaps all too good to be true, and in most fictional utopias this is when the protagonist discovers the ugly truth, the mask slips, and they find themselves trapped in some nightmare.

Well, for some, Morris’ utopia undoubtedly would be.  It is perhaps a bit like living in a Tolkienesque Shire – a bucolic aesthetic that belies some worrying subtexts. For a start, it is completely Anglocentric – Morris depicts a very English utopia: what has happened to the rest of the world is not discussed, except for a brief, disparaging reference to America being reduced to a ‘wasteland’. There is a worrying emphasis on women being pretty – every female Guest meets is assessed in this way. The novel is clearly written from a male gaze. There is nothing ‘wrong’ about appreciating female beauty – but when it becomes the chief characteristic, the defining trait, that is problematic; in addition, the women are on the whole portrayed as being content in domestic roles, or being a bit empty-headed (except for the stonemason and the free-spirited Ellen, who is inquisitive and seems to know more than she lets on – a portrait of Jane Morris, similarly ‘snatched’ from the working classes; in the way Guest is clearly Morris himself?). Also, New from Nowhere is very white, cis-gendered, and straight, but Morris was writing from his time (late 19th C) even though he was imagining the early 21st Century. His imagine didn’t stretch far enough to imagine alterity. His vision seems impossibly idealistic, and relies upon the common decency and common sense of the masses – everyone being nice and abiding by agreed values – which, as we can see at the moment, is very unlikely, even when laws are enforced…There is the odd crime of passion, but these are forgiven by society as the perpetrator is left to come to terms with their actions. Yet human nature doesn’t tend to be that enlightened. Even if one society achieves this level, there will always be other groups wishing either to seize its resources or simply destroy it (as Aldous Huxley imagines in his heartbreaking utopia, Island).

Yet, Morris’s ‘utopian romance’ is a hopeful act of positive visualisation – a thought experiment for the world the Socialist Morris wish to see manifest. For him it was a vision much-longed for; and one he tried to implement with his restless energy and huge output. He perhaps achieved in at Kelmscott and the other centres of Arts and Crafts activity.

Now there is an appreciation of artisan skills, of the hand-made, the hand-crafted, the home-grown – farmers markets and craft markets are very popular; and Transition Town schemes are skilling people up for the ‘power down’… Alternative currencies such as LETS and Timeshare have been trialled, but the lack of money seems the least convincing of Morris’ notions – though with the devastation caused by Neoliberalism, perhaps the one that needs addressing as urgently as the environmental one. We need the replace the false economy of venture capitalism, of ‘progress’ and ‘growth’ (based upon finite, dwindling resources and catastrophically damaged biosphere) with the more sustainable one of Deep Ecology.

Morris’ vision is a message in a bottle cast in time’s stream, and although it has many alluring qualities, perhaps it is not radical enough, as it clings to some medieval paradise that never was, yet these thought experiments are worth undertaking. Morris throws down the gauntlet for us all to imagine the world we would like to live in.

 

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The river Thames begins near Kemble, K. Manwaring 2018

 

 

Kevan Manwaring 17 June 2018

 

 

 

Between a Thing and a Thought

‘A picture has been said to be something between a thing and a thought.’
Samuel Palmer

Review of Gauguin: The Other World and Alice in Sunderland: An Entertainment.

I have recently read two excellent examples of the graphic novel form (and these definitely do justice to that term, being complete, complex narratives), which share a commonality of intent and execution, being both biographical in nature and mirroring in their artistry the artistry they exalt.

Gauguin

The first is Gauguin: the Other World by Fabrizio Dori, published in translation (Edward Gauvin’s) by SelfMade Hero as part of their high quality Art Master series in 2016. Dori’s style evokes the spirit of Gauguin’s work with skilled confidence. Some directly reference the French Synthesist’s paintings, while others draw upon a more atavistic style inspired by Tahitian art, but each panel is virtually a work of art in itself. This does not mean the pages are stilted, a series of static vignettes, for each panel subsumes its own wonder to the sequential flow. This is a mature form of visual storytelling, Bande Desinée having evolved their own aesthetic rules, just as much as Manga. It has the feel of a French art house movie more than a Hollywood ‘biopic’. Yet it is never obscure and unrelatable – Gauguin’s story is well-dramatized. The subject is a classic malcontent anti-hero – self-obsessed, uncompromising, flawed, the artist is rendered with feet of clay. Dori’s Gauguin offers us a fully-rounded portrait of this ‘driven’ visionary who abandoned his aristocratic heritage, successful career as a stockbroker and Danish wife and family to pursue his vision to a Polynesian Eden. The story is boldly-structured, with the framing narrative being an Underworld Journey, the deceased Gauguin being led through the archipelago of his memory by a Tahitian psychopomp. Dori deploys Polynesian cosmology and eschatology in a striking way, relocating the ‘gaze’ from a white, Western perspective to an indigenous one. Gauguin is the intruder in paradise here and he is observed and judged throughout by the ancient spirits of the islands he moves to in search of his muse. The locals are depicted far more sympathetically than Gauguin or his fellow Parisians back home, without them becoming ‘Noble Savages’. His native wife, Teura, is far from perfect but clearly has her own agency and power. In the end it is clear Gauguin is his own worst enemy. This is no hagiography, but it nevertheless vividly brings alive his remarkable life and artistic achievement, and as such it serves as an excellent introduction to the artist and his work. To help provide a clear-eyed, factual overview there is an excellent essay on Gauguin’s life at the end of the graphic novel by Céline Delavaux – a classy finishing touch to a classy production.

Alice.jpgThe other graphic novel I picked up in Durham after seeing some of the original artwork in an exhibition at the Palace Green Library, ‘Between Worlds: Folk and Fairy Traditions in Northern Britain’. Pages depicting the local folk tales, ‘The Cauld Lad of Hylton’ and ‘The Lambton Worm’ led me to Alice in Sunderland: an entertainment, by Bryan Talbot, an artist best known for The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, although I first came across him in the pages of 2000AD, when I used to collect it back in prehistory. I always liked his sleek style, but in this tour-de-force Talbot shows he is a ‘multiple-trick equine’. In his dazzling range of styles and bold use of technology Talbot shows he is a modern master of sequential art. Framed as an evening’s vaudevillian cabaret in the shabby splendour of the ‘Empire’, an old theatre in Sunderland, Talbot draws us in via a ‘Plebeian’ Everyman. A white rabbit-masked ‘Performer’ hosts the ‘numerous interesting diversions and entertainments’ – beneath the mask a Hermes-haired Talbot-as-Thespian is revealed. And a black-attired ‘Pilgrim’, a heterodiegetic* narrator closer to the actual Talbot (the artist, writer, researcher and resident), leads us on a psychogeographical perambulation around the city and the region. All parts are ‘played’, with amusing irony, by Talbot, the self-styled ‘Wigan Titwillow’ himself – exaggerating his best or worst qualities, as both a performance of the ‘Higher’ and ‘Lower’ Self, but also as a way of providing his own dialectic. The Plebeian heckles or mocks, thus destabilizing the pretentious edifice the Performer builds with his indulgent digressions, while at the same time allowing him to get away with it. With one foot in the Pit and one in the Gods, Talbot leads us through a dazzling, distracting Wonderland of social history, psychedaelia, comic art theory, and serious research into the region’s connection with the evolution of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Talbot steps through the mirror of Alice myth and what he finds there is remarkable.  With the help of the PhD research by Michael Bute and other Carrollian scholars, Talbot convincingly deconstructs the popular ‘dreamchild’ theory about Carroll (Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) as the shy Oxford scholar unable to relate to his fellow adults, who nurses a disturbing interest in young girls. Celebrating the visuality of the first editions (brilliantly illustrated by John Tenniel), Talbot riffs on the eye-bending aesthetics throughout, blending in a myriad of examples that the iconic books have spawned – possibly the first transmedia ‘texts’. This is the strongest ‘thread’ of the narrative, the heart of the book, when Talbot is really firing on all cylinders as an artist and storyteller (his classic comic strip version of ‘The Lambton Worm’ is superb). The dedicated, some would say obsessive sense of place, in this extended praise song to his adopted town is admirable in its celebration of local distinctiveness and its effort to re-enchant a run-down, often neglected, and sometimes demonised, part of Britain, but these sections are the most leaden, weighed down as they are by lengthy exposition, and at times the project is at risk of coming across as a ‘Visitor’s Guide to Tyne and Wear’. When it is relevant to the Alice ‘creation myth’ he is constructing, then these asides are acceptable, but often Talbot tells us indulges too much in his local history discoveries. Some of it is interesting and overall the endeavour reinforces my idea that ‘the universal is best expressed through the particular’. Go deep enough and far enough and everything connects with everything else, as Jeremy Hooker affirms in his essay on Richard Jefferies (also accused of parochialism):

Any place is capable of being experienced as a centre of inexhaustible significance and manifold local and universal connections, especially to the people who live there. (Hooker, 2017: 20)

Despite the feeling of ‘too much information’ at times, it is in this heart-felt and full-bloodied evocation of the genius loci that Talbot’s project really nails its colours to its mast. The magic is not ‘elsewhere’, amid the Dreaming Spires of the Oxford elite or in London’s cyclopean dominance, but here and now, beneath our feet, wherever we live.

Over the millennia stories have revealed the magic in the places where they take place. (Talbot, 2017: 9)

The most effective of these ‘Rough Guide’ pages are where Talbot-as-Pilgrim meets fellow creatives, writer Chaz Brenchley and sculptor Colin Wilbourn, who co-created the Sculpture Trail that runs through Sunderland’s old dockyards. Wittily dramatized, it provides an insight into how art is created, its relationship with the environment and the community that live there.

Shining through the whole Lucy-in-the-Sky-with-Diamonds exuberance of it all is a strong sense of ‘authenticity’ (performed or otherwise), of an individual voice and vision, of a maverick artist dancing with the form he has mastered.  It feels Talbot is free to do or say anything, bestowing upon the formality of the ‘proscenium arch’ pages, a frisson of gleeful wildness and creative possibility which is exhilarating and infectious. It really throws down the gauntlet.

At over three hundred pages, Alice in Sunderland is an incredible achievement – it brims with erudition, enthusiasm, wit and artistic brilliance. Talbot in ludic, lucid, Carrollian form, is really at the top of his game here. A must read for any student of sequential art.

Both graphic novels show what can be done with the form, the ‘ninth art’, and the way it can achieve far more than image or text can by themselves. As Palmer’s quote suggests (if it we may apply it to the pictorial storytelling of the sequential art) it is an art form that happens in the interstices, the stars in the gutter – the ubiquitous gap between panels where, as McCloud (1993) points out, time does mysterious things and the human imagination animates the vacuum. The little death of each frame is unfrozen from eternity back into time’s stream, as we learn to mind the gap.

 

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2018

 

Hooker, J. (2017) Ditch Vision: essays on poetry and place, Stroud: Awen

McCloud, S. (1993) Understanding Comics. NY: William Morrow.

*Heterodiegetic (and its sister term, ‘Homodiegetic’) coined by the academic Jeremy Scott (‘The Craft of Creative Writing’, Contemporary Cultures of Writing: Creativity, Language and Creative Writing Seminar Series, Senate House, University College London, 17 October 2017), referring to the narrator ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ the text respectively.

 

Gauguin: the Other World by Fabrizio Dori (SelfMade Hero, 2016) Available from http://selfmadehero.com/

Alice in Sunderland: an entertainment by Bryan Talbot (Jonathan Cape, 2007). Available from https://www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk/publishers/vintage/jonathan-cape/