Category Archives: English Literature

Death’s Jester

Tyll – Daniel Kehlmann

A review

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann review – a romp through the thirty years' war |  Fiction | The Guardian

Kehlmann’s Booker shortlisted novel, first published in German in 2017 and released in a supple translation by Ross Benjamin in 2020, brings to life a mercurial figure of German folklore and history, the legendary jester, Tyll Ulenspiegel, whose picaresque exploits were first recorded in a chapbook from 1515. Here, the author skips a century to relocate the ‘eternal fool’ into a particularly unpleasant chapter of European history. Set primarily against the bleak and bloody backdrop of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), Kehlmann’s tale transposes elements of the oral traditions of storytelling, balladry, and folklore onto the squalid realism of historicity. The author seems to channel the Hermes-like trickster-thief-magician qualities of the titular character in the way he deftly adopts and changes viewpoints and timelines. This structural boldness and mastery of the form, along with the ability to render scenes of scintillating wit, tension, and psychological acuity, shows Kehlmann as a master able to juggle and dance with the materials at hand in breathtaking ways. We first meet Tyll in his mockingly cruel prime, able to enchant and manipulate a village into violence. Death sweeps in with that first chapter, and his dark presence remains throughout the narrative – a perpetual memento mori. No one and nothing is safe from his sickle and the vicissitudes of fate’s wheel. Each vignette unfolds like a tarot spread, populated by the stark imagery of the major arcana: The Fool, The Magician, Death, The Devil, The Wheel of Fortune, The Hanged Man, The Empress, and so forth. The (mainly) 17th Century could almost be timeless, like some Secondary World fantasy, but then the fog clears and the mise-en-scène focalizes into thoroughly-researched specificity. Tyll’s particular character – misanthropic, amoral, mocking, or shattered by circumstance into nihilism and laughing at the cruel joke of the world – is pathologized as we discover his devastating backstory. Forged by happenstance and tragedy, it is possible to understand the way he turned out, even if he remains, until the very end of the novel, quixotic, unpredictable, and completely liberated from the stifling, ridiculous rules and conventions of community, society, and court. Like some perverted version of a Grail knight, Tyll has seen through the veil of the world – but instead of returning with the cup to heal the wasteland, he instead uses his darkly awakened perception to cock a snook at one and all. He provides a mirror to people’s vanity and foolishness,  and releases the truth of the situation like poison from a wound. As an antihero he is a formidable, unforgettable presence, and reminds me of John Gardner’s Grendel, with elements of Alan Garner’s Guizer thrown into the mix. When Tyll is in the frame the narrative crackles with energy, but I must admit to being less enamoured by the protracted sections from the point of view of the unfortunate exiled ‘king’ of Bohemia and his English wife, Elizabeth Stuart. These sections, however exhaustively researched and well-dramatised, tended to drag for me. It felt like Kehlmann was trying to do a Mantel, especially with the extended final section, which lingered on court etiquette and politics rather too long. The sections following the insufferably conceited scholar Athanasius Kircher are a bit more engaging (and more connected to the title character’s story arc), but in any of these digressions it is only when Tyll appears that things electrify again. Their breadth and depth show Kehlmann’s skill and ambition – collectively, they build up to an unflinching, atomised portrait of a broken Europe – but in comparison to the sheer brilliance of the Tyll sections they struggle to shine. In any other novel they would work perfectly well, but here they feel outclassed. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable romp of a novel, and the character of Tyll leaps off the page as a mesmerising embodiment of the zeitgeist.

Kevan Manwaring, 10 April 2021

Greenwood – a review

Michael Christie’s intricately-constructed eco-novel dramatizes a multi-generational saga dominated by trees.

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Greenwood – a novel of a family tree in a dying forest

Michael Christie’s second novel is like a well-built house, with solid sections, precisely fitted together – so it is perhaps not surprising to discover the author, a former carpenter, lives in a house he built with his own hands. The structure of a novel is architectural, indeed cathedral-like in complexity (and to echo this, the grove at the heart of the novel – a priceless remnant of old growth redwood on a remote island off the coast of Vancouver – is referred to as the ‘Cathedral’). Walter Benjamin in The Storyteller suggested that they are three essential phases to the construction of a piece of writing: ‘a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven.’ Certainly, we can see evidence of the latter two in this finely fashioned, and beautifully-woven novel. Adopting a technique of biomimicry, Greenwood is structured like the rings of a tree. The outer ring is the framing narrative set in an eco-apocalyptic 2038 in which a biocatastrophe known as the ‘Withering’ as decimated the tree population of the planet, resulting in toxic dust-storms, climate refugees, and a general breakdown of society, which only the super-rich can escape the consequences of. Elite eco-tourists visit some of the only remaining redwoods to have survived the catastrophe on the semi-fictional ‘Greenwood Island’, (loosely based on Galiano Island, off the coast of British Colombia, where the author lives with his family in his handmade wooden house). An over-qualified guide forced to suck up to the corporate dollar due to her crushing student debt, Jacinda (or ‘Jake’) Greenwood discovers she may be descended from the original owner of the island, the timber tycoon, Harris Greewood, just as the world around her is collapsing. Within this frame there are sections set in 2008, 1974, 1934, and 1908, which chart the unusual providence of Jacinda’s possible ancestor and the fate of her descendants (not so much a family tree, as a ‘forest’, as Jake eventually reflects – each independent, but connected to and supporting the other members of the ‘fictional’ construction of the family). Each of these sections is well-researched and well-dramatised, although the longest – set in the dust bowl of the post-crash Thirties – is the most impressive and comprehensively realised. This is really the heartwood of the novel, or perhaps that should be the xylem, the outer ring of a tree, just below the bark, where the nutrient-filled sap flows, drawing water and minerals up from the roots to feed the growth of the tree. The double-portrait of the ill-starred brothers – Harris and Everett – and their inner circle provides the ‘engine’ of the plot, and it is Hardyesque in its scope and fatalism. Outside of this, the sections seem, at times, a little wooden – solidly hewn, yes, but lacking in some vital spark. It is interesting but perhaps unfair to compare Christie’s substantial endeavour with Richard Power’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Overstory. Both display a profound knowledge of tree’s – with Christie as a worker of wood, perhaps having the edge. But Greenwood lacks the breathtaking scope and vision of Power’s novel, which transcends the mere mimetic in its daring shift into the non-anthropocentric. Whileas Christie’s prose always stays on the surface, the material – depicted in a solid, convincing way, without a doubt, but never transcending itself. Nevertheless, the plight of the characters, who suffer the vicissitudes of fate, is affecting at times. And there are moments of rare poetry, notably when a cyclone sucks ten thousand books out of a hobo library, up into the air, making a sound like ‘birds’. And the concentric structure of the novel shows a poetic touch to. At one point a dying man realises time ‘is not an arrow. Neither is it a road. It goes in no particular direction. It simply accumulates—in the body, in the world—like wood does. Layer upon layer. Light then dark. Each one dependent upon the last. Each year impossible without the one preceding it. Each triumph and each disaster written forever in its own structure.’ Christie seems to be implying that the fates of each of the characters is written into their nature. What that suggests in a wider sense of the human condition, and our problematic relationship with nature, it is hard to say. There is certainly a profound reverence for trees here, but also a pessimism about our collective fate, and treatment of the planet and each other. This is just realism, you may add – but where does it leave the reader? Greenwood is an ambitious ecological novel, but one that seems to lack a clear message. Perhaps Christie wishes for the reader to make of the generational tale of dysfunctional lives what they will. We are left staring at the wonder of the forest of interconnected lives who share this small, vulnerable ball of dirt we call home. If the novel ‘achieves’ anything it must this – the simple, but powerful, act of attention and appreciation.

Kevan Manwaring, 10 Mar. 21

Greenwood is published by Scribe

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

Ecotopia Cover

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

the overstory

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