Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Irvine Welsh, Sam Harris and George Dyson.

Skagboys by Irvine Welsh

Skagboys examines how Welsh’s original Trainspotting anti-heroes - Renton/Rent Boy, Simon/Sick Boy, Danny/Spud, Frank/Begbie, Tommy et al - succumbed to heroin, or "skag". Theo Tait, writing in the Guardian, is critical of Welsh’s “rehashing” of his original masterpiece: “the reader has a vivid sense of a great talent tamely revisiting his glory days”. Moreover, “Skagboys is also just too long: it essentially goes over the same ground as Trainspotting, but it's about three times the size”. Yet, Tait concedes, “there are many unforgettable episodes, such as the visit to a squalid shooting gallery, where one large hospital syringe passes round the room from junky to junky, like the angel of death. Even at his weakest, Welsh performs the mysterious feat of making you think that his characters are real”.

The Telegraph’s Keith Miller is unconcerned by the repetitive nature of Welsh’s prequel: “With such a crew, anybody would be hard pressed not to repeat themselves a bit”. Likewise, Arifa Akbar writing in the Independent suggests, “the success of Skagboys comes from its similarities to Trainspotting. It offers more of the same, though excellently constructed more of the same”. “It can't have been easy”, he notes, “for Welsh to colour in the lives of characters created nearly two decades ago, and the endeavour could have resulted in unintentional pastiche. So it is an achievement that they retain a sense of authenticity”. He goes on to describe their stories, as “filled with pain, sadness, and the bewilderment of young lives going wrong”. However, Akbar, too, observes that several of the characters are undeveloped, that they are “characteristically themselves”, and “become nothing more, treading water in their roles rather than gaining dimension”.  He also acknowledges Skagboys' lack of “the political urgency [that characterises] its predecessor”. Instead, he praises its “absorbing, energetic writing”, concluding: “Its banter, outrage and razor wit sing off the page”.

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

In New Atheist Sam Harris’s latest book, now out in paperback, he attempts to apply science to morality arguing against the claim that the scientific worldview has nothing to say on moral questions. Jules Evans, writing in the Observer, describes the results as “mixed”: “It's a pity the book is so bull-headed, because Harris's topic is an interesting one, and he himself is an interesting figure who brings together the disciplines of science, moral philosophy and contemplative religion. Unfortunately, he seems to see this as a zero-sum game, in which the competition must be killed. In fact, as Harris must know, the great religious traditions have interesting things to tell us about wellbeing, if we stop trying to punch their lights out”.

In the New York Times Kwame Anthony Appiah, reviewing the hardback in 2010, was also unsure of Harris’s argument. “What he ends up endorsing,” Appiah concludes, “is something very like utilitarianism, a philosophical position that is now more than two centuries old, and that faces a battery of familiar problems. Even if you accept the basic premise, how do you compare the well-being of different people? Should we aim to increase average well-being (which would mean that a world consisting of one bliss case is better than one with a billion just slightly less blissful people)? Or should we go for a cumulative total of well-being (which might favor a world with zillions of people whose lives are just barely worth living)? If the mental states of conscious beings are what matter, what’s wrong with killing someone in his sleep? How should we weigh present well-being against future well-being?”.  However, he praises Harris’s ideas regarding neuroscience: “He says much that is interesting and important: about the limits of functional magnetic resonance imaging as a tool for studying brain function; about the current understanding of psychopaths; about the similarities in the ways in which moral and nonmoral belief seem to be handled in the brain." However, he found himself “wishing for less of the polemic against religion”, and wanting “more of the illumination that comes from our increasing understanding of neuroscience”.

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson

The Observer’s Evgeny Morozov gives a positive account of George Dyson’s history of the modern computer, which recalls an “important chapter in the convoluted history of 20th-century computing”. “Alas”, Morozov goes on, “the book is not perfect. Dyson ... bombards the reader with a mind-boggling stream of distracting information that adds little to his tale. We get to learn of the discrepancy between the British and Canadian war records of Jens Fredrick Larson, the architect of the institute's main hall; the price of oysters served at lunch meetings of its building committee; the price of nappies in Los Alamos hospitals in the 1950s”. He is also sceptical about the “slew of untenable generalisations” that result from Dyson's efforts to connect Von Neumann's cold war computing to today's Silicon Valley: “Is it really true,” he asks, “that "Facebook defines who we are, Amazon defines what we want, and Google defines what we think"?” Moreover, notes Morozov, “occasionally, Dyson makes mystical claims that no serious historian would endorse. What to make of his statement that "only the collective intelligence of computers could save us from the destructive powers of the weapons they had allowed us to invent"?”. Yet overall he praises Dyson’s effort as “engrossing and well-researched”.

In the Telegraph Manjit Kumar is also concerned about the amount of jargon in Dyson’s offering, “faced with the tricky task of balancing technical details with keeping the narrative accessible for the non-computer buff, Dyson ends up probably not giving enough detail to satisfy the aficionado but too much for the lay reader”. However, Kumar acknowledges the “years of research and writing have enabled him to bring to life a myriad cast of extraordinary characters each of whom contributed to ushering in today’s digital age”. “Dyson,” Kumar notes, “has done the difficult job of reminding us of how much we owe [Neumann and Turing] and how far we have come in such a short time”.
The jacket illustration for Irvine Welsh's Skagboys.
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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide