Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on John Lanchester, John Wyndham and the Bloomsbury Group.

 

Talk is cheap

In Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, Robert Harris, writing in the Sunday Times, finds Lanchester's "chatty economic primer" a solution to the conundrum that "the arts have paid so little attention to what is the greatest phenomenon of the age: the transference of power and wealth from sovereign countries to supranational financial institutions".

Howard Davies in the Guardian finds that John Lanchester has avoided a fictional treatment of the financial crisis and instead "attempts both an economic and a sociopsychological analysis of the roots of the crisis". Despite its "accessible, and at times flippant style", Davies concludes that the author is not "an infallible guide to this treacherous terrain, though there are times when he describes the landscape as well and as engagingly as any".

Meanwhile, Paul Mason in the New Statesman finds the narrative flair welcome, but adds: "there has been a plethora of plays and television dramas, and the media discourse on the crisis is incessant. Any addition to this overload -- even one written so lucidly -- has to contribute something new." Ultimately, "Lanchester's real contribution lies not in his analysis, but in the vantage point he takes."

 

Chaos theory

Plan for Chaos is a previously unpublished John Wyndham novel, written some time between 1948 and 1951. For Jake Kerridge in the Telegraph, it begins "like it was written by Raymond Chandler after an X-Files box-set binge", before the author entered more familiar territory. "A more serious shortcoming is the lack of the nightmarish quality that pervades Wyndham's best books." Kerridge concedes that "if this is prentice-work, it is interesting to see Wyndham already grappling with the big themes that would continue to preoccupy him".

Leo Mellor in the Independent expected it to be as bad as other "lost-and-found" books, but discovered an "extraordinary lost masterpiece" that displays the author's "literary roots in pulp sci-fi short stories for the US market . . . [and] anticipates late-20th-century technological developments to dramatic effect".

 

The truth hurts

Angelica Garnett returns to the theme of growing up hin the Bloomsbury Group and her struggle with its legacy in The Unspoken Truth: a Quartet of Bloomsbury Stories.

Jane Shilling in the Telegraph finds that they depict "the urgent tension between the egotism of creativity and the artist's need for human connection", but senses "something insubstantial about these stories, over which a faint air of apology sometimes hangs".

Nick Rennison in the Sunday Times discovers that "the old Bloomsbury commitment to truth-telling and self-examination" is fully apparent, but argues that the Garnett stories lack structure: "In the end, they fall into the unsatisfying limbo that lies between memoir and fiction."

Alex Clark agrees in the Guardian: "In spite of the signposts pointing us in the direction of authentic lived experience, these pieces often appear both unconvincingly fictional and at the same time not quite fictional enough."

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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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