Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Martin Amis, Natasha Walter and Andrea Levy.

 

The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis

Reviews of the much-hyped new Amis novel comment on its preoccupation with sex, coupled with multiple allusions to literary classics. Peter Kemp in the Sunday Times and Leo Robson in the New Statesman are in agreement over the decline of Amis's high stylisation, which has lost its "scabrous zest" (Kemp), while his "voice . . . lacks the power it had in earlier works" (Robson). The structure is also "ramshackle" (Kemp) and "ill-shapen, lopsided, rough-hewn" (Robson).

What comes out of all reviews of this novel is its place in the Amis canon: "The set-up, a house party in well-heeled surroundings, recalls the one in his second novel, Dead Babies (1975)," writes Kemp. Robson places the style and subject matter of the book in a continuum with Amis's previous novels: "The book represents a return to the social and psychological territory of The Rachel Papers (1973), Dead Babies (1975) and Success (1978) -- pitiless comic novels about youthful hedonism and self-loathing, suffused with what the latter two books called 'street sadness'."

Meanwhile, Tim Adams in the Observer describes the book as "a flashy Decameron of the sexual revolution". Tom Chatfield in Prospect sums up the plot and premise thus: "It is 1970, and we are holidaying in Italy in the company of an attractive and improbably named young cast." For both Adams and Chatfield, the novel is a "comedy of manners", and the overall consensus is that it is entertaining but highly flawed. Chatfield: "As ever, it is brilliantly done; as ever, it can be wearing."

 

Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter

Much is made of Natasha Walter's latest work being partly a retraction of her earlier book The New Feminism.

Cassandra Jardine in the Telegraph announces that "a recantation is always delicious", while Jessica Valenti in the Observer praises its return to the "personal". Valenti is impressed by Walter's dealings with sex workers and by her lack of judgement towards the young women she interviews. She stops short of an unqualified rave by suggesting that the book itself stops short: "The book's set-up and subtitle promise something that isn't delivered: the full story."

In the Sunday Times, Camilla Long berates Walter's lack of conclusion-drawing: "Half Grazia, half felt-knickered left-wing women's page, the book's biggest problem is its lack of solutions, or any prescriptive thinking."

"Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism" will be reviewed in Thursday's New Statesman.

 

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Andrea Levy's follow-up to the Orange Prize-winning Small Island has provoked diametrically opposed opinions.

Holly Kyte in the Telegraph deems it "a masterclass in storytelling". Kyte finds the subject matter -- in this tale of "a slave girl living on a sugar plantation in 1830s Jamaica just as emancipation is juddering into action" -- sensitively handled: "Slavery is a grim subject indeed, but the wonder of Levy's writing is that she can confront such things and somehow derive deeply life-affirming entertainment from them."

Conversely, Tom Deveson in the Times finds the novel unconvincing: "It's difficult to sustain an antique narrative mode while keeping it plausible . . . Invocations to the reader amount to little more than pointless postmodern padding." He finds that "the book's language falls short of its admirable ambitions".

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Leader: Trump's dangerous nation

From North Korea to Virginia, the US increasingly resembles a rogue state.

When Donald Trump was elected as US president, some optimistically suggested that the White House would have a civilising effect on the erratic tycoon. Under the influence of his more experienced colleagues, they argued, he would gradually absorb the norms of international diplomacy.

After seven months, these hopes have been exposed as delusional. On 8 August, he responded to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Three days later, he casually floated possible military action against Venezuela. Finally, on 12 August, he responded to a white supremacist rally in Virginia by condemning violence on “many sides” (only criticising the far right specifically after two days of outrage).

Even by Mr Trump’s low standards, it was an embarrassing week. Rather than normalising the president, elected office has merely inflated his self-regard. The consequences for the US and the world could be momentous.

North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile (and potentially reach the US) demanded a serious response. Mr Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric was not it. His off-the-cuff remarks implied that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, leading various officials to “clarify” the US position. Kim Jong-un’s regime is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike that would invite a devastating retaliation. However, there remains a risk that it misreads Mr Trump’s intentions and rushes to action.

Although the US should uphold the principle of nuclear deterrence, it must also, in good faith, pursue a diplomatic solution. The week before Mr Trump’s remarks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, rightly ruled out “regime change” and held out the possibility of “a dialogue”.

The North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, but its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The project is designed to guarantee its survival and to strengthen its bargaining hand. As such, it must be given incentives to pursue a different path.

Mr Trump’s bellicose language overshadowed the successful agreement of new UN sanctions against North Korea (targeting a third of its $3bn exports). Should these prove insufficient, the US should resume the six-party talks of the mid-2000s and even consider direct negotiations.

A failure of diplomacy could be fatal. In his recent book Destined for War, the Harvard historian Graham Allison warns that the US and China could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, war typically results when a dominant power is challenged by an ascendent rival. North Korea, Mr Bew writes, could provide the spark for a new “great power conflict” between the US and China.

Nuclear standoffs require immense patience, resourcefulness and tact – all qualities in which Mr Trump is lacking. Though the thought likely never passed his mind, his threats to North Korea and Venezuela provide those countries with a new justification for internal repression.

Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming an ever more fraught, polarised nation. It was no accident that the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, took place under his presidency. Mr Trump’s victory empowered every racist, misogynist and bigot in the land. It was doubtless this intimate connection that prevented him from immediately condemning the white supremacists. To denounce them is, in effect, to denounce himself.

The US hardly has an unblemished history. It has been guilty of reckless, immoral interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and Iraq. But never has it been led by a man so heedless of international and domestic norms. Those Republicans who enabled Mr Trump’s rise and preserve him in office must do so no longer. There is a heightened responsibility, too, on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, the president. The Brexiteers have allowed dreams of a future US-UK trade deal to impair their morality.

Under Mr Trump, the US increasingly resembles a breed it once denounced: a rogue state. His former rival Hillary Clinton’s past warning that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” now appears alarmingly prescient.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear