Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdict on Philip Pullman, Hilary Spurling and James Kelman.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
by Philip Pullman

For Archbishop Rowan Williams in the Guardian, this book is a "very bold and deliberately outrageous fable" that represents "Pullman at his very impressive best, limpid and economical, though one or two passages feel like easy point-scoring -- the annunciation story told as a seduction, or the mechanics of a fraudulent resurrection".

Nick Rennison in the Sunday Times finds that Pullman "traces the familiar journey towards the cross and makes it fresh", and that his "retelling of the central story in western civilisation provides a brilliant new interpretation that is also a thought-provoking reflection on the process of how stories come into existence and accrue their meanings".

Salley Vickers in the Telegraph declares that "Pullman has done the story a service by reminding us of its extraordinary power to provoke and disturb", while Richard Holloway in the Observer describes the book as "powerful", and agrees with the other critics that the book has hints of Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov.

Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck's Life in China
by Hilary Spurling

In the Guardian, Isabel Hilton enthuses: "Hilary Spurling has written an elegant and sympathetic portrait of one of the most extraordinary Americans of the 20th century." Pearl Buck was a woman who did an "immense service . . . in presenting Chinese people as sentient human beings, individuals even, to the American reading public". For Hilton, Spurling's biography is "illuminating and compelling", and gives the impression "that Pearl Buck had the last laugh".

To Claudia FitzHerbert in the Telegraph, "Spurling describes a writer who delivers both halves of the injunction to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar". Moreover, Spurling "examines the meaning of this divided inheritance, where home is always elsewhere and familiarity replaces belonging".

Frances Wilson in the Sunday Times writes that "what interests Spurling is the source of her subject's 'magic power' as a writer", and how she could "tap directly into currents of memory and dream secreted deep within the popular imagination". She concludes that Spurling "has never written a dull sentence" and that she, too, "has magic power as a writer".

If It Is Your Life by James Kelman

Mike Wade in the Times writes of James Kelman and his new collection of short stories: "For readers accustomed to thinking of him as a dour writer, the happy surprises here are the love stories, recounted by Kelman's male narrators as they try to make sense of the women in their lives."

He decides that Kelman is "rescued by his black humour", which owes something to "the verbal comedy of Flann O'Brien", and concludes: "It is certainly never difficult to distinguish between this Scotsman and a ray of sunshine. But If It Is Your Life is a fine collection and an excellent window on Kelman's brooding world."

Anthony Cummins in the Telegraph is similarly impressed: "Kelman takes us inside his characters' heads, replicating the rhythm and tics of Glasgow talk by means of a demanding, highly crafted prose style that flits between thought and speech." He concludes: "Certain pieces are as good as anything Kelman has done . . . Like Kelman's best work, it is tender and funny in a way that may surprise those who know him only by reputation."

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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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