Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics on Craig Raine, Bret Easton Ellis and Louise Doughty.

Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty

"Whatever You Love is an incident-packed, emotionally fraught revenge tragedy," writes Susanna Rustin in the Observer. "Set at the English seaside and narrated by a divorced single mother who has just lost her nine-year-old daughter in a traffic accident... Doughty has crafted a subtle thriller." Rustin concludes, "her novel is emotionally raw, sexually frank, psychologically unpredictable."

For Jane Jakeman, writing in the Independent, "Doughty is a courageous writer, willing to explore deeper territory with each book." As with her previous works (Fires in the Dark, 2003; Stone Cradle, 2006) the testing of family relationships "lies at the heart of [the book], but her focus has intensified from group dynamics to the individual psyche."

"Extraordinary events in the final chapters work less well," opines Ophelia Field in the Sunday Telegraph, "forfeiting the reader's empathy both in terms of Laura's likeability and the plot's plausibility." Nonetheless, she concludes "Doughty is masterful at combining the texture of ordinary, smugly middle-class, contemporary life with the hidden cliff edges of violence and hatred."

Heartbreak by Craig Raine

"Based mostly in Oxford and London and in the worlds of academia and media", writes Edmund Gordon in this week's New Statesman of Raine's first novel, this diffuse story of 30 separate narratives "portrays a narrow cross-section of middle-class English society." A poet and critic, "Raine presumably hoped to fashion out of this material something like the free-form, philosophical novels of Milan Kundera", Gordon continues, but, to little success. "Raine appears to be indifferent as to whether the stories in Heartbreak work as fiction; their main purpose is to provide a supporting framework for his thoughts on various subjects."

"Like Kundera... the text is laconic and disjointed, structurally as well as semantically terse, made up of episodes that travel no more than a few pages," writes Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books. But "what can seem to be genuine wisdom in the case of Kundera, however, is too often either smartass or banal in the case of Raine."

For Tim Martin, writing in The Telegraph, Raine's approach "is wholly excruciating... [featuring] frequent textual hijacks by tipped-in lit-crit essays, as well as authorial intrusions that veer between mock concern for the reader ("Am I going too fast for you?"), high-table daftness ("Crying has its own rhetoric. We need a poetics of crying") and a welter of passive-aggressive pointers on how to read."

"Compression of metaphor, the gift for seeing unexpected things in other things, is Raine's strong suit... It is what he has always been best at, [but] in an ill-judged moment, it breaks Heartbreak."

You can read Jonathan Derbyshire's interview with Craig Raine here.

Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis

Imperial Bedrooms is for Nick Garrard, writing in the Independent, "a kind of modern noir... Atmosphere is king. Paranoia prevails." A return to the disaffected, amoral Los Angeles characters introduced in his first novel Less Than Zero, Ellis's seventh work is another "dissection of the idle American rich."

"Clay [the protagonist of Less Than Zero] has doubled in age but voice-recognition software would have little trouble picking up his tense present," writes Mark Lawson in the Observer. "He now possesses not only money but a sort of influence, having become an outwardly successful screenwriter."

For Lawson, Ellis "has very much found his rhythm" in a dark and seedy tale of "sex... booze and junk." "In terms of American literary inheritance, [the author] adds the playful self-advertisements of Philip Roth to the ambiguously complicit social reportage of F Scott Fitzgerald; Imperial Bedrooms ranks with his best in the latter register, teeming with sharp details of a narcissistic generation."

For Erica Wagner however, writing in The New York Times, Ellis has "fallen flat" with this novel. "What starts off neat swiftly becomes pat, lazy and effortful all at once" she argues. "Like Martin Amis, Ellis still has a flair for such perfect, surreal description. But, again like Amis, he can struggle to set it in an effective context."

 

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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser