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 aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.