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 do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt