Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Annie Proulx, an anti-internet polemic and the tale of Lucie Blackman.

Bird Cloud: A Memoir by Annie Proulx

Writing in the Observer, Geoff Dyer is disappointed with "the story of how a great and ageing American writer came across a 640-acre spread of land in Wyoming, bought it and set about designing and building (more accurately, having people build) her ideal house on it." Despite some evidence of Proulx's "observational prowess and gift for verbally harnessing the elements", Dyer discovers that the writing falters without the "human and narrative purchase" that characterizes her best fiction. Consequently, Dyer "had soon had enough of it" and is left feeling that this book "begins suspiciously to resemble a way of covering the spiralling costs" of building a bespoke house.

"The absence of an over-arching narrative structure is the book's weakness," concludes Susan Elderkin in the Financial Times. Depicting landscape, Proulx's writing is "always a treat, the language dense and nutty in the way of a fruitcake". But without a fictional framework, Proulx's "baggy" memoir leaves "the mystery of how the writer begat the writing pretty much intact".

"Bird Cloud" will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier

In the Observer, Jessica Holland assesses Lanier's argument that "the web - with its anonymously written wikis and multiple-choice expressions of personality on Facebook - is eating away at our very souls." As "an original member of the Silicon Valley set", Lanier is "clearly very well-informed about IT", but his "social and spiritual" assertions "can't help but rely more on intuition." Ultimately, "it's tempting to dismiss it as the anxiety of an ageing innovator" who claims modern America is "dividing itself between a minuscule number of 'computing cloud overlords'" and "a vast majority of 'digital serfs'".

The Independent's Brandon Robshaw also remains sceptical about Jaron Lanier's cyber-age manifesto. Though he finds a certain appeal in the argument that the internet is turning people into "empowered trolls", whose "mob-like mentality" is deadening "individual creativity" and luring the masses into "easy, unthinking grooves", the book is ultimately "too abstract and too techy to make a good book-length read" and would probably be "better as a blog."

People Who Eat Darkness: the Fate of Lucie Blackman by Richard Lloyd Parry

This is a "horrible tale, meticulously told" according to Brenda Maddox in the Times. Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old from Sevenoaks, was working as a bar hostess in Tokyo when she disappeared in July 2000. Her dismembered remains were found in a cave six months later. Parry, who was the Independent's Tokyo correspondent at the time, insists that "those who think that any woman who works as a "hostess" is a prostitute are wrong". Instead, they "offer drinks, charm and conversation" and are urged to go on dinner dates with besotted customers. To go home with a client was "Lucie Blackman's fatal mistake". Parry illuminates the differences between British and Japanese legal systems and reassuringly asserts that in Tokyo "a lone woman remains safer even at two in the morning than in any other world city".

Writing in the Guardian, Blake Morrison is gripped by "a compelling book, 10 years in the making, rich in intelligence and insight". Despite the harrowing nature of the subject matter, it is "heartening" that Parry refuses to engage in "hysteria or demonisation". Instead he is an "open-minded and sympathetic narrator" whose book "sheds light on Japan, on families, on the media, and (in ways that bring back memories of the Yorkshire Ripper case) on the insidious effects of misogyny".

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The non-fiction novel that takes readers inside the head of Raoul Moat

Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, but its semi-fictional world is something more complex.

In July 2010, just weeks after becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron expanded upon his vision for the “Big Society” that he had first unveiled at the 2009 party conference. It promised a “big advance for people power”, in which individuals would be responsible for their actions. “To be British is to be sceptical of authority and the powers that be,” he told conference. “There is a ‘we’ in politics, and not just a ‘me’.”

That same month, just two days after being released from HMP Durham for the assault of a child, the self-employed gardener and former doorman Raoul Moat shot and injured his ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbart and killed her boyfriend Chris Brown, who he wrongly believed to be a policeman. Moat went on the run, shooting a policeman at point-blank range, then fleeing to the rural Northumberland town of Rothbury. For a week, the story of this exotically named, delusional man who left behind a wealth of material, including letters and four-hour-long Dictaphone recordings, was given joint top billing with Cameron’s “Big Society” – soon to be as dead and buried as Moat, who, cornered by police after a seven-day hunt, killed himself.

The journalist Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, yet really is a non-fiction novel, in which writer and reader squat inside a mind that moves from irrational anger and self-pity to despondency. Moat’s is a solipsistic narration, in which he is the perennial victim – of circumstance, enemies, authoritarian bureaucracy, police harassment and past lovers. There is little room here for the outside world. Like most outlaws, Moat believed that everyone had failed him. “All my life I wanted death,” he laments.

The real-life Moat story, however, was more than that of a lone fugitive. It was also about rolling news coverage and Facebook groups, some of which celebrated Moat as a Ned Kelly-type folk hero – a “#ledge”. When Cameron denounced him in parliament he inadvertently elevated Moat to a clearer anti-authoritarian position: the antithesis of a “Big Society” citizen, in fact. It is also the story of the Northumbria Police force, which did its very best to show that it had everything under control when it really didn’t.

And, bringing an element of farce to a tragedy, it featured the subplot of a thoroughly leathered Paul Gascoigne – the most exciting and idiosyncratic footballer of his generation – tearing through the countryside in a taxi with a fishing rod, a dressing gown and a rotisserie chicken in an attempt to bring a sense of calm to the situation. “All I want to do is shout, ‘Moaty, it’s  Gazza! Where are you?’” he explained en route during a live radio phone-in. “And I guarantee he will shout his name out: ‘I’m here.’” Gascoigne’s pantomime intervention added to the chaos: now another disenfranchised northern male was running amok. The parallels were evident: Gazza’s career had been beset by injury and alcoholism, Moat’s bodybuilder’s physique was no longer in prime condition after weight loss in prison. Both were separated from their families and prone to self-examination. Onlookers knew it could quite easily have been Gazza holed up in those woods.

Other exponents of the non-fiction novel such as Norman Mailer and Gordon Burn would surely have put all this in, yet Hankinson chooses not to cover any of the peripheral subplots, instead using a second-person narrative to burrow deep into Moat’s paranoia, sourcing all his text from real material. This narrative sacrifice in favour of a singular voice gives the book thrust and authenticity of voice, and manages to show the nuances of a man who was articulate and often capable, and had reached out to social services on many occasions for help. None of which excuses Moat’s action – but it does explain his choices. Where the tabloids favoured the simplicity of the textbook “cold-blooded killer”, Hankinson’s portrait lets the reader make his or her own judgement. Clearly Moat was a bully, and yet he was not born that way. Few are. “There’ll be books written about all this, and you’ll be made out to be some crazed fucking maniac,” he says to himself, with both foresight and grim resignation.

Elsewhere the semi-fictional Moat brushes over past transgressions and labours over the tiniest slights in such repetitive, droning detail that the reader’s sympathy soon wanes. The book’s strength lies in the real-life Moat’s keenness to confess – to be heard, finally, beyond death – through these nocturnal monologues, recorded in his tent after yet another meal of charred burgers. From these remnants, Hankinson deftly assembles the man’s inner workings, lending credibility to his portrait while, beyond the myopic commentary, we know, although we don’t see it, that the outside world is closing in. Critics might ask: why give voice to a loser? Perhaps because in the right hands any real-life story is worth telling, and history should never just record the heroes and victors. The losers play their part, too.

Ben Myers’s novel “Beastings” recently won the Portico Prize for Literature

You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] by Andrew Hankinson is published by Scribe (211pp, £12.99)

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war