Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on David Foster Wallace and David Bezmozgis.

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

"Perversely thrilling", the Guardian's James Lasdun remarks of David Foster Wallace's unfinished posthumous novel. Perhaps an unlikely description for a story which consists of "one extended first act" set in a tax processing office in the desolate outskirts of 1980s Illinois. At the heart of the novel, observes Lasdun, sits "boredom and its various effects on the spirit, ranging from suicidal despair... to a transcendent power of concentration."

It's a novel that doesn't "go in for understatement" he writes "or charm for that matter" but one which is peppered with "rather wickedly dulled down prose".

Hari Kunzru writes in the FT that Wallace takes precise language "to comic extremes". "[It] is one of the great pleasures of his writing".
"He discourses on the niceties of the US tax code, on the exact hardware configuration of the computer systems that implement it. 'Suffice it to say that I know more about the chemistry, manufacture and ambient odors of instant coffee than anyone would voluntarily want to' remarks faux-authorial Wallace, in a footnoted digression about a billboard near the entrance to the IRS facility where most of The Pale King takes place."

The New Statesman's Jonathan Derbyshire applauds Wallace's attention to morose detail. "Few novelists have taken as seriously as Wallace the obligation to write truthfully about the way we live today. And as Pietsch says, even in an unfinished novel such as this, the products of that seriousness are spectacular."

The Pale King is reviewed in this week's New Statesman

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

"David Bezmozgis projects a sense of ease that is very rare in first novels," The Telegraph's Leo Robson remarks of the Lativan author who was last year lauded in The New Yorker as one of the world's most promising young writers. "He does everything well," writes Robson, "Though economy in characterisation is his strongest gift."

Colin Greenland for the Guardian does not quite agree. He argues The Free World, a novel of emigration from the USSR in the mid-70s, is a story "without much of a plot". Yet to Greenland this does not detract from the novel's potency, which is "heavy with the consciousness of time, the inevitability of crises . . . Bezmozgis has the knack of ending scenes, chapters, especially, at the perfect reverberant moment, plangent or ironic."

Melissa McClements for the FT calls The Free World "a multi-generational family saga". The result of which she believes is "colourful, sharply funny and deeply moving".

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Marching against climate change in the age of Donald Trump

The People’s Climate Movement is as much about politics as science. That's its strength.

Saying goodbye is never easy. But the present generation are facing an awful lot of farewells: to the melting arctic, the dying Barrier Reef, and the general resilience of ecosystems around the world. As Margaret Atwood described it in her essay of the same name: “It’s not climate change, it’s everything change”.

The problem with “everything-change” is that it can be overwhelming. How do you even decide where to start?

The People’s Climate Movement want to begin by making visible the extent of concern out there. This weekend, a coalition of organisations have planned a protest march on the American capital. Between 50,000 -100,000 people are expected to attend, including eco-celebrities Leonardo Di Caprio, Al Gore and Richard Branson.

In London, a group called Campaign Against Climate Change, are co-ordinating a UK-based solidarity event. Protestors will meet at 11.30am in Old Palace yard opposite Parliament, then move to Westminster Bridge, where they will spell out a message to Theresa May: “Trump and May: Climate Disaster”.

For UK campaigners, this is a vital opportunity to raise awareness of the many ways in which action on climate change is under threat. Claire James from CACC outlines the sense of frustration and injustice that many feel with regard to recent government policy: “There have been 12,000 jobs lost last year in the solar industry alone and installation numbers have plummeted. Meanwhile fracking, hugely unpopular, is given determined backing.”

Ahead of the June election, campaigners are using the event to call for specific, cross-party commitments. One, fast-tracking the UK’s delayed Climate Change Plan. Two, ruling out new trade deals that compromise environmental, worker or consumer rights. And three, implementing a fair deal for UK solar and wind industry. “Our action on Saturday is about saying to the government – and to anyone who wants to form the next government – do your policies measure up?” says James.

These concrete political aims are an important way in which the movement differs from last weekend’s March For Science. That protest, inspired by the popularity of the Women’s March earlier this year, kept its message intentionally wide. As one of the London event’s organisers told DeSmog, it placed its emphasis on a generalised “celebration of science”. But this lack of specificity drew criticism from some quarters – for presenting a confusing message about politics' relationship to science.

Generalisation can also risk putting people off joining marches at all. Over the last few months, numerous friends have said they feel uncomfortable joining protests where they’re not sure that the person marching next to them is doing so for the same reasons. They’d feel much happier signing a petition, with a more specific and limited aim, they tell me.

This weekend’s climate marches risk drawing some of the same concerns. “Climate-change has become a synecdoche, a surrogate, for many causes in today’s world – social justice, the protection of nature, the rights of future generations, the defence of science,” says Professor Mike Hulme from King's College London. “Marches such as this give political voice to anti-establishment protest, but they don’t stop the climate changing.”

In addition, not all who want to see climate change prioritised by governments may agree over the exact course of action – with outright opposition to fracking, for instance, or to a third runway at Heathrow.

But this weekend’s movement also appears to have taken these lessons on board. First, they are putting their political aims up front. According the US event’s website, whereas the March for Science strove to be non-political, this movement “believes strongly in the need to call out the politicians.”

The link to the Paris Climate Treaty is helpful in this respect. The People’s Climate Movement traces its birth back to September 21 2014, the eve of the UN climate summit, when 400,000 people marched through New York demanding action on the climate crisis. This gives the movement a clear piece of legislation to both celebrate and defend.

And the London-based event is also attempting to re-think and expand what street-protests can achieve. “We’re doing a smaller action rather than a big march,” explains Claire James, “but we’re trying to have a real focus with the speakers on ‘what next’”. After the protest in Westminster, attendees are invited to join an afternoon of free food, activities and music, hosted by the food waste campaign Feedback. Here there will be even further opportunity to learn about the many ways – from divestment campaigns to local renewable energy groups – in which people can help press for change.

In this respect, public action against the climate crisis promises not to end when the walking does. And while protests won't stop climate change in themselves, joining a march can be a powerful reminder that we are not in this crisis alone.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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