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".

BBC/ ITV Cradle Ltd/Matt Squire
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Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses