Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Roddy Doyle, James Frey, and a biography of Malcolm X.

Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle

Gerard Woodward reviews Roddy Doyle's new short story collection in the Guardian, and is overcome by Doyle's portrayal of a middle-aged malaise in which "everyone in the whole world is 48. That's what it can feel like, after reading these tightly themed stories of mid-life angst." Even so, the book refrains from heavy-handedness: "Scenes are conjured from a few dabs, narratives held together with invisible thread. It is a technique he has been honing since his earliest books, and one that is particularly suited to the short story. The tone of the collection is far from bleak."

Jane Clinton, writing in the Express, concedes that "a collection of short stories on the theme of male loss may not seem that appealing", though finds Doyles' collection one of "rare and beautiful mid-life meditations". Tonally, his writing is enough to persuade Clinton that she is "eavesdropping on each of these men's forbidden thoughts and fears"; though the book "is not all doom" thanks to "flashes of morbid, and sometimes crude, humour". Generally, "the preoccupations of a gender and generation perhaps not known for emotional outpourings is surprisingly uplifting."

The Final Testament of the Holy Bible by James Frey

Mark Lawson's Guardian review of James Frey's novel acknowledges that "the fate that would await a contemporary messiah ... is ... regularly attempted in fiction." However, "the novel itself is compelling as both a thriller and a provocative riposte to religious orthodoxies". Yet this "riposte" might go too far for "fervent believers", for whom "the problem with this novel will be blasphemy." Despite that, Lawson notes that "there's also a secular literary objection. The book creates a Jesus who conveniently preaches the values of liberal America - pro-gay marriage, pro-abortion, anti-churchgoing - but there's no reason why this figure should have more validity than the historical one being dismissed." Even so, Frey's fiction is "impressively done", "the alternating testimonies distinctively voiced and the twists on the gospel versions nicely judged."

Peter Conrad writes less charitably in the Observer, finding the novel an "unmoving tale", and warning that Frey, not only "isn't fooling anyone", but "happens to be a shameless faker, who manufactures mishaps to embellish his personal mystique". His latest novel is "artlessly crass in its retelling of what's meant to be the greatest story ever told"; his protagonistic messiah figure is "a semi-articulate hippy"; his prose "lumpenly prosaic, unable to conceive of or communicate rapture". Ultimately, Frey's work "makes Jesus Christ Superstar sound like Handel's Messiah."

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

A review published by Wilbert Rideau in the Financial Times praises Marable's work as "encyclopaedic in its approach", with a "staggering breadth and depth of scholarship" and "much to recommend it for its history of orthodox Islam, the perspective it offers on the black political movements of the 1950s and 1960s that changed America, and its insights into the development and inner workings of the Nation of Islam". However, "Marable the academic historian is sometimes at odds with Marable the biographer", and though this book is "indispensable as a reference for scholars", such detail might also prove "an impediment for the general reader". Rideau suggests that "too much detail about Islamic history ... interrupts the narrative about Malcolm X's development". Moreover, the account lacks "a sense of the man as a fully rounded human being: a friend, father, lover or husband." Marable fails to wholly capture this "elusive and enigmatic public figure whose politically incorrect speech gave voice to the dark and angry thoughts of an oppressed people."

Andrew Anthony, writing in the Observer, heralds Marable's biography as the aptly "meticulous portrait" that Malcolm X "deserves" - a "comprehensive and fair-minded portrait of both Malcolm and the turbulent period of American history in which he lived and died". Marable details the extent to which Malcolm was "adept at tailoring his message to different audiences", though finds that ultimately, "the man who emerges from this book is in many respects admirable: brave, loyal, self-disciplined, quick-witted, charismatic, acutely intelligent and a public speaker of quite awesome power". Despite this, Marable also traces Malcolm's flaws: chiefly his "attitude to women", and successfully places Malcolm's personal life alongside "his unique role in black and global resistance culture".

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism