Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Stephen King, Robin Harris and Charles Shields.

11.22.63 by Stephen King

In the Telegraph, Tim Martin writes that "although the awkwardness of this overlong and overstuffed book is not confined to its title, it also delivers a lot to praise and enjoy... King's minute attention to detail and ear for language, as well as his evident relish for a juicy pulp premise, carry this 700-page book through its welter of red herrings and soap-operatic longueurs."

According to Rachel Cooke in the Observer: "In love with his conceit - he has written a time-travel story in which a man can move between 2011 and 1958 at will - King has delivered a self-indulgent book that is too long (a whopping 740 pages), too complicated and too barmy for words."

Martin writes that "King does eventually take an attractively unhinged stab at answering the question [of whether America would be better if JFK had lived], even if it boils down to the sage genre commonplace that the past doesn't like to be messed with."

In the Independent, James Kidd comments that the novel "is arguably literature's first romantic-time-travelling-conspiracy-thriller." It is "an exciting, intelligent if overlong book that underlines all King's powers as a novelist while exposing some of his flaws. Twenty-first-century King is a strange beast: populist and high-minded, artless and self-conscious."

The Conservatives: A History by Robin Harris

In the Spectator, Andrew Gimson writes that "If David Cameron and his friends wish to know why they and their policies are so despised by some Conservatives of high intellect and principle, they should read Robin Harris. His book is a marvel of concision, lucidity and scholarship, with penetrating things to say about Peel, Disraeli, Salisbury, Baldwin, Churchill, Macmillan and the rest."

Kwasi Kwarteng in the Telegraph calls the book "incisive and entertaining". He writes that although it struggles with the party's origins, "naive enthusiasm is an attractive feature of this lively book. Harris makes no secret of his preferences. Peel is castigated as a disastrous leader who was aloof from his party."

Gimson comments that "much of its savour derives from Harris's disgust - the word is not too strong - with the various forms of bogusness, including intellectual cowardice veiled by complacent politeness, which recur so often in the history of the Conservative party."

According to Douglas Hurd in the New Statesman: "Robin Harris starts out confidently enough, gliding skilfully through the history of the Tories in the 18th century... But the pace and mood alter as Harris nears modern times. He begins to show the colour of his own opinions. This, surely, is a pity. The first half of the book is historical analysis, often shrewd; but then the author becomes a polemicist and casts aside any pretence of objectivity."

Hurd concludes that "Harris writes well and with considerable force, but there are two books here in one cover. The first is a decent account of Conservative origins; the second is a warning of trouble ahead. These are both legitimate subjects for argument, but they should not be confused."

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles Shields

In the Boston Globe Steve Almond writes that the biography "provides a definitive and disturbing account of the late author... Shields is an exhaustive researcher with a knack for prose that is absorbing without being flamboyant."

David Ulin in the LA Times writes that the biography "is a problematic portrait, sketchy and pedantic by turns. Even without Vonnegut, Shields has done a lot of research, but although he loads the book with information, he never develops an integrated overview."

Ulin notes that Shields only met Vonnegut twice, thus the biography "steers clear of any real sense of who Vonnegut was."

In the New York Times Christopher Buckley observes that "Shields has a deep affection for his subject and does what he can to rebut charges of hypocrisy, but in this he is not entirely convincing. Vonnegut the staunch anti-Vietnam War spokesman couldn't be bothered to help his wife campaign for Eugene McCarthy... The champion of saving the planet and the Common Man also, we learn, owned shares in strip mining companies, malls and corporations with antiunion views."

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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