Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Geoff Dyer, Jodi Kantor and Roberto Bolaño

Zona by Geoff Dyer

In the Financial Times, Peter Aspden is initially sparing in his praise, noting that, although Dyer's celebration of Andrei Tarkovsky's fim Stalker is patient and straightforward, "it surely deserves more". Yet that expectation, too, is ultimately fulfilled, says Aspden: "[T]here is deft method in Dyer's fluent playfulness," he concedes, with "each scene in the film . . . scrupulously examined". Aspden is likewise taken with Dyer's intellectual integrity - he's an analyst who knows the limits of exegesis: "Describing a magical sequence . . . there is no interpretation offered, no larky digression". Dyer knows the difference between evaluative depth and metaphysical pretension, Aspden admiring him all the more for that intuition.

For Igor Toronyi-Lalic in the Telegraph Dyer's musings are so enchanting that they excite in him unrestrained nostalgia: "Dyer retraces the cinematography faithfully and beautifully. So beautifully, in fact, that I found it difficult not to start falling again for Tarkovsky." Toronyi-Lalic is as charmed by Dyer the Polymath as by Dyer the Interpreter: "no other writer can flex and stretch in digressive prose more congenially than Dyer," he says, adding: "The frame-by-frame minute-taking, then, becomes a springboard for an investigation into everything from faith to knapsacks. An investigation that is honest, irreverent, cranky and frequently hysterical." Even Toronyi-Lalic's criticisms of Dyer are tacit, saluting his brilliant rambling rather than aimless pontification: "For he is just as good gibbering on about nothing as he is in full analytical mode". Whatever the aesthetic density of Dyer's subject, Toronyi-Lalic sees in his work an analysis accessible to the layman as well as the informed reader: "Watch the film before you read the book if you like. But it's not compulsory, which says something of Dyer's style."

The Obamas: A Mission, a Marriage by Jodi Kantor

Kate Figes in theTelegraph sees Jodi Kantor's The Obamas: A Mission, a Marriage, not as some charmed account of a Chicago couple's fulfilment of political ambition, but as a portrait of a husband-wife unit as challenged and tense as any other. "It was Michelle," writes Figes, "who worried most about him standing for the top job because of her cynicism about the true power of politics; and it was Michelle who considered not moving into the White House at all to protect their children." Moreover, popular idealising of the Obamas is likewise given short shrift in Kantor's portrayal, Figes notes: "As the recession hit, the First Couple made classic media mistakes, seemingly living the good life - think of the now infamous Alice in Wonderland-themed party at the White House - or using costly security to go home to Chicago or out on a date." Nor, though, says Figes, is Kantor sparing in the superlatives, especially about Mrs Obama: "Her idealism, exactitude, unwillingness to settle for less than what they wanted," she writes, "were qualities on which her husband depended, especially when things were going badly." In charting the lives of two figures about whom so much is hopefully presumed rather than reliably asserted, Figes is impressed with Kantor's research: " [She] talked to some two hundred aides . . . and gives us the fullest picture of this presidency yet."

For Alec MacGillis in New Statesman, it is precisely the shortcomings of Kantor's diagnosis that illuminate the oddities of power: "Her account is imperfect but valuable, for it captures how disorientating has been the transition of this remarkably normal and well-grounded Chicago family into the surreal realm of official Washington". MacGillis locates in Kantor's analysis the political nuances of the President's role and the sometimes rumbustious quality of the First Lady's life behind the North Portico: "[There are] accounts of strife between Michelle and long-time Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett, and, on the other hand, aides such as the former spokesman Robert Gibbs and the former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel." Nonetheless, MacGillis detects a certain contrivance in Kantor's emphasis on Michelle: "[Her] co-starring role, is occasionally strained."

In the Guardian, Sarah Churchwell notes that Kantor's gratitude to her editor at the New York Times for "a four-year conversation about ambition, power, gender and public life" itself constitutes the broader theme and agenda of her book: "The Obamas is not quite a domestic biography, and not quite a political one. It's what might be called a biography of domestic politics: it's about the balance of power in a marriage between two exceptional people; the politics of living in the White House; and the Obamas' efforts to shape US domestic policies." Churchwell finds irony in the White House's keenness to downplay the alleged "contentiousness" of Kantor's account, noting that it is "neither particularly controversial, nor particularly dramatic". Cue further praise for Kantor's "judicious and perceptive book," the conclusion of which, she says, far from leaving important business unfinished, is legitimately breathless: "like this presidency . . . unfinished. That's because it is: we are all awaiting the ending, and the suspense is killing.

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño

For Giles Harvey in theGuardian the fact of Bolaño's mortality is an ideal criterion for our appreciation of his work: "That the anglophone world should experience Bolaño's oeuvre as a posthumous phenomenon is entirely appropriate, for his books are all about the obscure spell cast by the dead over the living." Adulation aside, Harvey notes that "the bottom of a drawer ... would seem to be the ideal place" for this novel. It represents one of the author's first attempts at fiction and "clunks and sputters with all the awkwardness you would expect from an apprentice work." Ultimately, says Harvey, paucity of circumstance and wealth of rhetoric pays off: "From here on in - and we are still not yet halfway through - the book rations incident almost to the point of starvation. As in a film by Antonioni, what we are left with - what we are forced to get by on - is atmosphere, pages and pages of the stuff". Nevertheless, "in its second half that the book starts to repay our attention. With passages that anticipate the dark, chaotic splendour of By Night in Chile, Udo's diary becomes a record of moral and psychological disintegration, swarming with toxic hallucinations and poignant non sequiturs."

Ángel Gurría-Quintana writes in the Financial Times that the curiosities of Bolaño's prose are matched by the odd timing of the novel's publication: "It is worth asking why Bolaño, who finished writing The Third Reich in 1989, did not make any efforts to publish it in his lifetime." That aside, Gurría-Quintana revels in Bolano's love of language: "[The book] is rich in startling images and [is] unapologetically literary."

ED THOMPSON / LUZ / EYEVINE
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"We’ve got things in common": why one of the EDL's original members quit

An early supporter of the group, painter-decorator Darren Carroll has had death threats since he left. But why did he change his mind about the English Defence League?

Darren Carroll is a slight man with bright blue eyes and an urgent need for redemption. A painter-decorator in his fifties, he has lived in Luton his whole life. He was one of the original members of the English Defence League (EDL), the far-right street movement founded by Carroll’s nephew Tommy Robinson.

Recently, things haven’t been easy. Four months before our meeting at a café near Luton Airport Parkway Station, Carroll had a minor stroke that affected his speech and vision. It was the delayed fallout from an attack in a pub across the road, his local. A stranger, who seemed to know a lot about him, started a conversation. “He showed me his arm. It was tattooed. There was a little bit of white skin left on the whole sleeve,” says Carroll. “He said, ‘Look at that.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘White is right.’ I said, ‘Nah, mate, I know exactly where you’re coming from. There’s nothing wrong with being white but there’s nothing right with it.’”

The man pretended to leave the pub, then walked back in and hit Carroll hard on the back of the head with his forearm. Afterwards, Carroll suffered persistent headaches. It caused a blood clot that set off the stroke. When we met, he had mostly recovered but was still unable to work.

It was not the first attack. Carroll has also had his front door kicked in. He and his children have received death threats. “This is since speaking up,” he says. “Not leaving – that’s different.”

Carroll looks uncomfortable when we discuss the early days of the EDL. “It was an organic thing,” he says. “Lots of people were involved at the very beginning for different reasons. Personally, I was not happy with the way the town was being run on a political level. Looking back, I was disenfranchised from mainstream politics.”

Luton has the dubious distinction of being a centre of both far-right and Islamist extremism. The EDL began here in 2009, in response to a demonstration organised by Anjem Choudary’s now banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun, which in turn was a reaction against an army regiment marching in Luton.

A counterprotest led to arrests and the EDL was born, with sometimes violent neo-fascist street protests spreading across the country. Robinson insisted from the outset that the EDL was not racist, but only “against the rise of radical Islam”. Carroll says it was local difficulties, rather than national issues such as immigration, that unsettled and motivated him – and he didn’t articulate the core problem as racism against white people, not even to himself. The EDL has never had a formal membership, but the think tank Demos estimated that there were between 25,000 and 35,000 active members in 2011, a loose coalition of football hooligans and far-right activists. Today, the numbers are much reduced.

Carroll’s family was closely involved and it was a while before he realised that the EDL was an extremist, racist group. He describes being at a demo in Birmingham soon after the first protest. “I looked at the other lads there and I didn’t like them. They didn’t smell right for me, as far as integrity goes. I thought, ‘I don’t want this.’” Carroll’s parents are Irish and he considers himself the child of immigrants.

It took several months for him to extricate himself from the group and stop attending demonstrations. “It’s a relationship breaker, so you’ve got to accept that things are broken for ever.” On building sites, he was known as the EDL guy. Work dried up.

Amid attempts to coerce him back into the movement, and concerned about damaging his family relationships, Carroll stayed silent for another year and a half, only starting to speak up a few years after he left the EDL. This triggered a new wave of threats. He reeled off a list of incidents: slashed tyres, smashed windows. “Last week, I got one on Facebook [saying] that I’m a ginger Muslim and I’m gonna get shot. That was someone I know privately, which I don’t take as a threat. Their particular problem seems to be that I’m on record saying I’d have a cup of tea in a mosque and sit down and talk to people.”

Carroll did so after seeing a Facebook post by a local activist, Dawood Masood. Masood had shared a video of an imam in Leicester speaking about terrorist violence, with a message saying that any EDL members were welcome to get in touch. Carroll met him and others from the Muslim community and they discussed ways to make Luton better. He told them that he wasn’t interested in religion, but invited them to what he considers his church: Luton Town FC.

“I had the idea it’s about setting precedents, because you never know who or what that affects,” he says. “I just thought, if I’m seen going to the football with them, it’s going to break a big piece of ice.”

As the EDL evolved largely from a football subculture, this was a bold step. They went to the match. “He’s Luton born and bred and he certainly don’t need his hand held. But I made him as comfortable as possible. Luton scored and he’s jumping up and down, loving it. At that point, I thought: ‘This is really Luton harmony. He’s cheering for the same thing and I’m cheering for the same thing. We’re both happy together at this moment in time. We’ve got things in common.’”

They have been to many matches since, Masood bringing his kids, Carroll his grandkids. Carroll has had a few threatening calls but remains undeterred. “The working-class Muslim lads are working-class Muslim lads. They’ve got all the same problems and social issues as us white, working-class people. It’s not just me or us. It’s everyone.” 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage