Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Thomas Frank, Tessa Hadley and Bill Cash.

Pity the Billionaire by Thomas Frank

In the Observer, Nick Cohen writes: "Considering what conservatives allowed financial markets to do, the fact that the right could be furious with anyone but itself is an astonishing story and one that Thomas Frank was born to cover." Cohen calls Frank " one of the best leftwing writers America has produced," and admits that "before I read this book, I assumed that the extremism of the Tea Party would guarantee Obama a second term, however dismal his performance in office had been. Now I am not so sure."

In the New York Times, Michael Kinsley observes that Pity the Billionaire "is not the world's most subtle political critique. But subtlety isn't everything. Frank's best moments come when his contempt boils over and his inner grouch is released." Of Frank's criticism of Obama, Kinsley writes that the President "deserves a bit more credit from the left than Frank is willing to give him." Kinsley concludes: "It would have been nice to know a bit more about where Thomas Frank is coming from. Otherwise, he starts to sound like those Tea Party people whom he rightly mocks for being very, very angry with no idea why or what to do about it."

Mark Greif, in this week's New Statesman, argues that Frank fails to make the case that the US Tea Party movement articulates the genuine grievances of ordinary Americans: "What matters about the Tea Party is not that it represents the grief of ordinary Americans at vanished savings, lost jobs and underwater mortgages. On the contrary, it has articulated the fears of a small propertied class, past the age of educating children or raising families, which worries that it will have to pay a price for the rest of society, and which nurtures a pre-existing rage at immigrants and a liberal black president."

Gillian Tett in the Financial Times writes that the book "deserves to be read by right and left alike. It certainly does not pretend to be neutral or scientific; Frank is an avowed liberal and fierce critic of the Republicans. But the thesis is provocative, and the book is witty and highly readable."

Married Love by Tessa Hadley

In the Independent, Rachel Hore reads the stories in Hadley's new collection as "movie clips of lives in transit, their small shifts of focus yielding up flashes of psychological insight." "Her tales, told in light, deft prose, are engagingly lifted by humour." Hore praises the variation in form and observes that "Hadley's endings are rarely neatly tied; it's as though she prefers to leave her readers to revisit and work everything out themselves. This nearly always delivers rich pleasures."

In the New Statesman, Olivia Laing writes: "Hadley's facility with changes in emotional weather is matched by a knack for aphoristic expression." She draws comparisons with the work of Chekhov, observing that "[a]s in Chekhov, there is a sense, in this deliberate understatement, that one is seeing the world as it is, unadorned and unconcerned".

Edmund Gordon in the Observer calls Hadley's prose style "delicate, restrained, sometimes erring on the side of formality; her narratives chart upheavals of the heart with earnest attention to psychological development. The world she writes about is ethnically homogenous but social distinctions are microscopically observed." Gordon calls Hadley "one of the most clear-sighted chroniclers of contemporary emotional journeys" and concludes that "she excites... in the freshness and variety of her perceptions, the way she uses established techniques to tell us urgent truths about the here and now."

In the Spectator, Philip Womack argues that Hadley is "one of the most interesting writers around... This collection shows a writer quietly growing in style, perception and grace. She conveys to the reader that rare ability to see completely into someone else's head."

John Bright: Statesman, Orator, Agitator by Bill Cash

Tristram Hunt in the Guardian reveals that Cash is actually a distant cousin of Victorian statesman John Bright. "The result is a welcome biography of the remarkable Quaker, orator and agitator behind the repeal of the Corn Laws, the 1867 Reform Act, and the mid-19th century spirit of pacific internationalism." Hunt calls the biography "a meditation on the nature of true, authentic conservatism" and remarks that it "often reads as a cumulative series of intense, male friendships between Bright and such people as Gladstone, Disraeli and Chamberlain."

Writing in the Spectator, Jane Ridley calls the biography "an oddly old-fashioned account. Cash is not interested in exploring Bright's ideas about democracy, for example, in the context of the time. He makes little of Bright's private life. Bright suffered a major breakdown in 1856, brought on by his unpopularity for opposing the Crimean War, and he retired from public speaking for two years; but the author makes no attempt to probe this puzzling episode."

Hunt concludes that the author "spends too little time on situating Bright within his times... The political life - masterfully recounted - can sometimes feel overbearing. This book is as much about Cash as Bright."

George Eaton in this week's New Statesman calls the biography "thoughtful and perceptive" and praises Cash's attempts to "rescue Bright from obscurity". Eaton draws on the similarities between the two men, notably their commitment to civil liberties, parliamentary sovereignty and backbench independence. Eaton concludes that Bright "would surely have appreciated Cash's intellectually subtle and deftly written work. At last, his extraordinary life has the biography it deserves."

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Why do games do revolutionary politics so badly?

Too often, you know who the good guys and the bad guys are, but not why.

It is one of the ironies of videogames that they often embrace some of the most radically political situations in the most noncommittal ways possible. After all, just because a game features a violent revolution or a war, that doesn’t mean the developers want to be seen to take sides. The results of this can be unintentionally funny, creepy, or just leave you wondering if you should disconnect your brain before playing, as if the intended audiences are shop window mannequins and crash test dummies.

A recent example of a game falling over itself to be apolitical is Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, an open world game about stabbing people set in London around 1886. The game has you embarking on an extended campaign against a secret organisation which controls London, and by implied extension the British Empire as a whole. You fight against them by murdering assorted senior personnel (as well as hundreds of affiliated henchmen), sabotaging their various endeavours and generally unleashing all manner of mayhem against the group.

Why do we do this? Well, because we’re reliably informed that the people we are killing are members of the Templars or are working for them, which is apparently a group of Very Bad People, and not like the Assassins, who are much better, apparently. London under Templar control is bad, apparently, and under Assassin control we are told it will be better for everyone, though we never really find out why.

Your credentials for being on the side of righteousness seem to stem from the fact that when you meet famous historical figures like Charles Darwin or Florence Nightingale they seem to like you and let you help them out in various ways (usually but not exclusively related to stabbing people). The rationale presumably being that since Charles Darwin is a great man slashing throats at his behest reflects well on our heroes.

Even in these interactions however the game is painfully noncommittal, for example your characters in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate will happily to kill police officers for Karl Marx, but they don’t actually join the Worker’s Party, because heaven help us if it turned out that either of our heroes did anything that might suggest an underlying ideology.

It feels very much that when a developer is so timid in attaching defining ideological or political qualities to the characters or groups in the game then Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is what you end up with. There is no sense that your characters stand for anything, at least not intentionally. Instead your hero or heroine wanders around a genuinely beautiful rendition of Victorian London trying their absolute level best to not offend the sensibilities of anybody (while stabbing people).

By contrast something like Saints Row 3 handles this sort of system altogether better. Saints Row 3 works along a set of almost identical mechanics for how the struggle for control of the city plays out; do an activity, claim an area then watch your minions move in. However what Saints Row 3 does is cast you as an anti-hero. The design is self-aware enough to know that you can’t treat somebody as a regular hero if their most common form of interaction with other people is to kill them in cold blood. Your character is motivated by revenge and by greed, which is probably terrible karma but at least it gives you a sense of your characters purpose.

Another approach is to have the antagonists of the story carry the political weight and let the motivations of the heroes become ennobled by the contrast. The best example of this is a game called The Saboteur. By setting the game in occupied Paris during World War Two, ensuring that everybody you kill is a Nazi or Nazi collaborator, everything is good clean fun. We know that Nazis are bad and the game doesn’t need to go to great lengths to explain why, it’s accepted ideological shorthand. Another example of this is Blazkowicz, the hero in the Wolfenstein games; here the character is not engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering people, he is engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering Nazis.

When it comes to games set in World War Two it is still possible to mess things up when trying to be even handed. For example Company of Heroes 2, a strategy game set on the Russian Front, takes such pains to remind us of the ruthlessness of the Soviets that it ends up accidentally making the fascists look like the heroes. The trick would seem to be when approaching a historical situation with a clear villain then you don’t need to be even handed. It’s a videogame where tanks have health bars after all, not a history book.

Of course it can be argued that none of this ideological and political emptiness in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate makes it any less fun, and to a point this is true. The mechanical elements of the game are not affected by the motivations of the character but the connection between player and character is. As such the motivation to keep playing over hours and hours of repetitive activities suffers badly. This is a problem that past Assassin’s Creed games have not been too troubled by, for instance in Black Flag, the hero was a pirate and his ideology based around the consumption of rum, accumulation of doubloons and shooting cannonballs at the Spanish navy made complete sense.

If a game is going to base itself around important events in the lives of its characters it has to make those characters stand for something. It may not be something every player or potential player agrees with, but it’s certainly more entertaining than watching somebody sit on a fence (and stab people).

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture