Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Colm Tóibín, John Lanchester and Stefan Collini

New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and their Families by Colm Tóibín

In the Financial Times, NS editor Jason Cowley advises caution, lest a brutally honest memoirist be one of our own: "Beware the family that has a writer in its midst, the one who watches, records, remembers and confesses ... those closest to them invariably suffer most". Cowley observes how Tóibín's anthology is semi-autobiographical rather than purely a commentary on the lives of others: "In New Ways to Kill Your Mother, a series of review-essays, he works away at and through his obsessions: family, homosexuality, homeland, the anxiety of influence." Cowley acknowledges Tóibín's "understandable interest" in other Irish writers, but wonders if his essay on Beckett carries either sufficient insight or the scholarly appreciation exhibited by others: "But one has little sense from it of the complexity of Beckett's relationship with his mother; you have only a mild sense of the misunderstanding that existed between them. It was written before the publication of the second volume of The Letters in 2011 (no attempt was made to update the essay or to write a postscript to it, as Martin Amis did to the literary essays collected in The Moronic Inferno: And Other Visits to America)." Cowley notes certain of the book's continuities, but feels the project could have been more tightly executed: "As it is, these review-essays share a family resemblance as themes overlap and interconnect, but the whole turns out to be rather less than the sum of its parts."

John Preston, in the Telegraph, detects a Freudian inevitability in child-maternal acrimony, citing how many writers commit literary matricide: "It comes as no surprise to learn that writers should often have had troubled relationships with their mothers, but as Colm Tóibín points out, the real interest lies in seeing how they exact their revenge. They do so in a lot of cases by murdering them - not in cold blood, but metaphorically, on the page." Citing Tóibín's perceptive solitary essay on a female author, Preston notes Jane Austen's exclusion of a mother figure in the name of a protagonist's burgeoning independence: "There is a long and surprisingly distinguished history of matricide in fiction - especially in the 19th-century novel. Jane Austen's last three novels all have motherless heroines and they do so, Tóibín believes, for a very good reason. "Mothers get in the way in fiction; they take up the space that can be better filled by ... the slow growth of a personality." Without mothers, Austen's heroines are free to grow outside of the family's arena of influence - and to become themselves." For Preston, Tóibín is as able a historian as he is a storyteller: "Delicacy is one of Tóibín's great strengths as a novelist, and it's here in abundance, too."

* Colm Tóibín's New Ways to Kill Your Mother will be reviewed in the next issue of New Statesman.

Capital by John Lanchester

In the Guardian, Theo Tait sees in London-based epic Capital the aspirations of multiculturalism and the cruder reality of financial meltdown: "Roger Yount, an investment banker; Zbiegniew, a Polish builder; Matya, a Hungarian nanny; Freddy Kano, a young Senegalese professional footballer; the Kamals, a British Pakistani family who run the corner shop; Quentina, a Zimbabwean traffic warden; and Petunia, an elderly working-class woman - the last of the aborigines. The story begins just before Roger's bonus is revealed to him in December 2007; it ends in November 2008, with the world economy grinding to a halt." Whilst pointing out that sharp cultural insight is sometimes lacking in a text as sweeping and broad as Capital, Tait acknowldges Lanchester's spirited efforts to achieve a sharper focus: "a decent stab at describing what it must be like to run a corner shop, or to be detained under terrorism laws, or to leave a shack in Senegal to play alongside world-famous footballers". Tait, with cautious praise, notes that Lanchester's slightly flat conclusion is no anti-climax: "All in all, Capital is a diverting read. It holds your attention all the way to its strangely inconsequential ending, and will probably sell well".

For Keith Miller, in the Telegraph, Lanchester heeds William James's advice that we must intuit what to leave out: "Capital attempts an allegorical portrait of the Smoke during those turbulent times. Squeezing a bafflingly diverse city of more than seven million inhabitants into even quite a thick book without letting a good portion of the diversity slide is a tall order: to pluck a few examples out of the air, there are no Brazilians, intellectuals, charity muggers, public-sector employees, gangsters, media workers or entertainers in these pages. But the book is a more or less unimpeachably plausible portrait of one (fictional) street in Clapham, a popular south London 'village' where a spacious but fairly hideous Victorian house can command a price approaching a hundred times the UK's median annual income." To the purported truth that deft characterisations are key to a sound narrative, Lanchester, says Miller, was long ago converted: "Gently and slowly, Lanchester tightens the screws, alternating hope and despair, flitting between protagonists neatly and dexterously. New characters are introduced: a successful, terrible street artist (all street artists are terrible, though not all, significantly, are successful) called Smitty, the newsagent's brothers Usman and the hapless jihadi-turned-web designer Shahid." Though the scope of Lanchester's ambition here is daunting, Miller identifies an attractively costive, nuanced style: "There is a reticence, an austerity - to use a modish term - about the book that I very much liked."

* John Lanchester's Capital will be reviewed in the next issue of New Statesman.

What Are Universities For? by Stefan Collini

In the New Statesman, Alan Ryan sees two disciplines fusing in Stefan Collini's timely primer on the current state of higher education: "It is really two books, the second half more polemical and the first half an essay in cultural criticism", merging Collini's contribution to an ongoing dialogue with a series of pieces he has published in different journals. Not, says Ryan, that the two styles don't fit together: "The two halves of the book hang together because Collini has a very definite vision of what universities can contribute to the welfare of societies that shelter them and pay for them, and an equally definite vision of the ways in which the higher education policies of successive UK governments since 1980 have made it hard for them to do it." Whilst echoing Collini's advocacy of learning for its own sake, Ryan worries the liberal ideal will be entirely subservient to corporate dogma: "Not that I imagine that the new breed of CEO vice-chancellor, let alone a government that parks universities under the umbrella of "business, innovation and science", will understand the point of even take any notice of it."

Sir Howard Newby, in the Independent, wonders whether this volume's inclusion of Collini's articles from the London Review of Books and elsewhere, supposedly to make them more widely accessible, is entirely valid: "Their inclusion is justified on the grounds that they are thereby made more available. In reality, they serve to demonstrate how much Collini's thinking has matured and moved on." Yet, these fragments are not without their value, observes Newby: "It does, though, focus on some easy targets - the depressing utilitarianism of the debate over the past 30 years; the decline of trust in professional judgments and the rise of egregious audit; the conflation of quality and standards." Ultimately, then, Newby, like Collini, condemns the bureaucracy to which higher education is increasingly vulnerable, and says that, if nothing else, the book does what it says on the tin: "Collini's book, I hope, will kick-start a serious debate. As a precursor, he has successfully reminded us what, indeed, universities are for."

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.