Preview: Mind as matter

The human brain is endlessly fascinating, much misunderstood and disconcertingly squidgy. A new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London, Brains: the Mind as Matter will bring together both new commissions and artefacts from the archives in characteristic interdisciplinary style - tools used to examine the brain sit alongside works from contemporary artists, human specimens are accompanied by short films, even Einstein's grey matter will make an appearance. The show's guest curator, Marius Kwint, makes it clear the approach isn't a purely scientific one: "The exhibition takes a look at the history of scientific practices rather than the technicalities of the brain's processes. We look at the physical matter of the brain as a way to unravel cultural practices. In many ways, I suppose you could call it the material culture of science".

To organise such a large quantity of material, the exhibition is divided into four sections: "Measuring/Classifying" looks at the history of how societies have attempted to use brain assessments to grade humans according to race, intelligence, class and other social attributes; "Mapping/Modelling" features a variety of representations of the brain's anatomy, including early visualisations by Reisch, Vesalius and Descartes; "Cutting/Treating" explores the history of surgical intervention, or as Kwint calls it, "a glorified form of DIY"; finally, "Giving/Taking" looks at the politics of brain donation and harvesting in more detail.

It's not all gore and taboos, however. "There is, we hope, an upbeat finish," says Kwint. "The final section features interviews with people who have decided to donate their brains to medical research after they've died, and highlights the real need for more research into neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's and dementia, the likes of which are reaching near epidemic levels." The exhibition will also draw attention to the lack of progress in the development of treatments for brain tumours, an area that continues to lag behind research into other forms of cancer.

The works range from a 5000-year-old skull to contemporary pieces from Helen Pynor and Andrew Carnie. So why are we still so in awe of this particular organ? "With all our technology," says Kwint, "it is still impossible to wholly understand the processes of the brain. Its capabilities are not dependent on genetics - the brain is in constant dialogue with the environment, and I think that's the thing that fascinates people. It's the almost incomprehensible idea that this tissue, this object, can produce such strong and vivid emotions within us."

It all sounds very enlightening, but won't visitors find it all a bit gruesome? Kwint is reassuring: "We don't intend to shock, but I'm sure it will provoke some strong reactions! It's certainly anatomically unflinching - we want it to be a truly visceral experience."

"Brains: the Mind as Matter" opens on 29 March at the Wellcome Collection.

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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

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

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge