Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Will Ellsworth-Jones, Robert Macfarlane and John Updike.

Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall by Will Ellsworth-Jones

Banksy is an endlessly intriguing figure. This latest inquest into the man’s life asks probing questions of the Bristol-born artist’s life and legacy. “[Ellsworth-Jones's] book isn’t a biography, exactly,” write Tim Roby in the Telegraph, “it would be hard to write one when you’ve opted not to reveal the identity of your subject.”

Wynn Wheldon, writing in the Spectator, found much to like about this “competent, broadly sympathetic and enjoyable book”. He finds it an entertaining and informative story of a man Wheldon himself is charmed by, yet oddly uncertain about. “Will Ellsworth-Jones’s book hardly reveals ‘the man behind the wall’,” he writes, “but it does make clear how voracious a beast the art market is, and charts lucidly the way in which Banksy, a brilliant organiser, has tried to manipulate it to his own ends”.

Peter Conrad, in the Observer also finds the title of Ellsworth-Jones’s book slightly wanting, noting that the author does more to enhance the myth than he does to deconstruct it.  “Breaking the promise of its subtitle, Ellsworth-Jones's book catches no glimpse of the man behind the wall. All he can do is contribute to his mystique …But as in the case of Father Christmas, the legend, as Ellsworth-Jones says, is ‘better than the real thing’". He does, however, find the more journalistic probing of larger questions about the artist admirable. “Ellsworth-Jones writes perceptively about the 'ethical dilemmas' created by Banksy's marketing techniques… [Banksy] is shown by Ellsworth-Jones to be as capitalistic as his hero Damien Hirst. Banksy once wondered whether an artist should make money from work that was intended to draw attention to world poverty, and solved the problem by calling it ironic.”

 

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane is a man known for his long walks and thoughtful prose. His first book, Mountains on the Mind, was what Rachel Cooke, writing in the Observer, called a “meditation on altitude”. His next, The Wild Places, was the story of “all that is left untamed on our islands”. The Old Ways, she writes, is “a book about the consensual, habitual manner in which paths are formed and maintained down the ages,” one that “now completes this loose trilogy on the various ways we're shaped by landscape”.

Cook calls this collection of tales from Macfarlane’s rambles along the trails of the British Isles “an unwieldy rucksack of a book”, flitting as it does from location to location, from Sussex to the outer Hebrides, Tibet to Palestine, tracing the footsteps of famous poets and meeting tramps, travellers and shamans. On a walk with the author, Cooke acknowledges his great capacity for naturalism and romanticism: “The thought occurs that Macfarlane doesn't stumble on enchantment; he creates it. It is as though – batty as this sounds – it follows him about, the landscape and even the weather rising to meet the challenge of his prose.”

Sam Leith, in the Spectator, finds Macfarlane’s prose equally enchanting and joyfully unforced. “There’s little more tedious in a novel,” he writes, “than ostentatiously fine writing…It’s normally bad writing. But fine writing — in the sense of precise, careful and original prose; lyrical without being pretentious — does exist. Macfarlane is an example of it. His virtuosity isn’t unobtrusive, but his tics of style become familiar without drifting, quite, into mannerism or gimmickry.”

He applauds Macfarlane’s inspiring use of language and capacity to conjure up scene, setting and sentiment, and to engage the reader. “You see these trees and pathways; you hear those birds. And there really are few prose writers who take such a poet’s care with cadence…. . If you submit to its spell you finish it in different shape than you set out: a bit wiser, a bit lonelier, a bit happier, a whole lot better informed, and a bit more tempted to pop in to Millets.”

 

Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism by John Updike

This collection of essays and criticism cuts a nice cross-section from the journalism of the late John Updike. Adam Mars-Jones writes for the Guardian: “Once or twice in the book Updike excels himself, once or twice he falls short of his own standards, and once or twice he produces work which stands at an odd angle to his usual preoccupations.” He is particularly impressed with Updike’s witty and surprisingly enjoyable musings on golf. “The pages on this subject provide some of the book's high points," he writes. “This is an America not much written about in the last half-century, not even by Updike.”

Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times praises Updike’s literary versatility: “Updike was that rare creature: an all-around man of letters, a literary decathlete who brought to his criticism an insider’s understanding of craft and technique.” Although she notes it “lacks the deeply thought-out literary essays” of previous anthologies, as well as containing a few “disposable scraps of writing”, overall she concedes that it “offers the reader plenty of palpable pleasures, reminding us of the author’s sorcererlike ability to evoke the worlds other artists created with a simple wave of his wand, and his talent for making scholarly topics feel utterly immediate and real.”

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst uses his review for the Telegraph to celebrate a writer whose “prose had the sort of swaggering brilliance that surpassed his readers’ expectations and left them wanting even more”. Again, he sidesteps the “weaker pieces” and chooses rather to focus on Updike’s deft critique of artists and writers such as F Scott Fitzgerald and Vermeer. “It will be required reading for Updike’s many fans,” he concludes, “but it also serves as an excellent pick ’n’ mix introduction to his omnivorous intellectual range.”

A piece of Banksy artwork gets shelter under a plastic cover in North London, May 2012 (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder