Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Adam Phillips, Paul Theroux and Dambisa Moyo.

Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, by Adam Phillips

Adam Phillips cares about who you want to be. In this collection of five essays, he claims "that our unlived lives – the lives we live in fantasy, the wished-for lives – are often more important to us than our so-called lived lives.” Christina Patterson claims, in the Independent, that the book is “all interesting stuff … peppered with the kind of insights that make you scrawl 'yes!' in the margins on almost every page.” Focused on the fantasy life, this book is, at its core, about “what you can't and shouldn't want to get.” It attacks these intangible but universal truths of the fantasy life and provides the reader with “glimpses of the real, true, messy and never knowable human heart.”

Talitha Stevenson, in this week’s New Statesman, and James Lasdun, in the Guardian, disagree. Far from showing a glimpse of a messy truth, this collection of essays seems to have messed lines of literature and psychiatry to the point of obscurity. Lasdun argues that “the places where Phillips permits himself to write from direct professional experience are incomparably more persuasive and engaging, and I wished there were more of them.” Stevenson echoes this, going so far as to say that although Phillips is “master of the lexical sleight of hand”, his movement between psychoanalyst and literary critic leaves a confused style which “is all so elegant, so intelligent, that to point this out is to call the emperor naked.” Despite the truths which Patterson may have found in this book, it seems that many of the concepts are left to be too abstract, poetical and beautifully obscure. In Stevenson’s words “to favour fantasy-fantasy over reality-fantasy is to fantasise a great deal away”.

The Lower River, by Paul Theroux

The Lower River paints a “savage, sometimes shocking story of love lost and won”, reports Christopher Hope in the Guardian. A story of an American returning to happy memories of being upheld as a hero in an undeveloped African village, Theroux’s novel follows closely the deep disappointment of a man whose hopes are reduced by reality. Touching on truth, both autobiographical and political, The Lower River “is a masterly, moving portrait of how Africa ensnares and enchants and plays merry hell with sentimentalities.” More than that, it manages to depict honestly the impact of the aid which Hock, the main character, so loved providing to this small African village, which left the years later “hungry, desperate and angry”, “unhappier and more dependent than ever”. This book reads true and by that it is “likely to cause some consternation- and so much the better if it does.”

Philip Womack, writing in the Telegraph, argues that novels about Africa are steeped in literary history, from Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, both empowering and constraining the modern writer. Theroux’s writing rises to the challenge and with “solemn, sleek sentences of acute descriptive ability” he is able to “induce a tension of uncanny grip”. With a delicate understanding of the subject matter, both the internal struggle for a return to happiness and the external realities of the difficulties of the villagers, Theroux succeeds in moving beyond the constraints of  the Heart of Darkness. He creates a “tensely woven fiction that is a shocking commentary on human nature, and how it deals, brutally, with what it believes to be “other””.

Winner Take All, by Dambisa Moyo

Dambisa Moyo’s first book, Dead Aid, received widespread accreditation and support. Writing on aid in this week’s issue of the New Statesman, she put forward a debate to rival that of Paddy Ashdown. High hopes, therefore, surrounded the release of Winner Take All. They were hopes which David Blair, writing in the Telegraph, claims were dashed. The issue of the longevity of China’s meteoric growth is increasingly important in an economically uncertain world; “this is just the moment for a good China book, soberly assessing the country’s prospects, refusing to assume that the future must be like the past”. A “good China book” is not, he argues, what Moyo has produced. It is, instead “a flawed and frustrating book, simplistic, poorly written, careless with facts and largely devoid of originality”. Lacking original research, “this book clearly owes much to Google: the author relies entirely on reports downloaded from the United Nations and sundry think tanks.” Worse, though, the book manages to paint a picture of disaster without a focus on the possibility of reduced growth: “Wen Jiabao’s worries about the future viability of China’s model are not even considered.”

John Gapper, at the Financial Times, has more time for Moyo’s book. He argues that “one cannot accuse Moyo of failing to do her homework. So much has been packed into it that her book is impossible to read without learning something. Even asides such as her explanation of the potential and risks of shale gas fracking are replete with numbers and tables.” However, even with this compliment, Gapper admits, that rather than being a measured and considered weighing of arguments, Winner Take All is “a warning of crippling resource scarcity”, “a Malthusian future of shortages of everything from water to food”. Winner Take All appears unbalanced and unconsidered, but above all, when looking at the picture Moyo paints of the future “In the end, we have to hope she’s wrong”.

The mixed impact of international aid and intervention is considered in Theroux's fiction and Moyo's reports. Picture: Getty Images
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In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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