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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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.