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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit