In the Critics this week

Claire Lowdon objects to one novel on the Man Booker longlist, Ryan Gilbey talks female role models in Pixar's Brave and Jonathan Coe applauds Javier Marías’s attempts to reimagine the novel.

This week’s The Critics is a Summer Fiction Special that, if one is to judge by its opening image of three nude readers, aims to reveal all in contemporary literature, save, of course, for the small modesty provided by a carefully positioned book.

Sarah Churchwell finds no such constraint in Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time, whose protagonist is a novelist primarly concerned with fucking his mother in law and “the fate of the priapic novel.” She concludes that “certainly people who like this kind of thing will find throughout Zoo Time an exemplary instance of the kind of thing they like”, but appears a little scathing of the fact that “the phallus is a semi-universal symbol for several reasons, one of which is that some male writers can’t seem to resist trying to stick it everywhere”.

Ryan Gilbey in his review of the film, Brave, is more interested in the focus, or lack there of, on the fairer sex when he remarks that “most animated features make no secret of favouring the Y chromosome”. As Brave is notably, and shamefully, the first Pixar to feature a female progatonist. Yet Gilbey believes that “it’s no footling matter for Brave to buck the trend by focusing on a mother/daughter relationship, even if gender idiosyncrasies are absorbed into a stock narrative about learning to be a team player.”

Though on the page Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, can occasionally be as fierce as Brave’s Merida, Sophie Elmhirst finds her to be a more reflective character. “You wonder if that mind of hers, as it goes about its gleaning, requires the rest of her to wait in repose until it is ready to spill.” Robinson's writing, bears “the care of someone who feels the place of every word in line. There are no assumptions either, particularly in her non-fiction: only the stubborn desire to hold up patterns of thought to the light and expose their holes.”

Claire Lowdon is less kindly to Nicola Barker's novel The Yips. Unimpressed at its place on the Man Booker Prize-longlist, she finds it inferior to the author's previous work. “Darkmans is a much tighter novel, with a strong narrative voice and a mischievous plot that manipulates the characters almost as masterfully as Nabokov’s Laughter in the dark.”

Jonathan Coe, however, admires Javier Marías’s attempts to reimagine the novel. “After the modernist revolution, most novelists blithely carried on as before, but a handful of writers have sinced applied themselves to the task of rebuilding things… and Marías’s lithe, unreliable sentences are among his contributions to this enterprise.” This art, combined with Marías’s ability to tell a good story, leads Coe to conclude that A Heart So White is “a novel to treasure.”

In other reviews Leo Robson uses Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk; The Jump Artist to question the lofty ambitions of debut novelists, Talitha Stevenson examines John Banville’s Ancient Light and Jane Shilling reflects upon the dark arts of Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate.

Matt Trueman, meanwhile, gives an early update on theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe, where “audiences are won over by artistry, more than they are by art. After all if you’ve got something urgent to say, the middle of the world’s most crowded art’s festival is hardly the most effective platform. This year, however… the Fringe seems to be full of fighting talk.” He is particularly compelled by Caroline Horton’s Mess, which he describes as “kids’ show. For adults. About anorexia. The candyfloss and fairy lights aesthetic rubs against the subject matter brilliantly, as it manages to show the world as Josephine sees it. It feels light-headed and giddy. You can’t see the  protruding bones that cause her boyfriend to flinch but you know they’re there.”

Drawing our attention back to the main celebration this summer is Rachel Cooke's survey of Olympic broadcasting, which inspires in her “sudden love” and yet “something dark”, which occasionally “tips over into pure loathing. I refer, naturally, not to those taking part in the games, but to those covering them.” Her aversion is directed towards the likes of Gaby Logan and “John Inverdale, a man who reminds me strongly of a World of Leather sofa, so strangely unyielding and too squat for the space he is inhabiting”, but she adores Clare Balding. “Some people want to be on television for its own sake… Not Balding. It’s the sport she likes and the people who do it… Medal winners, you may have noticed, tend to kiss her, not the other way round.”

This week's Critics also features orginal poetry and fiction. A Kindness, a short story by Adam Foulds, explores a moment of charity, charming in it's unextraordinary nature, but echoing almost existentially in its setting of a bleak corner shop. A similar everyday vacuity reverberates in Emily Berry’s poem Nothing sets my heart aflame. “My crisis is relatively universal,” she writes, “every time I think a new thought I can smell an old one burning.”

To top everything off is Will Self’s accustomed penetrating wit as he tries to escape the tyranny of muzak, this “sonic sewage” of “soft rock music” “mind-control”, against which resistance is futile. “I thought I was about to be dragged away to some inhuman reconditioning unit, where, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, I would be subjected to muzak until I learned to love it. But this didn’t happen, because I was in just such a unit already.”

 

                                    

A man laps up some summer fiction (Image: Getty)
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution