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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

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 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era