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.”

 

                                    

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In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

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 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism