Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

 

Film

Independent Cinemas - Berberian sound studio, 31 August

Following up his lauded debut, Katalin Varga, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio is being called the stand-out film at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival. Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a reserved but prominent sound engineer employed by director Santini (Antonio Mancino) to create the soundtrack to his hammy horror film. In the claustrophobic studio, Gilderoy sets to the gruesome work of mutilating vegetables in facsimile of on-screen violence, yet as his psychological strain makes itself known boundaries start to blur.

Art

Southbank Centre – Unlimited, 30 August – 9 September

The Olympics and art have had a close relationship ever since 1912, when art competitions figured as part of the games. Timed to coincide with this year’s Paralympics, Unlimited is a Southbank exhibition that has invited deaf and disabled artists to push themselves to reach previously unattained goals. Consisting of 29 commissions, Unlimited's range includes dance, live arts, visual arts, music and theatre.

Book

Mortality – Christopher Hitchens, 1 September

When author and former New Statesman staffer Christopher Hitchens died last December, a wave of tributes came from public figures as diverse as Tony Blair, Richard Dawkins and Martin Amis. His 13th and final book, Mortality, is published this Saturday. An exploration of how his cancer was "deporting" him “from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady”, Mortality is a haunting account of one man lucidly examining his on coming death.

TV

BBC1 - Dr who 1 September, 7.20

In this weeks New Statesman, Alwyn W Turner examines the Daleks’ history as SF representations of the Nazi in time for the new Dr Who series, which will land on British TV screens this Saturday. At the ripe old age of 49, the cry of "Exterminate!" is getting a little tired, though we’ve been told that celebrated writer Steven Moffat has found an original angle to teach old Daleks new tricks - for the first time in the show's history they need Dr Who’s help.

Festival

Granary Square - King’s Cross Ice cream Festival, 1-2 September

Did you know that Carlo Gatti, the man who brought who brought ice cream to England, lived in King’s Cross? From his house he sold his famous "penny licks", which will be brought back by the Kings Cross Ice Cream Festival this weekend. As well as celebrating the history of the treat, the free festival will showcase the best of London ice cream and offer visitors the opportunity to be inducted into the craft all the way from milking the cow to the first lick.

Ice cream eating, which there will be plenty of opportunity to do at Kings Cross Ice Cream Festival (Image: Getty)
Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder