Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Will Self, Nicholson Baker and Javier Marias.

There was an undeniably modernist edge to many of the books covered in the past week's reviews. Not least Javier Marias's A Heart So White, which, the New Statesman's Jonathan Coe asserts, is doing nothing less than "trying to rebuild the novel form." "After the modernist revolution, most novelists blithely carried on as before but a handful of writers have since applied themselves to the task of rebuilding things" and Marias's book, first published in 1992 and reissued this year by Penguin, is a "deadly-serious attempt to keep the novel, as a form alive and evolving." From the very first line "any promise of a conventionally linear narrative is immediately shattered". "For, "like Laurence Sterne, Marias is prey to profound scepticism about the novel's capacity to render the complexity of subjective human experience in anything other than the crudest, most approximate way." Though his "lithe, unreliable sentences" make it "a more opaque, demanding work than its predecessor", All Souls, Coe is adamant that A Heart So White is "a novel to treasure."

Boyd Tonkin must have been in similar mind when he exclaimed in the Independent that “sentence by glorious sentence, is there a better novelist alive in Europe now than Javier Marias?” “Translated by Margaret Jull Costa, this novel starts from a suicide to explore the secrets of two marriages with all the hypnotic, even sinister, beauty of his style.” GQ calls it a “haunting portrayal of two generations, two marriages, the relentless power of the past and the terrible price of knowledge.”

Carrying on the modernist baton is Will Self's latest and Man Booker long-listed novel, Umbrella, the radical structure of which Self claims to have modelled on its titular object. Thus the three main narrative "spokes" configure around Audrey, a pacifist arms factory worker in 1918, Zack, a 1970s psychiatrist, who is trying to cure Audrey, who has been trapped in a catatonic state for decades by Encephalitis lethargica, and Zack as a retired divorcee in 2010.

Following the controversy of last year’s Man Booker, Mark Lawson notes in the Guardian that Umbrella “is widely seen as a deliberate correction to the controversial plea from last year's judges for "readability", and some may conclude that Self's book represents the opposite quality.” “The book is, in effect, a single paragraph of 397 pages and around 120,000 words”. Its challenging structure is vindicated by being “clearly encouraged by the subject-matter: Encephalitis lethargica represents a paradox of consciousness, in which the patient, though in medico-legal terms still here, is predominantly somewhere else.” And “though hard work is certainly demanded from the reader, it is always rewarded.”

This, no doubt, is one prong of Self’s modernist desideratum. Matt Thorne, writing for the Independent, is interested in the claim in the blurb that “not only suggests 'he is taking up the challenge of Modernism', but states that only Modernism alone 'can unravel new and unsettling truths about our world'. It's a bold claim, but Self has never lacked ambition.” Yet he believes that Self does “something different than the Modernist writer: not so much following Ezra Pound's instruction to 'make it new', but instead making the old new.” “The style may be new (for Self, at least), but the content remains familiar: a Swiftian disgust with the body; a fastidious querulousness about human sexuality; a forcing of attention on human frailty.” Self’s trademark luxuriating in language is also present: “here he has great fun snuffling out forgotten words, which increases the verisimilitude of his period writing and gives the prose a dense texture absent from much historical fiction.” Thorne echoes Lawson when he admits that, though this abets Umbrella’s nature as “a somewhat remorseless read”, “its challenges seem, for the most part, worthwhile.”

Yet it’s unsurprising that Self's experimental style repels some reviewers. Metro’s Anthony Cummins assaults it alliteratively as “a bamboozling breezeblock of a book” with “little by way of an anchor for those who feel adrift in what isn’t so much a stream of consciousness as a tidal wave.” He concedes that if you “stick with it . . . the novel’s politics begin to bite in a surprisingly moving story of common people crushed by the state,” yet he fears that “if Umbrella bags the Booker, it may be a novel more bought than read.”

(To read the New Statesman's take on Umbrella, pick up the next issue, out on Thursday.)

Similarly, the inventive, yet sometimes intractable, prose of Nicholson Baker’s The Way the World Works seems to both beguile reviewers and make them despair, sometimes all at once. “There is a lulling quality to Nicholson Baker’s writing,” George Pendle writes in the Financial Times, “a tweedy sincerity and good humour that makes it easy to forget what a fundamentally radical author he is.” “Simply sitting down in a chair is for Baker what casting off from shore was for Melville . . . This is a world of tiny sensation enlarged into giant stepping stones of experience.” Little wonder then that the “intensity of detail can seem almost hallucinogenic” or “induce vertigo in his descriptions of the fathomless depths that our most mundane surrounds hold within them.” “His obsessive curiosity is “a way of ordering and indeed paring down the wildness of the world. But if anything, this curiosity takes us to places that are much wilder and more disorientating.”

The New York Times’s reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, is left with a less favourable after taste. She calls it a “hodge-podgy collection”, though titled The Way the World Works, she argues "it’s anything but a wide-angled take on the human condition". It is, rather, "just another random anthology”, the component pieces of which “vary greatly in quality. Some showcase his eye for detail and his ability to nail down those details in velvety, Updikean prose. Some read like parodies of self-absorption” and even the “more substantive essays also fluctuate wildly in their persuasiveness.” However, Kakutani does soften these criticisms by acknowledging that Baker is “adept at coming up with evocative analogies” and is a “remarkably observant witness” in the essays on technology.

David L Ulin, writing in the Los Angeles Times disagrees: “[T]his is a random collection, Baker is telling us, that turns out not to be so random, in much the same way as the world it seeks to explain.” “Here we see Baker's aesthetic in a nutshell: whimsical, self-reflective, always looking at the line between imagination and reality; it's an aesthetic of connection, of possibility.” He calls it a “literary cartography: Baker mapping his own mind”, that offers an insight into “how we think, our idiosyncratic dance with both experience and memory, defines who we are.” “Yet, despite the acuity of these connections, there is something about The Way the World Works that feels a little scattershot. This is in the nature of collections, but if Baker mitigates that to an extent, some of the pieces here feel repetitious, negligible.” “Baker is not out to cover new ground. Rather, he is looking back, trying to find the common territory of his obsessions, the landscape where it all connects.” Like many modernist works, “it is not, perhaps, a volume for the uninitiated. But it is a testament to indirection.”

Author Javier Marias (Photograph: Getty Images)
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David Keenan's new novel is a dizzying recall of adolescence

This Is Memorial Device vividly recalls the teen years of the post-punk generation. I'm just not sure I wanted to remember.

Imagine dropping down the ­metaphysical wormhole to the scene of your adolescent self, with all your mates; with all that immortal music, sex, drugs, madness and tempestuousness. For some of us it’s a place we would rather not revisit. For the post-punk generation, David Keenan’s debut novel sends us plunging into that era anyway – violently, viscerally, surreally – in this “Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986”. Keenan’s real-life west coast Scotland is the home of a fictional dissonant, radical group called Memorial Device, whose underground misadventures are transmitted through a constellation of eyewitness accounts and psychedelic reveries from the damaged, delirious misfits in and around a band that sounded, as the narrator Ross Raymond describes it, “like Airdrie, like a black fucking hole”.

Such were the post-punk provinces across the UK, vividly realised here, populated by John Peel apostles transcending dead-end reality in bedsits wallpapered with pages from the NME and Sounds, romantic young minds consumed by Johnny Thunders and Iggy Pop, Jack Kerouac and H P Lovecraft. These are murky everytowns where, as Ross writes, “music deformed my life rather than just changed it”.

Keenan – an author, journalist, jazz critic, obsessive scholar of psych-folk – has a febrile imagination and his fiction debut is a fantastical meander in intense, magical-realist prose. Much like in youth itself, you’ve no idea what’s happening, or where you’re going, each chapter a crunching gear change of new characters who fizz in, dazzle, disappear and reappear. The chapter headings are filled with unfathomable imagery:

 

22. Ships Rising Up and Passing Through the Water Full of Sunlight and Memory the Tricks That It Plays: Bruce Cook on Autonomic Dreaming with Lucas and Vanity and all the baggage that comes back to haunt you like ghostly ships at the bottom of the ocean in a graveyard beneath the sea breaking free and rising to the surface.

 

This is the breathless style that dominates the book. Full stops are sporadically abandoned for chaotic streams of consciousness (Paul Morley’s sentences are tweets in comparison), like being trapped inside the amphetamine-boggled brain of Spud in the celebrated job-interview scene from Trainspotting (a struggle at times, with none of the daft jokes). With each new voice comes more forensic musical analysis, lurid recollections – of a barbaric scalping, of wanking on acid, of porn, puke, piss – and densely packed rushes of salty information. Ross’s co-author Johnny McLaughlin recalls his sexual exploits as a 17-year-old: he was “a collector . . . a gourmet, a pussy-eater (a body-gorger) (a piss-drinker, a shit-lapper), a woman-lover, a tit-biter, an auto-asphyxiator (an ass-lover, a panty-smotherer), a heel-worshipper (a hose-hugger)”. There’s as much sex here, it turns out, as music.

There are inevitable echoes of those fellow countrymen of Keenan’s, the literary dark lords Irvine Welsh and John Niven, yet little hilarity. But, mercifully, there are also passages of surrealist beauty: through prison bars, a main character is hypnotised by the moon, bathed in its “strange silver glow that made it seem like it was on fire, like ice on fire”, feeling “like a crystal ­being cleansed”. The last chapter is stunning, a soaring, existentialist, cosmic crescendo.

Memorial Device’s lead singer, the charismatic, amnesia-blighted, journal-writing Lucas, has his writing described as “a walking frame or a wheelchair, a crutch, which when you think about it is what most writing is, something to support the figure of the writer, so that he doesn’t fall back in the primordial soup of everyone else, which is no one”. Ultimately, This Is Memorial Device uses post-punk merely as its skeleton frame. It is a meditation on memory and perspective, on the magical forces of language, on the absurdity of existence and the dreadful thoughts bubbling like toxic fluid below the fragile surface of every human brain. Despite its black-humour set pieces (and a comically colossal, micro-detailed appendix, the undertaking of a madman), it’s a serious, disturbing book, free-form literary jazz for agonised over-thinkers, perhaps like the minds of intense young men.

In these creatively risk-averse times, it’s heroically bizarre, if more admirable than lovable. By the end, you’re exhausted, and happy to file it away for ever, along with the young life you no longer wish to live.

Sylvia Patterson is the author of “I’m Not With the Band” (Sphere)

This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan is published by Faber & Faber (298pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times