Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Tony Fletcher, Kevin Powers and D T Max.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by DT Max

A new biography of David Foster Wallace offers an insight into the cult author’s life and writing process.  D T Max thoroughly discusses and dissects every part of Wallace’s life from his birth to his suicide in 2008, leaving no stone unturned. He also includes intriguing descriptions of Wallace’s idiosyncrasies, such as how he always used to put a teabag into his cup of coffee or how he liked to floss and brush his teeth for forty-five minutes at a stretch.  “This is a model biography,” writes Daniel Swift in the New Statesman. “Max has interviewed Wallace’s friends, ground through the archives, hunted down odd anecdotes.” The result is an intimate new portrait of the writer, as well as the man.

“Wallace’s great concern was to catch, in language, life,” explains Swift. “He wrote about the point at which experience meets its verbal expression, where story meets life; his fiction concerns the ways in which words distort or never quite fulfill the hopes we have for them. This sounds abstract and ambitious, and it was.” When Max recounts an argument that Wallace had with an editor about the use of the serial comma, Swift posits that “[Wallace] cared about grammar because he cared about writing and he cared about writing because he believed in its offer of transcendence, community and touch… what Wallace was trying to do – and in this he is perhaps most like Virginia Woolf – was capture life in the living, the flow of reconsideration and memory that constitutes each day.”

Ned Beauman, writing in the Guardian, observes that “it is absolutely no derogation of Max's own abilities to say that for any given sentence he writes in this book, one would prefer to have another sentence of Wallace's . . . In this sense, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story is more tantalising than it is satisfying. But that would be the case with any book about this complex and extraordinary man.” He concludes that “whatever you think of his personal life, you can't finish this book without feeling tremendous respect for Wallace's dedication and integrity as a writer.”

A Light that Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths by Tony Fletcher

This short book by music journalist Tony Fletcher, which comes 25 years after the band's separation, attempts to detail the "saga" of the Smiths: the frequent fallings-out that came to define them as a group, the trajectory of their success and their enduring legacy.  

John Harris in the Guardian feels that in detailing the history of the band, Fletcher is perhaps overly-reliant on cliché. “The main onus on anyone writing about the Smiths is the necessity of evoking the magical singularity of their music, but Fletcher's book doesn't manage the trick,” he muses. “He's too fond of the rock-hack vernacular, so that records are rated by 'fans and critics alike, and music leans towards 'the jazz arena' rather than jazz itself. A group so steeped in literature has long deserved the attention of someone with at least the ambition to be a prose stylist; in the same sense, there is something maddening about music so lithe and lyrical being described in prose that often falls flat.”

Steve Jelbert of the Independent thinks that “[the Smiths’] enduring appeal and influence deserves investigation. A Light That Never Goes Out, though, is just the story of a band, heavy on music business machinations and thin on illumination. A diligent editor could have trimmed it simply by excising the author's speculations on the importance of everything from the vagaries of council housing policies to the career path an unsplit Smiths might have followed. Tony Fletche . . . is certainly informed, but humour is not his strength.”

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Kevin Powers was 17 when he joined the army. He served as a machine-gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, and it is these experiences that have helped him write The Yellow Birds, a first novel that is attracting a lot of praise and being lauded (in the New York Times) as a “classic of contemporary war fiction”.

John Burnside writes in the Guardian that “The Yellow Birds is a must-read book, not only because it bears witness to this particular war, but also because it ekes out some scant but vital vision of humanity from its shame and incomprehensible violence.” Burnside observes that “while few will have expected the war in Iraq to bring forth a novel that can stand beside All Quiet on the Western Front or The Red Badge of Courage, The Yellow Birds does just that, for our time, as those books did for theirs.”

Michiko Kakutani, writing in the New York Times, is similarly impressed: “The Yellow Birds is brilliantly observed and deeply affecting: at once a freshly imagined story about a soldier’s coming of age, a harrowing tale about the friendship of two young men trying to stay alive on the battlefield in Iraq, and a philosophical parable about the loss of innocence and the uses of memory,” she says. Later in the review, she explains how “in conveying to the reader just how terribly young his heroes are, Mr. Powers gives us a visceral sense of the arcs their lives will trace and their bone-weary yearning to “return to ordinary.” He somehow manages to write about the effect the war has on them… with enormous emotional precision. The recruits quickly learn the art of detachment as a survival mechanism in the face of constant violence and loss.”

James Kidd of the Independent takes a slightly different view. “[Powers] can certainly write, specialising in incantatory rhythms and poetic touches that, despite frequent avowals to the contrary, loads The Yellow Birds with almost absurd significance. “The war tried to kill us in the spring as grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed." This gravely alliterative opening made me worry that The Yellow Birds was suffering a Napoleon complex: a small novel with delusions of grandeur, perhaps?”

Kidd is soon won over though: “fortunately, things quickly settle down. Although he never quite sheds his portentous tone, our narrator… proves a perceptive, eloquent and philosophical guide through the bombs, brutality and blood.” Kidd concludes with the observation that “The Yellow Birds may not be the masterpiece some have cracked it up to be, but it is a wonderful, powerful novel that moves and terrifies.”

The Smiths are the subject of a new book by Tony Fletcher. Photograph: Getty Images
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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

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 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump