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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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution