Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Ben Goldacre, Slavoj Žižek and Philip Norman.

Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre

Doctor, author and uncaged monkey Ben Goldacre’s second foray into the world of science-oriented abuse has been neatly reviewed by The Economist: “The book is slightly technical, eminently readable, consistently shocking, occasionally hectoring and unapologetically polemical. ‘Medicine is broken,’ it declares on its first page, and ‘the people you should have been able to trust to fix [its] problems have failed you.’” Helen Lewis, writing in the New Statesman, emphasises the difficultly of bringing an industry-wide malaise to public attention. “Explaining the myriad ways in which the evidence base is distorted, and the effect that has on real people, will never fit in a slogan, a headline or a tweet,” she writes, although the 137 character quote above would make a good starting point. Many reviewers express shock at the examples Goldacre gives, often too scandalous to be believed. “GlaxoSmithKline concealed the fact that one of its anti-depressants, paroxetine, increased the risk of suicide among children. It managed this because the drug was officially only licensed for use by over-18s and because it mixed the safety data for children in with that of adults, diluting the apparent risk.” The real strength of the book, Lewis decides, is that Goldacre is prepared to provide alternative models: “If poorly funded and easily swayed regulators can’t police the industry, then make the data available to everyone. Replace bewildering consent forms with shorter ones in plain English. Scrap the endless drug information labels that list every conceivable side effect (from heart attacks to bad breath) with simple checklists that show how common they are.”

The Year of Dreaming Dangerously by Slavoj Žižek

Reflecting on last year’s uprisings in New York, London, Greece and the Middle East, Žižek’s new book has been praised for its characteristically reorienting analysis, but criticised for its lack of direction. Poet Theo Dorgan, writing in the Irish Times, says: “This short book covers an immense amount of ground, with Žižek as a kind of manic avatar, a cosmic advance guard of the unborn future, examining and pronouncing on domination and exploitation under late capitalism, the return of ethnicity as a negative political driver, the Occupy movement (he’s for and against), the desert of post-ideology, unrest and upheaval in the Arab worlds, and what it means that we live in nonevental times.” Benjamin Kunkel, founding co-editor of n+1, wrote for the New Statesman that Žižek’s communism is “a heavy name very light of meaning.” “He disdains the idea, characteristic of ‘the archetypal left-liberal European moron’, that we need ‘a new political party that will return to the good old principles’ and ‘regulate the banks and control financial excesses, guarantee free universal health care and education, etc, etc’.” A good example of Žižek’s inimitable inability to finish his sentences there, which he often deems too tedious to bother following through. Yet Kunkel astutely recognises that instead of the entropic impasses which were the end of all of last year’s “dreams” (the death of Occupy, religion filling the political vacuum in the Arab world, nihilism and sneaker-grabbing in London), the period of greatest radical thinking was in fact amid the years of post-war reform, not in response to the neoliberal consensus that followed, “which demoralised radicals and reformers alike.” “Projects of reform, in other words, have tended to nourish hopes of revolution and vice versa. In present circumstances, the achievement of reforms might well pave, rather than bar, the way to a new society, not to mention relieving some of the human misery to be endured before the advent of the communist millennium,” Kunkel concludes, “If, on the other hand, the system were to prove incapable of incorporating any serious reforms, this would demonstrate the need for revolution that Žižek merely asserts.

Mick Jagger by Philip Norman

The chrysalis that miraculously turned into a butterfly “is a recurring motif in Philip Norman’s new biography of Mick Jagger, in which he charts in riveting detail Jagger’s own transformation from a humdrum LSE student in striped college scarf and cardigan into the beautiful renegade and rock star, living symbol of that naïve but in some ways rather wonderful 60s rebellious nonconformity,” Fiona MacCarthy writes in the Guardian. Norman, a former Times journalist who has written a biography of John Lennon and group-biographies of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (twice), has “a novelist’s awareness of the oddities of human relationships, and Mick’s father emerges as a fascinating figure”. MacCarthy praises the book’s treatment of Jagger’s younger life, preferring some of incidents from later years as recorded in Keith Richard’s recent autobiography, Life. Charles Shaar Murray, writing in the Daily Mail, values Norman’s presentation of Jagger’s role as both “entrepreneur and entertainer, lord of the manor and lout of the parish”, and agrees with both MacCarthy and Norman that the first quarter-century of the Stones story is far more interesting than the second: “Fast-forwarding through the latter stages harms the story not at all. Norman tells it with commendable thoroughness, engaging wit and boundless energy, much as Jagger has shown over the decades. At tale’s end, rock ‘n’ roll toddlers will drift off into platinum slumbers.” He does add, “Sadly, Norman omits my favourite Jagger story: those famous rubber features had long hardened into seamed granite when the late George Melly ribbed him about his wrinkles. ‘Not wrinkles,’ Jagger replied. ‘Laughter lines.’ ‘Mick,’ retorted Melly, ‘nothing’s that funny.’” Mick Jagger will be reviewed in this week's issue of the New Statesman.

David Cameron takes a tour around GlaxoSmithKline. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism