Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on A M Homes, Jack Straw and Robert Peston.

May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes.

“A M Homes is a masterful dissector of modern American life,” writes Viv Groskop in the Guardian. “She excels in portraying the minutiae of a dysfunctional family (is there any other kind?), creating characters who are both repellent and magnetic. Her writing exerts a push-pull that feels like being in a hall of mirrors. You want to run away but you find yourself compelled to look at the reflection.” The novel, which revolves around two brothers, George and Harry, respectively a TV executive and a Nixon scholar, has been called “a hand-wringing examination of the American dream” by Tim Auld in the Telegraph, with “Nixon and the legacy of his corruption cast as a symbol of the nation’s current dark night of the soul”. In her essay in this week’s New Statesman, Homes remembers how “The 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters ordered by President Nixon and the subsequent Watergate scandal had a big impact in confirming my sense of what was right and wrong”. May We Be Forgiven, which begins with George mowing down a family in his car before escaping from a psychiatric unit to find his brother Harry in bed with his wife, is darkly aware of the full-scale havoc abuses of power can produce. Homes continues: “It was at that moment I realised that Washington was not just an oddly old-fashioned swampy southern town but that the decisions made there, the reverberations of one man’s behaviour, were not just local, but national and even global.” A review of Homes’s novel will feature in next week’s issue of the New Statesman.

Last Man Standing by Jack Straw.

The Daily Mail’s Craig Brown compliments Straw’s “unexpectedly interesting” autobiography, stating “The capacity in politics to bore others without boring yourself is much underrated, and it is probably the reason why Jack Straw was, as the title has it, the Last Man Standing”. Straw, in fact, boasts of his anorak status and capacity to filibuster controversy into submission. “On another occasion, chairing discussions about Turkey’s entry into the EU, he purposely kept delegates talking until two in the morning. ‘I judged that if I could get most delegates to a state of catatonic exhaustion then a consensus might follow.’” And yet the Telegraph’s Parliamentary Sketchwriter Michael Deacon finds fault in the idea that this quality will transmute into entertaining prose. “For most of the book,” Deacon writes, “Straw makes the number one error of political memoirists: he writes about politics.” “With books of this type you mainly want to know what the memoirist is like, and ideally you want to learn that he’s some kind of monster. We’ve paid our £20 – now give us scandal, bitching, affairs. But Straw is frustratingly reasonable and, worse, reserved. He suffered ‘serious depression’ - yet devotes three paragraphs to it, compared with pages lavished on ruminations for the need for a Cabinet Government Act ‘prescribing the duties of the prime minister.’” As if reviewing an entirely different book, Peter Hain praises “a tour de force through the fluctuating fortunes of the Labour party from the mid-1960s to the 2010 election defeat.” With perhaps an interest in bolstering the political memoir (his own was recently released in paperback), the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales emphasises the personal, Straw’s attention to detail, experiences that accompany an undoubtedly prodigious political career. “Some memoirs by former Labour politicians generated headlines and big serialisation fees – promptly to disappear, quickly remaindered.” I wonder who he has in mind. “This book will stand the test of time.”

How Do We Fix This Mess? By Robert Peston and Laurence Knight.

The BBC’s business editor has written a book fully titled How Do We Fix This Mess?: The Economic Price of Having It All, and the Route to Lasting Prosperity, from which The Economist, in a largely dismissive review, proceeds: “As the convoluted title of this books suggests, Robert Peston struggles to focus on one topic.” Picking out a handful of facts which underline the powerlessness of anyone at all to call the financial industry to order – for example the report by Bank of England economist Andrew Haldane which estimated the implicit subsidy British taxpayers provided to banks during the crisis at £57 billion (or £914 per person), or the study by consultancy firm Obermatt which argued there is “no correlation between pay for senior executives and stock performance on the FTSE 100” - still, Peston’s grand-narrative of collapse mainly incites opprobrium. “The author’s ability to decipher what went wrong at British banks does not translate into how to fix them,” the review concludes. Former Guardian editor Peter Preston agrees with this sentiment - “now conventional calls for more rigid regulation, more visionary leadership, more public acceptance of hardship and toil” are not “overwhelmingly convincing” - yet allows for more than a few sentences to talk about the book’s achievements. He writes that Peston (and his quiet accomplice Laurence Knight) were “utterly right” to turn “some of the fire on journalists themselves, on the dogs that didn’t bark.” He defends Peston’s credibility and lauds the scope of his outlook, as does Mark Damazer in the New Statesman: “If, every few years, he needs to breathe out and write a long book, we should encourage it.” Preston expands the jaunty title to five sentences which deftly supply the overriding question driving the book: “Peston, from his earlier stints on the Investors Chronicle and the FT, was more up to speed than most. He’d followed the mushroom growth of foreign exchange trading, bond markets, the whole derivatives industry offering you a speculative punt-cum-malign insurance hedge bet on ‘the weather in the Caribbean, the unemployment rate in Japan, the risk of political unrest in China’. Make that $43 trillion of unallocated loans, around 61% of global GDP. Set these swirling currents of funny money flowing across the world each morning against the shrinking reserves that banks were required to keep liquid and guard against very rainy days, and anyone who understood the true situation could see big, big trouble building. But who, in reality, spotted such looming peril?”

Straw's memoir joins the ranks at the conference bookstall. Photo: Getty Images.
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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism