Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on J. K. Rowling, Edna O'Brien and David Byrne.

The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

After praising her attempt to overcome the Potter legacy and tackle something new, the New York Times’s notoriously sharp-tongued critic Mitchiko Kakutani gives J. K. Rowling’s new book a signature dressing down: “Unfortunately, the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that The Casual Vacancy is not only disappointing – it’s dull.” Kakutani sees the characters as underdeveloped and the “circumscribed lives” of Pagford’s inhabitants technically weak by comparison to the world of Harry Potter where “identity is as much a product of deliberate choice as it is of fate.” A bit more like America then? If the novel’s grim reality disappointed Kakutani, it positively enraged Jan Moir, who saw it as “nothing more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature crammed down your throat.”

However, Boyd Tonkin sees something liberating in J. K. Rowling’s writing about young people, now it is no longer constrained by the censorship required of literature for children: “Rowling’s writing, which can be long-winded and laborious in the clunkily satirical set-pieces, picks up passion, verve and even magic with Krystal and the other adolescents. Indeed, the teens of Winterdown belong in a bolder, richer book than some of the parental caricatures.” George Eliot is a name being floated (The New Yorker dubbed the book “Mugglemarch”) by way of comparison – a woman with keen moral instincts and sharp insights into small-town life, something which Theo Tait in the Guardian sees as the book’s central achievement. “It’s a book that wrestles honourably and intelligently with big moral and political questions, but does so in a slightly clunky and convention-bound way,” he writes. “If you’re irritated by important episodes being telegraphed with phrases such as ‘But then came the hour that everything changed,’ then this is probably not the novel for you. But equally, it offers something more stylish, highbrow fiction often doesn’t or won’t: a chance to lose yourself in a dense, richly peopled world.” Read Margaret Drabble's review in the New Statesman later this week.

Country Girl by Edna O’Brien

Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and UN Commissioner for Human Rights, remembers as a teenager “reading, hidden under a false cover, a dog-eared copy of The Country Girls,” Edna O’Brien’s controversial breakthrough novel of aspiration and female sexuality, “that one of my schoolfriends had managed to get a hold of and passed around among us, and being astonished that she would write these things, and somehow grateful for the insights and revelations the books held.” Mary Kenny sums up the O’Brien “enchantments” which glisten through the book in the Irish Times: “The lushness about nature; the delicate balance of rapture and rupture in recapturing the experience of love; the feminine eye for clothes; the true ear for a story; the sharpness of specific recollections.” Both note the stars with whom O’Brien spent her time in London, entertaining at her home in Carlyle Square – Robinson finding the name-dropping cloying, Kenny the opposite. Rachel Cooke wrote in yesterday’s Observer that “The book falls away as O’Brien grows older; there are repetitions and the writing becomes gluey, more opaque.” Though she quickly counters, “But this hardly matters. The first half is so wonderful, crystalline and true, it seems churlish to complain.”

How Music Works by David Byrne

In Peter Aspden’s FT review of the former Talking Heads frontman and latter day polymath’s new book How Music Works, emphasis is placed on the pie charts, numbers and fiscal reassessment of an illustrious career in music. “The chapter on the economics of music should be required reading for all 16-year-olds tinkering with their GarageBand software and dreaming of dollar signs,” Aspden writes, “while the section on ‘How to Make a Scene’ is nothing less than a manual for urban regeneration through pop culture.” A sometimes memoir sometimes essay collection, what the book appears to lack in autobiographical insight is supplanted with an unflinchingly anatomisation of the musician’s life: the author as data. “It’s a big undertaking, which Byrne approaches with encyclopoedic zeal, drawing on testimony from historians, neuroscientists, philosophers and, in looking at the industry, managers and executives,” writes Fiona Sturges in The Independent. She praises the book in particular for its focus on the reality of a life spent making music without the domineering pop personalities and rock star posturing, a fascinating hodgepodge of authoritative opinion and fact. “[Byrne’s] book offers a meticulously researched and hugely absorbing history of music, focusing on the practices rather than the personalities that have led it to where it is today.”

Margaret Drabble and Edna O'Brien in 1966.
MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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