Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, Pankaj Mishra and Kirsty Gunn.

Going South: Why Britain Will Have a Third World Economy by 2014 by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson

How do you break the intellectual consensus that Britain is a front-line developed economy, and must lower its public and private debts simultaneously and dramatically as a precondition for a return to growth? “To deleverage simultaneously is to invite protracted depression,” Will Hutton writes in the New Statesman’s special London issue this week. “The challenge instead is to develop our economy as much as make it grow”. Hutton considers Going South: Why Britain Will Have a Third World Economy by 2014 by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, with its thesis that “such epic economic mistakes have been made over the last generation, compounding those of the past 100 years, that the productive sinews of Britain’s economy – and its ability to renew that productive capacity – have shrunk to such a degree that Britain can no longer be considered a developed economy”. In many ways Britain’s reliance on foreign direct investment and an obsession with vacuous, charismatic leaders are characteristic of a developing economy. Elliott and Atkinson find a Britain wedded to a “no-strategy strategy”. And yet Elliott and Atkinson also find themselves in a predicament. They “describe what has gone wrong brilliantly but their economics is descriptive rather than purposefully analytical,” Hutton laments. “They lack a solid political economy with an accompanying vision of what a good British economy and society would look like”. Hutton urges economists to give us a convincing vision of a new kind of capitalism. Until Elliott and Atkinson can better answer the question – what is this wealth for? – “they will do no better than draw with their opponents”.

Andrew Adonis, writing in the Financial Times, also finds the argument of Going South a “brutal and eloquent” expression of declinism in the current crisis. Adonis cautions the reader: “This is a movie in black and white – mostly black”, he warns, “when shades of grey would in my view be more realistic”. Furthermore Elliott and Atkinson “have few concrete suggestions” for how Britain’s leaders can keep their country in the developed world.
The Economist is wary of how far Elliott and Atkinson are really forecasting the loss of developed-economy status. “The authors do not really suggest that Britain’s GDP per head will plummet to the levels of sub- Saharan Africa, or that the country will lose the title of “advanced” economy bestowed on it by the International Monetary Fund”, the Economist review observes. “Instead, Britain’s third-world status is signified by a bunch of qualitative factors”. The underlying analysis is sound, but the broad definitions used by Going South tend towards overstatement and allow Elliott and Atkinson “to be grumpy old men and indulge in some fierce complaining about various aspects of modern British society”.

From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra

The zero-sum game of the east-west clash of civilisations remains the darling of Anglophone historical polemic. Julia Lovell, writing in the Guardian, considers From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra. Mishra looks to the non-western voices telling the other side of the story – the attempts by Asian thinkers to rebuild identity after colliding with the imperialist west. From the Ruins of Empire “gives eloquent voice to their curious, complex intellectual odysseys as they struggled to respond to the western challenge”. Nor does Mishra look to indulge in broad accounts of success. “Instead, he is preoccupied by the tragic moral ambivalence of his tale”. For Mishra, there is “no triumphal sense of “eastern revenge” against the 19th century’s “white disaster”, but rather one of self-doubt, inconsistency and virtuous intentions gone badly wrong”. Mishra blends accounts of Asia’s thinkers – Persia’s Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, China’s Liang Qichao, India’s Rabindranath Tagore – along with luminous details that “glimmer through these swaths of political and military history”, from Indian villagers naming their babies after Japanese admirals on hearing of Japan’s decisive victory over Russia at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, through to the history of the fez. Mishra’s conclusion meanwhile is a bleak response “to those who read China’s and India’s embrace of capitalism as a comforting sign of their reconciliation with western ways”. Mishra’s warning is one of environmental apocalypse – “the final consequence of these centuries-old collisions between Europe and America”.

Noel Malcolm, writing in the Telegraph also finds From the Ruins of Empire a fascinating exploration of the origins and consequences of Asian anti-Westernism, and the ideological legacies that we have been left with today. But he does find some aspects of Mishra’s narrative open to criticism: “The account of Asian anti-imperialism here tends to gloss over the imperialism of the Asians themselves”. Mishra’s description of Western behaviour in Asia “too often relies on the heated complaints of Asians, whose rhetoric is presented as quasi-historical statement”. But John Gray, writing in the Independent, notes how well placed Mishra is to explore the paradoxes of the east-west interplay: “Based in London but living part of the time in India where he was born and grew up, he views the rise of Asia from a standpoint that pierces through the illusions that have shaped perceptions and policies on both sides”. At the heart of Mishra’s ironic story is “the need for Asian countries to adopt western models of statehood in order to avoid being crushed by western power”. From the Ruins of Empire has no comforting message. The retreat of the west today “is unlikely to bring peace, for the Asian powers have their needs, rivalries and scores to settle”.

The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn

The elusive task of writing about music lies at the centre of Kirsty Gunn’s novel, The Big Music. Michael Bywater, writing in the Independent, observes that Gunn further magnifies the task by exploring in prose a kind of music many find inaccessible – the formal music of the Highland bagpipes. “To take that, and to show us at its heart a love-song and a lullaby: she is a brave woman even to try”. The Big Music is presented as a series of “papers” complete with footnotes which Gunn encountered while researching a piece set in the Highlands. Beyond this academic conceit, it is Gunn’s ability to live inside the music itself that makes The Big Music a masterpiece: “Gunn solves the problem she has set herself, not by writing about the music but, by some strange meticulous magic, writing within it”. Opening with John Sutherland, sixth in a line of pipers, set on finishing his own “Lament for Himself”, Gunn’s narrative, “blurred, luminous, a tightly-disciplined poem as well as a set of variations upon a theme”, is perpetually interwoven with the forms, rhythms and melody of the music.

Susan Elderkin, writing in the Financial Times, also praises the ambitious task of “attempting to recreate, no less, the inimical sound of bagpipe music” in words. “It’s an amibition that harks back to the great modernists of the 20th century”, Elderkin observes, and in that tradition, “there is also a story here, a moving one, involving emotionally distant fathers and self-exiled sons, of bagpipe music being handed down through generations, along with loves that cannot, or will not, be expressed”. Adam Thorpe, writing in the Guardian, finds that The Big Music, “its charms as subtle as a piper’s grace notes, brilliantly fulfils its own definition”. In Gunn’s story, “time devolves its tyranny to space rather than chronology, mainly through the temporal dissolutions of memory”. It is a remarkable feat: The Big Music “is not just influenced by Scottish bagpipe music, it seeks to inhabit it”.
 

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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